The Witness

Quick to Listen: Reflections on Ferguson

Jarvis Williams


After the grand jury’s verdict in Ferguson, those in the mainstream media and social media immediately began to offer their analysis of why the chaos was happening before the eyes of the world, while a black president urged protestors to protest in peace. Some white and black Evangelicals, who had been virtually silent on the Ferguson situation prior to the grand jury’s decision also quickly weighed in after the verdict and the violence erupted.

As a multi-ethnic, African-American, Evangelical Christian, I’m deeply concerned about an appropriate pastoral response to the violence in Ferguson and greatly puzzled by the responses and discussions of some white and black Evangelicals. What continues to be striking is the way many from the dominant racial group and those who benefit from them think they are in a position to offer definitive solutions to the plight of many African-Americans in Ferguson and beyond, even though they may not identify or understand the plight of African-Americans.

In order to avoid being misrepresented, let me clarify. Many races are qualified to speak about race, racism, and the challenges facing African-Americans. However, I strongly doubt whether those with limited or no experience with the racial tensions between blacks and whites know what it’s like to be black or white in a chaotic racial context like Ferguson. Therefore, I doubt whether the analyses from these people within the Evangelical movement can rightly assess the racial issues facing blacks and whites in this country. Whites are not African-American, and many blacks within the Evangelical movement are unable to identify directly with certain kinds of racism some blacks face in the US.

Blacks and whites are uniquely connected to each other in this country because of years of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, and continued institutional racism. And this connection gives certain African-Americans a unique and credible perspective on race, on being black in America, and on the violence in Ferguson and beyond. In this article, I want to urge all impervious and apathetic white and black Evangelicals to be quick to listen to the concerns, frustrations, and pain of African-Americans—who genuinely suffer from systemic racism in this country—and to be slow to speak about racial solutions, and to commit to multi-racial efforts to work together to do something about the many problems facing African-Americans and people of color in the US. I particularly urge these people to do so be without responding defensively and without seeking to offer solutions to a problem they have never personally experienced, namely racism. I state four reasons why we need to speak less and to listen more to those who suffer on the frontlines in the struggle for racial reconciliation and racial justice in the US.

Legalized Racism and White Supremacy are Part of the Black-White Experience in the US

First, regardless of the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in America’s founding words, the racism in this country’s origins is incontrovertible. From this country’s inception, African-Americans were treated as chattel and not as citizens. Even after slavery became illegal, the racist white supremacist laws of the Jim Crow South provided another obstacle for African-Americans in this country. During the periods of slavery, emancipation, and Jim Crow, whites—and, at times, blacks—committed many horrific crimes against African-Americans. For example, nearly 5,000 African-Americans were subject to legalized lynching and whites were legally allowed to treat African-Americans any way they wanted because they were viewed as superior and good, whereas blackness was treated as inferior and evil. These atrocities are simply a few of the legalized racist experiences of African-Americans in this country. Impervious and apathetic white and black people within the Evangelical movement need to understand that when people respond with anger to issues like Ferguson, they do so in part because of the build-up of much frustration to a long history of racism in this country. Their anger and frustration do not justify sinful responses, but they, in part, explain why some African-Americans respond in certain ways to injustice or racism.

Evangelical Support of Both Legalized Racism and Legalized White Supremacy are Part of the Black-White Experience in the US

Second, Evangelicals supported legalized racism and white supremacy in the US, either by active participation or by remaining silent. Black and white Evangelicals often refuse to talk about this troubled history, choosing instead to speak of only the good American Evangelicalism has to offer. Evangelicals cannot move forward without acknowledging our troubled past on the race issue. The fact is many of our heroes of the faith were stone-cold racists. Thus, when white or black, bible-believing Evangelicals are silent about race, impervious and apathetic to racism, or make irresponsible, insensitive comments about race or about blacks in general and about Ferguson in particular, many African-Americans have flashbacks to one of the darkest eras in the US when virtually everything Evangelicals said and did on the race issue and to African-Americans was wrong and unbiblical! Consequently, these white and black Evangelicals continue to have no credibility on the race issue with those with a good memory, because they are still deeply wounded by the role Evangelical Christianity played in support of white supremacy in the Jim Crow era, and because of what continues to be Evangelical apathy about the plight of African-Americans in the US.

White Privilege and the Denial of it by some Shield them from the Race Problems of Others

Third, white privilege and the denial of it by some shield them from the problems of certain African-Americans in the US. One’s denial of white privilege does not prove white privilege is fiction. Rather it allows one to think all of the challenges faced by African-Americans in this country are because of their own irresponsibility in a society that has afforded them every opportunity to succeed.

I agree many African-Americans have failed to make good decisions and they suffer dire social consequences as a result. The fact of the matter is some white people have an abundance of opportunities because they are privileged as whites, and some black people do not because they are underprivileged as blacks. Likewise, other white people have opportunities because they work hard, and other black people are at a disadvantage because they do not work hard. But whites and blacks do not always have equal access to certain opportunities. And the sooner both whites and blacks admit and talk about this fact within the Evangelical community, perhaps we could take closer steps toward gospel-centered racial reconciliation in the church.   

Being spoken to about Race and not listened to is Part of the Black-White Experience in the US

Fourth, African-Americans are accustomed to being told what to do or what to think about race by white people as opposed to being asked. Many white Evangelicals are simply unaccustomed to listening to the frustrations, concerns, and problems of African-Americans and to learning from African-Americans or other people of color about race related issues. And many blacks who identify with the Evangelical movement and benefit from privilege either forget or become disconnected from the many difficulties facing other African-Americans. If the white Evangelical majority and the black and privileged Evangelical minority in this country refuse to sit as students and learn in the classroom of the people who have earned a PhD in personal suffering from the US school of racism, then racial reconciliation in the Evangelical world will not progress very far.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the foundational solution to the problem of racism in the US and beyond.  Racial reconciliation is much bigger than the black-white divide because of the universal power of sin (see my book: One New Man). I am an African-American with a multi-racial background (Anglo, African-American, and Native-American), who grew up poor in a broken (but loving) multi-racial family in a racist and segregated part of Eastern Kentucky. But the gospel changed my life, and the Lord used a predominately white congregation as the means by which he transformed me with the gospel! Yes, the gospel changes everything!! However, Evangelicals should also realize intentional communication between white and black Evangelicals and the willingness to listen to each other are part of the necessary processes by which gospel-centered racial reconciliation can be worked out in a very practical way within the Evangelical community.

Unfortunately, regardless of their race, Evangelicals do not always listen well. We do a much better job at talking, pointing the finger, and attempting to dominate all conversations, especially political or theological ones. Too often, we offer easy solutions to complicated problems, such as racism or Ferguson. Those white and black Evangelicals who are impervious and apathetic to race and racism need to ask the Spirit to help them listen to those who suffer due to real racial tensions. They need to make an intentional effort to include underprivileged people of color at the table, to learn from them about race, and to ask how they (whites, privileged blacks, and other privileged people) can understand better and to help work toward racial progress in the Evangelical community.

To be clear, I realize there are probably many Evangelicals who listen well to suffering minorities and people of color in both church and society. Yet, there are many who do not. Thus, I’m speaking to and of those impervious and apathetic white and black Evangelicals who do not make any effort to understand the frustration of many on race in a post-Ferguson America, and yet seem to offer many easy solutions to the complex problems facing African-Americans, whites, and other races in Ferguson and beyond.

May God help all ethno-racial groups listen and learn from one another about issues of race, racism, and racial reconciliation. May the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Spirit of God be the church’s guide, as we progress closer to the hope of righteousness and the new creation for which Jesus died. And may God use a multi-racial, gospel-believing church to be the means by which he crushes, once and for, all forms of racism in the world! Amen!

1 Comment

  1. Quina Aragon

    This is a very helpful article! Thank you!

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