During this summer of pandemic, protests, and economic collapse, three things converged in my own life to produce this list of justice deeds. First, I read From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century. Second, I have hosted on my radio show a series of ministers, black and white, talking about Black Lives Matter. Third, U. S. Congressman from Georgia John Lewis died, and the adulation poured upon him as an advocate of “good trouble” has been inspirational.
It all got me to thinking about my tribe—white churches in the South. What can we do to address the issues presented to us by the powerful movement for racial solidarity and social justice that has swept the country and world?
It is not just issues—it is opportunity. The Reparations book points out the many opportunities the United States has had to get the race thing right—to do justice and love mercy. Mostly we have failed. This is yet another time, and I want to do what I can to push things forward toward our dreams of a country living up to its best vision of ourselves.
So here are seven things we white churches in the South can do to repent of all the wickedness our tribe has done. After four hundred years, it is time to embrace what is surely that most fundamental question: What, given this opportunity, would Jesus do today?
First, let us find or write liturgies for our worship services, scripts that evoke both the language of scripture and the realities of our past. The Bible is full of historical summaries used in worship. Consider Psalm 106, Acts of the Apostles 2, or Hebrews chapter 11. Each of these connects the fortunes of people with the behaviors of their ancestors. We need to recite before God and as many witnesses as possible our failures as a people and our resolve to do now what God requires of us: justice, mercy, and humility.
Second, let us surrender any symbol of the white supremacy that has made black life so miserable. This includes images of people we have held in high esteem, statues of slavers and rebels and others who brought death and destitution upon black men and women, boys and girls, and infants still in their mothers’ arms. This is going on around the country as building, scholarships, and organizations are being renamed, statues are being destroyed or removed, and spaces are being repurposed. These are small steps, in the big scheme of things, and thus can be a path of action that brings little pain but enormous potential. We have a statue in our county that falls into this category, and many may have artwork on our church campus that might require our attention.
Third, let us appoint and elect black people to positions of power in our churches and religious organizations. This means teachers, deacons, staff ministers, preachers, and pastors. This means visiting teachers, conveners, preachers, and performers. This means professors, deans, administrators, and presidents. This means trustees, directors, and executive directors. This means writers, editors, publishers, and promoters. We must go out of our way to make this happen.
Fourth, let us embrace with enthusiasm a social cause that has special significance for our black brothers and sisters, perhaps even one selected by them at our invitation. I am thinking here of systemic poverty, education, incarceration, or voting. All of these are matter of utmost importance right here in our own county and state. Let us march, write, agitate, vote, and risk a little “good trouble” in some cause whose outcome will bless, especially, our black neighbors and citizens.
Fifth, let us study the history of what we have done. The above-mentioned book has, on every page, details that white people have never learned in school. It will shock even the most educated among us. We need to form book clubs; we need to use Sunday School time for this task; we need to fill our libraries (both personal and ecclesial) with this material. We need to learn what we need to know in order to do justice and love mercy.
Sixth, let us reach across the racial divide and invest our tithes and offerings in black institutions. Regardless of our specific denominational affiliation, a small part of our church money goes to supports colleges, universities, and seminaries. Let’s select one or two black schools and give our money directly to them and say, “This is yours. May it help you to flourish in the work you are called to do.”
Finally, let us support the cause of reparations. Throughout the history of the United States, we have given reparations to people—including to slave owners upon losing their slaves!! It is time we embraced this act of fiscal fairness, this strategy for prosperity, this campaign for justice. Last week, I spent three nights in Asheville, North Carolina, the very days their city leaders announced a reparation plan for their black citizens. We can do the same, even at the congregational level.
All of these ideas are doable at the local, regional, and national level, in churches, communities, and the nation. We can start with just one, even the easiest one. Our journey toward justice can begin with just that first step.
I’m ready! Are you?