Many have already eloquently and compellingly addressed the issue of race relations in the wake of a tragic series of police encounters resulting the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner. I am not qualified, nor is it my intention to even attempt to offer meaningful commentary on the legal merits of these cases. I am also not writing to comment on the social justice implications of these tragedies. I realize that I am not in a position to be any kind of significant voice on such matters, but I feel compelled to share my thoughts from one particular perspective – that of a follower of Jesus Christ and member of his body, the Church.
I would like to share my feelings regarding the specific manner in which the Church, the body of Christ has been affected by the events in Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York. I am not so naïve as to think that there are easy answers that can satisfy people on every side of the race relations issue. Each person will see these events through his or her own particular perspective, including natural biases born of one’s ethnicity/race, socio-economic status, and even political persuasion. The point of my thoughts are not that their should be absolute uniformity of opinion on matters such as Ferguson and Eric Garner’s death. However, I do feel strongly that the disconnect I’ve observed between the black Christian community and the rest of the Christian community has been discouraging and even painful.
In the world of physical ailments there is a condition called neuropathy. Neuropathy is a general term referring to damage or defects that affect the peripheral nerves. Neuropathy is commonly associated with diabetes but can also result from leprosy, Lyme’s disease, HIV, and various other diseases and conditions. Sometimes neuropathy results in constant pain or tingling that can cause great suffering. However, severe neuropathy can even result in total loss of sensation. At first one might consider complete numbness a condition that can be manageable since there is no apparent pain, but without pain, one quickly realizes that the body has lost a necessary warning system that prevents all sorts of injury. Without the sensation of pain, one can injure limbs and joints without realizing it. Sores and lesions can go unnoticed until infection becomes widespread. The inability to feel pain is actually a debilitating and dangerous condition. What I see at this moment in the Church is a spiritual condition akin to neuropathy. In 1 Corinthians 12 the Apostle Paul teaches that all believers are members of the body of Christ. We have different forms and functions but we are all ultimately joined under the headship of Christ and united by the Holy Spirit that indwells and empowers every one of us. In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul further teaches that love is the most excellent quality of the relationship that binds all the members of the body together. In Romans 12:9-16, the Apostle Paul also teaches that our bond of love ought to be so real and so meaningful that the joy of one part of the body causes the other parts of the body to rejoice. In the same way, the suffering of one part ought to result in the suffering of the whole body. We are to weep with those who weep. In other words, a healthy Church, like a healthy physical body, ought to be characterized by deep connections that allow all the different members of the body of Christ to feel and experience what happens in each of its various parts. So when I see the community of black Christians weeping and hurting over the developments in Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York, I must feel something as well. I ought to be moved to weep with those who are weeping, and yet, I struggle to do this. What is more discouraging is that it is apparent that many in the body of Christ are having a difficult time weeping with our weeping brothers and sisters. In fact, some in the body of Christ have even come out and said things that are insensitive and even hurtful to the black community with regard to recent events. There is a deep neuropathy in the body of Christ.
Now I am not saying that we must all come to absolute agreement regarding the legal, political, or social nuances surrounding these tragic events. I believe there is room to ask questions, examine each situation, and even reach differing conclusions. What I am saying is that even in the midst of differing opinions there ought to be a compassion and a Christ-like love that compels us to feel for those who are hurting and enter into their suffering. Some may be hesitant to engage because of a feeling that one is not qualified to speak into these matters unless one has first-hand experience of racial injustice, persecution, or prejudice. While it is difficult, we can weep with those who weep even when we have not experienced their specific pain first-hand. My friend’s daughter was diagnosed with cancer this past year. It was the most devastating news he had ever received. Today his daughter is in treatment and the family endures through some of the most trying times they’ve ever experienced. I do not know what it is like to have a child with cancer. I’ve never experienced this and I hope I never will. Still, I have tried to enter into my friend’s suffering. I’ve tried, though in very imperfect ways, to support them and encourage them. My inability to fully grasp their hurt hasn’t stopped me from “weeping with them,” nor should it. In the same way, many of us have never experienced the loss of a loved one to a police encounter, the indignation of being racially profiled, or the sting of feeling someone’s prejudice. Still, this doesn’t mean we can’t try and weep for those brothers and sisters who are weeping. Even if we are not able to do something of sweeping importance on the world stage, a gesture of compassion, care, and concern can be encouraging to someone who is hurting, frustrated, and feeling betrayed. I am my brother’s keeper and I must live up to that high calling.
Let me be clear at this point that I am not throwing around veiled accusations of racism. In fact, I believe the best about those who are believers and followers of Jesus Christ. The tensions and struggles we experience in the area of race relations are a natural outworking of our sinfulness and the on-going effects of the curse that has divided humanity into tribes and factions. Apart from Christ we are all prone to be tribal and divided along racial lines. However, in Christ, we are a people characterized by “the two becoming one,” “the dividing wall” being broken, and a most excellent love that transcends racial lines. Fortunately we follow Jesus Christ, the Great Physician and he is fully capable of healing our spiritual neuropathy. He can bind wounds that seem impossible to address. Let us seek his peace and healing, let us embody it in our own acts of love to all brothers and sisters. It is especially poignant to me that we are in the season of Advent and approaching Christmas. The Old Testament prophets understood that the coming of Messiah meant he would bring justice, peace, righteousness, and divine wisdom to his rule. They longed for that day with a deep hunger that bordered on ache. Jesus Christ has come. He is our Prince of Peace and his death on the cross has obliterated the chains of our curse. In Colossians 3:11 (and also in Galatians 3:28) Paul asserts that because of the cross, “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” THIS is the spiritual reality in the body of Christ – the Church. Now let us manifest this reality and incarnate it in this world’s reality.