Your Turn: My fellow white clergy, you must speak up now
To my fellow white clergy:
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” That time is now, and has been since 1619. The killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd are but the most recent acts of injustice the American black community has experienced for over 400 years.
White people in positions of power have long been brutalizing black and brown bodies, with lament and rage over such injustice fomenting and, at times, bubbling over for generations; Derek Chauvin taking a knee on George Floyd’s neck, and the protests that have resulted, is just the current verse in the soundtrack of America’s original sin.
Throughout this ongoing history, our black siblings of faith have begged and pleaded with us as their white peers to educate ourselves about systemic racism and to speak out on their behalf.
So, will you?
Now is not the time to be another “white moderate.” Now is the time for the courage and solidarity of James Reeb (Google him, if need be.)
Maybe, like me, you’ve pondered what you might have done in the Civil Rights era, if you would’ve had the courage to risk your life by speaking out for justice when black people were being denied the right to a quality public education, or equal access to drinking fountains, or lunch counters, or bus seats or…
Maybe, like me, you’ve recounted the names of Rodney King (1991), Trayvon Martin (2012), Eric Garner (2014), Michael Brown (2014), Tamir Rice (2014), Laquan McDonald (2014), Freddie Gray (2015), Sandra Bland (2015), Terence Crutcher (2016), Philando Castile (2016) — and others too numerous to mention — and have concluded that their modern day lynchings are not unlike Jesus, a person of color, lynched by the power of the state, and you’ve wondered what you should do as a result.
Personally, I’ve come to this conclusion: What I’m doing or not doing now is probably what I would have done in the Civil Rights era. If I’m silent now, I would have been silent then. If I’m prone to justify authorities when they kill people now, I probably would have done the same then.
If I, as a pastor, think I should stay silent on issues of systemic racism, police violence and mass incarceration now, because it’s all just “too political” or somehow “not connected to the gospel,” I probably would have done the same thing then. If I think peaceful protesters should just go home so I don’t have to be confronted by their anger and lament, I probably wouldn’t have liked Martin Luther King Jr.
The point, though, is not what I would have done then; it’s what I am doing — or am prepared to do — now.
And all that my black siblings in Christ are asking me to do is recognize how my silence in the face of injustice is nothing less than betrayal of our shared relationship, both as fellow Christians and as fellow human beings.
So, when a black pastor friend tells me he’s exhausted by the silence of white clergy in the face of systemic racism in our nation, I cannot be silent.
When a friend from Minneapolis says he’ll believe my sentiments of solidarity when I start helping financial resources flow into communities of color — with no strings attached — I choose to take him seriously, and prayerfully consider what to do about it.
When a friend from Chicago asks for prayer for his church to be safe from looters, I choose to pray and prepare myself for how I might act if such things happened here in Lawrence.
And when my friend Andrew Davis tells me that we, as a predominantly white church, need to prayerfully consider how to participate in ecclesiastical reparations, I choose to lean in and listen, and imagine what that might look like so that someday I can help do something about it.
So, please: Educate yourself, and your congregations, about systemic racism, white supremacy and the white church’s historical propagation of both. Diversify your theological bookshelf with work from people who don’t look like you. And take your black and brown siblings in faith seriously when they ask you to speak up.
“But what if people get mad, stop giving or leave?!” I speak from experience: They probably will. So be it.
Living a life of faithful conviction isn’t easy. Do it anyway.
Exercising spiritual leadership isn’t always safe. Speak up anyway.
There comes a time when silence is betrayal.
My fellow white clergy, that time is now.
— Deacon Godsey is the lead pastor of Vintage Church in Lawrence.