When White Christians today consider the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 60s, I would guess that the vast majority of us look on it favorably. I know I always have and nearly every White Christian I know does as well. Equal rights and access for all. All hail Martin Luther King and I Have a Dream, right? Well, not exactly. Did you know that White Christians and most evangelical churches were actually involved in the efforts to thwart the Civil Rights movement? It’s true. Churches were either actively outspoken in their opposition to the movement or simply absent from the conversation altogether.
When I was a kid my parents would always sing me happy birthday at the exact moment of my birth. 8:08am. Every year without fail. They would sing to my sister at 8:35am. Every year. But when we were in high school, my sister and I looked at our birth certificates one afternoon and discovered that the times had been inadvertently switched! They should have been singing to me at 8:35, not 8:08, and vice versa. My sister took it in stride but I just couldn’t believe it! I had always been the 8:08 girl and even after seeing it in writing, I insisted that they sing to me at 8:08. It was the story I had been told all my life and there was just no changing it. They still, to this day, call me at 8:08am.
Most White Christians during the Civil Rights era truly believed that segregation was the way God intended things to be. It was simply the “natural order of things” and it was the story they had been told their entire lives. Even as millions of people, Christians included, marched and protested and rallied and said, “no, let us tell you a different story,” they just couldn’t believe it.
Now, though, we look back and say, “pshhh, how could they not see? How could they not know?” We know better now. We wouldn’t get something so terribly wrong.
Tens of thousands of people marched in New York City this past week. Thousands upon thousands marched in Washington, DC. There have been dozens of other marches around the nation, including several here in Seattle. There have been walk-outs and die-ins and rallies all across the country. Yet the collective White Church remains either outwardly outspoken in its opposition of the #BlackLivesMatter movement or absent from the conversation altogether. We are making the same mistake all over again. Black people are desperately trying to tell us a different story and we will not listen.
When I was 23 one of my closest college friends lost her cousin in a car accident. Not just any cousin. This cousin was like a sister to her and the funeral was only 2 hours away from my house. I was starting a new job the same day, though, and I was nervous about asking for a later start date. I was also afraid. I was afraid of the sadness that I would see. I was nervous about driving alone and navigating the freeways of Los Angeles. My presence isn’t important, I told myself. It’s family time. They don’t need me to be there.
Not showing up at that funeral is one of my greatest regrets. It’s inordinately painful to recall my cowardice and my unwillingness to push through my discomfort and show up for my friend. I had the opportunity to sit with her in her grief and I chose not to do it. If a situation of that sort were to surface now I hope that I would move heaven and earth to be there. I hope that I would use my grief and my sorrow and my repentance over my failure in the past to propel me to a better choice the next time around.
Beloved Church, let’s not make the same mistake again. We need to confess and lament our action and our inaction from 50 years ago. We need to confess and lament that we have preserved a theology that has reinforced racial hierarchies and perpetuated systemic injustices. To do this we need to be brave. We need to be brave enough to stop telling ourselves the same story over and over and over again. We need to be brave enough to consider a different story; the story being shouted from the streets of Ferguson and the sidewalk in Staten Island; from the playground in Cleveland and the Wal-Mart in Ohio. We need to be brave enough to say, “We are sorry that we didn’t listen then. We are listening now.”