(This is part 1 of the inaugural series “Free To Be”, a self-reflective story of the realizations of freedoms we have in Christ)
I was in Williamsburg, Virginia, sitting in my sister’s basement when I woke up.
Two days following the “celebration” of America’s Declaration of Independence, our family witnessed another slaughtering (lynching?) at the hands of those tasked with the duty to protect and serve. We helplessly watched Philando Castile breathe his final breaths – along with his girlfriend and daughter, as his girlfriend recorded the aftermath in disbelief.
I saw other murders (like Alton Sterling’s just a day prior) and heard countless other stories of police brutality and murder, but I don’t know what was different about this time that awakened me to the living nightmare.
A couple days later, my dad and I flew back home to Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas in astonishment of this America. This was the same day Micah Johnson ambushed and murdered five Dallas law-enforcement officers. Ironically, I was supposed to travel to a nearby city that night for a dinner discussion about racial reconciliation with some people from church.
But the manhunt for Johnson made me fearful to leave my apartment. History quickly informed me of the dangers Blacks faced when alleged incidents between Blacks and Whites justified the hunting, lynching, torture, and murders of people who looked like me. My fear was not an unreasonable response. I was afraid of being mistakenly identified as the suspect to justify mistreatment for the cause of quenching the fiery flames of fear within other law-enforcement officers and/or white people.
Johnson was eventually blown up when a bomb disposal robot detonated an explosive after a long standoff between him and the police. It was the first time any United States law enforcement agency used such means to kill a suspect.
Hope Seeking Gospel Justice
That week’s events in the of summer 2016 forced me to accept the immoral reality that we have a freedom problem in the United States. I immediately began searching for answers when I came across B.J. Thompson who was willing to have phone conversations with people across America about these seemingly hopeless issues.
I signed up for a 3 p.m. phone call from Thompson and waited in the parking lot of a Starbucks in my truck for my phone to ring.
I don’t know if I was seeking hope or just grasping for someone or something to help ground me, but my conversation with B.J. would prove to succeed in the former. Plastered against the backdrop of informative and contextual history, Thompson helped illuminate the reasons as to why things were happening the way they were.
The historical facts, Bible literacy, and plan for action B.J. laid out stirred my heart for gospel justice.
I hung up the phone with him realizing that it was no accident Black men were continually being killed, nor that disenfranchised neighborhoods were still revolting. Though I was hopeful, I was also angry.
Why hadn’t I been taught this history in school? Why hadn’t the church been more vocal about these social injustices? Why weren’t we organizing to change these changeable circumstances?
From that conversation forward, my worldview began drastically changing.
Christian Conservative No More
Before that week, I considered myself a conservative. After learning all I could about reformed and covenantal theology while in college, I acquired Christian heroes who aligned politically, religiously, socioeconomically, and culturally with White American conservatism.
To my embarrassment today, I learned how to distrust, dislike, and loathe the Black church. Most of these Bible literate, knowledge-filled heroes were not like the leaders in the Black church I grew up in. So I wrongly ascribed everything about the Black church as wrong. White was right in my eyes.
These men I crafted into idols maintained a particular bourgeois status while they scorned, and some even mocked, churches like the one I grew up in. My wholehearted acceptance of the status quo led me to believe Black churches, like the one I grew up in, were doing, acting, and teaching wrong – and possibly even heretical – theology.
However, I soon realized from the events of summer 2016 that my empathy for people and what I was accepting from the White American Culture were at odds. The failure in the structure of our institutions to preserve all life and serve people were unimportant to some of these leaders. And if they were important, they weren’t important enough to discuss, be angry, frustrated, nor sad about.
I was, however, blessed to be part of The Village Church during this time. Pastor Matt Chandler, who is white, was sensitive to these differences before the events in summer 2016 and desired for his church to reflect the coming Kingdom of Heaven described in Revelation. Conversations with him, and other members of the church helped me feel safer psychologically and spiritually, but there remained an underlying wrestling and burden with being one of the few Black people who attended the church regularly. I had a different sense of urgency for these matters than some of my local brothers and sisters.
But apart from the conversations I began having with people at my church, I mostly witnessed apathy among evangelicals. The truth about the people I thought I was safe around began unraveling as I began hearing among some co-workers, neighbors, and pundits excuses about what the victims should’ve done, or a blatant dismissal of the murders as “mistakes”.
I wasn’t hearing much compassion, empathy, nor a demand for systemic change in my context. And when I tried becoming a voice for the voiceless, I began receiving my first doses of white fragility up close. I was essentially told to shut up, that I didn’t understand how America works, or there were attempts to control and flip the conversations from Christian empathy and compassion to “American” rights and laws.
I was awakened. My senses were heightened. I was chilled with the lack of concern for human life. I felt naked, realizing that I was the same, yet vastly different than the people in my suburban environment. I was suddenly – as I’ve heard someone else describe – “melanin conscience”. But not just aware of my pigmentation, but aware of how my hue was viewed by our American institutions.
I was more aware of my actions and how they might be perceived. I wasn’t free – I never really was. At least my mind wasn’t. I was just going along with the individualized American way of life that allowed me to walk in the abysmal comfort of apathy.
I didn’t belong to anyone, never lived on any plantations, nor was forced to work. But I was suddenly able to see that I was expected to accept the dominant culture’s norms if I wanted to live “comfortably” and “normal”.
I saw that I adopted the lie that if I wanted to get ahead, provide for my family, and be free, I needed to embrace a respectability politics that catered to a White American way of life. I was expected to act, align with, talk like, and accept the dominant culture’s ways, even if that meant adhering to a theology that made it possible to ignore gospel justice.
I wanted no more of it. I was awake and I wanted freedom.
Musical Reflection: All White Party – Aha Gazelle