Learning to Lament, Choosing to Listen, & Leading with Repentance

Sean Mortenson / July 9, 2016
race, racism

“This is simply a call for white Christians to sacrifice so that black Americans can have life. That is the Christlike path for us.”


Thursday morning I wrote some thoughts for our congregation in response to the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. As I was about to send it out Thursday evening, the events in Dallas unfolded, adding further grief and confusion. I paused to consider and pray about how much of what I had already written needed to be changed or softened in light of the night’s events. The truth is I felt physically ill as I watched the details come in and the vitriol exchanged online. I decided that what I needed was sleep and the fresh perspective of morning.

When I woke, I decided not to change what I had written at all, only to add to it. What I wrote after Baton Rouge and Minneapolis is still something we need to hear after Dallas. Be aware that I’m writing mainly to white Christians because that is who we, Redemption Scottsdale, mainly are. This means I’m not writing to give the black community any advice, which might frustrate some of you. There are numerous caveats I could explore to everything I say here. I am intentionally leaving them out. I am not trying to take sides. I am trying to emphasize what our specific community needs to here, because where there is conflict, whether interpersonal or societal, we need to look at ourselves first and own our part in it.

This is simply a call for white Christians to sacrifice so that others, namely black Americans, can have life. That is the Christlike path for us. It is a call to listen to the black community, believe them, love them, and repent of our own complicity in their suffering. As Dallas was unfolding I paused (to my shame) to question whether public validation of the black community’s grief was just fueling division and violence. But that is like saying the real issue is the noise from the smoke alarm, not the fire in your house.

Angry voices from all sides have fueled aggression and continue to pour gasoline on the fire. But, as evidenced by the peaceful protestors in Dallas, the majority of those raising the issues facing the black community simply want to be heard (for once!) and pursue genuine reconciliation and peace. We need to listen. And listening, validating, empathizing, and responding with sacrificial love is not what fuels conflict. In fact, it is the only thing that will diffuse the explosive cycle of anger and retaliation that is playing out in our streets.

Our goal must be sacrificial love, emphasis on sacrifice. That means that owning our part will cost us something. Those of us in the privileged majority must no longer demand that the black community bear the cost (pride, power, comfort, status, opportunity…) of maintaining a superficial peace. Demanding that the oppressed “move on”, accept things as they are, or play by the rules in a game rigged against them, is a form of oppression itself. It is an exercise of power by those content to pass all costs on to the poor. And in structures where the oppressed bear all the burdens, the privileged (either in their wickedness or willful ignorance) are often content to live as though there is peace in the land, justifying any means necessary to defend the status quo. Calls for change are often met with fear and aggression and the oppressed who expose the injustice of it all are often labeled “agitators” and “troublemakers” who are upsetting the (imaginary) peace. This explains much of what we see on social media. But of course there is no real peace in such a structure and the tenuous facade of it all is simply not sustainable, nor should it be.

White Christians must ask whether we are willing to open our eyes to the burdens of the black community and get real honest as we bring our collective sins into the light. And when our eyes are opened we must stand against systemic racism, inequality, and injustice even if it means critiquing and dismantling cultures and structures we have benefitted from for so long. For those of us in the privileged majority, almost any change will feel like suffering. Are we willing to sacrifice so that others can live?

We have to. Because that’s what it looks like to follow Jesus. Instead of defending our territory of personal comfort, the ONLY way forward is for those in the position of privilege (like me) to be the ones who sacrifice – turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love every neighbor, pray for those who persecute, serve the needy with humility, lay down our fear and anxiousness, repent of our own sin before pointing out others, comfort those who mourn, and plead with God to bring a taste of his kingdom to the hurting whatever it costs us personally. That’s the Sermon on the Mount, the genius and divine wisdom of kingdom ethics. It is the impossibly high cost of actually following Jesus, the narrow road the leads to life. We can give lip service to our allegiance to Jesus, we can get worked up about superficial things like saying “Christmas”, or we can deny ourselves, sell everything we have, and actually be the church by following him on the path of grace, healing, and peacemaking in the difficult realities of our time.

I am a white Christian and in process myself. I will be learning along with you how to put all of this into practice. I’m conscious that the deep wounds and broken structures will not be fixed overnight. My hope in writing this is to start at the place of setting our hearts on the right trajectory. Then, we’ll move forward together toward the pursuit of justice and a real and lasting peace.

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Written Thursday, July 7th

No doubt you have seen the videos, or at least the news stories, of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile being killed by police. Even if I had the right words, there is nothing I could say in short form that would get underneath the complexity and tragedy of those events. But I cannot be silent either. The video of Alton Sterling’s son weeping was the hardest thing I’ve watched in a long long time. The thought of the young girl in the car while Philando Castile was shot haunts me. These are real people, made in the image of God, our neighbors and brothers and sisters. Yes, there are a multitude of issues at play in these shootings, from police training to gun laws. But at the forefront is the undeniable and increasingly volatile racial divide in our country. (Yes, race is a factor in these events. Contact me by replying to this email if you would like to discuss this.) Things must change in America and if we are really going to follow Jesus, the church must lead in repentance and reconciliation. So let’s talk.

Some racism is conscious and overt. And it should go without saying that there is no room in the church for openly held dehumanization of another person because of the color of their skin. There is no room and there will be no tolerance.

But we must also be aware that racism is usually manifest in more insidious forms. I am struck watching the videos that it may not have been overt racism that led the officers to open fire (I don’t know them), but the snap judgements that they made in the moment. And we need not be proud members of the Klan to have a reflex of devaluing, demonizing, and fearing people with dark skin the moment we see them, even if we would otherwise denounce racism. The events of the last few days give us tragic evidence that our black and brown neighbors quite literally pay for these prejudiced snap judgements with their lives. If we’re honest, there is a seed of dehumanizing prejudice in all of us and we must have the courage and humility to acknowledge it, bring it into the light, and repent of it.

That will be hard, because those of us who loathe overt racism and desire to express solidarity with our black and brown neighbors tend to take offense at the idea that we might also be “part of the problem”. But we have to admit that we are. We have to acknowledge that we really still don’t understand the plight of the oppressed. We have to repent of our blind spots.

We also have to repent of our impulse to correct or instruct the hurting on their reality and how they should feel. Those of us in the privileged majority (white people) need to simply listen in times like this. This might mean listening to voices that are hard to listen to. But we should still listen, even seek them out. That’s because we might find certain voices make us uncomfortable exactly because our blind spots and prejudices are being exposed. And even if the voices are actually abrasive or we feel like the arguments are unfair and overreaching, we cannot expect a person processing deep pain, fear, and anger to always speak our language in a well-reasoned, gracious tone. We must allow space for their grief and let their grief instruct us and open our eyes to the reality and severity of the issue. (That said, the ability of black leaders to model well-reasoned and gracious dialog while receiving wave after wave of ignorant push-back and vile insult continues to be astounding and inspiring to me.)

As we’ve studied The Psalms we have lamented the violence and injustice in our world and cried out to God. That was not a theoretical exercise and the racial divide in our country is THE issue of violent injustice that we cannot ignore. So we’re going to continue to learn how to lament together and pray for God to bring healing. We want to replace the seeds of prejudice in us with seeds of humility and repentance.


Questions? Contact us.