The following is a continuation of the article written by pastor Jason Webb, called Race and the Church. Part 1: “It’s a Big Deal” addressed the subject of racism and why it’s an avoided topic of discussion in the church. Part 2: “Admitting Our Biases” revealed that most of us, despite not being racist, exhibit racial biases.
Jason Webb is a Milwaukee-based pastor, public speaker, entrepreneur, and movement leader. He’s established and led numerous organizations and churches, such as Elmbrook Church, Brook life Church, Nairobi Chapel, New Thing, James Place, and many other nonprofit organizations locally and globally. Below, Mr. Webb suggests that we need to look at the issue of racism through a different lens:
I’ll never forget a few years ago watching the unrest unfold in Ferguson, Missouri. It became a watershed moment for me. As I watched the story of Officer Wilson not being indicted for the death of Michael Brown, and then the riots and protests that took place I was filled with so many questions and internal conflicts. I was a pastor of a large church at the time, so I sat down and wrote an email to my staff.
This is just a note about what is going through my mind today in light of last night’s decision not to indict Officer Wilson. Maybe like some of you, I have had a mix of reactions to the situation.
As a white, middle-upper class man my thoughts were “Our judicial system showed that there was no evidence to indict. The officer seemed, as best as we can tell, to simply defend himself in a harmful situation. Justice was served.” As I watched the reaction of some protesters to the verdict as they burned and looted a city, part of me was thinking “This is despicable.”
But As a father of 2 black children, I prayed, “Lord, have mercy. How do I even begin to prepare them for a world where the color of their skin works against them?”
As a pastor, I wonder, “How am I called to lead people into a different story?”
As a Christian, I ask, “What does it mean to love my neighbor? How do I listen in humility to my brothers and sisters of color about things I cannot possibly understand as a white man who grew up in country clubs? What does that look like?”
Our calling is not just about programs we put on for the people who come through our doors. It is about engaging society with the love of Jesus, no matter how fragmented that society is.
Let us not be afraid to engage the tough stuff.
So often we, as white evangelicals, have a very narrow view of sin and injustice. We look at it through, what I call, a situational lens. In other words, we only see injustice as “personal or situational”. Since we only see it that way, when a situation like Ferguson takes place, we only look at the situation and the personal behaviors in that situation to determine if they are just or not.
I was recently discussing this with a black pastor friend. He said, “Hold on, that’s not the only lens through which to look at justice issues. We look at it through a systemic lens. You must evaluate whether there are issues in systems as a whole that work against people groups. Yes, you may be able to explain away this incident, but we look at the long list of injustices created by a system, of which this is one on a long list. The part represents the whole.”
This is the crux of the frustration when it comes to the current racial tensions. Namely, I, as a white American, can simply look through a situational lens and say, “Justice seems to have been done in this moment” and I can’t understand why people are outraged. But my African American friend can’t understand why I don’t care; he is seeing it through a “systemic lens, a small part of a bigger story.” Ultimately, we feel like we are speaking different languages when it comes to the issue.
Jesus looked through both lenses. Oftentimes, in declaring something right or wrong, he would look through a situational lens, call out the sin in a person, and say things like, “Go and sin no more”. He was saying, “This is on you, that was wrong, you need to change, it’s not going to until you take responsibility.”
Other times, however, he would see it through a systemic lens and fight the systems that oppressed. The Jews were a minority group being mistreated, killed, and taxed sometimes up to 90% of their income. They were kept in perpetual poverty. Caesar was considered God. In fact, he called himself that. Yet Jesus came in and flew in the face of the Roman empire. And he once said when asked as to whether people should pay their taxes, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesars and unto God what is God.” This was revolutionary. He was saying, “Caesar isn’t God, I am. I want to free you from that systemic oppression.”
Systemic injustice can be prevalent in education, churches, businesses, housing, the judicial system, and any other place. Professors of MIT and the University of Chicago conducted an experiment where they sent 5,000 fictitious resumes in response to 1300 help wanted ads. The resumes were all the same, with identical qualifications, except for 1 variable: some applications had Anglo-sounding names such as “Brendan” while others had black-sounding names as “Jamal”. Applicants with Anglo-sounding names were 50% more likely to get calls for interviews than their black-sounding counterparts. That’s unrecognized systemic injustice.
It’s not just in the studies, it’s real life. That’s why when I asked another African American friend of mine she ever experiences this, she said, “Yes, every time I shop at a department store and I am looking at clothes, the sales manager comes and hovers around me, but they don’t do that with the white customers. They are trained to look out for someone with my skin color.” That’s systemic sin.
As a white man, I must acknowledge that systemic injustice, whether unintentional or intentional, does exist and the system is geared for me to win. I am a benefactor of white privilege. To say otherwise is to stick our heads in the sand.
About Jason Webb
Jason Webb is a Milwaukee-based public speaker, entrepreneur, movement leader, and advocate of racial reconciliation. His track record includes establishing organizations and churches, handling mergers and acquisitions, overseeing budgets and people, and consistently meeting and exceeding organizational goals. Mr. Webb has helped start multiple churches and non-profit organizations, ran their multimillion-dollar campaigns, and oversaw a complex $12.5 million budget at his last organization. Jason Webb is also a philanthropist, passionate about helping those in need on a global level.