By Ian Olson
Indignation has been simmering for generations, building with every act of injustice and compounded by the public’s failure to grasp the scope of the problem. And now it’s boiling over across our nation: the insistent demand for racial equality to take root and for police violence to come to an end. That demand can no longer be ignored. Many Christians are awakening to the part they have played in our country’s systemic ills and clamoring to help redress these wrongs.
But it isn’t immediately obvious for some of us how we can play a part in this new thing God is doing. We recognize the need to extricate ourselves from structures that divide us and feel compelled to take action, but emerging from the status quo into a new and equitable social vision is a painful process requiring time, time we may feel we don’t have. But the gospel frees us to give the little we have to find it multiplied by the one who can feed multitudes from a few loaves.
Compassion is key. But compassion arises from listening to and understanding the needs of others. The sentimentality that does little more than bemoan the present state of things as though those things were inevitable or unchangeable stems from misunderstanding, from mishearing, from mistaking the comfortability of one’s position as a universal norm and so overlooking the specificity of others’ suffering. It is not, in fact, compassion. Compassion is suffering-with, and a plight that is not understood cannot be suffered with.
We face the real danger of esteeming ourselves as partners in the quest for equity when in fact we are complacent bystanders. The two great commandments, to love God wholeheartedly and to love our neighbors as ourselves, remind us of our calling as Christians. We must remember our call to seek and serve Christ in all persons. And this Christ, hidden in our neighbor, is served with concrete acts, not posturing on social media or stoking feelings of superiority over others.
The Spirit of the crucified Christ opens new horizons for us. The Apostle Paul tethers the witness of the Holy Spirit with the upheaval wrought by Christ’s invasion of our fallen cosmos. More than this, he connects our inward groans of longing for wrongs to be righted both to Christ’s accomplishment and suffering in the historical past and to the life of the world to come he has secured. “It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,” he writes, “and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:16-17).
This “if” clause isn’t a conditional statement holding a promise at bay until certain conditions are met: it’s an inferential insight given to the apostle to bolster the people of God. Our incorporation into the suffering savior means we will share in the suffering which he underwent. Christ’s conquest of sin and death is characterized by suffering, which means that as we share in him, we will also suffer. The suffering so definitive of his mission becomes an aspect of believers’ existences through union with and participation in him. Philip Melanchthon was right: “To know Christ is to know his benefits”; but Paul was also right: to know Christ is to know his suffering.
In the wake of the Reformation, modernity places a high premium upon the individual self. There is good to the emergence of the self, but also danger of prioritizing the self in isolation from others. We have lost sight of the fact that we only become moral subjects in our entanglement with and commitments to others; we only become ourselves in our involvement with the good of others besides ourselves, in the reciprocity of love.
Christian faith is brought to its proper completion in love, not because faith is an initial stage that can be surpassed, but because faith is one means by which Jesus Christ is experienced and love is another. Both are facets of the apprehension of Jesus Christ. Our knowledge of Jesus Christ is never a purely intellectual affair, as faith is something more than, though never less than, belief. Faith, hope, and love are distinguishable from one another, though the reality they grasp is the same: the gift of God in Jesus Christ.
Christian faith impels three concurrent movements: repentance, overcoming the deficit of knowledge, and informed action. It continually moves from one to another, cycling through each as guilt is shed, ignorance corrected, and love manifested tangibly. It never arrives at a finality in which sinful culpability and ignorance is utterly overcome or perfect love embodied and never in need of repeating. We are swept into the life of Christ and given to partake in the pattern of his self-giving, empowered by his Spirit to inhabit that life with a greater and more proper fit as we abide in the love that calls us and sets us in motion.
First, we must acknowledge, however halting or uncertain the initial steps may be, our collusion with and benefit from systemic racism. If we would know Christ and his benefits, we must look into the face of inequity and its benefits in order to substantiate our renunciation of the devil and his works. As we recognize our involvement in sinful societal structures, we repent of what we have done, what we have left undone, and what we have unconsciously permitted to happen with our tacit sanction.
There is no justification by white guilt. There is no sanctification by virtue signaling. And there is no service rendered to anyone by self-belittlement or by scripting messages to Black friends that emphasize you and your bewilderment at what to say. Self-examination, while necessary, isn’t the way to contribute to this new movement of the Spirit. That exacerbates and perpetuates the centrality of the white ego.
What we need, secondly, is to be de-centered, to receive direction, to become implicated in the sufferings of others. We must become more informed of how we have passively reinforced the status quo and of what must be done to restore and enfranchise those who have suffered under it. And we must do so under the guidance of those directly affected, those intimately familiar with the processes and effects of these systemic sins. We must forego the assumption of authority and of competence and let God appoint pathfinders for this mission.
And finally, because, contrary to Socrates, the essence of sin is not lack of awareness but the lack of love, we must take action. It may be that there are no opportunities to participate in demonstrations where you are. But take heart: you can still play a part. Sign petitions. Demand police accountability from representatives in local, state, and national government. Donate to bail funds and memorial funds. Contribute aid to the families of murdered men and women. Search out local organizations that are already at work in your city or county and follow their lead.
Just as importantly, though, enter into the scandal of contributing through prayer. It isn’t silly at all to pray that demonstrations across the nation would proceed and end peacefully without looting or violence and without provocation from forces allied to the status quo. That’s still contributing. Yes, prayer can be — and too often has been — turned into an empty rhetorical device, excusing one from involvement or action. Prayer in the Spirit, though, is a participation that binds otherwise disconnected bodies to specific wounds within the body of Christ and summons his healing and restorative presence to those fractures. If you pray in this way it places you there in the midst of the struggle, in the Spirit.
Keep showing up. Keep listening to the needs and laments of those directly affected. Keep pursuing humility, the humility to which the gospel exposes us all by stripping us bare of all our barnacled pretenses of innocence and competency.
Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, neither white skin nor black or brown or tan or any other hue, but faith working in love which enters into the struggles of others (Gal. 5:6).
Faith works to bring to tangible manifestation the love of God in Christ because the source and fuel of that love is at work within us. The love which God is puts on flesh in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, which in turn authors the faith that unites each of us to him. And this begets the love we and others need to live meaningfully in a fallen world.
We have “ceased from works” (Heb. 4:10) so that we may plunge ourselves wholeheartedly into the work of loving others as we have been loved, in the ways we so desperately need to be loved. Love dissolves motivated reasoning by opening our eyes to the other in her otherness: it removes the invisibility of our complicity in systems of sin; it causes us to see the other’s wounds as our own. Love drives out fear, overcomes hate, unlocks the door of our incarceration in ourselves. Faith alone saves, but faith gives rise to the love that faith’s author is. So, seek the peace of the city. Give the little you have to the one who can multiply it and make it abound to our brothers and sisters most in need, for in this you will participate more fully and more authentically in the Christ you profess.
Ian Olson is an Anglican lay student living with his wife and three children in southern Wisconsin, enraptured with W. H. Auden, David Foster Wallace, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and resisting the gravitational pull of the world’s despair with re-enchantment.