Editor’s Note: Given the horrific shootings in Atlanta last week, we at Missio Alliance listen particularly to Asian American Christians and how they were processing what happened last week. A message that we began consistently seeing and hearing from our Asian American brothers and sisters was that they were disappointed, discouraged, and grieved that their broader church family—white Christians in particular—were largely silent even as Asian Americans were openly and visibly in pain. We asked if someone from our Writing Team would reflect on the question of why white Christians remain silent when their siblings in Christ are crying out from the burden of racial injustice, and Derek Vreeland, discipleship pastor at Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, MO, was willing. While we want to be sensitive not to center white experiences when talking about the pain experienced by those on the margins, when the purpose is to honestly examine and assist the white church to better understand why people of color can be frustrated by its response, then it seems valid to highlight those perspectives, such as what follows from Derek.
After eight people, six of whom were Asian women, were killed in three Atlanta metro-area spas on March 16th, Asian Americans were left reeling. While investigators have not found evidence that “clears the high bar for federal hate crime charges,” the Asian American community nationwide felt the collective grief in that tragic moment as acts of Asian discrimination have been on the rise. Stop AAPI Hate, a California-based national coalition, has reported 3,795 incidents of Asian-American racism between March 19, 2020 and February 28, 2021.
Christians of Asian descent have mourned over the terror of these violent acts. The day after the shooting, Bread for the World CEO Eugene Cho tweeted:
To my fellow Asian community: I am so sorry. It hurts so much. Take time to mourn. We weep together. It’s overwhelming. Not just today but this entire past year. Words can’t articulate the deep pain so many of us have experienced. You’re not alone. We see you, love you, need you.
— Eugene Cho (@EugeneCho) March 17, 2021
In the midst of their lament and bewilderment, some Asian American Christians are asking about their white Christian brothers and sisters. While some white Christians have lifted their voice in solidarity with the Asian-American community or taken the time to reach out relationally to Asian Americans in their circles and networks, others have remained conspicuously silent. And Asian-American Christians want to know why.
As a white Christian, I wrestled to come up with some kind of answer. On an afternoon walk with my wife, we talked about the reasons for the silence; I also received some feedback from friends when I reached out via Twitter to gather insight from others. So here are ten possible reasons for why I believe white Christians choose to remain silent in the face of racial injustice and trauma toward people of color:
Some white Christians have no firsthand knowledge or experience with racism because we have isolated ourselves in a white world. We go to predominantly-white churches. Our kids go to predominantly-white schools. We don’t have any or many friends of color and simply haven’t heard their stories of experiencing discrimination or hostility because of their race, and so we don’t know what we don’t know. We are ignorant of our own ignorance. Last year I led a small group study of Drew Hart’s book Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, and Hart’s stories, as well as the stories told by women of color in our small group, helped to break through some of the white ignorance in the group. But fighting ignorance needs to be an ongoing and active battle.
Following on the heels of ignorance are the words of apathy: “If there is racism in the world, it’s not my problem.” “It doesn’t affect me.” “I’m certainly not racist, so there’s nothing for me to do.” Even if some white Christians interpret some actions as “racially-biased,” we can minimize both the prevalence of racial bias and the widespread experience of racial hate. This position of apathy is one of privilege; white Christians are able to adopt this posture because racial trauma does not have an impact on us the way it does for people of color. We can choose whether or not to let it affect us, which is not the case for those who are not white. The question is whether white Christians will allow both an increase in head knowledge about issues of racism, but also actively pursue the spiritual transformation that is needed so we can respond with empathy, in a manner that reflects the heart of Jesus. How often do we as white Christians pray for God’s heart and his eyes to see and understand the racial traumas around us?
Worse than ignorance and apathy is flat-out denial. Some white Christians remain silent because we wrongly assume the problem with racism in the United States was solved during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Denying racism exists is not the way to open ourselves to Jesus’ work of saving us from the sins of white supremacy and racial prejudice. Some white Christians might acknowledge racism in extreme cases but deny its systemic nature. American culture has been infected with the sickness of racism, for which it is far from being fully healed. Denying that “race is an issue” isn’t the way to work towards unity. Sin has to be named, repentance offered, and restitution made so that our communities can begin being healed from it. Denying racism exists is not the way to open ourselves to Jesus' work of saving us from the sins of white supremacy and racial prejudice. Click To Tweet
4. Playing nice over Truth-telling
Other white Christians remain silent as a way to maintain a certain kind of peace and civility. We don’t want to upset anyone or throw gasoline on the proverbial fire. We may truly believe that Black, Brown, and Asian lives matter, but we don’t want to upset our white friends and family, or even Christians of color who similarly embrace attitudes of whiteness. Some of us just want people of all ethnicities to get along. We don’t want to stir up more hostility. In the name of unity we actually subvert the truth because we don’t want to be considered divisive. These are the white moderates who, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. called the greatest stumbling block to racial justice, because they want “negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
5. Colorblind Rhetoric
In an attempt to play nice, some white Christians ignore or mask their own racism behind colorblind rhetoric declaring emphatically, “I don’t see color. I just see people for who they are.” The reality is that we all see color. Ignoring the unique cultural distinctions which are part of our ethnicity is to ignore the beauty of who we are. We shouldn’t ignore these differences, but celebrate them, honoring God for the beauty of our diversity. We find justice by acknowledging our differences in appearance, culture, values, and histories and repent where we have experienced racist thoughts or habits. And we also open our eyes to the systemic ways in which particular racial groups have be given advantages and preferences over others. Ignoring the unique cultural distinctions which are part of our ethnicity is to ignore the beauty of who we are. We shouldn't ignore these differences, but celebrate them, honoring God for the beauty of our diversity. Click To Tweet
For some white Christians, our silence on matters of racial injustice emerges from an overly-bonded view of justice and politics. Certainly political policies affect matters of justice, but repeated incidences of racial injustice and violence can be acknowledged and publicly lamented apart from one’s political opinions. Sadly too many white evangelicals connect matters of racial justice to left-leaning politics, while many remain captive to the agenda of the political right, missing the politics of Jesus which transcend the left/right divide in modern American politics.
Ensconced in a political ideology, some white Christians succumb to the “us vs. them” tribalism within our culture. We may have an impulse to express compassion towards those experiencing racial injustice, but the peer pressure from our specific tribe drives us into silence. The antagonisms generated by our tribes become too strong for some white Christians to resist. We don’t want to be ostracized by our tribes. We don’t want to be identified as “one of those liberals.” We don’t want to be accused of “virtue signaling,” publicly expressing moral outrage online in an act of pretense when such views go against the tribe.
8. Theological Insufficiency
Other white Christians lack the theological resources to have an informed understanding of God’s heart for justice. Western Christianity has overemphasized the need to go to heaven upon death in order to avoid hell. White evangelicals have perfected the preaching of heaven and hell, placing the emphasis of God’s salvation on what happens to us after we die, and in doing so they have fallen into the woes of the Pharisees as they have “neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Mt 23:23 ESV). We are silent because we lack the theological resources to speak, and we misunderstand God’s heart for justice, conflating it with God’s judgment instead.
We find no greater reason for white silence than fear. Some white Christians retreat into silence because we are afraid. We are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. We fear the backlash we may receive if we are misunderstood. We are afraid of what our family and friends will think of us if we speak out. We are afraid of the aforementioned exclusion from our tribes.
Others are afraid of what facing our own racism will do to us. We’re afraid to speak out and avoid the deep soul-searching required to acknowledge our own complicity in a culture of white dominance. I understand these fears, because I have had to face each of them myself. Some white Christians are afraid to speak out and avoid the deep soul-searching required to acknowledge our own complicity in a culture of white dominance. Click To Tweet
Finally, some white Christians feel overwhelmed at the immense complexity of racial prejudice and so instead of saying something wrong, they say nothing at all. I freely admit that as a white Christian and as a white pastor, I’m still learning. Reading authors of color and taking the time to listen to the stories of people who don’t look like me has helped. Nevertheless, I admit that I neither have all the answers nor do I understand racism at a deep level. But I cannot wait for full understanding before I attempt to speak and stand for what is just and right. I have to work out my understanding in fear and trembling, knowing that I will stumble along the way. But I cannot let the uncertainty lead to paralysis.
So what can white Christians do in the face of ongoing racism? We can lament. We can listen and learn. We can challenge our tribes and our fears and press into the presence of Jesus in order to discover his heart for the hurting, the oppressed, and the marginalized. We can ask questions of our neighbors and friends of color and learn from their struggle. We can enter more fully into their stories and stand in active solidarity with them. We can allow our hearts to be broken as we center the pain from those on the margins and amplify their voices where we are able.
And lastly—or rather, firstly—we can pray. Since the murder of George Floyd, I have daily been praying this prayer from The Book of Common Prayer:
O God, you have made of one blood all the peoples of the earth, and sent your blessed Son to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near: Grant that people everywhere may seek after you and find you; bring the nations into your fold; pour out your Spirit upon all flesh; and hasten the coming of your kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.