Christianity, Race, and Justice in Rural America

Folks in rural towns like mine are in an odd, awkward spot regarding the current discussions of race and justice in America. Where many cities are in the throes of massive upheaval and change, we’re looking on from afar – unsure of our role in this moment, and uncertain of how the changes taking place in so many metropolis areas will affect towns like ours. There’s such little ethnic diversity here, that we lack points of reference to begin to process concepts like white privilege or systemic racism in a firsthand, experiential manner. When that distance is churned together with sensationalistic news coverage, divisive political rhetoric, and a growing mutual distrust between urban and rural America, it can become paralyzing and confusing.

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How should Christians in the flyover states engage with these issues? Do we have a part to play? How should we respond when so many people simply assume that we are racists by virtue of living where we do? Here are a few of my thoughts:

Remember Your Christian Basics

When the intensity of a situation rises, our true beliefs tend to peek through the veneer of godliness we may have constructed. So let’s take a quick stroll through a few of the relevant theological basics, to make sure we haven’t abandoned what we know to be true in the heat and confusion of the moment:

All people are created in the image of God. Human beings are worthy of dignity, respect, honor, value. Anyone who inflicts harm upon God’s image bearers must face justice.

Humanity is desperately and deeply fallen. Every individual is corrupt, fallen, foolish, selfish, and evil. Therefore governments and institutions made up of wicked people are bound to be rife with injustice.

Christ provides forgiveness and eternal life for a new humanity through the gospel. Folks from across the racial and political spectrum who turn to Christ in faith and repentance find complete redemption and restoration in Him. They stand as brothers and sisters in the family of God, a bond much deeper and more significant than any racial connection ever could be.

Believers should earnestly pray and work for the well being of all people. The gospel has many, many implications. We weep with those who weep. We pray for and submit to those in positions of governmental authority. We yearn for and insist upon justice. We consider others as more significant than ourselves. We stand for truth, even if no one else does.

Faithful Christians will be misunderstood and maligned by the world. Biblical justice will never satisfy either the conservative nor liberal wing of the world’s system. The early church faced fierce opposition from traditional right-wing Jewish leaders AND progressive Roman rulers. In a fallen world, faithful Christians will be hated by people across the spectrum. That’s ok, Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. 

Don’t leave the Bible at the door in moments like this. We need God’s truth to help us navigate such divisive circumstances.

Acknowledge the Obvious, then Add Nuance

As I mentioned earlier, discussions of race are particularly awkward here in middle America. Our small churches, schools, businesses, and even whole towns have very few (if any) racial minorities. We talk about race because it is the dominant conversation in our broader culture. But it is a secondhand conversation. We do well to acknowledge the fact that we’re not able to fully understand the issues in a firsthand, experiential sort of way. White folks in cities are grappling with the fact that they don’t understand the full reality of what their black neighbors and coworkers experience. Here, the overwhelming majority of us have to acknowledge that we don’t even understand what it is like to have black neighbors and coworkers.

In that regard, we should be very slow to speak. We should know what we don’t know, and acknowledge what we cannot understand.

But we should go further than that.

We should remember that, biblically speaking, there’s an awful lot more that we share in common with people of color than there is that separates us. Beyond a simple shared humanity that binds us all together, there are fascinating and ironic points of common ground between the seemingly opposite groups of white, rural Americans and black, urban Americans. Even Saturday Night Live portrayed this dynamic a few years ago:

 

The obsession of the moment is to fixate exclusively on all the aspects and experiences that distinguish and separate us – distinctions that are real and that do matter. But it is not a step of progress when people like me in a town like mine are made to believe that there are no shared experiences and nothing significant that truly binds me together with black people. The solution to helping unheard, unrepresented people is not to simply create a new class of unheard and disregarded people.

The Golden Rule Goes a Long Way

We’ve all seen tweets like this:

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In rural America we hear stuff like this all the time, rhetorical tactics that are insulting, dismissive, and completely ignorant of what our lives are like. We are berated and mocked almost endlessly in the media as they perpetuate reckless stereotypes about our worldview and way of life. Tweets like this have no nuance for including the reality that many small towns like ours, despite very little ethnic diversity, actually feature prominent racial minorities who are beloved community leaders, and often staunch right-wingers (gasp!). I’ve seen several urban people portray this idea that conservative country folks spend hours scouring the internet to find a video of a “token black person” who provides confirmation to the “white mentality.” But at least in the case of Northwest Montana and North Idaho, folks here share those videos because it expresses the sentiments of the people of color who do live here. They’re real people with real opinions worthy of engaging seriously.

It is deeply frustrating to have people who have never met us and will never spend more than a couple of days in a town like ours assume they understand us and throw our opinion in the trash heap in a way that would never be acceptable if done the other way around.

But guess what?

The fact that we are treated that way does not give us an excuse to respond to ignorance with ignorance. Baseless, offensive opinions about us are shared all the time to nearly unanimous approval. But we must never return evil for evil. These past few weeks especially, I’ve been grieved to overhear local conversations that veer rapidly into defensiveness and attributing the worst possible motives to the protests – to a point where there’s almost a willful ignorance of what the Black Lives Matter movement is all about. We have to stop the cycle. We have to listen, learn, and understand. We have to treat others the way we want to be treated, even though we know that it may never be reciprocated.

That starts by taking a step out of our echo chambers.

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We may not ultimately agree with various aspects of the movement, but we will at least be engaging with reality instead of a straw man. Here are a few resources I’ve found to be helpful:

We hate when our beliefs are mischaracterized or caricatured. Let’s put as much time and effort into having a true understanding of their experience and worldview as we wish would be afforded to us. Until both “Americas” start actually listening to one another, seeking true understanding, we won’t make any headway. Let’s break the cycle.

The debate surrounding the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is an example of a seemingly intentional refusal to understand one another. Arguing over the phraseology has proven unhelpful and unfruitful. Seriously, how many folks have you won over by tweeting in all caps, “ALL LIVES MATTER!!!!!”? Instead, let’s try to understand that folks are simply pleading,

“My life matters.”

“My daughter’s life matters.”

“These people, whose killings have never been served justice, matter.”

Again, if we lived somewhere else and had the opportunity to watch sports and enjoy food and go camping and attend church together with these folks, it would come very naturally to affirm that they matter without it feeling like an attack on our own worth. But since we’re so far removed and take in only the hysteria of the news, it is easy to dehumanize and possibly even despise people created in the very image of God.

Maintain Distinctly Christian Ends AND Means

I’ve observed a few common patterns these past few weeks:

Only Sharing One Side of the Story: Here’s the deal – both sides have “dirt.” These past few weeks have been lowlighted by many, many, many videos and photos of police behaving violently and abhorrently, most notably exemplified in the unjust and tragic killing of George Floyd. There have also been many, many, many videos of protestors acting disgracefully, lashing out in violence, destroying property, and even killing black people, whose lives they are claiming to be fighting for.

But to scroll through some of y’all’s posts, you’d think your side was guiltless (or at least justified in their behavior) while the other side was completely riddled with the very worst of humanity. My social media feed has been overflowing with folks presenting this misleading, unbalanced, and dishonest portrayal of current events. If your opinion is ultimately true, allow it to stand in the light, warts and all – your argument is much more compelling when you tell the whole truth.

We’re all guilty. My side is wrong. Often. Everyone seems obsessively preoccupied with getting the speck of sawdust out of the other side’s eye while ignoring the Redwood log sticking a hundred feet out of our own retina. There’s tremendous wisdom in focusing on what you have the ability to change, beginning with yourselves. Perhaps we can take that wisdom to heart.

Taking the Wrong Path to the Right Destination: As Christians, we need to be saturated in Scripture so that we’re headed toward a God-honoring destination AND taking a God-honoring path to arrive there.

We’re told to “make disciples of all nations.” But using military force and the threat of violence to accomplish those commendable goals would be obviously abhorrent. It matters which path we take on our way to the desired destination of justice and racial reconciliation.

Even more important than listening to the voices and experiences of black folks is to hear the Word of God and heed His instruction for how to address the problems in a God-honoring way (a concept all Christians used to agree upon known as the sufficiency of Scripture): What does Scripture have to say about justice? What does it have to say about personal responsibility? What does it have to say about corporate guilt? What does it have to say about reconciliation? It turns out that God’s way to address these problems looks quite different than many of the most popular current proposals.

To better understand a few of the very relevant concerns with the culture’s proposed solutions, here are some resources to consider:

Silence on the Largest Killer of Black People: From 2017-2019, an average of 222 black people were shot and killed by the police each year in the United States. There’s a lot of good and important work being done to account for killings by police that aren’t gun related, which increases the number of African Americans killed by the police to perhaps the neighborhood of 300 each year. This is tragic, and everyone should absolutely and unequivocally demand change.

A yearly average of 311,400 black babies were killed by abortion in the United States from 2013-2017 (the most recent data set I could find). Followers of Christ know that every single one of those lives matter. I’ve been appalled to hear Christian leaders, for whom I have a great deal of respect and admiration, say that “now isn’t the time to talk about abortion.” That is flat-out wrong. All of the illustrations and examples demonstrating the appropriateness of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” can, and must, be applied to unborn black lives. More than 1,000 times as many black people are being killed each year by abortion than by the police. Frankly, now is the time when the church must talk about it, because the culture at large is hypocritically marching on behalf of black lives, all while giving thunderous applause to the (by FAR) largest culprit of unjust killing of black people in the nation.

No reasonable Christian would say that you need to choose. Setting up such a false dichotomy may help gain acceptance among a movement whose leaders loathe biblical ethics, but it does little to actually save black lives. Believers should fight with all of their might for justice for all black people in this country AND for helpless black unborn children who have almost no one defending their rights.

Conclusion

The Great Commission and the Great Commandment stand at the heart of Christianity. 

Matthew 28:18-20 All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Matthew 22:37-40 “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Each one of us has a distinct role to play with unique challenges and opportunities before us. Let us proceed in these tumultuous times with these commands as the guardrails along the path. 


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