"the appalling silence of the good people"
by Tanner Fox
Have you ever had one of those Sunday mornings where you just couldn’t focus? As much as you wanted to lean in to the sermon and hear the word preached, something else clouded your thoughts? This is how I felt Sunday morning. I couldn’t stop thinking about Charlottesville. It is hard to say if any event outside my own life has ever gripped me quite like this one has. Maybe it is because the enemy has always been easy to differentiate from myself. And in the wake of this tragedy I realize that the face of evil in Charlottesville - white supremacists, white nationalists, the alt-right, neo-nazis -- on the surface, all look a whole lot like me. Many that carried the torches on Friday night and rallied Saturday morning looked like ordinary guys. It was as though they had just gotten done with their 9-5 at the office and proceeded to march.
While I have no problem distinguishing myself from and condemning the actions and attitudes of white supremacists, I think there is more to the situation and more for me to do as a white man than to simply stand at a distance and call it evil. I searched for answers online and read trusted authors. I talked to friends. As a mid-twenties, white, privileged pastor in the middle of downtown Orlando, what action steps can I take to seek justice?
In August of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in response to a statement made by eight white, religious leaders in the South. His words were timely and prophetic, speaking deeply into our situation some 54 years later. As I reflected on the letter (which I would encourage you to do even more so than finishing my blog - stop and read it), I was struck by the relevancy of his words to our day. Surely our past should inform the future as we seek to be agents of change?
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere… Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail
Injustice anywhere should bring about holy anger in our hearts. The very foundation of the gospel rests on the justice of God. God in his perfect justice saves us from sin not by simply excusing sin and allowing it to go unpunished. Rather, Christ had to die to satisfy the debt of our sin, preserving God’s justice and becoming our justifier. The work of Christ is to destroy injustice and evil through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. In turn, there is no room for Christians to turn a blind eye to injustice no matter where it takes place. God holds us accountable. The expectation as ambassadors of Jesus is that we seek justice in our city, state, the United States, and around the world.
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Klu Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace that is the presence of justice… We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God…” - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail
It’s easy to distinguish myself from these extremist groups, but deep conviction filled my heart as I read this and realized how acutely it describes my position. Privilege keeps me far from truly understanding the evil of racism in our society. I have never experienced life in a world that was not built for me. I can’t begin to know the depths of the pain that so many have felt as they are viewed as less than human.
The overt evil and bigotry is identifiable and easy to condemn. However, the subtle separation, the quiet racial undertones, the unspoken racial understanding and rules passed down through generations; the joke shared amongst friends, the stereotypes; these are real sins that we allow to live within our minds and in our communities. We seek a more subtle sense of superiority and justify it by comparing ourselves to and condemning the extremist. I realized that in order to battle the injustice in our city, state, and nation, I must first defeat the injustice within my own heart.
Time will not heal all of these wounds. Time has passed and the wounds fester. We must take responsibility for the role that we play in the persistence of this egregious behavior. What will it take for us to understand the weight of oppression? What will it take for us to feel the gravity of the racial tension so intimately that we embark on a journey towards justice with, as Dr. King’s letter says, “strong, persistent, and determined action?”
You’ve probably come across hundreds of opinions and articles on Charlottesville. Why would I add another voice to the clamor? Because the conversation needs to continue. As a white male, I’m stumbling through this. But as a follower of Jesus, I’m praying to find grace among people who are willing to help me learn more.
You know the thoughts and attitudes of my heart and today my heart breaks alongside yours for the injustice that lives within these United States. For too long, I have allowed the crutches of ignorance and apathy blind my eyes to the reality of sin in my home, my community and in this world. I have spoken to many things but stood for nothing. I have shown a love for those I like and love for those who look like me but I have done very little to love anyone else. I fear that my inaction and indifference has only perpetuated the reality of racism. I fear that I have done nothing to truly love my neighbor as Jesus has commanded. I fear that I have not sought to do justly in my community and I repent of these sins. Lord would you be a guiding light today. Would you allow me the grace and strength to lean into the tension in this world and seek to bring about change? Would you give wisdom because I flounder in folly. Would you give courage because I cower in fear. Guide and direct our minds and our steps as Christians and allow justice to “flow like like a river and righteousness like a never-failing stream!” Renew our hearts and minds today Lord. Strengthen our brothers and sisters from every tribe, tongue, people and nation. Yours O Lord is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory forever.
King, Martin Luther Jr. “Letter from the Birmingham jail.” In Why We Can’t Wait, ed. Martin Luther King, Jr., 77-100, 1963.
Excerpts © The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., including the blog post title.
Tanner Fox is the Minister for Mission at First Pres. He’s a recent grad of Reformed Theological Seminary and holds deep affection for people, movies, sports and Jesus Christ. As Minister for Mission, he leads the charge to help you love and serve the city and the world. firstname.lastname@example.org