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What’s the (White) Pastoral Response in a Time of Public Unrest?

Pastors, your congregants need more than hot takes or politicized opinions from you. Instead, they need wisdom, care, and your presence.

Stop racism sign

We neared downtown, and our eyes stung. Not a direct sting, but more of second-hand, nasal awareness that something essenced the air around us. The nearer we walked to the heart of the city, the more potent became the sensation of teargas. That was a Saturday, the first Saturday after the murder of George Floyd. And almost 900 miles south of the crime scene, and about 800 miles northeast of Floyd’s hometown, people protested in Nashville, Tennessee. As the night swelled, an alert on my phone notified me about a curfew. About then, Uber and Lyft suspended service, which is how a friend and I ended up walking from midtown Nashville to our hotel downtown. We walked upstream through people rushing away from protests that had turned chaotic, riotous. We walked, with three helicopters overhead, hurrying alongside a few others stranded on their feet. We walked toward gas and first responders and a flashing blue loud. Back in the room, the TV revealed the same scene as Nashville playing out in every major city across the United States. News anchors, local and national, were speechless, though they said a lot of words.

Of course, before the teargas and before a video of a Minneapolis policeman pressing the life out of Floyd seized the western world’s attention, the air already hung heavy. We are, after all, in the middle of a pandemic. As of this writing, the COVID-19 disease has infected 2 million people in the United States, killing at least over 115,000 people and spawning a mysterious syndrome in children. Efforts to stop the virus wrecked collateral damage to the tune of 50 million people unemployed, not including those who worked part-time jobs. We’re now officially in an economic recession.

Mercifully, we can see indications that the virus is slowing, and unemployment number, for the moment, no longer appears to be in a free fall. Yet those signs feel barely relevant since Floyd’s death, since a global upheaval over American policing and American racism. “Just when things were calming down,” another friend texted me, “we got a plot twist to our dystopian movie.” In the week that followed, protests — of police brutality, of race-based injustice within our justice systems, of the myriad and persistent ways black Americans face racism in the course of everyday life — expanded and began to take the form of marches.

Millions of black Americans are expressing acute emotions, the dimensions of which I cannot comprehend. But the pain of this moment and trauma it provokes are evident. Remarkably, the demonstrations appear to have growing support among a big majority of Americans. Still, these events play out in a context that wars against solidarity. We live in a shriekingly polarized world, where political lines are drawn as quickly as they are narrowly. Many among us struggle to make sense of the things going on around us, and likely all of us struggle to understand how to move forward in meaningful ways.

A confounding reality is this: Our cities need a vibrant witness from Christians, and we Christians need our pastors. But this national calamity has taken place with our leaders and our churches reduced to YouTube channels. I’m not a pastor, but I am a Christian, a pre-COVID church-goer, who feels the weight of this moment and a responsibility to approach it Christianly. And here’s what I’m looking for from my pastor right now.

Lament what’s wrong, empathize with suffering — and then give hope.

This is a time of sadness. Even where there are hints of healing and hope and progress, they are only relative to the overwhelming waves of disease and death and crisis around us. These are things God calls evil, and we do no good by rushing past them. Yes, we know that God is, in Christ, putting the world to rights, to borrow from N.T. Wright. But often, in a clamor to get to good news, we dismiss the things that are now put wrong. Intentionally or not, this invalidates suffering. I am guilty of this, especially when it comes to the individual and corporate sufferings of black and minority brothers and sisters.

We do better to look to the model of kings David and Solomon, of the prophet Jeremiah, and of Jesus. Remember, our savior wept for Lazarus, even as he was about to restore him to life. And this is exactly the posture we need — I need — modeled today. Please, pastors, preach the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and remind us that we have the words of eternal life. But don’t skip to the end. Hope, apart from lament, feels plastic. Hope on the other side of lament feels like Jesus.

Lead toward wisdom.

This barrage of crises has precipitated a barrage of information. Of data and arguments for and against. Headlines on headlines on headlines. My suspicion remains that many of us aren’t struggling to know what’s going on, we’re struggling to understand it. That’s not a need for information. It’s a need for wisdom. We need help taking what we know, and using it for the health of our neighbors. We need, like Christ, to grow in wisdom and in favor with God and men. That kind of spiritual growth, as you know, requires shepherds.

Be present however possible.  

Part of what made last week’s protests so jarring to the national consciousness was the contrast between the visceral and athletic gatherings and the blue-lit virtuality of our communal lives for  the last three months. Amid this kind of unrest, we need to figure out how to get togetherness back, whether or not that means getting back together. In some states, sheltering restrictions are loosening to the point where churches can resume meeting in some forms.

Even where services remain imprudent, pastors can get lunch with people, even in places like California, where that probably means takeout at a park. Perhaps, stoop visits are in order. Logistical and safety issues abound with this, I know. Challenges like childcare and personal health histories complicate paths toward presence. But whatever the format, surely the people called to do justice and love mercy can learn from those who took part in peaceful protests — screens can't translate the power of human-to-human interaction.

Leave the hot takes online.

Part of presence means addressing the people in your congregation, the people who live and operate in your community. One of the detrimental effects of the online world is the sense that we all live in this uber connected everywhereland. This explains part of why our conversations about societal issues shoot up to a broad, national level and rarely become tangible much less practical. In my opinion, this seems to hold a weakening effect on preaching. When pastors direct sermons to the faceless droves they scroll through during the week, they may end up with Tweetable quotes but little else. Whether in the room or on the Zoom, speak to your people. We live in real places with unique histories and cultures, with our own needs and pressure points. The real crisis of ministering everywhere, is you run the risk of ministering nowhere.

Don’t be afraid of the political.

Speaking to a local congregation in a local way doesn’t mean neglecting big issues. It means addressing them in meaningful ways that relate to Christians who operate in local contexts. I know touching social issues presents a lot of complications. I’ve worked in several Christian workplaces, and I know first hand the pressure to remain neutral on politics, to say enough to seem engaged but not enough for anyone to sniff your presidential preferences. But if the (right) fear of isolating Democrats or Republicans leads to bland assertions of “we need to do better” or  “we just need to be the church,” many of us will be left either still wondering what to do or assuaged into complacency. The history of the Christianity in America shows the different approaches that different traditions use to affect their societies.

These approaches don’t need to be flattened or blurred; they need to be initiated. It could be church-to-church aid. It could be encouraging people to express concerns to city officials. It could be prayer walks. Whatever the strategy, if you see ways we can leverage influences and capacities for the good of our black brothers and sisters, of the black citizens around us, lead your people into them. Don’t forget Jesus refers to the love of neighbor as a command. And you don’t have to discuss firebrand politicians and politics to help us live out our faith in the polis. These represent difficult times for anyone to navigate, even more so for black Americans and persons of color in our communities. Those of your who lead congregations face a particular challenge.

You’ll need wisdom and grace, and we’ll need you. This path no doubt includes pain and lament and confession and, on the other side, hope. Even if, as we walk into the city, our eyes still sting.

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