God and race is a massive subject and many of us have struggled with how to have relevant conversations on this topic that aren’t explosive. Data out from Pew Research reports over half of US adults say race relations are bad. When we as a society–and especially as community of believers–talk about race, it needs to be open handed and open minded. As pastors, we have learned so much over the last several years and have come to see that we have to discuss this in order to reach each other or else we will stay divided. In our book, God and Race we help guide people to move beyond black fists and white knuckles.
What is the symbolism of black fists?
For many black young men, a hair pick was essential to personal grooming. A very popular hair pick had a black fist at the end of it. All the guys in my neighborhood would sport one of these in their hair or the back jean pocket. Many years later I learned the origin of this community staple for young black men. During the medal ceremony in the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City on October 16, 1968, two African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised a black-gloved fist during the playing of the US national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Since then this has been the symbol of black power as Black people have fought through the residue of slavery, segregation and systemic oppression in many places across North America.
What is the symbolism of white knuckles?
White knuckles speaks of holding on too tight to old paradigms and old ways and old systems based on fear. That grip because so stifling that it doesn’t not relinquish control. So instead of white knuckles and black fists…we’re opening our hands to each other.
It has not been our position to presume that there aren’t other racial tensions worth exploring in North America. However, the Black vs. White racial tension is the primary issue, the most fraught with pain and longstanding conflict and lack of resolution in American history. And let’s just say from the beginning we are not trying to solve everything with a video series or a book but we are modeling how to have a conversation.
Wayne: I grew up in the northeast Bronx…the only son of Jamaican immigrants that came to America to make a better life-setting for their kids. As a kid, my neighborhood was predominantly filled with white people but it, being in NYC, was still extremely diverse. I mean, my grade school class at P.S. 97 looked like the United Nations!
We lived right on Hammersley Avenue wedged right between an Italian family and a Jewish family and with several white families on this side of our street. But, across the street there was a latino family, another black American family and an Asian family in close proximity. It changed a few years later with massive white flight.
This is also the neighborhood though that I quickly became acquainted with race and prejudice from both sides. Not too far from where I lived I experienced my first act of racism. I was walking on Pelham Parkway with my mom once and some white guys threw a rock that hit my mom in the back and they used the n-word about us. All I can remember is my mom saying in her thick Jamaican accent, “c’mon baybee, just keep walking – it’s all right.” She never gave me a talk about what happened there or some sort of homily on loving others and stuff…but I think as the rocks of prejudice hit me through life that I siphoned something from her…to keep walking forward because it’s gonna be alright.
John: grew up in the South. Louisiana. But my parents were from the North. And I think that was an advantage for me because they didn’t have any real racial baggage. I do remember my Dad taking me to a restaurant called Bonaparte’s Chicken. It was on a hot Louisiana day and the line was out the door. We had finally got to the register and there was a black woman working her hardest to serve the customers. A white man behind us screamed out to the woman behind the register and said, “Hey girl…hurry up.” My dad was a very mild natured man but he turned around and said, “That’s enough.” It was intense. He told me later that calling a grown woman a girl, particularly a woman of color, was extremely derogatory. It was then that I learned that I had to use my voice to speak up for others.
2020 was a crazy year! We recorded a 3 part series called Black Fists / White Knuckles before the world turned upside-down with the pandemic and the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd that sparked global outrage about race.
People didn’t want to have open dialogue. It was the birth of “cancel culture.” To be cancelled means you no longer matter if you state an opinion that is not the mainstream position at the time particularly as it relates to race, gender, or politics. You can get cancelled for just using the wrong word.
It’s seems like we can’t give each other grace in our times and all of this unravels unity.
We see Jesus in John 17 praying, “make us one” and yet our nation is constantly focused on allowing disagreements to keep us separate. So here’s an overall big question: Can you love someone you disagree with? One who looks different than you…a different hue of skin or thinks differently than you…
4 Ground Rules Helpful in the Discussion of God & Race
There still remains some major tensions. We’ve had some court convictions around some of these things but there is still tension. In order to mitigate that we’ve worked on 4 Ground Rules that we think are helpful in the discussion about race: LISTEN, LOOK, LEARN, LAUGH.
LISTEN: We have to listen to each other and not just react to tweets and soundbites. We have to really hone in…cut out all the distractions and not interrupt the person we are listening to in order to give them time to fully express their hurts, hurdles, hang-ups. And when you listen, you can’t listen to the echo chamber that we can find ourselves, you have to intentionally listen to people that are different than you or that you disagree with across political, theological or social lines.
LOOK: We believe this has to do with respect. We should look others in the eye while we listen. One of the problems we’ve had in recent times is an unwillingness to have conversations and instead we’ve logged onto social media to push our ideas forward without listening and looking. Looking means I respect you enough to look into what you are saying. If you feel a certain way, I don’t dismiss it just because I don’t feel the same way. I’m willing to LOOK at it.
And then there’s LEARN: We should read books together and watch documentaries to enhance our knowledge. As we learn we grow! In fact, some of what we read will make us encounter some difficult things, hard to accept but one needs to push through to gain a greater understanding.
And we have to LAUGH: Laughter, like music, is a universal language. Sometimes we make each other laugh by pointing out how nonsensical cancel culture is. Take for instance the campaign to cancel Goya Brand products
There are a few statements that we wrote together to summarize our big picture thoughts about racism and reconciliation. These are simple and just big picture thoughts but they’re important talking, thinking, and praying points!
- Racism is a problem. This may sound like stating the obvious. But not for everyone! We think some people think it WAS a problem and it’s not a problem anymore. But it is still a problem.
- The gospel is the solution. Paul says in Romans:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.
The power of God can change someone’s heart. And as we give our heart to God he transforms and reconciles us to Himself and then He helps us reconcile ourselves to one another! The gospel doesn’t bring shame or guilt – it sets us free. So this idea that white people should feel guilty or ashamed because of their skin color alone is not the gospel or that black people should always feel like victims is not the gospel. The gospel sets us free.
- It’s more than just a spiritual problem. It’s a historical problem. It’s a practical problem which means we can’t over spiritualize it with prayer alone. We need to integrate practical tools to bring healing for the divide.
- It’s complicated. Meaning, we can’t be simplistic about this. Like we said earlier, we’re not naive in thinking one message series or one event or one book or one prayer service is going to erase years of injustice. But we can take one step at a time and have some courageous conversations that are ongoing.
- White people must seek to understand and acknowledge the sin of slavery and mistreatment of black people. There is a justifiable lack of trust and anger in some black people. This is part of our history as a country and we can’t turn away from it or dismiss it. We have to remember and talk about it. Some white people would say…well I wasn’t there or I didn’t do that, but that doesn’t take away the generational impact and the work that still needs to be done in our society and in the hearts and minds of people.
- Black people in turn have to forgive white people of previous and present injustices, while also not harboring hatred and racism towards white people. We can’t allow media and extreme groups to dictate how we feel or how we interact with white people. Some people would say that black people can’t be racist but that’s simply not true. All people can harbor hatred toward another based on skin color alone.
There’s a powerful story of a slave girl in 2 Kings who pointed Naaman, her master who was filled with leprosy, to Elisha the prophet who would eventually lead him to the cure for his illness. A slave girl, helped her slave master find the solution to his illness though she was oppressed. We have the power to point people to their remedy. That occurred in our history and can still occur. Really, we do have to embrace a cancel culture…the same one that Jesus did by cancel the debt of others by forgiving. The Bible actually does give us a model for effective cancel culture. We see it in the work of Jesus in Colossians 2:14:
He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross.
- Unless we make a solid intentional choice to repent, understand, reach and love one another, we will remain divided. The framework of our current context is one that we didn’t create. However, it’s our reality and we have a responsibility to do our part to bring about change, even if we aren’t to blame for where we find ourselves, we can make a difference for our generation and for generations to come.
In God and Race, pastors Wayne Francis and John Siebeling seek to provide a non-threatening means for pastors, church leaders, and churchgoers to start to dialogue about this important issue. Wayne Francis, lead pastor of The Life Church in New York, speaks to the “Black Fist” part, showing how the racism that blacks have faced have led to many solidarity movements that have served to increase racial tensions in our country. John Siebeling, lead pastor of The Life Church in Memphis, Tennessee, speaks to the “White Knuckles” part, showing how many whites today are “white-knuckling” it to try and hold on to old (and wrong) ways of thinking . . . or are just tensing up when approached with the issue and hoping that it will just go away.
John Siebeling is the founding and senior pastor of The Life Church based in Memphis, Tennessee. John serves as a founding board member of the Association of Related Churches and is the author of several books. He and his wife, Leslie, live in Memphis, Tennessee, and serve together with their two adult children, Anna and Mark.
Wayne Francis leads the New York City location of The Life Church and was the founder and lead pastor of the former Authentic Church, which merged with The Life Church in early 2020. Wayne and his wife, Claudene, have been married for twenty years and have two beautiful teenage daughters, Haleigh and Ryleigh.
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