“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” – Matthew 25:40
We are a nation divided.
Nothing illustrates that more than the cascading protests, rallies, and ardent cries for justice in the aftermath of the “not guilty” verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. Those outcries and the concurrent spirit of indifference on the part of many privileged Americans tell us all we need to know about how far we still have to go before we see each other the way God would expect.
Indeed, the murder of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager, painfully reminds African Americans as a community that in spite of possessing the unsurpassable worth granted by Christ, black life is without value to the broader society.
While many of us expected to hear words of comfort, hope, and a renewed call for love and justice in our respective houses of worship, instead most of us encountered a resounding immoral silence. Although this silence has been most pronounced and identifiable recently, it is not new. It has been a hallmark of our hasty acceptance of a supposedly post-racial nation, and has contributed to the suffering of the most vulnerable, and “the least of these” within our society.
Poor people in general suffer from limited opportunity and access to basic necessities. However, poor boys and men of color – especially African Americans – not only suffer in ways that degrade their humanity, but they are systematically excluded from equitable participation within our society, are denied access to equal opportunity, and are blamed for conditions that have been constructed to disadvantage them.
These young men are often feared, viewed with suspicion, criminalized, harassed, and treated with contempt. Laws apply to them differently than their white peers, which marginalizes them further and supports reinforcing negative stereotypes.
Additionally, many of these young men live in impoverished, isolated communities with limited access to meaningful employment. They encounter deep systems of racial control including schools with harsh discipline, high rates of police contact, and ultimately, longer sentences for non-violent offenses. In many such communities mainstream work has disappeared and it is much easier to be hired in the drug trade than by a reputable employer. It is also easier to gain access to a gun than access to a quality education.
All of the evidence suggests that a devilish trap has been set for young black men to fail or to die in the process of trying to survive. Indeed, the fact that young black men are too often born into a cycle of generational poverty, social exclusion, and all of the ensuing consequences of such an existence is a by-product of racism and a white power structure that determines who has access to opportunity and ample resources and who will always be on the bottom in our society. Through the collective silence of the faith community, the evils of this hidden system will continue to go unrecognized and unchallenged. Although it is much easier to deal with problems half a world away, at the core of the Gospel message is the mandate “to love thy neighbor as thyself.” All of the law and the prophets rest upon this one premise. And the reality is that we do not get to choose our neighbors.
Good people, moral people, none of us can turn a blind eye to the systemic, predictable, and widely observed persecution of boys and men of color. In America’s racial hierarchy, this population occupies a place of low priority for their health, well-being, and life outcomes.
If loving one’s neighbor as thyself is the measure that is used to judge whether we have truly lived out our faith, then it is quite possible that the vast majority of us have fallen short of the goal. In order to reverse the devastating trajectory that we are currently on, it is imperative that we answer God’s call in Micah 6:8 “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God.” We can begin to do this by being willing to challenge the systems, structures, and institutions within our society that perpetuate racism, discrimination, and oppression. This will mean developing a willingness to engage in honest dialogue and reflection, as well as using one’s time, talents, and resources to bring about systemic change.
A CALL FOR SPIRITUAL LEADERSHIP
We must encourage our faith leaders to speak out from a point of biblical truth about matters of racial and economic injustice and to use their influence to work alongside the community to dismantle systems that perpetuate harm to our most vulnerable populations.
We can urge our pastors to write pastoral letters specifically addressing the persecution of boys and men of color as a means of providing guidance and leadership in anti-racism efforts within our churches and communities.
We must also begin to pray fervently for boys and men of color for restoration, healing, freedom from oppression, and justice.
We must work to eliminate bias and prejudice across the major life structures in our society, including education, law, and economics.
It is not necessary that we have all of the answers to the crises that are before us. But we must do as Dr. King implored and “take the first step in faith, without seeing the whole staircase.” And above all, we must trust that God will meet us there and provide us with the necessary instructions. In these hours of moral darkness, the world is looking for light. Thus, the church must arise to its rightful position of authority and shine the light in dark places. The question is not whether we should take action, but whether we have the courage to do so.