Katheryn Bigelow’s new film, Detroit, is both punishing and poignant. Amid the angst weighing heavily on our country following the chaos of Charlottesville, the movie comes at a unique moment, showing us the ugly side of the American past as we stare into the ugly side of the American present and future. Based on the Algiers Motel Incident during the 1967 12th Street Riot, Detroit portrays a grotesque picture of racial tensions in America. The hatred and the violence that we watch a group of young black men endure—mainly because they were hanging out with two white women—at the hands of several ruthless cops proves difficult to watch. Yet being forced to watch this national tragedy, which Bigelow films carefully and tediously, helps us better see and understand the black experience, offering up a tiny taste of the oppression that these image bearers have suffered throughout history. Doing what narratives do best, the film gives those who are not black a front row seat into the life of someone who is black, albeit for just three hours and without the actual dangers and vulnerabilities inherent to being black.
As a middle-class white man, it’s easy to watch a movie like Detroit with a deep sense of sadness and remorse for the racial injustices of the past. That’s important to be sure, but it’s also easy to think of such atrocities as just that: a thing of the past. For me and many others who are white, there is a sense of sorrow in lamenting the realities of a fallen world where sin once manifested itself through hate and violence. Yet we ignore or remain oblivious to the fact that it’s still happening in our country today and we just can’t see it because of our own privileges and preferences. In our minds, it’s been dealt with because it’s not part of our everyday experience as human beings.
But reality won’t allow us to believe the lie that racism is no longer an issue.
But reality won’t allow us to believe the lie that racism is no longer an issue. Because of the power of social media, we’re now exposed to the endless amount of hate crimes and racial injustices that have been brewing in our country for centuries, and a few weeks ago, the world watched as thousands of white supremacists and nationalists rallied in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. Carrying torches, waving rebel flags, wearing swastikas on their arms and KKK hoods while marching like Nazi soldiers, these men and women reminded us that racial discrimination is as alive as ever in the United States. Despite laws and language that have sought to restrain the brunt of it, racism remains rooted in systems and in souls.
In the wake of the Charlottesville protests and the tragedy that came from it—a young white woman killed while defending the imago dei and many others injured because of a white terrorist who drove his vehicle into a crowd of people—there’s been a call for the church to speak out, specifically for white pastors to denounce white supremacy and white nationalism and the political movement of the alt-right.
While there is certainly a political angle to this conversation, the call for Christians to stand up against injustice and speak truth about the evil of white supremacy and white nationalism is the right call—the biblical call. As the people of God, we are called to be ministers of reconciliation and to be a light in the darkness. According to Scripture, every human being is created in the image of God and has equal dignity, value and worth. Because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the wall of racial hostility that runs contrary to this fundamental understanding of humanity has been broken down. In Jesus, hate and injustice meet their match, and the story of the gospel ends not at the death of Christ but at the return of Christ, when every tribe, tongue and nation worships the Lord together forever in the new heaven and new earth—that’s the prophetic multicultural vision God has given us for our future with Him. Our theology, as Christians, doesn’t allow us to see the situation before us in any other way: Racism runs contrary to the very nature and character of God and the message of the gospel. It is evil, demonic and sinful.
Gratefully, given these fundamental beliefs about race and diversity, many Christian leaders have spoken out. While some major Christian leaders stayed silent, there were a number of folks who took to the pulpit or social media to make clear where the Bible stands on this issue. In fact, on the weekend of August 12 and 13, our pastor Matt Chandler took some time before his sermon to address the situation in Charlottesville. You can watch everything he said here, but in short, Matt noted that “White supremacy and the alt-right is incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ, is evil and from the pit of hell.”
But as important as Matt’s statement was, as important as it is that we say these things with our mouths—that we are not blind to the racism that still plagues us but see it for what it is and call it what it is—it is equally important that we say them with our lives. That starts with a vocal denouncement of evil, but a denouncement should only be the start. As the book of James reiterates, faith without works is dead or no faith at all. So while our theology keeps us from silence, it also spurs us on to be people marked by love, justice and, yes, diversity. In praying for God’s kingdom to be on earth as it is heaven and seeking to be a faithful picture of the city of God in the city of man, we are to be a people who not only believe what we believe but live what we believe.
It’s not enough to simply believe the right thing or say the right thing. Right theology should always lead us to right practice.
So, we can call white supremacy sinful and evil, but if we’re comfortable and content only spending time with those who look like us, think like us and talk like us while doing nothing to celebrate and cultivate diversity not only in the body of Christ but also in our communities and in our world, then our words and our beliefs matter very little—and we probably don’t actually value the things we say we value.
It’s not enough to simply believe the right thing or say the right thing. Right theology should always lead us to right practice. And that practice means taking action. It means gaining more awareness about our own upbringings and stories and how they affect the way we see and operate in the world. It means learning more about those who are not white, specifically studying black history, to gain a greater understanding and empathy. It means creating proximity and developing relationships with those who are not white and seeking to learn from one another and grow together because we will be better and stronger for it as the body of Christ. It means thinking about how our churches might be places that welcome and celebrate diversity through our various approaches to ministry. It means getting involved in social and political organizations that fight against racial injustice and systemic racism. It means repenting from where we’ve been apathetic toward these things: understanding what the Bible says and what God asks of us; admitting where we’ve fallen short and asking for forgiveness; and then making a turn to begin living faithfully as the people of God when it comes to racial harmony.
In this allotted time and space that God has placed us as His ambassadors—a cultural moment that might look different than the historical riots and atrocities depicted in Detroit but comes loaded with what seems to be the same intensity of hate and division—we have an opportunity to not just speak the truth but to speak the truth in love, moving our beliefs from our heads and our hearts to our hands. We have a chance to both tell the world how racism stands in contrast with God’s design and to show the world God’s design. Amid all the hate and division around us, we can be a counter-cultural community that embodies love and unity. It’s going to be difficult because it requires time, energy, creativity and also courage as we enter into new and different spaces—and might I remind you that the cross of Christ was far from convenient and comfortable. Yet, God help us, because it is our role and our responsibility—and it is worth it. As we see throughout Scripture, this issue is at the very heart of God, and it should be at the very heart of His people, too.