Repent: The Gospel Message to Racism, Policing, and Me

John the Baptist, Cameroon

In a rising tide of fists and voices, the path of righteousness is increasingly difficult to find. Whose opinion do I trust? With whose grievance do I side? How do I even think about the events that are taking place around us? Whose narrative is right?

A nuanced understanding is necessary, and I think it is fair to say that no movement or group is going to get everything right. Rather than take sides in yet another polarizing shouting-match, or follow my algorithm-generated news feed (which scrupulously selects and reinforces the slant towards which it knows I lean), I am drawn back into the oddly stabilizing message of John the Baptist, which somehow managed to step on everyone’s toes with leveling conviction.

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

No racial group gets to claim special status or immunity from John’s scathing social commentary. In order to be “in” with the King, each had better start by examining where their own life fails to line up with His way of love. This gospel of peace works as an objective, outside perspective, enabling me to first look into it to remove the log from my own eyes, and then to look again to see where others might need to change too.

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

The fruit of repentance looks like sharing whatever I have with those who don’t have it. No discussion of who they are, what they deserve, or whether they align with my particular perspective. No discussion of whether I am an oppressed minority or a privileged majority. We share. We tend and keep. We look out for each other. Why? Because as Jesus would highlight in the racially charged parable of the Good Samaritan, our core identity is as neighbors, not ethnic groups, religious affiliations, social classes, or political parties.

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
Luke 3:7-14

But John also had some pointed gospel applications for those “neighbors” with particular forms of power. To their credit, tax collectors and soldiers had come in humility, openly asking how they might align themselves with the way of the Lord. To those with financial power, John applied the law of love to taking only what was right rather than what they could get away with. To those with policing power, John applied the law of love to treating everyone fairly, which includes being careful to find out the facts before accusing anyone. Whether or not these soldiers saw themselves as powerful, the people whose lives hinged on their right use of law and careful use of force certainly did.

I am grateful for the police. I am grateful for the many officers who have corrected me, protected me, and helped me in times of need. They used their power for my good, to the extent that when I see a uniform, I feel safer. But not everyone shares my experience. The children in the community where my youngest child will be attending school tell of how the sight of a policeman strikes them with terror when they are playing in the street. Will this officer accuse them of something and take them away, as they have seen happen with their friends? Will a simple inquiry escalate into a violent arrest that costs them their life, as they have seen through their media feed? Fear and distrust breed reactive behavior, conditioning these children to a fight-or-flight response to the approach of any police officer, whether gentle or aggressive.

“There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person. The threat of violence is ever present, and there is no way to determine precisely when it may come crushing down upon you.”

There is a talk African-American mothers have to have with their sons, the talk in which they plead with them to avoid any encounter with police and, if approached, to avert their eyes in deference and answer with a simple “yes, sir” or “no, sir.” I have never had that talk with my son, both because he has the experience of being unafraid of the police and because he has the luxury of likely being given the benefit of the doubt if caught in a questionable situation. I cannot imagine the crushing effect a talk like that must have on a young, budding soul. Howard Thurman commented, “There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person. The threat of violence is ever present, and there is no way to determine precisely when it may come crushing down upon you.” (Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 39).

What change does the gospel require of me?

What is the gospel for these young people? What is the gospel for their mothers, for police officers, for you, for me? What answer would John give each of us if we were amidst the throng asking, “What should I do, then?” I suspect the general idea would be, “Stop fighting to protect your own way of life and start looking out for the interests of others!” That’s universally hard, both because it involves death to self and because it involves waking up to the “other.” It involves being willing to admit where I have fallen short, even when I feel I am being unfairly treated or belligerently accused. And it involves loving people whose agenda may be damaging to my identity, my status, and my way of life. Whoever my neighbor is and however much it might cost me, I don’t get a pass on love.

A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” …
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.
Luke 18:18-23

The privileged young ruler came to Jesus with a similar question: What change does the gospel require of me? His unwillingness to pay the price for change led him to retreat to the safety of his own home, community, and newsfeed. But in so doing, the price he unwittingly paid was entrance into the Kingdom, where Jesus seeks to bind all people together in the radical way of love.

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