My Dear White Pastors:
It was in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, in April 1963 that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. penned one of the greatest letters in Christian history. In My Dear Fellow Clergymen, King challenges a group of White clergypersons over their “lukewarm” response to the Civil Rights Movement and their opposition to his brand of nonviolent direct action. While resolute in his position, King’s placement of “dear” after “my” in the letter’s title, suggests an affection toward this group despite his dismay at their ambivalence. It is in a similar spirit that I write to you today, my dear White pastors.
We are at an inflection point in our country, one that I would argue King saw prophetically as he wrote his final book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Despite the tremendous strides we have made toward racial equality, there are troubling inequities that remain. In almost rapid succession, we witnessed the unjust and brutal slaying of three Black individuals: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. Two killings were at the hands of police officers who were duty-bound to protect their victims. The third killing (not by an officer), would have likely been swept under the rug of “self-defense” by local law enforcement officials and prosecutors had it not been for the public release of video footage and an external investigation. To many in the Black community, these events represent an institutional betrayal, one that cut deeply because it adds to a painful history of unequal treatment by law enforcement and the broader justice system.
What is worse is that these killings occurred against the backdrop of COVID-19, which has disproportionately affected the Black community as evidenced by this community’s higher-than-average hospitalization and mortality rates. Black people have endured this reality while filling the ranks of front-facing essential workers who risk their health daily for all Americans. Black people have been among the bus drivers, meat factory workers, and supermarket employees who do not have the luxury to shelter in place. In sum, these killings and the events surrounding them were deeply disturbing. However, it was their convergence with other racial realities that has yielded a “strange and bitter crop,” as Billie Holiday might have called it, in the American landscape.
There is another betrayal that cuts deeply, one that is the focus of this letter. That betrayal, my dear White pastors, is your silence — historically and now. I will endeavor not to paint with too broad a brush as I say this. I am truly encouraged to see some White pastors enter the struggle for racial equality. I have read some soul-searching analysis around race and justice by White clergy. I have also followed reports of White pastors participating in interracial dialogue and action, such as “March on Atlanta,” to promote institutional change and racial healing. That said, there still seems to be a perplexing silence coming from many majority White churches. I am yet to observe a broad-base “call to action” or the beginnings of a groundswell of coalition building and collective prayer, which has marked the response of White churches to other issues over just the past five years.
This silence troubles me for at least two reasons. First, it perpetuates a culture of silence around issues of racial inequality that has long been an unfortunate fixture of predominantly White churches. This silence is not new; King felt it keenly during the Civil Rights Movement. Many White clergy said they agreed with the goals of the movement but not the “impatience” of the Black community, not the “extreme” nature of King’s methods. This silence reverberates in the present with a seeming reluctance among White pastors, particularly those who identify as Evangelical, to speak out against racial injustice and inequities in our society. Let us be honest, the racial issues that persist in law enforcement are not new. The Black community has long rung the bell on them, but it is only in this moment that the country and you have truly listened.
I admit that I do not understand the reasons for the historical and contemporary silence. I imagine that there is no single reason and different pastors have different reasons. Perhaps there is an assumption that to decry injustice and call for change in law enforcement and other domains of society is to betray a particular political stance or one’s support for these institutions. Perhaps you were taught that actively promoting justice and equality is outside the purview of clergy or somehow detracts from the message of the gospel. Perhaps there is some reluctance to confront the uncomfortable truth that we are still moving toward equality and have not yet fully realized the “good society” as King called it. Or, perhaps there is a deep anxiety in trying to address issues that feel outside of your personal experience.
At any rate, I fear that your silence provides cover for your parishioners to remain on the sidelines of a struggle that is as fundamentally Christian as it is American. The prophet Micah reminds us: “The LORD God has told us what is right and what he demands: "See that justice is done, let mercy be your first concern, and humbly obey your God."” (Micah 6:8). Dr. King similarly speaks to us from his 1957 address to the Conference of Christian Faith and Human Relations: “If we are to remain true to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we cannot rest until segregation and discrimination are banished from every area of American life. It has always been the responsibility of the Church to broaden horizons, challenge the status quo, and break the mores when necessary.”
My dear White pastors, there are dialogues and thoughtful actions happening right now in your communities to redress longstanding racial problems, cultivate racial healing and thus fully realize the good society. But if you are not seated at the table of change, how will Christ be centered and glorified in these efforts? If your voice does not go forth, how will Christ’s voice be heard in your communities? Not all the voices going forth or all the actions entered into anchored to a gospel of love and reconciliation. Your voice matters in this precarious moment. Your voice is needed, in concert with those of Black and other racial minority clergypersons, to help tip this nation toward community and away from the clutches of chaos.
My second concern with your silence is for Black members of your churches. I have heard of Black parishioners anxiously awaiting their pastors to speak openly to their frustration, anger, and pain. My dear White pastors, if you have not cried out in the cause of justice like the prophets of old, if you have not pierced the evil of racism with your voice, your inaction is action because your silence hurts. King poignantly stated, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Your silence communicates, regardless of your intent, indifference to the suffering of Black people. For those overcome with feelings of anger, sadness, and even bitterness, your silence suggests that you are unaware of these wolves that are currently devouring them. I do not say these things lightly. I am a fellow clergyperson, an elder in my church. I share with you the sacred call to shepherd-hood and increasingly appreciate the weight of responsibility you bear. That said, I know that as shepherds, if we do not proactively secure the well-being of those we serve, we passively permit their harm. In this moment, Black parishioners in your congregations need YOU to begin to understand their pain. To miss this opportunity is not without consequence. As King stated, “shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
I would like to provide some insight into what many Black people are feeling at this moment. I hope it will underscore why the Black congregants you serve need to hear your voice in this matter. There is a double blow that Black people have been met. First, there is the sheer outrage and sadness the majority of Americans feel regardless of race or ethnicity because of these senseless killings. We are united in horror at the sheer evil we witnessed, mourn for the victims and their families, and recognize the need for change. Second, there is the natural identification many Black people have toward the victims. In psychological and sociological terms, this is called “shared racial fate,” the sense that what happens to one of us could happen to any of us. As a Black man, every time I hear of an unjust racially motivated killing of a Black man, it hurts deeply because I cannot help but think that could have been me. Like Ahmaud Arbery, I jog. As an avid gardener, I have on occasion stopped to observe the landscape of a neighbor’s yard. Now, I cannot help but think, what if someone assumes that I am “scoping” out a property to burglarize instead of simply admiring a well-maintained garden? I have to tell you that since becoming a husband and father, the pain of unjust racially motivated Black killings has only increased. When they occur, I cannot help but wonder, if that happened to me, what would be the consequences for my wife and daughter?
It is a heavy weight to carry, one that exacts a psychological toll. W.E.B. Dubois in The Souls of Black Folks references the “dogged strength” of the dark body not to be torn apart as it strives to reconcile the often-felt contradiction of being Black and American. For me, that dogged strength is nothing but the grace of Christ. There are many Black men holding their families just a bit closer these days because of their identification with Ahmaud and George. There are many Black women holding their families just a bit closer these days as they consider if what happened to Breonna happened to them. Good heavens, what if it happened while their children were in the house? My dear White pastors, make no mistake, the absolute worst thing you can do at a time like this is nothing. Within your silence, Black parishioners are asking, “Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there…?” (Jer. 8:22) They are but a moment away from declaring, "What share do we have in David, what part in Jesse's son? To your tents, Israel! Look after your own house, David!" (1 Kings 12:16).
But what should I say to the Black congregants I serve, you might ask? I recommend you start by simply stating that you recognize their pain and that you grieve with them. Do not underestimate the power of this simple recognition. Recall Job’s three friends’ response to the sight of his suffering: “And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” (Job 2:12-13). It is okay to not know exactly what to say. It is okay to simply sit with another’s pain and mourn, but do not ignore the pain. Do not downplay it. Do not politicize it. Do not theologize it. If only Job’s friends had stayed seated! They erred when instead they tried to righteous-plain Job’s suffering away. There is wisdom in Paul’s simple admonishment to mourn with those who mourn (Rom 12:15). By siting with someone’s pain, you communicate that you care and there is value in this. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
My dear White pastors, you have been called and positioned by God for such a time as this. I pray you use your voice to help topple the Jerichos of inequality that remain in our promised land. I pray you use your voice to help heal the deep social chasms in our nation. I pray you use your voice to help comfort those who mourn and salve the spirits of those who are wounded.
Your co-laborer in the cause of Peace, Justice, and Community,
Andrew Case, Ph.D. is a minister, psychologist, and organizational consultant. As a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, he teaches, conducts research on health disparities, equity, and clergy health, and consults with local nonprofits to enhance their capacity to meet the needs of underserved communities. An ordained Elder at Encounter Church in Charlotte, NC, he regularly preaches and teaches the Word.