We use too many words out of season, particularly in conversations about race, ethnicity, and justice. This was particularly evident this past Sunday when the President retweeted a video of a man shouting “White power” at protestors. The Twitter outrage was immediate. Most, of course, objected to the man’s use of a phrase associated with White Nationalists like the Klu Klux Klan.
The backlash to outrage at the President’s post was as immediate. Many people posted phrases like “If Black people can say, ‘Black Power!’, why can’t white people say “White power?’”
While the President rightly deleted the tweet, the outrage and the backlash press us to think more critically about the racially-charged phrases that have become commonplace in our national discourse, on social media, and in our communities. Black Power. White Power. White Supremacy. #BlackLives Matter. #AllLivesMatter.
Christians, as People of the Book, understand that words matter and that words have power. Because of what Scripture teaches, Christians should be among the first to condemn and to repudiate any ideologies and systems (including White supremacy and anti-Semitism) which teaches the inherent superiority of one people group or the inferiority of another. These ideologies deny that all people are created in God’s image (Gen 1:27-28), that Jesus’ commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mk. 12:31), and that God intends to bring all ethnic groups into a new, fully-reconciled community (Eph. 2:14-22).
Because we believe the historic words of Scripture matter, we have another reason to vigorously object to the offensive recent use of the phrase, White Power: those words were stripped from their historical context.
Why “Black Power” Is Okay, But “White Power” Is Not
he phrase “Black Power”—a potent assertion of Black dignity, Black agency, and Black creativity—became widespread in the late 1960s. It was that era’s #BlackLivesMatter.
Both “Black Power” and “#BlackLivesMatter” are prophetic responses to the sins committed against the Black community by our country beginning with the arrival of the first enslaved Africans 400 years ago and continuing to the present day. Both phrases emerged out of on-going agony, discrimination, and marginalization. Although secular creeds, both phrases resonate deeply with Scriptural truths about human purpose, dignity, and value. In what is implied and what is stated, both are compressed songs of lament and resistance.
That is why “White power” and “#AllLivesMatter” anger so many people. Responding to the question, “Do #BlackLivesMatter?” with “#AllLivesMatter” is a deflection and non-answer. If your daughter asks, “Do you love me?”, you wouldn’t respond “I love all of my family members.”
Perhaps more offensively, both phrases appropriate the prophetic protest against white supremacy to serve white supremacy’s emotional and political needs. Both phrases take acts of resistance and commoditize them to drain them of threat. It was done to Black music when white musicians modified and recorded and profited from work originally created by Black artists (Gospel, Blues, Jazz). It continues to be done whenever Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words about love are not spoken hand-in-hand with his words about God’s desire for justice. And, in this instance, it was done again.
We should not be surprised that repurposing prophetic words provokes a heated response. After all, many people in our pews are outraged when the culture strips Christmas and Easter of its revolutionary religious significance to serve commercial ends. They should be able to understand, if only by analogy, why “White Power” and “#AllLivesMatter” similarly offend those committed to ethnic reconciliation and justice. “Black power” and “#BlackLivesMatter” carry similar revolutionary significance.
Historic Context Matters
“I can’t breathe.” These words may have launched the current racial protests, but they similarly are embedded in a historic context. What gives those words power? So many Black people have died over the centuries while gasping “I can’t breathe.”
Those were likely the last words of 1.8 million enslaved Africans who suffocated below deck and died of malnutrition and disease during the Middle Passage from Africa to America. Those were likely the last thoughts of more than 4,400 African American men and women, boys and girls—sometimes entire families—as they were lynched in nearly every state in our country. Those were likely the last experiences of African Americans dying of COVID-19, at two or three times the rate of other ethnicities, in part because poverty and access to healthcare have affected their communities.
It is this larger historical context—the suffocating reality of racism and white supremacy —that made the last words of Eric Garner and George Floyd so powerful, so haunting, so resonant. It is that same historical context that causes so many young protestors to croak those words as tear gas (or other chemical weapons) covers their faces. The words “I can’t breathe” resonate historically and speak prophetically to them.
Fruit in Season
If phrases like “Black Power,” “#BlackLivesMatter” and “I can’t breathe” need to be said with an understanding of their historical context, so do our words on ethnic reconciliation and justice. The Scriptural basis to speak out is clear. We believe God is holy, and he demands both personal and social righteousness so that people and cultures, systems and societies reflect his character. We believe God denounced social injustice in the Old Testament and triumphed over its evil on the cross in the New. We believe he challenges us to answer the questions, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and “Who is my neighbor?” We believe he intends to reconcile people of every tribe, nation, language into a new people who follow Jesus’ example of sacrificial service.
But evangelical Christians have largely remained silent. Until now. It seems we are in a new season.
The next generation is watching.
College and high school students in the U.S. belong to a generational cohort which is no longer majority white. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship students are 53% non-white or international students, which matches the percentage of students of color on campus. They expect the causes they embrace (including their churches) to speak up and to speak out on issues of justice.
College students tell us that the most compelling witness to Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension on an ethnically-diverse campus is an ethnically-reconciled community. Therefore, they seek out multiethnic Christian communities on their campuses. As they study scripture together, concerns about police misconduct, immigration reform, and “Kung-Flu” comments from their political leaders cannot be written off as “political” questions. These are pastoral concerns for the members of their campus fellowships. (The line between “pastoral” and “political” is largely the line between those you minister to and those you do not minister to.)
The protests need spiritual resources for lasting change
The culture and academia can provide many different tools to identify how racism permeates our systems and structures and how to deconstruct them. But they offer few tools on how to build a just and reconciling community. It is impossible without uniquely Christian words like “sin”, “repentance”, “righting of wrongs,” and “restoration.” It is impossible without the vision of the redeemed and reconciled human family that we--as the Body of Christ--are being made into as described in Ephesians and Revelation. It cannot be achieved without prayers of confession that are both personal as well as corporate, in which the sins of entire peoples are owned and acknowledged (e.g. Neh. 1 and Dan. 9).
The church seems more ready.
In 2015, InterVarsity was castigated by many conservative Christians for discussing #BlackLivesMatter and for worship team members wearing “Black Lives Matter: Imago Dei” t-shirts on stage at its Urbana Student Missions Conference. By contrast, just a few weeks ago, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, J.D. Greear, stated publicly: “Southern Baptists, we need to say it clearly: As a gospel issue, black lives matter. Of course, black lives matter. Our black brothers and sisters are made in the image of God.” According to a recent Barna study, an overwhelming majority of pastors (94%) believe the church has a responsibility to publicly denounce racial discrimination.
The time is ripe. The world is waiting to hear you speak about God’s concern for the marginalized and for justice. God has given you breath. Use it.
Greg Jao serves InterVarsity Christian Fellowship as Director of External Relations and is the author of several books, including Your Mind’s Mission, The Kingdom of God, and a contributing author to Following Jesus without Dishonoring Your Parents, Telling the Truth, and Voices of Conflict & Voices of Hope.