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Talking to your children about racial injustice

Herbie Newell
Herbie Newell is the President and Executive Director of Lifeline Children’s Services and its ministry arms including (un)adopted, Crossings, Families Count and Lifeline Village. |

On May 3, 1963, in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, black children from across the city flooded downtown streets in peaceful protest against the inequity of Jim Crow laws. The mayor, the attorney general, the governor, and officers from various law enforcement agencies tried in vain to stop children from skipping school and protesting with their parents. Regrettably, because of the actions of public officials, May 3 is forever marked in Birmingham’s history not by peaceful protest but instead by the violent enforcement of laws that stand in direct opposition to the worth of human life declared by the God of the universe. 

The Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner, Bull Connor, ordered law enforcement under his authority to push back protesters, including children, with fire hoses and trained police dogs. This violence against image bearers of God, including children, was an affront to the biblical values Alabama and Birmingham claimed in “the buckle of the Bible belt.”

On May 25, 2020, almost 57 years removed from Bull Conner’s attack dogs and fire hoses, George Floyd suffocated to death underneath the weight of a police officer’s knee to his throat for over eight minutes. As George gasped for breath, he cried out to his deceased mother. He kept repeating the now infamous words, “I can’t breathe.”

These two events are separated by almost six decades and two generations, but they show that the incipient sin of racism continues to live in the hearts and minds of many of the American people. 

How can a nation continually fail to learn and grow from her past sins? 

Because she failed to teach her children to act any differently.

While the racist events over the past four months — including the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd — have grieved many in our nation, we cannot fail to realize that our children are watching. Our children are watching and listening to our reaction. They are learning how to respond, and we must be aware that the future of our nation hinges upon how we steward these teachable moments with our children. 

The Lord commands parents in Deuteronomy 6:5-9, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

As we talk to our children about what we see happening in the U.S., we cannot disconnect those issues from our hopelessness without the gospel. Life is devalued when an innocent man is murdered and harassed by a dishonorable officer. In this act, we see a display of something the gospel is powerful to transform: sinful man warring against the Imago Dei — the image of God placed upon all creation.

If my response to my children about racial atrocities is divorced from pointing them to the reality that all men are created equal precisely because all men are created in the image of an infinite Holy God, then I am withholding the only true hope for racial healing in this country and for the world. I love, respect, admire, fight for, defend, and celebrate black lives because I have a Lord who formed and fashioned black lives with excellence, who died for black lives, and who desires for all black lives to be reconciled to Him by the gospel.

When we fail to apply God’s Word and His truth to the issues we see in our city, region, nation and world, we are putting the band-aids of human invention on matters of the heart which can only be correctly addressed through the appropriate lens of Biblical justice and the gospel of Christ Jesus.

The ministry I have the privilege of serving has been bringing together multi-ethnic and multi-racial families for almost 40 years through adoption and foster care. Times like these bring complexity, especially to multi-racial families. However, times like these also show the beautiful messiness of family which isn’t defined by skin tone, but rather by unconditional love. And we can’t fail to see that these families ultimately show a glimpse of our true family, one made up of every tribe, every tongue and every nation.

Practically, there are many ways that we can both begin and continue this dialogue with our children (foster, adopted, and biological) to train them toward the ultimate goal of embracing biblical justice and rejecting racial injustice. It all starts with exposing them in age-appropriate ways to the injustice we see in our community and around the world. While we cannot predict how our children will react, as parents we are culpable for our silence and apathy if we do not teach our children by removing them from our comfort zones.

We need to model for our children that we are not afraid to speak out against racial injustice with a clarion call grounded in the gospel and the Word of God. As we speak out, we must also empower our children to speak up about racial blind spots that they see in our families and in our lives as parents. Two of the most important virtues we can teach our children during times like these are biblical humility and accountability. I tell my children often that accountability is the friend of integrity and humility covers them both. 

We must seek to be like Jesus who did not count His equality with God as something to be grasped but emptied himself. Our kids will never be the change if they don’t see change modeled with grace, love and humility from their parents.

We must teach our children that, “the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7b) May we focus the mission of our homes towards the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that there will be a “day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

As white brothers and sisters, we also need to broaden the experience of our children intentionally — to expose all of our children to successful black men and women, black pastors and authors, and black Christian artists. We cannot continue to perpetuate the lie that skin color denotes success, leadership, or virtue. The overarching theme of this lesson is that all skin shades are made by God to thrive and that all humanity has an equal need which only the gospel of Jesus Christ can ever fill.

Lastly (and especially for those white parents with black children living in their home), be intentional about being uncomfortable as you help your child embrace a culture that does not mirror that in which you were raised. Give your kids any black cultural experience that you can including the barbershop, church, and music because those experiences are not just for your child. They are also for you. You want to be able to understand the world your child will experience. Don’t raise them in the silo of your comfort zone. Instead, learn together about their heritage.

Unfortunately, in a world with injustice which many times infiltrates the criminal justice system, as white parents, we must teach our black children how to carry themselves as we work for change. These things should not be, but they are, and we must prepare for today while pushing for tomorrow. They have to look with their eyes and not their hands so they will not be wrongly accused. We must have intentional conversations about what to do when stopped by the police. Loving means learning about the realities your child will face even when they are foreign to you.

Ultimately for us all, we cannot begin to teach any of our children about racial injustice if their world and community is a cookie-cutter resemblance of their parents. We need to expose ourselves to the black community and to make legitimate friends. We must engage in a diverse community, and we must consume Biblical teaching from diverse pastors. Beloved, if diversity makes us uncomfortable, then we are failing to realize that the Kingdom of God is a kaleidoscope of diversity as our God is adopting a multi-racial, multi-ethnic family from every tribe, tongue and race.

Herbie Newell (MBA, Samford University) is the President and Executive Director of Lifeline Children’s Services and its ministry arms including (un)adopted, Crossings, Families Count and Lifeline Village. Under Newell’s leadership, Lifeline has significantly increased its international and statewide outreach, attained membership with the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability and achieved international accreditation under The Hague Treaty, begun an extensive foster care ministry, and started its (un)adopted strategic orphan care ministries in more than 10 countries. Herbie speaks nationally at conferences and events, and regularly preaches throughout the world on gospel-driven justice. He and his wife, Ashley, live in Birmingham, Alabama and are parents to a son, Caleb, and daughters Adelynn and Emily. His first book Image Bearers: Shifting from Pro-Birth to Pro-Life, released on January 21, 2020.

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