Jesus, Black Lives Matter, Compassion, and Black Panthers

If I end up posting to this blog more than this one time, I’ll give more of my background, but for now, here’s what you may find useful to understand where I’m coming from: I am a 40something black Christian male who was raised in a working-class black home/neighborhood in the Deep South (Columbus, GA,) won an academic scholarship to a very wealthy nearly-all-white private school in high school, and since then has spent an abundance of time  in white Southern evangelical culture, building numerous meaningful relationships therein. Today I live a comfortable and rather nondescript life in a heavily-white suburban area in Greensboro, NC, have experienced no overt racism directed at me in the last decade or so, and am not an “angry/militant black guy.” White Suburban Christians, I’m that black guy who goes to your church, the one at work who “doesn’t sound black,” the one in your neighborhood whose kids are friends with yours and you’d feel comfortable letting them play at my house. I’m that guy.

That said, I’ve been mostly quiet about how personally hurtful much of the recent dialogue from my fellow believers has been lately, but over the past few months I’ve been feeling an increasing nudge that I think is from the Holy Spirit that it’s time to step out and make public a few thoughts. Honestly, this isn’t a very comfortable place for me, mainly because in writing these thoughts, I fear rejection from both my black and white friends. In many ways I feel caught in the middle.

Also as a disclaimer, I’m deeply flawed and fail constantly (and sometimes spectacularly) at living a life that reflects the Savior I claim to follow. Put bluntly, I’m much better at writing about living the Christian life than I am at living the Christian life. Please don’t see anything I ever write as lecturing you from any sort of position of authority or leadership. To the contrary, I much prefer to assume the posture of one beggar telling another where he’s found some food.

Apart from the aforementioned nudgings, the impetus that caused me to chronicle my thoughts was a white Christian friend from high school recently posting on Facebook an article that I commend to you from Desiring God about the need for Christian sympathy, and he tagged me in his post with the following text:

Great post! So what’s the answer Ben Lewis? Asking sincerely from one Christian brother to another…how do we move forward from here? I know neither you or I speak for BLM, but from your perspective, what do they want or what does a favorable resolution or change look like to leaders of that movement?

The pertinent part of my initial brief response to him was as follows:

First and foremost, THANK YOU for asking. As you know, my personality isn’t exactly an “angry black man” type, but I will say that I have been frustrated with generic “white Christian America” lately because of what have I perceived as a knee-jerk readiness to advocate overly-simplistic answers to our *deeply* complex race problems without first attempting to understand others’ perspectives by lending a listening ear to their black Christian American brothers and sisters. I cannot begin to tell you how encouraging it is that you asked. To be honest, this has been a rather painful area lately.

To reiterate what I said in my response, I cannot even begin to express how heartening it felt just to be asked. More than anything else, my dear white Christian brothers and sisters, I’d implore you to initiate these kinds of conversations with your black Christian brothers and sisters, even if it’s uncomfortable and messy. I have been very blessed thrice in the last year-ish by white males I knew from high school reaching out to me about police violence, BLM, etc., and I pray and believe that they were also blessed by the ensuing conversations.

“WHAT’S THE ANSWER? HOW DO WE MOVE FORWARD FROM HERE?”

Not to sound overly trite, but ultimately, I believe that in a broken, fallen world, this will not be “solved” in our lifetimes unless Jesus comes back. There were some things about the recent Dabo Swinney rant that troubled me, but one thing that I believe he got dead right was that we have a *sin* problem, and that’s why we have race problems and class problems and gender problems and terrorism problems and problems upon problems that are not fully fixable in a sin-filled world.

But in the meantime before He returns, I believe that our calling is to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. I think a *huge* issue inside the body of Christ is that rather than letting Biblical teaching shape and transform our opinions, we instead hold fiercely to our opinions and look for Scriptures to justify them. (Or sometimes we don’t even bother to look for justification at all.) I have been guilty of this, and still am.  It’s something that—particularly in our divided American culture that has become so troublingly tribalistic politically, socially, racially, and just about every other way—we’ve *got* to guard against as believers. I see the Scriptures as being abundantly clear that we are to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6:2) And we are to do that even when it puts us in uncomfortable situations. As John Henry Jowett famously put it, “God does not comfort us to make us comfortable, but to make us comforters.” II Cor 1:3-4 underscores this point:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.

I have no idea what his spiritual background may be, but I absolutely *loved* this part of a quote from the ATT CEO that I referenced the other day because it rings so true with this teaching: “Move into uncomfortable territory and understand each other.”

If you made me pick just one word that described the way Jesus interacted with people, I’d have to say “compassion.”

Matt 9:36– “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

And it’s a quality that we’re repeatedly commanded to have:

Eph 4:32—“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

Col 3:12—“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”

I Peter 3:8—“Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.”

I have to be honest and say that I’m not sensing from many of my white brothers and sisters in Christ what I perceive to be much compassion on these issues.* More often, what is being communicated to me is judgement, condemnation, and quick fixes. I’ve been married long enough to know that telling the other person what they did wrong, how their feelings aren’t valid, and offering up quick fixes isn’t exactly a recipe for reconciliation. Grace *AND* truth came through Christ (John 1:17). We’ve got to learn to be about both.

*–(To be fair, that is NOT across the board; I’ve seen a number of notable exceptions both in my personal social media feed and in the broader Body of Christ.)

“I KNOW NEITHER YOU NOR I SPEAK FOR BLM, BUT FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE, WHAT DO THEY WANT OR WHAT DOES A FAVORABLE RESOLUTION OR CHANGE LOOK LIKE TO LEADERS OF THAT MOVEMENT?”

So this is a bit of a side point, but I find it be an interesting one that’s relevant to my response: who *does* speak for BLM? What I mean by that is that BLM isn’t really an “organization,” per se, with a central leadership that can, for example, issue a press release denouncing the murders of the officers in Dallas. It’s more of an organic movement that can look very different from one place to another. It’s typically a group of people in various locales who share common frustrations over similar issues deciding to protest under the same general banner. The best example that I can think of off the top of my head is the structural looseness of the Southern Baptist Convention. While there is a stereotype of SBC churches, my observation is that because that denomination allows more local autonomy than just about any other mainline denomination, SBC congregations can vary *widely* in theology, worship style, etc., and BLM has significantly less central control than even the SBC.   I make that comment neither to denounce the movement nor to exonerate its worst manifestations, but simply to say that I think it’s virtually impossible to say “what BLM wants.” It’s not a monolithic structure that allows for singular answers to that question. There are expressions of the BLM concept that I believe will be very productive over time, and there are others that are absolutely abhorrent to me.

But beyond that, our primary responsibility as Christians probably lies more in the realm of “how do *I* respond to the BLM movement in a Christ-like fashion?” My suggested answer on that one is a bit long, so please bear with me.

One thing worth remembering about those mostly-young protesters–even the most violent–is this: no matter what they’ve done, who they are, or how they feel about you or me in our mostly-comfortable suburban lives, the Bible teaches us that in some way every single one of them bears the image of God. I’d like you to take a gander at this picture below. These are two Black Panthers standing on the steps of the Alameda County Court House during the trial of Huey Newton for murder, on July 14, 1968. I want you to spend a few moments looking into the face of the tall 18-year-old kid on the right.

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Image digitized in the late 2000s and processed for the Oakland Museum of California Museum Technology Initiative for Educational Outreach, July 1, 2010 through June 30, 2011.

Before you read on, look at him again and think about what you perceive to be his background, and where you think he may have ended up.

 

(No, really, go look again and take a guess at where he ended up in life.)

 

Roughly 20 years after the picture above was taken, I was a college freshman and gave my first Young Life club talk as a volunteer leader. That Black Panther on the right, Dennis Pete, was there. Why? Because by then Dennis was in charge of Young Life in inner-city Atlanta. After my talk that day, Dennis came up to me and said words that I’d never heard before, and that I’ll never forget: “Ben, you’re exactly what Young Life is looking for.”

Yes, that young man you see above became the first person to put the idea of going into full-time ministry in my head.

Let that sink in for a moment. If you know me through Young Life, then you have, among others, that Black Panther above to thank (or to blame!) I don’t know all of Dennis Pete’s story, but I seriously doubt that he journeyed from those courthouse steps to helping a predominately white Christian ministry in the Deep South make inroads into the inner city because some white Christians told him that he just needed to do what the police tell him, get a job, and stop blaming white people. (And to be 100% clear, I’m not suggesting that following police orders, being gainfully employed, and taking responsibility aren’t good things; I *am* suggesting that when uttered in a way that communicates a lack of Christ-like compassion, they are wholly unhelpful because they are extremely likely to fall on completely unreceptive ears.)   Also, if you are one who thinks the Black Panther movement was violent, racist, and unproductive, and you think the same of BLM, then I still ask that you consider the possibility that one of the individuals involved therein might be another Dennis Pete. (To be clear, I think that neither is as one-dimensional as they have been painted, but that’s beside the point, the odds are that the average white Christian American reading this does think basically the way I’ve suggested.) Bottom line: if I were to believe that BLM is an out-and-out anti-white organization that hates me for being married to a white woman, Jesus still teaches me to love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me. Period. I can’t get around that one.

So, what’s the answer? What should we do? I’ll take a swing at it. Love God. Love people. Show compassion. Go  the extra mile into uncomfortable places. That’s how we change the world–one life at a time.

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21 thoughts on “Jesus, Black Lives Matter, Compassion, and Black Panthers

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  1. Dang Ben. Absolutely spot on! As an average Christian white guy, I’ve been wondering how to respond in my soul. You put the issues in exactly the Christian perspective- the only one that matters. As a teacher and soccer coach at Kendrick of some of your friends, I’m sorry that I didn’t get to know you when you were in high school. Thanks for being who you are and what you do!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Ben. This is where Mike and I have landed, love God and love others and in humility, consider others before yourself. To be a Christian is to love and serve, to be poured out wine and broken bread for the sake of others.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ben, this is GREAT! I saw a focus group on 60 Minutes last night made up of all ages, races, and facets of our society. These people were so angry and, in the midst of it all, weren’t listening to each other at all. I have several friends on both sides of the political aisle and whether I have agreed with them or not, I have really tried to do a better job this fall of just LISTENING to the heart of what makes people angry, afraid, and passionate about what they believe to be true rather than talking over them and trying to be ‘right’. I just loved your posts. Thanks for sharing and including me. 🙂

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