When the Sunday worship gatherings come to an end, somebody is assigned to turn off the lights and to lock the doors at the church. Those rooms where, just a few hours before, there echoed vibrancy, truth, life, celebration, joy and power…now sit in stillness, darkness and silence. More than once in my twenty-plus years of pastoring, I have intentionally sat alone in those post-service sanctuaries, pondering the now-vacant room, and noting in my heart the stark difference between a full church and an empty one. I have found that it benefits my soul to be reminded that the Kingdom of God is not about a day of the week, the size of a crowd, the enthusiasm of public worship or the location of an edifice. There is something more, something beyond which God requires from us as His children.
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” – Amos 5:24
Amos declared those words on behalf of Yahweh, the God of the Jews. Interestingly, the verse above is found situated in Amos 5, a chapter in the bible wherein God is chiding His own children for the hollowness of their devotion to Him. If I am being honest, the book of Amos comes across to modern ears as brutal because God is expressing holy anger towards those who would presume to go through the motions of worship and sacrifice, all the while ignoring the reality of injustice and compromised loyalty to Him. God literally told them that He hated their worship services. He told them that their tithing made Him sick and that He did not want it. Right before He pronounced the words above about the need for justice, He had told them that they might as well quit singing all their pretty songs about Him because He was not going to be listening to their hypocritical worship. Tough love from the God of justice!
Sometimes the Lord plays hardball with us. Sometimes He would rather us sit in a sanctuary in stillness, darkness and silence to see if we will hunger to know what is real in His Kingdom. A massive component of that Kingdom is the justice that Amos wrote of on behalf of God.
In his famous “I Have A Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. included a reference to those words above from Amos 5:24. Like his namesake, Martin Luther King was a reformer who refused to ignore the racial injustice and inequality that defined his generation. He stood up, spoke out and refused to remain silent as his heart was fixed on the mission assigned to him by his God. America desperately needed his voice to open socially and racially blinded eyes.Less than five years after his famous speech, Dr. King’s audible voice was silenced in the echo of a single rifle shot, fired by a wicked man who did not wish to hear any more of his anointed calls for justice. Many have been able to sidestep the mission of Dr. King, but they cannot circumvent the book of Amos. They will not avoid the mission of justice from a relentlessly holy God.
I would like to say to all of us who are following behind Jesus that we follow a King who is committed to justice. In the end, the Son of God will balance all scales – that much is guaranteed. Yet, He is not content to wait until the Second Coming to facilitate His ministry of justice. His Church must also be committed to justice, and part of that justice in the American Church is the need for racial truth, transparency and reconciliation. In my lifetime, we have never been more racially divided. I am quite confident that there will be an uptick in these racial tensions when our first black President steps down this week, and a white President again enters the Oval Office. So much can be said about the weighty sense of unknowns surrounding the coming administration of Donald Trump. I do not believe that his election is worthy of my delight or my despair. The former or future occupants of the office of President are not my greatest concern. When it comes to race relations, my foremost question is how those who follow Jesus can remain intentionally negligent in this inflamed area of our culture. How can white Christians be so dismissive of the hurt of our black brothers and sisters? That is an actual question that needs to be answered. How can we wave the back of our hand dismissively as we say, “C’mon, Jeff. It’s not like it used to be. Blacks need to get over it, and get on with it.” Does that sound like a response that Jesus would say, ‘Amen!’ to? I must confess that I thought similarly to that many years ago. I was entrenched in my own ignorance because I formulated nearly all my conclusions about racial issues in America from discussions with people of my own race. When God led me to begin to proactively request for some of my black friends to speak into my life about this extremely uncomfortable issue, I felt one overwhelming need as a white Christian: to repent of my dismissive, loveless ignorance and start to be a part of a solution instead of a perpetuation of the problem.
I don’t mind offending some whites with my challenge to them. To be offended by someone is not treason against your soul. Frankly, I think we are all tired of the red-flag of “You just offended me!” being waved in our faces. So, in the same stream of plain-spokenness, I submit that black Christians must take proper ownership of the problems in the black community, and recognize that a perpetual commitment to victimhood-mentality is not the answer. Blame may need to be affixed in order for clarity to come, but blame is not the same thing as a solution. I think it is fair for me, a white man, to say to my black brothers and sisters in the Church that it is righteous to acknowledge that, as a people, blacks have been victimized by the system in the United States. To deny this historical fact would make the one denying it an obvious fool. Having acknowledged that, however, to have been victimized does not sentence anyone to live in victimhood. This distinction was in the spirit of the mission of Dr. King – he believed in his soul of the destiny of the overcomer. Somewhere there must be an awareness of the valid need for white America giving something more substantial than a token nod to the reality that injustice flowed from our white ancestors onto the backs of black people. The weight of that injustice is still valid, and black people today are not imagining things when they cry out loudly for someone, somewhere to acknowledge with some substance that gross racial injustice is inextricably woven into the fabric of our culture. Whites wonder about the present-day violence, the protests, the vengeance coming from fringe elements in the black community. I simply ask: what would we be doing if the racial roles were reversed and our voices had been muzzled for nearly four-hundred years of slavery on this continent? I am a fighter, and I promise you that I would not be content to let injustice flow to my children’s generation without potent calls for remedy. I have no idea what the best solution to current racial injustice looks like but, when I listen to my black friends, I hear one thing repeatedly coming from their mouths: pain. Jesus has never ignored my personal pain. Never. How can I, as one of His disciples, ignore the pain of another? Injustice is found when my brother and sister are hurting, and they are met with a shrug of dismissal. I, for one, cannot perpetuate that potential shrug in my own life. Paraphrasing what God said through Amos to ancient Israel: “You can knock off your worship routines. I will know you are being real with Me when you start operating in holy justice with one another.”
I hope we will all consider what this means to the American Church. If an answer ever arises to the issue of racial injustice, it must come from the followers of the One who has promised to balance the scales. Silence, shrugging, denying and dismissing make us part of the problem. Love listens. Love embraces. Love responds.
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