But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! — Amos 5:24 (NIV)
George Floyd must live in our memory. His name will live among other names—Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery—names of black men killed by those sworn to protect, defend, and serve. The Bible says, “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24, NIV).
Where is the church in the midst of all this violence? Where is the one institution in society that is supposed to be our moral compass, that is supposed to be a prophetic voice calling out injustice, demanding justice, promoting righteousness?
What is the legacy of the church in a nation plagued by systemic racism? Yes, it is a plague—as real and deadly as the locusts that rained down upon the Egyptians in the Exodus. Systemic racism in America is a plague of biblical proportions.
The legacy of the church is mixed. During the civil rights era, white pastors and other clergy joined with their black brothers and sisters to march, to be beaten, to give their blood for civil rights. They achieved stunning victories with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and other key legislation. But then they went back to their congregations, and it was largely business as usual. These laws have profoundly changed our nation for the better, but they have failed to make much of a dent in systemic racism. Housing discrimination is illegal, but our neighborhoods still suffer a high degree of racial segregation. Employment discrimination is illegal, yet we don’t even have a term like “glass ceiling” to describe the exclusion of blacks from the top echelons of corporate governance. School segregation is illegal, yet public school demographics track with housing and schools have never fully desegregated.
Systemic racism is perhaps most clearly visible in the relationship between blacks and law enforcement. Blacks know it is a crime to have the wrong color skin. It doesn’t matter if you’re driving a luxury car and wearing a business suit—those red flashing lights in the rearview mirror inspire fear of violence. No one black is safe, whether jogging around town, sitting in your car, or even lying in your bed.
What about the church? Has it become a silent dog, refusing to bark? Across our society, churches at worship remain the most segregated time in American life. Most of us don’t even worship together with people of other races. How can we expect to dismantle systemic racism in other parts of society?
Make no mistake: Christians occupy positions of leadership at every level of society—in government, in business, in education, and yes, in law enforcement. Christians have largely failed to do our duty to address systemic racism where we live and work, and where we have influence. It is time for us to repent, and not merely wring our hands and say, “I’m sorry.” No, it is time to remember. To remember George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others and, by remembering, to act. Racism is socially tolerated, allowed, even reinforced when we passively remain silent and fail to address it. Systemic racism exists because racists are not made to pay a price for their hate. We tolerate racists in our families, in our companies, and yes, in our churches. Racism is a sin, and until the church recovers its moral voice, the church will remain complicit. It is past time for anyone to think they can sit on the sidelines.
In our churches, we teach children to sing, “Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight.” We do this in churches that are largely segregated themselves, and we return to neighborhoods and schools that are largely segregated, and to companies where too few blacks occupy leadership posts. The death of George Floyd did not take place in a vacuum. George Floyd is dead because we permitted racism to flourish in America. George Floyd is dead, at least in part, because the church has failed to provide the moral compass we need.
I call on Christians, especially, and people of all faiths to take action in your communities and demand justice. There will never be justice so long as we tolerate racism. We must stop passively accepting the intolerable as the status quo. “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”