By Kyra Riley
Staff Writer for The Daily Grace Co.
*Warning: explicit language
The conclusion of a middle school day brings a sweet taste of freedom and an urgency to play in blithe adolescence before night comes. In a crowd of 6th graders, I exit the hallway doors into the bright midafternoon sun. Students scatter to catch buses, join field practices, and form cliques. Agenda in hand and backpack weighing down on my back, I walk blocks to my mother’s job; it’s my normal afterschool routine. She is a community college counselor, so there is no free time for me—straight to homework. As my back becomes damp with sweat from the heavy bag, my mind wanders to Disney channel shows and crushes. I begin to cross the street at the stoplight, thinking of funny moments from my favorite episode of The Proud Family. I notice an older white man also crossing and heading towards me. His face is ruddy and wrinkled, and his countenance is low. He is wearing clothes like those of a past time: attire very different from what’s cool for 2006. Showing his crooked teeth, he grimaces and looks at me with disgust. We lock eyes and cross paths, and through his cracking voice, he calls me a “filthy nigger”. It takes a second to register, but soon after, the toxicity and violence of those words invade my body. I am shocked, confused, scared and upset.
Finally, uneasy and shaking, I make it to safety: my mom’s office. I plop on her chair and get her attention away from email-checking. I share with her what happened. Quiet, her expression goes from concern to sadness to acceptance; her little girl has just had her first encounter with racism. Innocence of evil has been stripped away. In addition to retelling the event, I add my opinion about the man and assert my moral superiority. “Whatever…I’m better than him anyways. I would NEVER call someone a bad name,” I boast. My mom drops her calm demeanor and chastises me. “No, that’s not right. You’re not better than anybody. Don’t ever say that again!” she rebukes. Frustrated, I leave her office and begin to tear up. “How can she say that? She’s encountered worse racism! She should understand,” I think. Though hard to admit, in her reproof, my mom exposes that my pain turned into pride. In attempt to quell healthy grief and anger, I unearth arrogance. I eventually see that the sinful spirit which led the man to degrade me and think himself better was the same spirit which lead me to degrade him and think myself better. Forming my theology, I realize how we both lacked righteousness and were in need of a Savior.
The nation has been set on fire by the recent string of racial violence towards black people. Distant observers were made witnesses to the horror of George Floyd’s death as he gasped for air under the knee of a police officer for almost nine minutes. The black community and allies have taken to the streets to demand justice. As ambassadors of Christ, how do Christians seek justice and engage in redemptive work? Through a gospel-centered lens, Christians are called to repent of personal injustices, love the oppressor, protest against corruption and advocate for the oppressed to the glory of God, believing Jesus to be our ultimate reconciler.
Excavation before Protestation
Current campaigns for racial justice are seeing a diverse body of protestors and advocates. The message of black lives as fellow humans made in the imago dei is being realized and supported by white and Asian allies. Churches are striving towards diversity and creating a picture of the future kingdom of God filled with all colors and ethnicities. Though these changes are beneficial, they are superficial if personal repentance is not met first. Some white Christians may react to this with defensiveness. Why should you repent if you’ve never committed explicit racism like the man in my story? As fallen image-bearers, we have been tainted by original sin. Our flesh naturally lives in rebellion against God. From Eden onward, we battle pride, self-centeredness, and xenophobia. After excavating the heart, you might find past thoughts and actions based on bias, impure intentions, or self-interest, failing to be a doer of justice in God’s world.
The biblical view of justice encompasses the idea of righteousness, living up to God’s law in which the standard to love God and others is defined. In relation to people, just behavior includes showing fairness, impartiality, and selflessly aiding those most vulnerable. In redemptive history, God rose up the prophet Isaiah who proclaimed, “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:16-17). Knowing His people would fall short, He made a promise to repay their debts, bring salvation, and clothe them with His righteousness (Isaiah 61:10). These words were fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. As the obedient Son, He fulfilled God’s law. In Him, God came as Judge and Justifier. In His life, death and resurrection, He was perfectly righteous, repaid the debt of human injustice, and makes those who believe in Him justified in the sight of God. We have to rely on the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit to lead us to repentance and to cling to the work of Jesus.
Loving the Oppressor
Some black Christians might be wrestling with retributive hatred and pride in response to racial violence. Though righteous anger is good and leads to change, we have to remember to seek justice and not revenge. Persevering in every circumstance, we grieve the sin of racism and its effects while also holding onto the hope of eternity. Knowing that Jesus has overcome evil, we rejoice in persecution (Matthew 5:11-12). As I eventually forgave the man for calling me the racial slur, we can forgive our enemies and pray for their repentance. We enact God’s kingdom when we love our oppressors, showing the radical love of Jesus when He died for sinners.
Engaging in Redemptive Work
Prophetic protest and hospitable advocacy are ways we can engage in redemptive work and be doers of justice. In prophetic protest, we are called to confront oppression and expose darkness with the truth and light of the gospel. We should not be silent when the marginalized are mistreated or when we witness evidence of racial bias. Whether in public activism or in our private spheres of influence, we live out our faith boldly and call for gospel-centered change. In hospitable advocacy, we intercede for and walk alongside the oppressed. Mirroring the sacrificial love of Jesus, we live a life of surrender, giving up our privileges. We serve our neighbor with kindness and carry their burdens with endurance, showing and sharing with them the faithful love of God.
Based on gifting, position and placement, in whatever redemptive work God has called us, let us be thankful for the gospel of forgiveness: God forgave us of injustice. As we seek justice today, let us point to the redeeming and transformative power of the gospel and look to the day when Jesus will come with a scepter to restore righteousness and peace totally.