White Christians and Race: Straining a Gnat and Swallowing the Camel
The danger of straining gnats was clear in President Trump’s address after the hate rally and violence in Charlottesville. He sat before the media and chowed down on camel.
Most days, it seems we sing the same old song. We just pick a different verse.
As Christians, we are quick to read ourselves out of Bible stories. It comes natural.
To save a little face and self-righteousness, we stand outside a passage and wag our fingers at the wandering Israelites. We look over Jesus’ shoulder as he corrects his disciples, murmuring our approval.
We can so easily treat the Bible’s heroes and fools as object lessons we’ve moved beyond, rather than recognize how often we occupy the same space. If we have eyes to see, we’ll find sobering reminders.
Recently I eavesdropped on a social media conversation in plain sight. Two Christians engaged each other, one trying to understand the other’s use of those three little words that are so charged in our culture: Black lives matter.
Was the first Christian simply making an affirmation, the second wondered, or was he casting his lot with Black Lives Matter, the political body? The subtext was clear: the former was acceptable, the latter a social heresy.
My mind immediately flashed to Matthew 23 and the seven woes Jesus offered the scribes and Pharisees of Israel. In the middle of a hard conversation, he says:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24)
There is a difference between a phrase and a capital-letter movement. “Black lives matter,” the phrase, should be unassailable to anyone with a proper doctrine of creation. Because Black lives were created in the image of God, they matter.
Black Lives Matter, the movement, was created by flawed human beings. It will not get everything right. It cannot. Gospel truth stretches across times and cultures, both affirming and critiquing aspects of everything man-made.
But that Twitter conversation shook up something in me.
The reason Black Lives Matter, the organization, exists is because the human institution which should have the fullest, richest, fleshiest understanding of dignity—God’s church—did not say “Black lives matter,” the phrase, often enough, loud enough or to the powers that be.
If Christians do not like the way Black Lives Matter, or any other group, goes about its business, we need to stop parsing methods and mission statements and step up to do the work of justice.
Evangelicals, especially White evangelicals like me, love to take our theologies apart and put them back together to see how they work.
We also love to say the church should be doing what the government or the world cannot. But we rarely get down to business, preferring the easier work of quibbling. Anymore, it all feels like straining gnats.
We tithe our doctrinal purity, our yearly mission trips and our back-to-school drives—these are all good things, and Jesus says we do not have to give them up. But when it comes to weightier matters of the law, we are exposed. One look at current events shows what we have neglected.
Neo-Nazis march across college campuses. Black and brown people are disproportionately slain by the state. Whether it is our “justice” system or the sort of justice people pursue online, it seems like retribution wins the day. These realities indict the American church and indicate that we have given into the devil by getting lost in the details.
And yet we still find time to question each other over the use of “Black lives matter.” White Christians nitpick churches of color and excuse our lack of fellowship, denying great truth—our unity in Jesus—to appear pure on small matters of doctrine.
We go down the latest conspiracy theory rabbit-hole in the name of truth, rather than bother ourselves with real people, real problems and real pain.
There is a time and place for debating pet theologies and scrutinizing movements. But that time and place is not whenever we feel like it, and certainly not while our spiritual family bleeds.
Privilege frees White Christians to indulge semantics and side conversations. It is not surprising that these topics appeal to us. It is surprising that we seem to find them infinitely more interesting than our fellow Christians.
But privilege is precisely what Jesus gave up to identify with us and enter our situation (Phil. 2:5-8). It is time for Evangelicals, White ones especially, to add that to our list of “one anothers.”
Jesus is not done with the Pharisees—or us—just yet. He rebukes them for their surface-level purity, for putting on a righteous face while neglecting the conditions of their hearts.
“For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” (Matthew 23:25-26)
What does the state of our world say about the state of our guts? When we cannot weep with those who weep without first offering a word of correction, something is wrong.
If we cannot condemn white supremacy without a “yeah, but,” our hearts betray us.
If the only sort of racism we see is “reverse racism,” we have lost touch with something fundamental.
If our “righteous anger” is only stoked by our pet issue, and not the pain of others, there can be only one conclusion: we are shiny, sparkling mugs with week-old coffee grounds inside.
We need to stop talking, start listening and tend to our own souls even as we seek to nurture others. It is only when we become just on the inside, soft-hearted to the cries of every kind of person, that we will look like Christ.
After the events in Charlottesville, I re-read the parable of the Good Samaritan with fresh eyes. Before Jesus widens the boundaries of piety and unravels our excuses, Luke uses this telling phrase to describe the lawyer who questions him:
“But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10:29)
When we sit around debating who is or is not our neighbor, we are trying to justify ourselves.
We cannot escape Jesus’ answer, or the shape of his message. He does not praise the legal expert standing around asking “Who is my neighbor?” He has no pats on the back for the person who lists all the reasons not to get involved, or all the conditions someone must meet to receive mercy.
Jesus reserves his approval for the one who acts, the one who has broken the skin and come to the beating heart of the Christian life—to love God, and our neighbors as ourselves.
False equivalencies, and the inability to name evil, load an even heavier burden on the backs of already fatigued brothers and sisters.
When we only lift a finger to strain a gnat, we show we do not understand what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves, outdo one another in showing honor or do good to all, especially those in the house of faith.
Straining gnats will not make a just world. Cleaning half the dish will not save our souls. We need to do the work of justice.
Aarik Danielsen is the arts and music editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri. He also is an associate editor at Gospel-Centered Discipleship and serves Karis Church as a lay pastor.