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Opinion A year after Ferguson, have white Christians learned anything?

In the year since the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo., we’ve expected a “national conversation on race.” For white Christians, we’ve been part of that conversation. But we’ve also had some other conversations of our own, including how the Christian gospel we embrace includes both personal reconciliation and a motivation for public justice. If we neglect either, we will not be able to address the still-open wounds of racial injustice in this country.

Ferguson reminded us of the dangers of structural inequities. Many white Christians pointed out in the aftermath of Ferguson that we didn’t know the specifics of what happened in the moments before the shooting. They were certainly right. Some, however, suggested that the entire problem could be solved by African American males not resisting arrest. Some asked: “Why does everything have to be about race?”

The year since Ferguson has stretched this narrative beyond credulity. The U.S Department of Justice report detailed numerous structural problems with Ferguson law enforcement — from bracingly racist e-mails to a police force overwhelmingly white in a majority black jurisdiction to a pattern of using the police force to raise revenue for the town through fines and traffic fees.

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On top of the report, the past year has seen instance after instance of high-profile horrors of African American men killed by state overreach. In many of these cases, we would never have known the full story if not for passers-by videoing the interactions with cell phone cameras.

Some would dismiss structural injustices by saying, “It’s not a skin problem; it’s a sin problem.” Well, yes, as an evangelical Christian, I believe everything apart from Jesus is a “sin problem.” But that shouldn’t lead us to avoid questions of public justice, with the implication that personal sanctification will make it all better.

The question is how do we sin? We sin as individuals, one against another. Many Christians stop there, and assume that if they are not personally racist then there is no problem, for them, of racial injustice. But sin also compounds itself in structures — social and political — that can perpetuate and compound issues of sin and injustice.

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Most white evangelicals get this idea when we are talking about issues of abortion. I once heard a progressive pastor I knew to be pro-choice on abortion preach on the issue with the conclusion, “We wouldn’t have to worry about this abortion debate if we just taught our young people sexual morality.” In many ways, that’s true enough. But it avoids the larger question of a predatory political and economic system in which unborn children are not even recognized as persons with rights to life and liberty.

Questions of racial justice are not simply about whether white individuals use the “N” word or wish harm to black people. The issues include questions such as how community policing can better reflect the communities they serve.

The issue isn’t simply whether most police are racially discriminatory (the vast majority aren’t); the issue is how to ensure accountability for those who overstep their legitimate authority, especially in poor neighborhoods where African Americans often don’t have access to the levers of economic or political power.

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That said, many so-called progressive Christians have emphasized the need for structural justice in ways that dismiss the personal. When I hosted a summit on the gospel and racial reconciliation earlier this year, some critics dismissed the name itself, arguing that we should be talking about “justice,” not “reconciliation.”

African American pastor Dhati Lewis, from inner-city Atlanta, rightly noted that for gospel Christians “justice, by itself, means hell.” Reconciliation, rightly defined, includes justice but extends beyond it to love and mercy and friendship.

The white Christians I know who care deeply about solving our nation’s racial injustices are those who are embedded in communities with black and Hispanic and Asian Christians. They care not just about issues but about people they love as their brothers and sisters in Christ.

Where we see churches that expand beyond the sameness of ethnicity or economic status, we see people who are willing to stand up for one another in the public square, because they’ve learned to love one another at the family table.

The answer to racial injustice is precisely the way the Hebrew prophets once framed the answer to all social evil. It means working for courts and systems that are fair and impartial. But it doesn’t stop with policies and structures. It must also include people who are transformed, not just by greater social awareness, but also by consciences that are formed by something other than our backgrounds. For that, we need more than national conversations and policy proposals (as important as those are).

We need, nationally, what Abraham Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom.” But we also need, personally, a new birth.

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