My Jim Crow parents used time-honored African storytelling to pass on their meaningful lessons and history to me. Growing up on land owned by white sharecroppers, my mother and father picked cotton in Mississippi and Tennessee from the age of three. While in elementary school, my father told me about a white store owner who attempted to cut off his right hand when he was nine because the store owner felt my father disrespected him by correcting him for giving back the wrong amount of change. I was taught at a young age that justice does not roll like a river, nor righteousness like a never-failing stream, for people of African descent (Amos 5:24). For me as an adult, justice feels far away.
Where in American society can I see proof of righteousness and justice for disadvantaged racialized people? Education? According to a 2019 report by EdBuild, schools with mostly racial/ethnic students received $23 billion less in funding than white school districts. Economics? Brookings reports the net worth of a typical white family is ten times greater than their black counterparts since most wealth is inherited. The long-term effects of involuntary or forced labor such as slavery, convict leasing, and black codes means white citizens possess an average household wealth of $171,000, compared to $17,150 for African Americans. Health care? A Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention analysis reveals 55 percent of US coronavirus cases come from black and Hispanic people, who make up 31 percent of the population. The Navajo Nation has the most cases per capita in the United States. Poverty, essential worker roles, and chronic health conditions combined with limited access to health care makes the least the most vulnerable. Personally, I have multiple relatives who have died or acquired lifelong health complications due to COVID-19.
With whom in our society should I engage whose principles and practices demonstrate a true commitment to treating all citizens as equals, every day, in every aspect of life? Should I seek out disciples in the church to be God’s agents for racial justice? Is the church committed to correcting the wrongs of poverty and racism, loving the outsider, feeding the food insecure, clothing the naked, and visiting the imprisoned as Jesus commanded (Matt. 25)?
Christian scholars criticize the church for falling short. In The Color of Compromise, Jemar Tisby argues thattoo many Christian leaders refuse to publicly speak out against racism. Tisby writes, “Nowadays, all the American Church needs to do in terms of compromise is to cooperate with already established and racially unequal systems.” Christian leaders are compelled by the Scriptures to develop anti-racist behaviors and actions. Jesus willingly left the crowds behind when they rejected righteousness and justice. Jesus let a rich man walk away sad because of his unwillingness to repent and do right by the poor (Matt. 19). Jesus upset crowds who refused to acknowledge him as the Son of God (John 6), and Jesus told crowds they could not be his disciples if they weren’t willing to deny themselves and prioritize him over all earthly relationships (Luke 14).
Church leaders must not fear thinning crowds in the search for true worshipers (John 4). True worshipers are committed to justice because God is just and cares that we act right, do right, and make right. Racial justice cannot be an exception. The Bible commands us to love the immigrant as we love ourselves (Lev. 19:34). “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?a Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that??” (Matt. 5:46–47).
But then Jesus shared a meal and the good news of salvation with the despised chief tax collector, Zacchaeus. Convicted by Jesus’ kindness, Zacchaeus decided to do right and make right. He stood up and professed to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8). Likewise, Jesus sought after a despised Samaritan woman who worshiped a distorted image who could not save her and made himself known as the true living water to satisfy her spiritual thirst (John 4).
To worship God in Spirit and truth means to rightfully view God as a mighty force for justice.
To worship God in Spirit and truth means to rightfully view God as a mighty force for justice. “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern” (Prov. 29:7). The righteous show love to the poor and no favoritism to the rich (Lev. 19:15; James 2:3–4). Pastors must not cater to rich or generous tithers in their congregations who oppose resolving racial conflict because it disrupts their comfort. To worship God in Spirit brings discomfort. To worship God is to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to him (Rom. 12:1).
The bodies and blood of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Sean Monterrosa, Breonna Taylor, and Andres Guardado, lost at the hands of police, are precious in God’s sight. Although justice has not been served in a court of law, God will avenge his people and judge righteously (Heb. 10:30). Christ-centered believers from all ethnic backgrounds should desire and seek redress for these victims, and for all the oppressed (Isa. 1:17).
To truly worship God is to resemble Moses, who chose mistreatment with God’s people rather than the fleeting pleasures of sin (Heb. 11:25). Enjoying privileges derived from racial injustice is wrong, not only because racism is evil but because it opposes God’s vision for kingdom diversity (Rev. 14:6). All Christians everywhere are commanded to love mercy, act justly, and walk humbly with our God (Mic. 6:8). This means diligently working to dismantle racism and unjust systems. The body of Christ must illuminate God’s love to humanity.
As my husband and I continue the oral tradition of storytelling to our children, we will recount the abundance of God’s love for us and hopefully narrate the atonement and redemption made by true worshipers who modeled his beloved community. As Jesus told the Samaritan woman, the hour is here and the time is now for true worshipers. The time is now for the true worshipers to persist in the fight for justice individually and institutionally, in churches and communities.
Sheila Caldwell is chief intercultural engagement officer for Wheaton College.