Greg Marshall of Elmbrook Church in the Milwaukee Area on How White Christians Should Respond to Racial Tension

At Elmbrook Church in Milwaukee Greg Marshall who sometimes teaches wrote a post for the church blog on how white Christians should respond to racial tension. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and the riots taking place in Minneapolis and unrest in the United States Greg writes some an article that should give us all something to consider. 

“With patient and firm determination we will press on until every valley of despair is exalted to new peaks of hope, until every mountain of pride and irrationality is made low by the levelling process of humility and compassion; until the rough places of injustice are transformed into a smooth plane of equality of opportunity; and until the crooked places of prejudice are transformed by the straightening process of bright-eyed wisdom.”

Martin Lither King

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place,

Acts 17:26 ESV

Greg Marshall of Elmbrook 

Upon moving to Milwaukee in 2000 I worked at planting a Campus Crusade for Christ chapter at Marquette University.  Across town over on the East Side you had the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, which is part of the University of Wisconsin system. At UW-M Crusade’s student leader was Greg Marshall. That is how I interacted with Greg a few times. But I didn’t get to know Greg more intimately until after I moved to the Washington, D.C. area in 2005. Greg taught at Elmbrook  in the past and also at Westbrook until it merged with Elmbrook. One of the topics most on his heart is that of racial injustice. Milwaukee, like Minneapolis, is a very segregated city. Greg  if I remember correctly, moved into the urban area of Milwaukee and helped renovate a run down home. While many whites have fled and anchor themselves in the suburbs such as New Berlin, Brookfield, and West Allis Greg and his family live in the inner city and call it home. And its where he is raising his family. 

After George Floyd died at the hand of a Minneapolis Police Officer and the city erupted into rioting and violence; in Milwaukee Elmbrook asked Greg Marshall to write a post for the community that deals with how evangelical whites should respond to the situation. The article is called, “A Personal Letter Responding to Racial Tensions.” How should Christians respond to racial injustice? How should whites respond to the claims of injustice made by blacks? Greg’s article is quite good and after he texted it to me he gave me permission to re-run this article. Hopefully with the violence and chaos ongoing today as a result of George Floyd’s death this will help teach whites like myself more about listening, developing empathy and understanding this issue better. Love you Greg, thanks for your friendship and appreciate your wisdom on the topic of racial injustice.


 

Hello Elmbrook Church, 

The name George Floyd is probably familiar to you now. He is the man who died in Minneapolis when a police officer kneeled on his neck for several minutes, a tactic not sanctioned by the Minneapolis Police Department or any police department that I know of. Now we see anger and exhaustion exploding through new videos of protests, tear gas, looting of stores, and fires. What does it look like to respond at this moment as followers of Jesus?  

Before answering that question, please read this text I received this week from a close friend of mine who is African American:

“I would really like to have you over to the house. With this situation in Minnesota and the conversations I am having with my kids and family, I really need them to see us interact, the actual love we have for each other. I don’t want them to be jaded towards white people. I need them to know the difference between white supremacy and white people. I love you, but I’m afraid of where we are going in our society. There is momentum building for an actual race war or another riot like the ’60s, where people are forced to choose a side. That is unfair and ungodly!! I don’t know what to do, but I feel their souls hang in the balance, and this is a crucial time for people.”

I’ve known his teenage sons since they were tiny. They are some of the most kind and thoughtful kids you’ll meet. Right now, they are angry and tired of feeling unseen and not cared for by much of society. 

Should we listen carefully to their story and learn from it, or try to explain why they shouldn’t feel that way? 

And what about the riots? 

Stores are being looted, and fires started. Does that mean we should not listen to and learn from my friend and his sons? Are the feelings of my friend’s family and the African American community now invalidated because of those riots?  

And what if their stories and experiences are true? What do we do with that? 

It’s ok for us to admit we don’t know what to do as a church of mostly white people. It is far better to accept that and then aim to be curious and teachable. We can allow people of color to speak into what we do not know so that we can understand. To invite those perspectives does not threaten the gospel or our wellbeing. To invite those perspectives is actually one of the most gospel-inspired actions we can take right now. 

What does it look like to respond at this moment as followers of Jesus? 

For me, it looks like this: 

I believe, with every fiber of my being, the Christ-like response to this situation is to listen to the community that is crying out for help. 

The riots are scary and destructive, but they do not negate the reality that black people across the nation (who are not rioting) are also saying, “We are tired of feeling afraid for our lives. We are tired of being treated less than human.” And those statements represent feelings that go far beyond the topic of police brutality. 

Those cries have continued for far too long. 

To determine our response, we reflect on how God responded to our broken world in the divine person, Jesus. 

Christ pursued us, became human, and demonstrated his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, He died for us. (Romans 5:8)

He identified with the struggles of humanity, allowing himself to suffer with us. (John 1, Hebrews 4:15) 

And he made himself a sacrifice (Romans 3) so that we could have life we would not have otherwise. 

I believe we are called to cut through the noise of riots, political rhetoric, and emotional reactions to do the hard work of learning from a community that is asking us for help. 

It’s time for us to actively consider how we can be part of changing things for our black and brown brothers and sisters, and this calling to love well is not negated because some people are choosing to riot. 

And at the same time, yes, of course, we pray for and support the many great police officers who are also feeling afraid for their lives right now. We can discern as a church how to best serve police officers in our communities – this, too, is critical. We do not need to choose between helping the African American community and supporting police officers. 

Again, thousands of our black neighbors who support the work of good police officers are still crying out to say that racism is a problem. Nothing will change until we, their white brothers and sisters, are willing to listen to the heart of the situation through all the noise, to learn and act. 

As for my family and me, we will listen and take action. 

Practically speaking, this means: 

  1. I’m going to spend time with my friend and his sons, and I’m going to show empathy. I’m going to learn from them. I have much more to learn than to teach in this situation. And I’m going to resist any urge to explain away their experience. I’m going to resist any urge to tell them they shouldn’t feel how they feel. Because that would be empathy blocking behavior, which is not Christ-like. 
  2. I’m going to learn as much as I can about why things are the way they are in our country, specifically related to the African American community. I am not going to accept the narratives that are dominant in any one political party. I’m going to invite disruption to my perspective. Recently I listened to a podcast series called 1619, which is about the history of black people in America (1619 is the first year a slave ship landed on our shores). I found it helpful and inspiring. 
  3. I’m going to research more about how peaceful protests turned into fiery riots. I believe that was avoidable, and I’d like to know more about what could have been done by the protesters, by the police, and by the city leaders to find a more peaceful path. 
  4. I’m also going to reach out to a friend who is a leader in the Milwaukee Police Department to see if there is anything I can do to help them strengthen relationships with the community. Because I know that choosing to listen to the African American community does not mean that I’m choosing to support the African American community instead of police officers. That’s a false dichotomy. I’m choosing to live out the love and ministry of Jesus in relationship with both the African American community and the men and women who serve the community as police officers. 
  5. I’m going to challenge my friends and family who respond to this situation with statements or attitudes that block empathy and avoid deeper learning and listening. Statements like: 
    1. Slavery is over; black people need to get over it. 
    2. If black people would stop setting buildings on fire, then maybe I’d listen. 
    3. If black people would stop (fill in the blank), then perhaps I’d listen. 
    4. Racism is not as prevalent as black people say it is. 
    5. Etc. 

That’s how I’m going to respond. 

Whatever you choose to do, let us apply a Christ-like mirror to everything we say or do concerning this situation. Every conversation, every post, every tweet, every family interaction, let us consciously ask ourselves, is this Christ-like? Am I pursuing, listening, and sacrificially loving? If we call ourselves Christians, then we must hold this mirror up and reflect the image of Christ in everything we do. 

The life and ministry of Jesus is our compass. 

I love you, church family. With tears in my eyes and an aching heart, I’m asking you to please consider what a Christ-like response is to this situation, and then to do it. 

With love,
Greg Marshall

2 thoughts on “Greg Marshall of Elmbrook Church in the Milwaukee Area on How White Christians Should Respond to Racial Tension

  1. Pretty good letter. Hopefully the 1619 he was referring to was not the NYT’s 1619 project, which has been criticized by historians for its widespread inaccuracy. It is useful for understanding how some people view the past, not for understanding what the past was really like.

    There are so many problems in this area that are caused by looking at someone and interpreting them as a member of a group instead of an individual. Why should all black people be expected to be alike in some way? Why should all police officers be expected to be alike? All white people? All evangelicals? Whatever group you care to identify has more diversity within it than group-separating differences between other groups. “They are all the same” is a lie. We should not be prejudiced.

    The individuals looting Target don’t decrease the legitimacy of the idea that other individuals should not murder people. They are all sinners, as are we, and we are called to hate the sin and love the sinner.

    Jesus died on the cross to save the souls of the people looting Target, the people shooting police officers, and the police officers murdering people in their custody. He died to save politicians who put their political gains ahead of the needs of their constituents. He died to save people who organize lynch mobs. He died to save people who write hateful things on twitter. He taught us to respond to hate with love. And then he showed us what it looked like to defeat sin by loving those who were in the process of killing him.

    i don’t expect to ever be killed by a mob. But if I am, I hope that by then I will be spiritually mature enough to see them how God sees them.

    ————-

    An excellent essay that approaches this topic from a different direction is “I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup” by Scott Alexander.

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  2. Pingback: Bryan Lair While I Applaud Your Commitment to Racial Injustice Will You Be Equally Committed to Injustice Regarding Spiritual or Sexual Abuse? | Wondering Eagle

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