(Photo credit: Steven D. Martin/National Council of Churches)

What then shall we say?

By the Rev. Cassandra A. Henderson

This past weekend, I traveled through time. Inundated with social media posts and news coverage on the events in Charlottesville, I saw the countless images of primarily white men and sprinkles of white women holding torches and chanting about their supremacy and fear. There they were, with raised hands, mirroring Nazi soldiers during World War II, while simultaneously conjuring images from America’s Civil Rights era. Confederate flags intertwined with swastikas blowing in the wind as hundreds angrily bellowed their rallying cry, “We will not be replaced.” The enmeshing of two eras blurred the lines not only of historical accuracy but also of our contemporary understanding of the land of the free and the home of the brave. 
Despite many recent examples to the contrary that we so hurriedly try to explain away as anomalies, racism and its many iterations in America should come as no surprise — not even in 2017. Yet, there I was, in a time warp, reading post after post about the incredulity of what was happening. Had these people, my so-called social media “friends” and “followers,” forgotten so quickly the many hashtags and protests in recent years that drew attention to racial tension in our country? 
Again, I found myself time traveling to just a few months after the election. My social media feed was flooded with such shock-steeped questions as “How could this happen?” At the invitation of a seminary colleague, I partnered with her to co-host what we called “Community Conversations on Race.” She, a white woman, was on the ministerial staff of a fairly liberal white Lutheran congregation; I, at the time, had just completed serving on staff at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta. Together, we met monthly with mostly white members of the community who had been abruptly awakened to the reality of racism in America.

During the first session, we asked everyone the reason that they had come. One by one, each person talked about how he or she is more open-minded and is unlike family members who are “conservative,” “close-minded” or who freely tell racist jokes and make racially charged comments without batting an eye. Although the men and women in the room were self-proclaimed exceptions to the rule, they were surprised that the rest of the country was not nearly as open-minded as they had come to believe.

(Photo credit: Steven D. Martin/National Council of Churches)

When the introductions were over, I asked them all the same question: “When people of color were saying that racism was real and alive today, why didn’t you believe us?” No one could answer, but visible guilt and shame shone on their faces as they diverted their eyes from mine. For many of us, heavy laden in our own measures of privilege, there is but one America, and the rest of us are simply pulling a proverbial race card to gain unearned access to opportunities that are already available to all. We have so deceived ourselves into believing that America — the racial pressure cooker — is somehow truly a melting pot of appreciated diversity.

Sunday morning’s newsfeed brought me back to 2017, as my fellow clergy brothers and sisters made public declarations against pastors who would dare to preach the gospel and omit mention of Charlottesville. Some went live, calling the silent complicit. Others posted memes, ridiculing those who, like myself, had yet to post anything about what happened. I just simply could not find the words. Paul’s question in Romans 6:1 echoed through my mind as my fingers lay still on the keyboard: “What then are we to say?” Hadn’t we already said everything? What hashtag would bring it home? What 140 Twitter characters would cause the scales of ignorance to fall from the eyes of one more person who had refused to listen until now? What then are we to say?

(Photo credit: Steven D. Martin/National Council of Churches)

It was at that moment, perplexed by Paul and the chides of so many social media “status” messages, that I happened upon a friend’s post. It simply said, “#WhiteFolksGetYourFolks.” It was a simple call that placed responsibility in the hands of those who had encountered the truth to do as those in the Bible had done — spread the good news. And just like that, I went on yet another journey through time, returning to the community conversations earlier this year. The group who had gathered so earnestly in an effort to bring about positive change clamored with “What can we do?” to which I responded, “Speak with your family and friends who do not share the same views as you do. Tell them what you know. Have the tough conversations.” 
An older white woman raised her hand shyly and admitted, “I don’t want to lose my friends. I don’t want to break up my family.” 
I looked around the room at the others nodding in agreement with her. I knew she was not alone in her fears. I also knew that Benjamin E. Mays had been right when he said, “There is no necessary correlation between knowledge and goodness.” 
So, what then shall we say when the necessity of justice and equality requires more than knowing better, but requires the kind of actions that run the risk of ending friendships and dividing families? When discipleship really does mean hating mother, father and brother (Luke 14:26)? What then shall we say, when led to the hill of Golgotha in pursuit of salvation, we are asked to lay down our very own life for the sake of righteousness and for the sake of others? What then are we to say when the clarion call of social transformation charges us to move from behind the safety of the computer screen and demands that we stand in the streets speaking truth to a power that mercilessly plows its way through the protesting crowd? What words will be enough? What then are we to say?

The Rev. Cassandra A. Henderson is pastor for BTKids + Student Ministries at The Breakthrough Fellowship, Smyrna, Ga., and theatrical director at The Weber School, Atlanta.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.