I remember the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial like it was yesterday. It was touted as the “trial of the century.” Simpson was the football hero accused of killing his wife and her friend. America was alerted to what he did one evening on national television as the police were about to arrest him while he, along with a friend, fled in a white Bronco.
The police followed his car and the whole scene was captured on national television as people in helicopters filmed everything that was taking place. It seemed everyone in America was watching. Simpson was arrested that day and later stood trial. The trial would symbolize the battle against systemic racism, a battle that people of color had been fighting for a few centuries.
I was living in East Chicago at the time, having moved there to plant a church. My goal was to reach the people of East Chicago and Gary, Indiana. What I didn’t know was the learning experience that lay ahead, one that forever changed my view of social justice.
Years of racism, discrimination, unfair hiring practices and police brutality had boiled over.
African-Americans were demanding justice, not just for O.J. but for all of black America.
As I went about the town during the trial, I could feel the racial tension in the air. I began to get the feeling that the people in my community thought a not-guilty verdict was one way to atone for some of the injustices leveled against the African-American community. Over the months this trial was debated, it painfully revealed the racial divide in our country.
I saw this most clearly while I was sitting alone in my apartment listening to the verdict on the day it was delivered. When the not-guilty verdict was read, I couldn’t believe my ears. O.J. Simpson was declared not guilty? But the reaction of the people in my apartment building and the people on the streets further shocked me. To my surprise, there was joyful exuberance at the announcement. At that point, I knew that I had a lot to learn about the culture in which I found myself.
The next seven years gave me a real education in race relations. For the first five of those years, I served as the pastor of the small, predominantly African-American church I had planted and where I learned first-hand about white privilege, racial injustice and systemic racism.
I still remember one particular occasion when one of the African-American men attending my church told me about the humiliation he felt when being stopped by the police for “driving while black,” the times when he was followed around the store because he was automatically targeted as a potential thief due to his skin color, and the looks of disapproval he experienced when he went about certain parts of the community.
Perhaps what was most demeaning was the way society reinforced his supposed inferiority. While the institutionalized racism was bad enough, the effects of internalized racism were more than he could bear sometimes.
When I shared with my white evangelical friends what troubled me, I realized that what I said fell upon deaf ears. Their responses ranged from indifference to outright denial of what was happening. The popular mantra was that the welfare system had caused all the problems, and we just needed to have a smaller government to solve those problems. Maybe that was partly true, but it certainly didn’t tell the whole story.
At the time, I had yet to develop a theological understanding that was sufficient to help me grapple with what I was witnessing.
A few years later, I enrolled at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in their urban studies program and began to develop my understanding. For two years, I studied alongside my African-American brothers and sisters. I learned that sin was both personal and systemic. Unfortunately, most white evangelicals see sin only as personal, which means that if only individuals in society would repent of their racism, society would be changed. What they failed to see was that the personal sin of individuals created racist systems that are also sinful and need to change.
This is perhaps why most white evangelicals were not participants in the Civil Rights Movement.
This seems odd because the movement was a distinctively Christian one birthed out of the black church, led by the Black minister, Martin Luther King Jr., whom we as a nation celebrate each January, and specifically on Monday.
The vision of racial reconciliation, however, was thought to be a lost cause on this side of heaven. For instance, Billy Graham turned down an invitation to the 1963 March on Washington gathering, stating, “Only when Christ comes again will little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.”
This reflected the thinking of most white evangelicals at that time.
I think it is high time that white evangelicals, a group to which I belong, stand in solidarity with our black Christian brothers and sisters and honor the words of Dr. King who said, “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”
Maybe this can begin Monday on Martin Luther King Day.
As King stated, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
My hope is that white evangelicals will stand with their black Christian brothers and sisters and be silent no more.
Tim Orr is an adjunct faculty member in religious studies at IUPUC and author of the recently published book “We Named Her Faith: How We Became a Gospel-Centered Family.” Part of this article was an excerpt of a story from that book. He can be reached at email@example.com