What is My Role in the Story of Racism?

I don’t like to grieve, I prefer to smile, but I find myself grieving.

I don’t like to lament, I prefer to find ways to anesthetize the pain, but I find myself lamenting. 

Watching the cruel murder of George Floyd by a police officer who is called to protect and to serve the community, demonstrated once again how racism, which has lived in the collective mind of our nation since its conception, continues to degrade and destroy minorities in this country, in particular, our African American brothers and sisters. 

Condensed Symbols

George Floyd’s murder has intensified the emotions of our country to an explosive level, in part, because of the long list of racist related events in our country, and partly because his murder is what sociologist Mary Douglas labeled a “condensed symbol.”[1]  A condensed symbol is shorthand for an idea or set of practices that triggers and evokes an entire worldview through one image.  In this case, George Floyd’s murder represents the plight that African Americans have had to endure for far too long. 

The image that forever lives in us is a white cop pressing his knee with full force on the throat of a black man for a total of 8 minutes and 46 seconds, a full minute after the paramedics arrived on the scene.  This black man, unarmed, who did not resist arrest, pleaded for his life, saying to the officer, “I can’t breathe.” 

We need to be present to this moment, because of what it represents.  We need to try and step into the shoes of our black brothers and sisters, many who are suffocating physically, psychologically, sociologically, and economically.  When an entire group is grasping for their very breath, it requires a response.  A lack of response makes one complicit to the murder. 

When an entire group is grasping for their very breath, it requires a response.  A lack of response makes one complicit to the murder. ~ JR Woodward Click To Tweet

The white cop was deaf to George Floyd’s pleas.  He was deaf to the caring bystanders who pleaded on behalf of George Floyd to let him up.  Sadly, he was not the only deaf person on the scene; the Asian cop in the video was also deaf to the pleas of George Floyd and the bystanders. Furthermore, we discovered there were two more cops behind the car, who were using their weight to hold George Floyd down on the ground. 

What’s My Role?

The question I find myself asking as I contemplate this “condensed symbol” is which person described in this event represents me the most?

All of us are a part of this story, whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not.  If you live in America, you are a part of this story.  The question is, “Who are we in the story of racism in this country?”

The Psalmist prayer seems apt in light of this question:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Ps. 139:23-24 (NRSV)

I find myself grieving, lamenting, and contemplating where my known or unknown and intentional or unintentional complicity adds to the demonic power of racism, and what repentance, recompense, and renewal means for me in my local community. 

We, as followers of Jesus seeking to see the kingdom of God become more tangible where we live, are all called to participate at the local grassroots level for a greater sense of justice and peace, especially for those whom the system has targeted unfairly. 

Resisting and Redeeming the Powers

William Stringfellow, a Harvard trained lawyer, followed Jesus by laying down his privilege. While his Harvard Law School classmates went the typical route of working for corporate law firms in Manhattan, in 1956 he chose to live in a rat-infested one bedroom apartment in East Harlem to legally represent the poor, the prostitute, and the people living at the margins of society.

As he became witness to systemic evil, he suggested that nobody had developed a substantial and coherent theological statement that dealt with the heart of racism.  “What can be found, usually, are recitations of the most elementary humanistic assumptions about equality and liberty.”[2]  While humanism has shaped the American ethos, Stringfellow makes it clear that only the holistic gospel brings together those that the world has divided; only in Christ is there the possibility of one new humanity.  He writes,

Insofar as the church in America, in other words, have in practice followed society in the evolution, not become revolution, in race relations and have simply imitated or repeated the slogans of humanism, they have forsaken or suppressed the unique word which they exist to proclaim, to serve and to be. And they become by default – by silence, indifference, and irrelevance – handmaidens of the principality of racism, for the principality of racism is as well served by appeasement as by idolatry.[3]

Essentially, when we fail to name and unmask the nature and work of the Powers, we end up imitating them in their submission to Satan, which is bondage to idolatry, and leads to dehumanization.  The failure to have a robust understanding of the principalities and powers has allowed racism to continue to manifest itself in the church and in America today.  While the human heart must be changed by Jesus, it doesn’t end there. We need to know how to resist and redeem the powers that seek to diminish the witness of the church, and we need to resist the powers from turning the church into an agent of its demonic use.

We need to know how to resist and redeem the powers that seek to diminish the witness of the church, and we need to resist the powers from turning the church into an agent of its demonic use. ~ JR Woodward Click To Tweet

According to Col. 1:15-20, the principalities and powers were created good, but are fallen and need to be redeemed. The principalities have a visible and invisible reality, whether a nation, a city, a police force, or legal system. There is the visible reality, the institutions and organization, the offices and officers; and there is the invisible aspect to the principalities, the soul of the organization, the spirituality of the organization, and the collective mind that shapes the organization. Principalities in their fallen state are susceptible to demonic influence. As Amos Yong writes, “If and when this happen, governments become tyrannical, nations become anarchic, economic systems become unjust and social systems foster death instead of life.”[4]

While Satan and the demonic don’t seem to have a redemptive path, the principalities and powers do. But just like redeemed people, these organizations, these principalities and powers will discover that this redemptive process is often fragile and fragmentary on this side of the new heavens and new earth. 

On Earth as It Is in Heaven

Regarding racism, we must realize that through his life, death, and resurrection, Christ “has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14) between different people groups. Belief and baptism give us a new identity which is socially constructed by the church through the Spirit, not by the current culture; and is determined by new birth rather than geography, family origins, or skin color. The baptized swear allegiance to a different kind of King and a different kind of Kingdom, one that is not characterized by racism, humanism, or nationalism.  Instead, it chooses to imitate Christ, who was willing to die, but never willing to kill. 

The false gospel says that the good news is for another time and another place.  It accepts the status quo.  But the Good News is that “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15).  Thus, we are to pray, “May your kingdom come and your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).  Then we are to have actions that live into that prayer so that we become a sign, foretaste, and instrument of the kingdom in our local communities. 

Violence is not one of those actions.

The false tactics of the alt-right and alt-left promote violence and destruction.  They hold to the myth of redemptive violence, which believes peace can come through violence.  This false tactic needs to be discarded.  We must remember that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the Powers; and the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds (Eph. 6:12; I Cor. 10:4).

A New Way

Peacemakers will be called children of God and they will not use violence, because they realize that violence is never capable of bringing about peace.  Jesus gave us another way.  Walter Wink, in his trilogy on the Powers, asks this question in his book Engaging the Powers, “How can we oppose evil without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves?”[5]

For Wink, transformation and redemption must involve both the personal and social together.  Part of the church’s evangelistic task, as Wink reminds us, is “proclaiming to the Principalities and Powers in the heavenly places the manifold wisdom of God” (Eph. 3:10).  And that means addressing the spirituality of actual institutions that have rebelled against their divine vocations and have made themselves gods.

If we hope to make progress against racism, we must seek outside intervention.  Persistent prayer is not optional; it is a prerequisite.  Our societal systems need to be redeemed, as they repeatedly demonstrate the systemic power of racism. 

The Good News gives hope for the oppressor and the oppressed.[6] 

Beyond Privilege

Living in the kingdom under the Lordship of Christ means that those of us in the place of privilege need to voluntarily lay down our rights and privileges in solidarity with the other (Phil. 2), because we value our relationship with the other as more important than our status. Those without privilege are called to live in mutuality with the formerly privileged, becoming one new family, one new humanity.  If this is to happen, we must believe the gospel more than the myth of redemptive violence.

Where do you find yourself in the story of racism in our country?  Will we be complicit by being deaf to the cries and pleas around us, or will we hear and see what is going on?  What is God calling you and your community to do as you root yourself in your neighborhood and pray that the presence of the kingdom would become more tangible in your neighborhood?  In Christ, through his Spirit, we have the freedom and responsibility to choose our role well.

[1] Thanks to Jon Tyson for this metaphor.

[2] William Stringfellow, The Politics of Spirituality (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2006, Reprint), p. 79.

[3] William Stringfellow, Free in Obedience (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2006, Reprint), p. 79.

[4] Amos Yong, In the Days of Caesar: Pentecostalism and Political Theology, The Cadbury Lectures 2009 (Grand Rapidss, MI: W. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2010), p.163.

[5] Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discerning and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), p. 51.

[6] Patrick Oden, Hope for the Oppressor: Discovering Freedom through Transformative Community (Lanham, MD: Fortress Academic, 2019).

About the Author

JR Woodward


JR Woodward has been passionately planting churches on the East and West Coast that value tight-knit community, life-forming discipleship, locally-rooted presence and boundary-crossing mission for over 25 years. He is the author of Creating a Missional Culture (IVP, 2012) and co-author of The Church as Movement (IVP, 2016). He co-founded the Missio Alliance and currently serves as the National Director for the V3 Church Planting Movement. He is the co-founder of the Praxis Gathering and writes for numerous websites and journals. He has a Masters of Arts in Global Leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary and is working on his PhD at the University of Manchester (UK). He loves to surf, travel, read, skateboard and meet new people. He enjoys photography and film and tries to attend the Sundance Film Festival whenever he can.

Share this Post