I’ve been thinking about George Floyd. I’ve been thinking about the police officer, Derek Chauvin, who murdered him and the 19 years he spent in the police department. I’ve been thinking about the way his sunglasses were placed casually up on his head and about his relaxed demeanor as onlookers pleaded with him to stop. I’ve been thinking about the fact that he did this while cameras were on him, not hidden cameras, cameras staring into his face. I’ve been thinking about what he did when the cameras were not on him, for 19 years. A telling of the story.
The first time it hit me hard was when I had been in the United States for over a decade and I watched Walter Scott be murdered by being shot in the back, a white man killing a black man. I watched on some channel or other – not a movie – a real-life drama of life and death. This camera was not obvious – the police officers were not aware they had been filmed – they put a taser next to Walter to ‘show’ he had been a threat to them. A telling of the story. This officer was convicted and received 20 years jail sentence. But only after the official police version was contradicted by the video evidence – a police version that lied about a number of items including the lie that they administered CPR to Walter as he lay bleeding on the ground. They just left him there.
So this isn’t the first time I’ve thought about this. And African-American commentators have reminded me that their problem is not just with single incidents like that of George Floyd; their problem, the problem that the Mayor of Atlanta has in thinking about her children, is that this is a systemic issue, not an individual issue. Remember Oscar Grant? He was a cooperative black man shot in the back at close range by a white police officer while lying on the ground. A telling of the story. His murderer got two years for involuntary homicide. I’ve been thinking about that officer and how he ‘had’ to kill Oscar. Remember Jordan Edwards? He was a 15 year old black teenager shot in the head by a white police officer as the car he was in drove away. The police chief said that he misspoke about the car reversing towards the police officer. He misspoke. A telling of the story. He also graciously admitted that the actions of his officer did not meet ‘our core values’. You need core values not to shoot someone in the back of the head as a protector of the public? You need to wear a tie and not a hoodie to avoid the fate of Trayvon Martin? You need to avoid precincts that avoid “a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct” as in Ferguson? A telling of the story.
I am a Christian educator and consultant. I am one of the founders of Christian School Management, an organization dedicated to bringing hope to Christian schools, helping to keep them open, keep them full, keep them thriving. Our website. But I am deeply conflicted about the context within which Christian schools operate. By definition, we are committed to following Jesus who blessed his enemies and told us to as well. He died for all people, forgiving his own murderers (including us) from the cross. He said that the summary of the Torah was love for God and neighbor. But as white Christian schools, we have to take account of a history, a very recent history, that supports the claims of African-Americans that their fear, the injustices they suffer, is caused by a system and not just by individuals. Martin Luther King spoke to that in 1967:
And if you will let me be a preacher just a little bit. (Speak) One day [applause], one night, a juror came to Jesus (Yes sir) and he wanted to know what he could do to be saved. (Yeah) Jesus didn’t get bogged down on the kind of isolated approach of what you shouldn’t do. Jesus didn’t say, “Now Nicodemus, you must stop lying.” (Oh yeah) He didn’t say, “Nicodemus, now you must not commit adultery.” He didn’t say, “Now Nicodemus, you must stop cheating if you are doing that.” He didn’t say, “Nicodemus, you must stop drinking liquor if you are doing that excessively.” He said something altogether different, because Jesus realized something basic (Yes): that if a man will lie, he will steal. (Yes) And if a man will steal, he will kill. (Yes) So instead of just getting bogged down on one thing, Jesus looked at him and said, “Nicodemus, you must be born again.” [applause]
Our Christian history, unlike that of the early church where St. Paul pleaded and thundered for the systemic inclusion of the Gentiles, is one where the white church has been part of systemic oppression. We can think back to the founding of the AME Church, the first independent black denomination, in 1787. Its founders, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, made the move after white congregants yanked them from their knees while they prayed in a whites-only section of Philadelphia’s St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. We can think back to 1850s when James Henley Thornwell, a Presbyterian preacher, said that those who supported abolition were ““atheists, socialists, communists [and] red republicans.” The church was of two minds during the Civil War and for long after. Nothing was more segregated going through the Civil Rights Movement than the Christian church on Sunday morning. In fact, as late as 2001, as many as 87% of Christian churches were all white and/or all black. And worshipping in a Christian black church does not seem to have become less risky as time has ‘progressed’ leading to the Church Arson Prevention Act (1997) but not stopping the bombs or the shooting. Howard Thurman, who founded the first fully integrated U.S. Christian church in 1944, said: ““The slaves dared to redeem a religion profaned in their midst.” So black Christianity was, so to speak, expelled from white Christianity. It actually regards white Christianity as idolatrous.
And what of our Christian schools? They were, of course, segregated. And when legal de-segregation came, it was with a raft of other social and cultural changes that made white Christians very nervous indeed. The Supreme Court made its 1962 decision in Engel v. Vitale to end officially sanctioned prayer in public schools. In 1963, it ruled in Abington v. Schempp against official Bible readings. Sex education in the schools became a major controversy. Large numbers of parents viewed the incorporation of sex-ed in the curriculum as a replacement for the teaching of parents and churches. Sexual activity and sexual disease soared during this period. There was an increase in the abortion rate and teen pregnancy. Bussing and the threat of a sub par education was problematic. So white Christians fled the public school system. To Christian schools known as segregation academies. Sometimes they even called themselves that.
The point about thinking of racism as systemic rather than as individual (without losing sight of the individual) is that the school does not itself have to be ‘racist’ in order for it to support white supremacy in the social and economic order within which it is situated. I have little doubt that the strength of the Christian private school in the United States is connected to the desire for segregation from communities of color that were associated with undesirable connotations including issues around class, control, power, opportunity, standards, safety. And the apprehension that white looked safer and better and more excellent than black.
As Christian schools, we therefore have to struggle with our history and our present. We cannot imagine that this is all behind us. I have been in many schools where the issue of race bubbles behind the scenes. Simple examples? “Those kids (black) only got in because they are athletes”. The echoes of physical superiority and intellectual inferiority are very strong here. “Those kids (black) are on financial aid”. Without any inside knowledge, the assumption is that people of color are indigent. “Those kids (black) are here to make the school look good”. Tokenism is an acute accusation. “Those kids (black) got in because of affirmative action”. They would not have got in by way of fair competition but only because we felt sorry for them. I am not making any of this up – these are all attitudes that have been expressed to me, mostly by parent, but occasionally – in troubled tones – by administrators. And this is not about the south or north or east or west. I have heard this in all areas of the country. And I have sensed it many more times than I have heard it. My son graduated from a Catholic boys school where the 2016 election resulted in an overflow of racist voices within the student body, clearly echoing their parents (though not the administration).
What is amazing is that as Christians, we would imagine that we would embrace our sisters and brothers of what ever kind who also followed Jesus. What does St. Paul say in Galatians 6? ” Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” Especially… And Pew Research tells us that 79% of black Americans think of themselves as Christian (whites only 70%), 75% say it is very important in their lives (whites only 49%), 54% read the Bible at least once a week (whites only 32%), 77% say the Bible is the word of God (whites only 57%). On pretty much any level, black Americans are ‘more’ Christian than their white neighbors. Instead of being ghettoized, black Christians should be lionized! Indeed, it is their Christian faith that has made their protest (witness) against their oppression non-violent. Despite the pictures of riots and broken windows, the amazing witness of these protests is how peaceful they are given the good cause for resentment and anger and revenge that would be natural for a human being to have and give way to.
For Christian schools, these events of the past couple of weeks should not be a cause for academic study and objectified and reified observation, even if accompanied by righteous lament and hand-wringing. For Christian schools, these events of the past couple of weeks should be a reason for deep introspection at every level to see to what extent our classrooms, corridors, playing fields, service learning programs, represent what Jesus prayed for in John 17: My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.17 Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.19 For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified. 20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Our schools must be inclusive in radical ways. Our tuition/financial aid must be inclusive in radical ways. We must challenge and education and lead and listen to our parents and plead with them to embrace and not to fear. We must challenge and educate and lead and listen to our donors and beg them to support endowment for increased financial aid. We must go to black churches and tell them that the Christian school includes all children and welcome them in. We must reach out to leaders of color in our communities and invite them to our schools to see what we are doing, to gain their advice, to understand their point of view.
And we must ask ourselves what it means to be an inclusive culture – where the minority is respected and not expected to submit to the dominant culture. So much to say about that. But this is enough.
I am positive about the future of the Christian school. But I am not confident. Unless we are willing to be Christian, especially to the household of faith, we will not be a light on the hill. I have total faith in the goodness of our God. But our God spoke to the Samaritan, the woman, the prostitute, the Roman centurion. Is that the God of the Christian school? Of course it is! What is the evidence for that? If the evidence is strong, we will be a strong movement through God’s grace and with His power.