On this, the first anniversary of George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis, we offer a word about the ongoing struggle to dismantle racism. Osheta Moore’s new book, Dear White Peacemakers: Dismantling Racism with Grace and Grit, is a loving address to white Christian peacemakers, with reflections and practices for remaining engaged in the fight against racism. This excerpt introduces one of the challenges to this important work for white people: apathy. May we all renew our energy and commitment to dismantling racism together.
I stood in a crowd with pastors from all walks of life waiting for instructions. Pastor Stacey Smith, a Black woman pastor of a 130-year-old historically Black church, was one of the organizers, and she grabbed the microphone.
“This is a peaceful and silent march, friends. We are coming together to demand justice and be a witness to the suffering in our community. This is a Black clergy-led march”—the crowd erupted with applause, and I looked around at all the White pastors, most wearing masks, but their eyes were alight with passion.
“This is Black led,” she continued when the crowd died down, “which means, my White brothers and sisters, we’re going to ask you to hang back and let all the Black faith leaders line up and begin the march, then we invite you to join in behind us, then our collective congregations and community will follow. This is a silent march, so I encourage you to pray or reflect as we make our way to the Target parking lot. It’s closed down due to rioting in this neighborhood, but we have the National Guard out here and we’ve been promised that they will protect and serve us.” Again the crowd celebrated. We wanted to believe the best of law enforcement officials, we wanted them to do their jobs justly and safely.
I turned to my husband, a White pastor wearing his colorful rainbow stole, and said, “I’ve got to go, babes.” He chuckled and said, “You’re leaving me?” I shrugged while joining my Black co-laborers. “Yeah, I’m Black”—I pointed to my stole and smiled behind my face mask—“and I’m a peacemaker.”
Walking in that crowd, I kept praying for those White pastors behind me who in their own way were sacrificially loving us Black leaders. I prayed for them to have stamina for the work of anti-racism, for them to know their Belovedness first and foremost and how they specifically fit into the work of dismantling white supremacy. I prayed for their families and friends who didn’t get why they’re so radical and I prayed for their hearts to stay tender like clay even when exposed to the heat of pride, fear, frustration.
Silent. Peaceful. Purposeful. We marched in unity.
After a week of standing in crowds with so many White people passionate about creating real change in our country so that every Black and Brown person feels safe, this silent walk among my Black brothers and sisters, supported by my White siblings, and all of us leading our communities toward peace, I felt something I hadn’t felt in a while—hope. In all the heartbreak, their peacemaking presence gave me comfort.
I prayed for their hearts to stay tender like clay even when exposed to the heat of pride, fear, frustration.
For many of my White brothers and sisters, [the] videos of the murders of George [Floyd] and Ahmaud [Arbery], seemingly back-to-back, awakened in our country a desire to do the work. But anti-racism isn’t a weekend project like cleaning the basement or hanging twinkle lights over your deck. Anti-racism is a deeply emotional and challenging undertaking. If you do not build up practices of inner shalom, you’ll put expectations on the outcome of your work that will turn your peacemaking into peacekeeping.
Anti-racism is a deeply emotional and challenging undertaking.
The old Spiritual “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” speaks to our inner pain and reminds us that there is healing for it. It’s a cry from Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, the one who noticed that Jerusalem was inundated with sinful practices and adopting a culture of violence. He noticed how the culture undermined God’s dream for true shalom, with manufactured peace, “saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14 NRSV). And so he cries out in Jeremiah 8:22, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”
If you listen closely, White Peacemaker, this is what BIPOC have been crying out. With every hashtag and every YouTube video, we’re crying out for healing from the trauma of white supremacy. With every letter to the pastor and Instagram post, we’re reminding you of the chronic pain we live with. With every conversation and memo, we’re asking you, “What are you going to do about it?”
Racial healing is never easy, White Peacemaker. But we get to be the ones who proclaim there is a balm in Gilead. The healing comes when we answer Jesus’ question, saying, “Yes, I do want to be healed” and then he puts his hands over our eyes and we see. We see and we are moved to share suffering. We’re changing the white supremacist narratives that you don’t have to care and I’m wise to not trust you.
The healing comes when we have proximity to each other’s pain—when you hurt, I hurt; it’s as if we share one throbbing nerve ending.
Healing will never come if you succumb to white apathy.
Healing will never come if you succumb to white apathy, the condition where, when you’ve encountered the pain and suffering caused by white supremacy, you ignore, explain away, reject, or give into overwhelm. White apathy is the antithesis of anti-racism peacemaking.
In his teaching “White Apathy and the Crucifixion,” Jesuit priest Brian Engelhart says,
When we are apathetic to the plight of our BIPOC brothers and sisters, we buy into the system that tells us that we are superior, that it is better to keep what we have than to risk losing it for the benefit of another, or that minorities wouldn’t be suffering so much if they were more like White people. As antiracists, this attitude is unacceptable but easy to fall into for those socialized in a racist culture, so we must remain on our guard.
In this part [of the book] we’re going to look at white apathy and all the ways it short-circuits our collective healing. There is a balm in Gilead, yes! This spiritual’s origin story is lost, like many rich pieces of African American history, but right after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, writings from Black ministers quoted the lyrics of this healing, hopeful song that freed enslaved people sang to remind them that all that suffering was not in vain—Jesus, the balm in Gilead, sees. White Peacemaker, there is healing available, but first you have to notice your pain and mine. You must be like Jesus who, as he sat down on the mount before he taught, looked and saw. He saw the diversity of people drawn to him: sick, poor, rejected, outcast, and hurting. He noticed and he brought the good news that he had seen them, he knew their pain, and if we embrace his kingdom ethics, we can be a part of binding up wounds, healing fractured relationships, and speaking truth to the powers that oppress us.