‘Search out the cause of the oppressed,’ say panelists at What’s the Word forum on racial justice

Communications Staff — September 29, 2016

The evangelical church needs to stand against the continuing problem of racism in the United States with a message of reconciliation, said panelists at the What’s the Word forum, sponsored by the ONE student organization at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Sept. 26.

Toni Stringer, a retired Jefferson County judge, speaks during the What's the Word forum
Pictured left to right: Southern Seminary professor Jarvis Williams, Sojourn Midtown pastor James Westbrook, retired Jefferson County judge Toni Stringer, and Immanuel Baptist Church pastor Ryan Fullerton

The forum, titled “Seeking Justice: A Response to Racialized Violence,” was moderated by Jarvis Williams, associate professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern Seminary, and featured panelists from the seminary and broader Louisville community. Williams asked each participant to discuss justice and injustice from their area of expertise, from education to civil law.

“We have the only system that I know of in the free world where you had institutionalized racism and laws that make people of African descent less than human, and those laws were on the books for a long time,” said Toni Stringer, a retired Jefferson County judge. Stringer added that racialization, the act of looking at people differently because of their ethnic or social background, has been present in America from the first colonies. “It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s that things started to get a little bit better. But they still haven’t quite arrived.”

Ryan Fullerton — who pastors Immanuel Baptist Church in Louisville’s Shelby Park, which is predominately black — said white people like himself need to listen to the many stories of racially charged events in the lives of their African-American friends and fellow church members.

“You can’t sit in a room full of African-American brothers without hearing story after story after story of being followed by police and pulled over by police in ways that I have never experienced,” Fullerton said. “Whites have a responsibility, in the words of Job, to search out the cause of the oppressed. I still haven’t experienced [racism personally], but it would be impossible for me to deny that it exists, because I have friends who, when someone [in the neighborhood] is shot, are thinking about maybe having the wife pick up the kids that night because they don’t want to send the husband out in the car. It becomes a reality that you recognize your brothers and sisters are dealing with as a live and present issue in their daily lives.”

Whites have been misguided about African American culture and don’t understand it, said Kevin Jones, associate dean of academic innovation at Boyce College. Black culture itself is often framed in an untruthful way, such as the common claim that black fathers abandon their children. Many whites don’t understand the complex, racialized injustice preceding supposed social problems in African American communities.

“Black fathers really don’t leave their kids,” Jones said. “Black fathers historically have been separated from their kids systemically, purposefully, so that little black kids couldn’t know their fathers.”

As another example, Jones, who has an academic background in education, said that when the educational system was established in the 1600s, blacks were forbidden from participating. Those racial injustices continue to undergird many educational problems today. Even the desire to be educated, Jones said, comes from the motivation white children receive from their educated parents. Black children often do not receive that motivation if their parents are uneducated, so black children often do not develop a desire to become educated.

“If you don’t have the parents at home, there are so many people who fall through the cracks,” Jones said.

There is a crucial difference between race and ethnicity, said James Westbrook, pastor and church planting resident at Sojourn Midtown. Some white Christians can embrace the race of an African American person but fail to embrace his ethnicity — the culture informing one’s racial identity, Westbrook said.

“As long as you have Christians who believe, ‘I am better than you’ or ‘I just don’t like your ethnicity, I don’t like your culture, I don’t like your hip-hop … it offends me,’ then you will never be successful at reaching that group and I fear it will be the downfall of the American church.”

According to its website, ONE exists to “create a format for healthy dialogue and the organic formation of gospel-centered relationships” in matters of race. Audio and video will soon be available on the ONE page on the Southern Seminary website.

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