One-on-one discussions with John Richards about race and justice The change
Ed: Tell us something about what you're up to in the fight for racial justice.
John: I come from Brunswick, Georgia. My hometown was born there and grew up there for 18 years, spent 18 years of my life in Braunschweig. Ahmaud Arbery was murdered here in February. People from my hometown contacted me and wanted to talk about what they could do to get the case on the national radar. The McMichaels had not been arrested for at least 60 days at this point. Many local people asked many questions.
In my background as a lawyer, I gave them some peaceful steps. I am a supporter of non-violent demonstrations. One of the things you can do is stand up for victims when they have no votes. Among other things, I asked them to call the local authorities to get it on the national radar.
Thirty days later it became a national story. Many people saw the video. That's when the Georgia Bureau of Investigation came into play – when the local authorities didn't arrest her.
As soon as they got there, the third gentlemen had the video and showed it to them. Even based on this evidence, they refused to arrest them. I've been involved in this since March when we tried to put this on the national radar. I think one of my good friends put it well when he said "Brunswick, Georgia was the match and Minneapolis was the gasoline" and we all see that the social fire is on fire.
Ed: Why are you concerned that white pastors don't speak on some of these issues?
John: Martin Luther King Jr. is one of my heroes in the belief that he will bring about and bring about real change. During his time there was a split in the black community. They had either the Martin Luther King people or the Malcolm X people.
Luckily, King's argument won the day, which was a nonviolent protest that should help advance our country. But the question becomes: how far have we come?
Ahmaud Arbery was shot on February 23. Some white pastors have preached patience since then, asking for the legal system to run its course. One said: "We have to turn the wheels of justice." I replied, "It is very difficult to turn wheels when the car is on blocks and there are no wheels."
One of the things we wanted to do was attach wheels to this car so that it could turn. We have contacted the local authorities. It was non-violent. It was a resistance, but it was a resistance that caused change. We have decided to do that. I continue to call my local clergy on the carpet for keeping silent about all of this.
I understand the hesitation to jump into such things at the beginning of the process, but you don't have to hesitate to jump into the lawsuit, or the anger that someone who was created in Imago Dei has shortened his life.
When I heard Mr. Floyd crying for his mother as a grown man, he used affectionate terms and said, "Mom." Seeing him die while other people were watching brought tears to my eyes. I am tired of asking people to show sincere anger and asking them to talk about black pain that is shown publicly. It was difficult for me to see that and to hear none of it from other clergymen.
Ed: One of the things we tried here is to raise the voices of the black evangelicals. The attitude that I wanted to adopt in the midst of this attitude is imperfect, but it is an attitude to listen to and listen to you and other African American leaders and others. What have you seen lately that affects how white pastors react?
John: I'm in a mostly African American church here in Little Rock, Arkansas. We go through the book Mark through a series called Chain Breaker. This Sunday we happened to be in the text of Jesus walking on the water and the disciples are afraid. The sermon title was "Not Another Storm!" Obviously there are cultural connections there.
If you look at the African American sermons on Sunday, you'll mostly see connections to what's going on around us.
One of the things that bothered me was that I was approached by a colleague who said, "I went to church in a mostly white church and received a two-minute prayer about it. Then the pastor continued our series on marriage. "
In a culture where we experienced this type of pain, a pastor decided that he would continue a series about marriage without addressing the elephant in the church. I've seen more of it on social media. That affects me because the silence is still speaking. Even if you are silent, say something.
Ed: I'm going to ask some questions that I would expect Anglo pastors to ask. Some of the questions will be, "Well, what should you tell us? What would have been the right thing? Should I have done the whole sermon differently? Would it have been better to address this in the context of what we have already preached about? " What would you recommend?
John: To paraphrase a quote from Karl Barth: "You have to have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other." We need to be able to go into the text of what is going on in the culture around you when we are expository preachers.
Many people preached on Pentecost on Pentecost Sunday. Talking about Pentecost and what's going on today are low-hanging fruits from a sermon perspective. They speak of uniform people and of being able to speak in the language of the people. These are things you can address from the pulpit while staying true to the church calendar. I think that sometimes we have to make divine detours.
Ed: Then how would you help pastors who weren't sure how to tackle this problem?
John: I think it starts with the confirmation. Obviously this happened in some cases when you talk about prayer. It starts with the confirmation piece, but then moves to the right understanding. I think the separation is a misunderstanding of the lived experience of people outside of your social location.
If you don't understand people outside of your social location, you can view their experiences through your own lens. It is important to find other lenses through which you can read the scriptures. This is a big problem in our western context since most of our commentators are Anglo.
But there are pastors, teachers, and preachers who have preached messages about certain texts that could be helpful if you look at some of their messages. I would say, even if you don't know how to apply it to the context, look for other sources to help you. You do this as a comment when you prepare your message through comments. Step out of the box and hear some other voices.
Ed: Let's talk about the riots that have taken place. How do we think from a biblical perspective?
John: Some of the statements about the riots point to our culture. We're bipolar and polarized, and some people will be sitting in one place or another. I think there is a third way. People make King their own without understanding him. King wrote: "Unrest is the language of the oppressed."
But King was also very clear about riots. He says: "Nowhere have the riots achieved concrete improvements, such as the organized protest demonstrations."
He tries to get people to organize protests. He says of violence: "You can murder a murderer by violence, but you will never murder." He essentially says, "I understand the language of these riots, but that's not the endgame for me." As pastors, we have to say that we understand that we live in this fallen world. We understand that some of the people who get upset feel oppressed.
Ed: Is there hope for people who move together to fight injustice, and if so, where is that hope?
John: I think there is hope. I believe in the gospel and the gospel is the ultimate hope not only for this world but also for this society and culture. Having people who focus on the gospel and people who live the gospel can have a significant impact on the culture and society around us.
As long as I preach and teach the gospel, I will always have hope. Now I realize that when people on the other side of this bridge are waiting to verbally attack me, it is becoming increasingly difficult to be a bridge builder.
It's like walking over a bridge and seeing someone just waiting to attack me. But I am committed to this work because I know that it doesn’t need a community to do it. We will all need it.
When you look at the declaration of emancipation, Frederick Douglass didn't sign it. If you look at the Voting Rights Act, Martin Luther King didn't sign it. It will take all of us and I am determined to do this work together on a unified front, but I want to make sure that I also tell my brothers and sisters that you need to listen carefully this season.
Ed: How are we as white evangelicals today and what do we have to do at this moment?
John: I think it is probably a lot more difficult for an evangelical today to spot his blind spots when it comes to race and racial tension. When you look at the story, always go back and consider what you could have done differently. I am much better, my brothers and sisters don't have this perspective today.
Because Martin Luther King was an agitator for most people in 1963, and now we have a national holiday named after him.
Most of the parishes that were nearby at that time did not have it on their pulpits, and now they quote him from their pulpits. It is difficult for us as believers to say that something has yet to change in us, and that is part of our healing process. Part of this is that we come into our relationship with Christ by breaking the relationship with others. In order to fix the relationship with others, we have to recognize part of this broken past and then work towards this union in the future.
Ed Stetzer: What resources would you recommend to people interested in getting into this type of work?
John: I would say get a full overview of King. His will of hope is literally everything he has written and spoken over the years. Instead of having memes and tweets that are unique, it is good to understand who he was as a person.
Then Ronald Takakis is another mirror. It's a historical perspective on America's multicultural dynamics, especially early on. Some of your ancestors came over as immigrants and had similar experiences from some of my ancestors as identified servants in the northeast. Jemar Tisby also wrote a book called The Color of Compromise.