(RNS) — Jemar Tisby and Pastor Tyler Burns, co-hosts of the five-year-old Pass the Mic podcast, are used to dispensing their views on black Christian life from behind the microphone.
In the wake of the death of George Floyd under the knee of a white policeman, the leaders of the nine-year-old The Witness: A Black Christian Collective find themselves trying to speak to white believers.
On Thursday (June 4), Tisby, the author of “The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism,” and Burns, lead pastor of New Dimensions Christian Center in Pensacola, Florida, talked to Religion News Service about race relations and policing and what people — including white evangelicals — need to do differently as the country faces these issues anew.
“A lot of times white people in particular like to treat racial justice like a light switch that they can flick on and off,” said Tisby, who hopes this time around that won’t happen.
“It is not enough for us to simply say nice things at this moment,” added Burns, who has taken to the streets in protests in Pensacola. “Black people are tired and we're going to continue. That's just the history of who we are. But we cannot do this alone. It's impossible for us to do this alone. And so we need co-laborers and we need allies.”
The interview, a portion of which is set to be featured on Religion News Service’s Beliefs Sunday (June 7) podcast, has been edited for length and clarity.
Is it possible to sum up how you are dealing with all that has happened since George Floyd's death?
Tisby: It takes multiple forms. One, and I can't emphasize this enough, is black mental health. I “see,” quote-unquote, a therapist, because our sessions are virtual right now. I make sure to be able to process this with a professional. Probably the best habit I've picked up in the recent weeks is just regularly exercising and burning off that stress. I try also to mute and block prodigiously on social media. I don't have time for foolishness right now. We're in the midst of a pandemic. We're in the midst of Depression-era level economic crisis. And we're dealing with the ongoing assault on black bodies and black life.
Tyler, what would you say about that?
Burns: It's important to approach this theologically, with the understanding that as black Christian men, what's implicit within your question is that we feel this in our bodies, that there's a level of trauma that's taking place from our corporate observance, from our corporate grief, from our corporate lament. Because we don't have a disembodied theology. We do not have a theology that separates soul and body, that believes that God comes to redeem our souls but doesn't care about our bodies. It's also important that I try to create space for black church practices as simple as shouting and as simple as weeping.
Jemar, you wrote a commentary for us at RNS about natural responses to a threat: fight, flight or freeze. How are you making yourself move forward?
Tisby: The way to fight the freeze, if you will, and have productive action is through a model I developed called the A.R.C. of Racial Justice, which stands for awareness, relationships and commitment. Building your awareness is doing things like listening to this podcast, reading books, watching documentaries. We also need relationships. It’s hard to love somebody you don't know.
The problem, especially with white evangelical Christians, is that they tend to stop there because they think the problem of racism is primarily how I feel and act individually towards someone else. That's things like using a racial slur, excluding someone from your business. So if that's the problem, then the solution is well, then I'm going to treat people nicely, and some of my best friends are black. What they fail to realize is that racism operates on a systemic level, too. If in the midst of these protests and uprisings we're seeing now, you're not re-evaluating how you vote, who you vote for and what policies you support, you can miss me.
Burns: I would like to see people unfreeze when there are no hashtags, when there are no news stories. As a pastor and as someone who is collaborating with white Christians on a regular basis, I sense that many of them decide selectively when they would like to freeze and unfreeze. I know so many black Christians would prefer for that to stop.
That means putting in place systems that directly address the racism that is evident and flourishing within so many white churches and white Christian spaces. And that takes root, as Jemar was mentioning, in so many of our places of power, in the way that we spend our money. If we go back to freezing again in a few weeks or a few months when the news cycle has moved on, we'll have made no true progress.
What specific reforms do you see in the realm of policy?
Tisby: In Los Angeles, the mayor just announced (plans to reduce the police department budget), which is a beginning, because then you can use those funds, which for L.A. amount to 100, 150 million. You can divert those resources to what we know prevents encounters with police: mental health care, better systems for reentry for formerly incarcerated people.
A very simple policy that we can support is H.R. 40, which is a bill (in Congress) to establish a commission to study reparations. So this is not actually paying reparations, but it’s at least getting a commission together to say at a federal level we're taking this seriously.
Have either of you had an encounter with police recently that informs how you approach this topic?
Burns: It's extremely traumatizing for a lot of us to think through that. Have I had testy exchanges with police officers? Absolutely. Have I had a gun pulled on me within the past six years by a police officer? Yes, I have.
We cannot just view this as a relational problem. We cannot hug police brutality away. We must legislate it out, and we must provide accountability that is strict and fierce. So that protects our children and protects our families.
Tisby: Yeah. It’s comprehensive. I often use the phrase, every time I step out of the door, walk out of my house. But the reality is not even in your own house are you safe, right? We learned that with Breonna Taylor (a Louisville, Kentucky, woman killed by police in her home), among others. And so what I think is hard for a lot of white people to feel is the thought that you are constantly under surveillance.
A practical question: How do you march now despite the dangers of coronavirus?
Burns: If I go to a protest, I don't wear the same clothes; I put those in the wash and scrub before I can hug my kids and kiss my wife.
I would like to make sure that I'm completely safe and 100% protected from all coronavirus risk. But also I want to protect my family from the silence and from the virality of racism, which has existed in our country for 400 years with no cure. So it's pick your poison. We don't have a choice because if the pandemic doesn't get us, racism sure will. This is a continuation of that risk to stand in front of people and say we demand our dignity. Our children's lives quite possibly could depend on it.
Everyone who stays inside, they're not less of a justice fighter or justice seeker because of it, not less a believer because of it. But I choose to take a stand so that when my children ask, "Where were you after George Floyd?" I can show them a picture and say, "I was right there. That's in your lineage. And I want you to stand the exact same way."
Jemar, you've written about the feeling of helplessness that people of color and white people may feel in times we’re facing now. Is there something you’d add about hopelessness?
We titled our first national conference for the Witness the Joy and Justice Conference. The idea is that black people have found ways to pursue joy and justice at the same time and that the pursuit of justice implies the presence of injustice and the pursuit of joy implies the presence of sorrow. You can see this in Negro spirituals. You can see this in blues music and jazz music and hip hop music. You can see all of the ways that we have taken what white supremacy and white people have given us. When it is present, we're not going to lie down and succumb to it.
We got to do two things at a time. We got to fight and have faith.