Recently, while listening to one of my favorite songs, Does Your Heart Break by The Brilliance, I heard a verse I hadn’t noticed before. This subtle but profound verse, which I will share later in this post, reminded me of one of the most profound spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. Let me take you back:
The second weekend in August, 2017 was quite a busy weekend for me. That weekend, I gained a pet ferret for approximately three hours after finding, capturing, and later returning the precious mustelid to its rightful owner; I welcomed home my then-boyfriend (now fiancé) after three months apart while he was conducting field research in Michigan; I excitedly acquired two new books, Finding God in the Waves by Mike McHargue and Out of Sorts by Sarah Bessey; I tried (and burned) my hand at wood burning; and I shot a handgun for the first time ever. I also witnessed, once again, the reality of this nation’s relationship with hatred and bigotry, and the Church’s impotence and apathy in the face of such evils, when the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville made national headlines August 11-12, 2017.
According to one organizer, Nathan Damigo, the rally “was intended to unify the white nationalist movement in the United States. Protesters included white supremacists, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, Klansmen, neo-Nazis, and various militias. Some of the marchers chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans, carried semi-automatic rifles, swastikas, Confederate battle flags, and anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic banners” (via Wikipedia). One person was killed, dozens were injured, and countless POC and other minorities, along with their allies, were frightened and heart-broken by the event (though many were not surprised – only those with the privilege of not paying attention are surprised by events such as this). Many people, including myself, took to social media to make their response known, and the topic became one of historic national discourse. It did not, however, become a topic of historic Church discourse, at least not in the (perhaps isolated) context in which I found myself.
Leading up to these events, I was a somewhat active but peripheral participant in racial justice advocacy and Christian feminist groups. I was becoming more and more active in responding to and initiating conversations among Christians regarding injustice and inequality, as well as our role in perpetuating or dismantling them. My prayer life was a broken record of asking God to open my eyes to others’ plights and to burden me in whichever way He saw fit (though I’m certain I wasn’t as righteous and bold as that description may imply). So when news of this rally came across my phone screen, I just broke. I was angry, heart-broken, and shocked by responses intent on diminishing the event’s significance with strawman arguments and false-equivalencies. I was also desperate to see the Church use its power, influence, and widespread platform to respond to this in a way that reflected God’s love for us and Christ’s example of redemption and bold justice. However, my hopes weren’t high.
The following Sunday, August 13th, I attended a small non-denominational church that, from what I could tell, had a history of apathy toward events such as this. If the incident wasn’t seen as an affront to conservative values, or as evidence of Christian persecution, then they simply didn’t care. At the very least, they didn’t care enough to acknowledge it aloud, especially in church. So here I was, heart-heavy, fervently asking God how to respond, and resigning myself to listen to the sermon. My resignation to pay attention, I would soon realize, turned out to be God’s way of invoking the correct response I asked Him to show me. Boy did it work.
This particular sermon was on how we are failing to follow one of the most important commandments given- loving one another, how doing so can sometimes be awkward or difficult, and how it’s cruel to know something and not speak up. Initially I was grateful for this poignant and timely message, but as it progressed, I became more and more anxious and wary of what would happen. More accurately, I was anxious and wary of what I anticipated would not happen. Unfortunately, my anticipation was confirmed. This sermon on loving others and speaking up came to a close with no mention of the events of the previous two days, not even a subtle allusion. This church spent over an hour engaging our call to speak up on behalf of love yet failed to do exactly that. As we moved into worship, I just wept. I stood in the middle of the sanctuary and cried my eyes out. How could they not see it? How could a sermon be so full of truth and yet so blind to it? Afterward, while everyone socialized around me, I stayed in my seat and continued crying, lamenting the failure of God’s people to see the truth laid out before them. Eventually, a woman sat beside me and asked if I was ok. She seemed genuinely concerned and caring…until I explained my tears. I mentioned the rally and how, as Christians, we should be actively rebuking such things instead of making irrelevant references to free speech. I asserted that our hearts should break for what breaks God’s, and this was no exception. She became visibly uncomfortable, quickly wrapped up the conversation, and walked away.
I wept because the Father wept.
For a God who infinitely loves all people, how heart-breaking must it be for some of those people to hate others? How heart-breaking must it be to have proclaimed followers who fail (or refuse) even to attempt to exemplify such love? You see, this isn’t just about lack of solidarity or validation. This is about people who profess righteousness doing the exact opposite, and hurting people along the way. To quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
I am not a perfect ally; I may not even be a good one. I don’t claim to be “woke” or to have some special understanding of God, as both would be lies. What I have is a testimony and willingness to have my eyes opened and heart moved. So when the above events unfurled, I asked God to show me what He sees, to burden me in a poignant, emotionally demonstrative way. But on that day, with the rally and the devastation of His people failing to really care, it was too much. I have the privilege, afforded to me by my pale skin, not to experience this burden day in and day out. Because of this privilege, I was overwhelmed and unequipped to carry the very thing I requested. That is, until a few days later…
Still feeling heavy, I called my mom to vent, not knowing what to expect of her response. Little did I know her response would be a healing balm the blisters on my soul needed to keep holding the cross. She described a parallel experience nearly identical but also completely opposite my own. She too interpreted this event as spiritually significant. The Sunday after the rally, she too went to church with a heavy heart. When her pastor gave the sermon, he too preached a topic similar to what I heard. However, instead of missing the opportunity for real-world application, her pastor used the message to rebuke the rally and white supremacy, and to remind his congregants of the Christian call to justice. Her church collectively lamented the evil marching through our nation’s streets, and called upon each other to be the salt-and-light through more than just their “thoughts and prayers.” When the service concluded, just like me, my mom stayed in her seat crying while everyone socialized. Then the most mundane yet incredible thing happened when a middle-aged black woman my mom had never met approached her. Instead of displaying shallow concern and discomfort with the truth, this woman sat down beside her, grabbed hold of her hand, cried with her, and said, “It’s going to be ok.”
They wept because the Father wept.
I wasn’t prepared to carry the burden I asked God to give me, but through His mercy I learned I wasn’t carrying it alone. In fact, it was my privilege as a white Christian not to carry it to begin with, and it shouldn’t have been the responsibility of this black woman to lighten that burden for me or my mom. It isn’t fair, and the only way I can undo that unfairness is to start carrying my own weight. Isn’t that what following Christ is supposed to mean? Reconciling and restoring Shalom? Bearing our collective cross as believers in a savior who, through his lifestyle of action, boldly denounced such sins and called us to envision a world anew? Breaking our hearts for that which breaks God’s? Taking on the burdens of others? Loving others as ourselves? Learning to lament hatred and division so much it reaches the existential and physical depths of our bones? I think so, and it’s for that reason that me, my mom, and this middle-aged black woman wept. You see, fighting racism in and through the Church does not simply require integration and acceptance of others. It requires intentional and emphatic engagement. It requires uncomfortable and blatant confrontation of the ways in which we perpetuate hatred, whether through discrimination, apathy, or denial. After all, we cannot cut out our sin if we pretend it isn’t there.
This brings me back to the song, of which there are two versions. The original was released in 2012 on the album, Lent. In 2015, the song was re-released on the album, Brother, bearing one small change in the lyrics.
Original: The world is burning as you’re standing by / Are you watching, as your children die? / Did your heart break? / Does your heart break now?
Rewrite: When the man said “You are choking me” / And he cried out “I cannot breathe” / Did your heart break? / Does your heart break now?
This alternate verse, written less than one year after the death of Eric Garner, comprises the exact words he spoke as police unjustly took his life during an arrest for suspicion of selling cigarettes without tax stamps. Responding to a travesty mourned by many, this verse reflects a desperate need for reassurance that God mourns alongside us. Additionally, given the large number of people in and outside the Church who espouse insensitive, often inaccurate excuses for this and similar cases, it also challenges Christians to do better. By appealing to God’s response, the artists demonstrate what our response to such events should be: broken hearts. They remind us that we serve a loving God who gets into the thickets of human experience and dwells in the ugliness alongside us, admonishing us to do the same. They subtly implore us to cut out our denial and apathy.
Months have passed since the Unite the Right rally first made national headlines, and though discourse has noticeably dwindled, the evil displayed that day has not. Living and working in a particularly conservative southern context, I often feel discouraged by many Christians’ reluctance, inability, or outright refusal to concern themselves with matters of social or political injustice. Sometimes I allow this discouragement to beget bitterness and harsh judgments, neither of which is helpful or Christlike, and both of which are exhausting. That is where I found myself when I heard the rewritten version of the song, and it snapped me out of it. It woke me up. It reminded me of the experience I had last August, and of the countless people showing the love of Christ day in and day out, fighting to bring some semblance of just love back into this world. We weep because the Father weeps, but we should also rejoice in knowing there are others in the Church, minorities and allies alike, who weep too.
Humility, empathy, and solidarity. That is what the first steps to redemption look like. That is why we weep.
To read more of my ramblings on the convergence of spirituality and racism, check out I Heard the Voice of God in a Black Woman’s Name.