SALT LAKE CITY — As Americans take to the streets to protest racial injustice, Christians are asking a familiar question: What would Jesus do?
Would he grab a sign and square off against police? Write letters to politicians? Say prayers?
The best answer is probably “all of the above,” according to leaders from various Christian traditions, who said faithful protesting comes in many forms.
“Some people are called to be on the streets and some people aren’t. Some people are called to offer a supportive presence in one form or another, while others are just called to pray,” said Bishop Mariann Budde, who leads the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C.
But no Christian is called to stay silent when people are suffering, she said.
As the nation mourns George Floyd’s death in police custody, churches should be engaged with current protests over racial injustice and grappling with their own failures to love their black neighbors in the past, some religious leaders said.
“The one thing Christians cannot do is to look away,” the Rev. Budde said.
For much of American history, many predominately white churches did just that, according to Malcolm Foley, who serves as director of discipleship for Mosaic Church in Waco, Texas, and is currently writing a dissertation on lynching as he pursues a Ph.D. in Christian history.
Some houses of worship thought it was wrong to worry about worldly concerns, so they refused to condemn slavery and other forms of racial violence. They wanted to keep their focus on God and the promise of salvation, not try to shake up the status quo.
“They believed the church’s role is exclusively spiritual, which is often understood to be contrary to the physical world,” Foley said.
To this day, some churches teach that faith-based activism violates the Bible’s call to respect worldly authority, said Daniel Darling, who has written about racial divisions within Christianity. Members worry that any form of protest would undermine the work of people in charge.
“They focus on respect for the law and civil authority,” he said.
From their founding onward, African American churches have taught that it’s possible to respect governing authorities and call for change at the same time, Foley said. They wanted to save souls, while also saving lives.
“They believed that, if you’re in union with Christ, you should be using every single resource at your disposal” to build a better world, Foley said. “That’s going to include peaceful protest.”
This impulse helps explain religious involvement in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which was led by several prominent black pastors, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. These leaders drew their inspiration from the Bible and described racial injustice as a sin.
“They believed that salvation is not just something to look forward to. It’s something that we ought to be able to bring about and experience now,” Foley said.
Over time, more and more Christians have embraced a worldview of working toward change, Darling said. It’s now common for churches to participate in marches tied to issues like abortion rights, climate change or sexual assault and encourage members to pay attention to what’s happening in the world outside the sanctuary’s walls.
“As a Bible-believing Christian, I think you can’t read what the Bible says about human dignity and not apply it to our current system,” he said.
Christians are called to be a “voice for the voiceless,” which means they should speak up on behalf of people whose pleas for justice aren’t being heard, said the Rev. Elizabeth McVicker, who leads two Methodist churches in Salt Lake City.
“We’re called to bring a voice to injustice,” she said.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death, most Christian denominations released statements expressing support for the activism taking place in his honor.
“It is true what Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, that riots are the language of the unheard. We should be doing a lot of listening right now. This time, we should not fail to hear what people are saying through their pain,” said Archbishop Jose Gomez, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a statement.
“The creator of us all calls on each of us to abandon attitudes of prejudice against any group of God’s children. Any of us who has prejudice toward another race needs to repent!” he said.
Many faith leaders also joined protests related to George Floyd’s death or hosted gatherings of their own.
“We believe that people of faith need to be part of the work of healing,” said the Rev. McVicker, who co-hosted a peaceful protest in support of victims of police brutality on Tuesday night.
Recent faith-based activism and statements on racial injustice have been a bright spot in a difficult time, Foley said.
“The past few days and weeks have been encouraging in that sense. A number of folks seem to be coming to the realization that (racism) is a really big deal,” he said.
They’re also realizing that part of living a life of faith means pitching in to help address it, Darling said.
Christians “have a responsibility to participate in shaping our country,” he said.
This responsibility can be fulfilled in many ways, as the Rev. Budde noted. Participating in elections, building a relationship with political officials and praying are all ways to shape the future that don’t involve picking up a protest sign.
“A question we should all ask regularly is what would the love of Jesus look like in this moment? What would love do? What would sacrificially giving your life to someone else look like?” the Rev. Budde said.
Questions like these can help Christians determine how and when to get involved in a protest movement and what types of activism will be most effective. Just this week, it led the Rev. Budde to go to St. John’s Episcopal Church, which is across the street from the White House, to offer comfort to protesters in the streets.
“I thought we should be a respite station. We should be a place of hospitality and a place expressing solidarity with all of the protesters,” she said. “I wanted them to see the face of Jesus in us standing with them.”
Other Christians might have taken a different approach, and that’s OK, the Rev. Budde said. There’s no one-size-fits-all way to bring God’s love to bear on difficult situations.
However, religious leaders do agree that Christians should be committed to finding nonviolent solutions. The Bible teaches that vengeance and retribution are for God to dole out, Foley said.
“We’ve been given a different call, a call to act in mercy,” he said.
President Donald Trump seemed to reference this teaching during his June 1 remarks on recent protests, which he offered in the White House rose garden.
He described violent protests as “domestic terror” and called on law enforcement to act quickly to stop rioting and looting.
“The destruction of innocent life and the spilling of innocent blood is an offense to humanity and a crime against God,” Trump said.
Although Foley might agree with this statement in another context, he said he was frustrated that the president did not put the same energy behind condemning racial violence and police brutality.
Trump’s statement “glosses over the underlying issues,” Foley said.
Christians need to be careful not to make the same mistake as they engage with efforts to root out race-based injustice. It’s possible to condemn looting and rioting and highlight the value of peaceful protest at the same time, Darling said.
“You don’t want to deescalate things in order to go back to normal life. You still want that protest and you want change,” he said.
Christians should be committed to fighting for justice no matter how long it takes to arrive, as Bishop Michael Curry, the first African American to serve as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, said in a recent statement on activism.
“Opening and changing hearts does not happen overnight. The Christian race is not a sprint; it is a marathon,” he said.
Although recent violence is troubling, Christians shouldn’t use it as an excuse to avoid engaging with an important issue, Darling added. Efforts to address systemic racism will benefit from the strong moral leadership that people of faith can provide.
“Whenever you have activism that loses its religious core, I think it can descend into the kind of things we’re seeing that we don’t like,” he said.
And whenever religious communities lose site of their call to stand up against injustice, they can end up with a watered-down version of faith.
“If you have a gospel that doesn’t force you to go out and try to change the culture because you love your neighbor and want a better world for him, then you have a truncated gospel,” Darling said.