In the wake of yet more anti-Black violence: We must ‘fight the freeze’

In the wake of yet more anti-Black violence: We must ‘fight the freeze’

According to mental health professionals, when human beings encounter a threat we respond in one of three ways: fight, flight or freeze.

We can choose to confront the threat by fighting, either physically or verbally. We can run away from the threat in an act of self preservation; again, this can be literal or it can be an emotional and psychological retreat. Finally, we can freeze, an experience of physical or psychic paralysis that won’t let us fight or flee but temporarily immobilizes us.

The fight, flight or freeze reflex may kick in when people of conscience see or hear about the latest incident of Black death. I had this reaction when I first saw the video of George Floyd’s killing this week. A white cop calmly pressing his knee against the back of the neck of a prostrate Floyd, who was Black. Floyd pleaded with the officer, “I can’t breathe,” until Floyd lost consciousness and soon died.

Another human being reduced to hashtags: #JusticeforGeorge and #Icantbreathe

In the flurry of social media posts once the video became public, many people expressed a sense of helplessness. They said they did not know what to say or do. On Twitter, I tried to express my reaction this way:


“I’m numb. The kind of numb that doesn’t mean you can’t feel anything but that you feel all the things at once and don’t know how to name it or what to do about it.”

A numbness, like when you can’t feel your hands after being outside in the cold without gloves, is honest, even predictable. But as I probed my reaction, I actually discovered a handful of actions that might help get us unfrozen.

Over the past few years, I’ve developed a model called the A.R.C. of Racial Justice that I believe can help us work through feelings of helplessness (and numbness) when we witness racism. It stands for Awareness, Relationships and Commitment. Breaking down racial justice actions into these three areas makes the prospect of moving again more manageable.

Awareness

So often when we hear about another notorious incident of white supremacy and violence enacted upon Black bodies, we get flooded with emotions: anger, despondency, fear, frustration.

We need to sit with the feelings that come in the wake of an injustice. Taking external action without prior or simultaneous inward action will leave us working from an empty reservoir of emotional fuel.

We need to do the hard work of heart work. This fits under the “awareness” heading because we are increasing our self-knowledge.

When he saw my tweet about feeling numb, a therapist friend of mind recommended writing a letter to whiteness … and then burning it. He said, “The trauma needs somewhere to go and be released.”

I did this and it felt so good. I put words to my inchoate feelings and articulated my emotions. And I really liked the burning part. Black people need to do this because, as James Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively aware is to be in a rage almost all the time.” We need to put that rage somewhere.

Hundreds of protesters gather May 26, 2020, near the site of the arrest of George Floyd, who died in police custody Monday night in Minneapolis, after video shared online by a bystander showed a white officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck during his arrest as Floyd pleaded that he couldn’t breathe. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

White folks can do something similar. Writing down your feelings in these moments is healthy. Maybe you have questions of yourself or others that you haven’t been able to verbalize yet. Maybe you have a sense of shame and guilt over your white privilege that you need to put into sentences and paragraphs.

Do it. Put it all out there. Then burn it.

Racism traumatizes both the oppressed and the oppressor, and that trauma needs to go somewhere and be released.

Relationships

Earlier this week, I learned a new hashtag: #BirdwatchingWhileBlack. It came about because a white woman called the cops on a Black man, Christian Cooper, in New York’s Central Park while he was out birdwatching. The woman had a dog that was not on a leash, as the park rules required. When Cooper asked her to leash the dog, she decided to call the police and act as if the Black man was a threat to her physical safety. Good thing the man had his cellphone camera, so we could see what actually happened.

In the aftermath of #BirdwatchingWhileBlack and the unwelcome reminder that Black folk can literally be doing anything and still become the subject of surveillance and abuse, all I wanted to do was be close to my child. I packed up early from work and spent the rest of the night just hanging out and pouring into that relationship.

In a white supremacist society, Black love is a radical act. Building relationships with other Black people and people of color can be a way to fight back against the despair that hounds us.

So, Black people, love each other. Laugh together. Get on a Zoom call. Write letters. Call. Celebrate the relationships you have with other Black folks who know what it’s like to have their bodies perceived as threats yet can find reasons for hope, joy and love anyway.

White people, invest in the Black people you know. Ever since the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which served as a racial awakening for a lot of white people, I’ve had a handful of white folks call, text or email me whenever another horrendous act of racism makes national headlines. They’re not asking for anything. They’re expressing their grief along with mine, they’re asking what I need, they’re letting me know they’re praying for me.

Their words don’t bring dead Black bodies to life. They don’t indict police officers for murder. They don’t change the danger I face as a Black man whenever I leave my house. But they do matter to me. They are a slight sign that others know this is hard, and they don’t want me to feel alone.

So reach out. Be gentle. Don’t demand attention or affirmation. Just let the people of color in your life know you’re present when they’re in pain, and that you’re in pain, too.

Commitment

That feeling of being frozen in the face of Black death comes from the regularity of the tragedy. It’s 2020. I vividly recall the national moment when 17-year old Trayvon Martin was killed for having brown skin and wearing a hoodie — and became a proxy for everyone’s thoughts about race and justice in America. That was eight years ago. Then there was a string of Black deaths, from Sandra Bland and Alton Sterling to Rekia Boyd and the Emanuel Nine.

When does it ever stop? Does anything we do make a difference? Will Black lives ever matter?

If we want to see widespread change in the racial structure of this nation then we have to commit to changing racist policies and practices. In the case of George Floyd’s death, which involved yet another police officer, we need to deeply probe policing in this country.

People participate in a rally May 8, 2020, in Brunswick, Georgia, to protest the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man. Two men have been charged with murder in the February shooting death of Arbery, whom they had pursued in a truck after spotting him running in their neighborhood. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Activists have an abundance of recommendations. Campaign Zero, a nonprofit dedicated to ending police violence, lists 10 practices to achieve this goal, including: establishing independent review boards for local police departments; better training for police, including implicit bias and de-escalation training; and demilitarizing the police force’s weaponry.

Beyond reforming policing as it currently exists, some activists insist that the entire enterprise, rooted as it is in slave patrols and controlling Black bodies, should be abolished. They advocate defunding police departments and diverting the money to other areas such as mental health care, using restorative justice teams for help resolving conflicts, and decriminalizing many behaviors so that law enforcement is not required.

Some actions to affect policing at a broad level include:

  • Financially supporting organizations dedicated to eliminating police violence
  • Calling state and local officials to advocate for changes in their law enforcement platform
  • Meeting with local mayors, council members, and law enforcement leaders to hear their thoughts on policing and the community and to make your thoughts known
  • Demanding public transparency in the negotiation of police union contracts

Acclaimed writer Anne Lamott keeps a 1-inch picture frame on the desk where she writes. Whenever she struggles getting started writing, she looks at that 1-inch picture frame. “And it reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame.”

We can do the same with fighting for racial justice.

Whenever the massive problem of fighting white supremacy, racism or police violence freezes us in place, we don’t need a grand vision for reform and revolution. All we have to do is think of a “1-inch” action to get us going. It can be increasing your awareness of an issue, building a relationship or committing to reforming a policy or practice. If we keep going, then the 1-inch actions we take to fight racism can paint a beautiful portrait of justice and equity.

(Jemar Tisby is the president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective and co-host of the “Pass The Mic” podcast. He is the author of “The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

Ahmaud Arbery died for the indefensible principle of white control

Ahmaud Arbery died for the indefensible principle of white control

Video Courtesy of NowThis News


In Genesis 4, Cain kills his brother Abel out of anger and jealousy. He lured his sibling out into a field and murdered him. Then God confronts Cain and asks him where his brother is. Cain indignantly answers with a question that reverberates down through the millennia, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

In our day in Brunswick, Georgia, two white men saw a black man, Ahmaud Arbery, out for a jog and thought the worst. They waited for him, confronted him and killed him, proving what many know and what many try to deny: white people don’t serve as their brother’s keeper but, often, as their brother’s controller.

The Hebrew word for “keeper”(שׁמר) can mean to guard or protect. To “keep” one’s brother, or more broadly, one’s neighbor, means to look out for their well-being. It means to stand alongside them as an advocate when they face difficulties and dehumanization. It means to express tangible solidarity as a sign that we are all made in the image and likeness of God.

The system of white supremacy corrupts the relationship between white people and people of color. Instead of keeping their black brothers or sisters, white people seek to control them. It is a short journey from controlling black bodies to killing them.

The alleged murder happened Feb. 23 when Arbery ran past two white men, a father-son duo named Gregory and Travis McMichael, in the Satilla Shores neighborhood of Brunswick, a small town near the Georgia coast. They reflexively assumed that Arbery was the man responsible for a string of burglaries in the area even though no such crimes had been reported in weeks. One grabbed a shotgun, another picked up a pistol, and they pursued.

Ahmaud Arbery, in an undated family photo. Courtesy photo

The video shows Arbery jogging down the street as a white pickup truck blocks his path. The younger McMichael stands outside the truck with his shotgun. As Arbery approaches, shouts are heard, and an altercation occurs. Three shotgun blasts later, Arbery collapses to the ground.

The video emerged on May 5 and immediately sparked outrage. Within two days, the McMichaels had been arrested, after walking around free for more than two months.

What would make two ordinary citizens think they needed to take it upon themselves to get guns and pursue a black person out for a jog? If they suspected a crime had occurred, why not let law enforcement handle the situation? What role did race play in the entire scenario?

These questions all have echoes in the past. When it comes to controlling and policing black bodies, the history is as long as the nation itself.

In an article for Black Perspectives, historian Keri Leigh Merritt details the origins of professional policing in America. Prior to the Civil War, few towns had standing police forces. After the Civil War and emancipation, however, the white owner class still wanted cheap labor. They and many others wanted to re-entrench white supremacy.

White authorities devised vagrancy laws to ensnare black people in the criminal justice system. A black person could be arrested simply for not having proof of employment. Even more sinister, one did not have to be a police officer to enforce these rules.

As Merritt explained in her article, “the (vagrancy) statute deemed it lawful for ‘any person to arrest said vagrants,’ effectively giving all whites legal authority over blacks.”

This photo combo of images taken Thursday, May 7, 2020, and provided by the Glynn County Detention Center, in Georgia, show Gregory McMichael, left, and his son Travis McMichael. The two have been charged with murder in the February shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, whom they had pursued in a truck after spotting him running in their neighborhood. (Glynn County Detention Center via AP)

Laws crafted to entrap black people in the penal system simultaneously fostered a culture of suspicion and surveillance of black bodies. White people took it as their duty and right to regulate the movement of black bodies. They claimed all spaces as “white” spaces by default, and any person of color, especially a black person, had to justify their presence.

The same dynamics were at play when, eight years ago, George Zimmerman took it upon himself to pick up a gun and pursue a black 17-year-old named Trayvon Martin. This surveillance dynamic was at work when the manager of a Starbucks in Philadelphia called the police to remove Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson while they waited for an acquaintance to arrive for a meeting.

The culture of policing black bodies was at work when a white student called the police on Lolade Siyonbola, a graduate student at Yale who had fallen asleep in her dorm’s common room. The idea that black people must be controlled in most spaces is behind a neighbor calling the police on 12-year old Reggie Fields for mowing a portion of the wrong lawn.

White supremacy has perverted God’s command in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis that human beings should “rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Instead of ruling over the animals and plants as God directed, white supremacy leads people to try to rule over black people who are fellow image-bearers of God.

This culture of controlling black bodies means that just as the blood of Abel cries out from the ground for justice, so does the blood of Ahmaud cry out from Brunswick, Georgia. The blood of all the black people lynched to appease the idol of white supremacy cries out from the ground.

White people must learn, perhaps for the first time, what it means to “keep” rather than “control” their black brothers and sisters. No racial or ethnic group should have the power of life and death over another. Black bodies have been created in the likeness of God, yet our simple presence is deemed a threat to be controlled rather than a neighbor to be loved.

Only when white people learn that they are their brother and sister’s keeper rather than their controller will those cries finally be satisfied and at peace.

(Jemar Tisby is the president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective and co-host of the Pass The Mic podcast. He is the author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.)

Ahmaud Arbery died for the indefensible principle of white control

Ahmaud Arbery died for the indefensible principle of white control

Video Courtesy of NowThis News


In Genesis 4, Cain kills his brother Abel out of anger and jealousy. He lured his sibling out into a field and murdered him. Then God confronts Cain and asks him where his brother is. Cain indignantly answers with a question that reverberates down through the millennia, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

In our day in Brunswick, Georgia, two white men saw a black man, Ahmaud Arbery, out for a jog and thought the worst. They waited for him, confronted him and killed him, proving what many know and what many try to deny: white people don’t serve as their brother’s keeper but, often, as their brother’s controller.

The Hebrew word for “keeper”(שׁמר) can mean to guard or protect. To “keep” one’s brother, or more broadly, one’s neighbor, means to look out for their well-being. It means to stand alongside them as an advocate when they face difficulties and dehumanization. It means to express tangible solidarity as a sign that we are all made in the image and likeness of God.

The system of white supremacy corrupts the relationship between white people and people of color. Instead of keeping their black brothers or sisters, white people seek to control them. It is a short journey from controlling black bodies to killing them.

The alleged murder happened Feb. 23 when Arbery ran past two white men, a father-son duo named Gregory and Travis McMichael, in the Satilla Shores neighborhood of Brunswick, a small town near the Georgia coast. They reflexively assumed that Arbery was the man responsible for a string of burglaries in the area even though no such crimes had been reported in weeks. One grabbed a shotgun, another picked up a pistol, and they pursued.

Ahmaud Arbery, in an undated family photo. Courtesy photo

The video shows Arbery jogging down the street as a white pickup truck blocks his path. The younger McMichael stands outside the truck with his shotgun. As Arbery approaches, shouts are heard, and an altercation occurs. Three shotgun blasts later, Arbery collapses to the ground.

The video emerged on May 5 and immediately sparked outrage. Within two days, the McMichaels had been arrested, after walking around free for more than two months.

What would make two ordinary citizens think they needed to take it upon themselves to get guns and pursue a black person out for a jog? If they suspected a crime had occurred, why not let law enforcement handle the situation? What role did race play in the entire scenario?

These questions all have echoes in the past. When it comes to controlling and policing black bodies, the history is as long as the nation itself.

In an article for Black Perspectives, historian Keri Leigh Merritt details the origins of professional policing in America. Prior to the Civil War, few towns had standing police forces. After the Civil War and emancipation, however, the white owner class still wanted cheap labor. They and many others wanted to re-entrench white supremacy.

White authorities devised vagrancy laws to ensnare black people in the criminal justice system. A black person could be arrested simply for not having proof of employment. Even more sinister, one did not have to be a police officer to enforce these rules.

As Merritt explained in her article, “the (vagrancy) statute deemed it lawful for ‘any person to arrest said vagrants,’ effectively giving all whites legal authority over blacks.”

This photo combo of images taken Thursday, May 7, 2020, and provided by the Glynn County Detention Center, in Georgia, show Gregory McMichael, left, and his son Travis McMichael. The two have been charged with murder in the February shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, whom they had pursued in a truck after spotting him running in their neighborhood. (Glynn County Detention Center via AP)

Laws crafted to entrap black people in the penal system simultaneously fostered a culture of suspicion and surveillance of black bodies. White people took it as their duty and right to regulate the movement of black bodies. They claimed all spaces as “white” spaces by default, and any person of color, especially a black person, had to justify their presence.

The same dynamics were at play when, eight years ago, George Zimmerman took it upon himself to pick up a gun and pursue a black 17-year-old named Trayvon Martin. This surveillance dynamic was at work when the manager of a Starbucks in Philadelphia called the police to remove Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson while they waited for an acquaintance to arrive for a meeting.

The culture of policing black bodies was at work when a white student called the police on Lolade Siyonbola, a graduate student at Yale who had fallen asleep in her dorm’s common room. The idea that black people must be controlled in most spaces is behind a neighbor calling the police on 12-year old Reggie Fields for mowing a portion of the wrong lawn.

White supremacy has perverted God’s command in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis that human beings should “rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Instead of ruling over the animals and plants as God directed, white supremacy leads people to try to rule over black people who are fellow image-bearers of God.

This culture of controlling black bodies means that just as the blood of Abel cries out from the ground for justice, so does the blood of Ahmaud cry out from Brunswick, Georgia. The blood of all the black people lynched to appease the idol of white supremacy cries out from the ground.

White people must learn, perhaps for the first time, what it means to “keep” rather than “control” their black brothers and sisters. No racial or ethnic group should have the power of life and death over another. Black bodies have been created in the likeness of God, yet our simple presence is deemed a threat to be controlled rather than a neighbor to be loved.

Only when white people learn that they are their brother and sister’s keeper rather than their controller will those cries finally be satisfied and at peace.

(Jemar Tisby is the president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective and co-host of the Pass The Mic podcast. He is the author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.)

What did church teach the students posing in front of Emmett Till’s marker?

What did church teach the students posing in front of Emmett Till’s marker?

Video Courtesy of CBS News


The investigative news agency ProPublica released a photo showing three white students from the University of Mississippi posing with guns in front of a bullet-riddled marker dedicated to Emmett Till.

White men lynched Till, a 14-year-old black boy visiting from Chicago, for supposedly flirting with a white woman at a store in Mississippi in 1955. His murder, along with his mother’s defiant decision to display her son’s mutilated face in an open casket, helped spur the civil rights movement.

Upon seeing the photo, one of my first questions was: “What church do these young men attend?”

To ask about their churches is to inquire about the role communities of faith play in perpetuating or dismantling racism in its various forms. The young men may not go to church. They may not even be Christians. But in an area known as the “Bible Belt” the cultural influence of Christianity is strong. So how the church influences the racial understanding of white Christians deserves probing.

The young men positioned themselves in front of this marker like big-game hunters proudly displaying their deceased prize. It’s as if Till, his memory, his murder and his legacy were all just a game to this grinning group.

One of the people pictured even posted the photo on his Instagram account. It garnered almost 250 “likes” before being taken down when reporters started asking about it. One person who saw the photo filed a complaint with the University of Mississippi back in March, but officials there did not take any action. Instead they referred it to the FBI where the case stalled because officers said the photo “did not pose a specific threat.”

Other entities took more decisive action. The three men pictured all belong to the Kappa Alpha fraternity. According to its website, the fraternity cites Confederate General Robert E. Lee as its “spiritual founder.” When fraternity leaders were made aware of the photo last week, however, they immediately suspended all three frat brothers.

Aside from the disciplinary actions, other issues remain.

Did these young men bother to read the historical marker behind them to learn about Till and the significance of his life and murder? Did they think twice about posting this picture publicly and what it communicated about how they regarded black people? Did the teaching of their churches help or hinder their sensitivity concerning race?


Video Courtesy of NBC News


The primary question is not whether churches are endorsing overt racism; they almost certainly are not. The question is about how church leaders understand race and what they are teaching their members about it.

It could be the case that churches are not teaching much about race at all. Pastors remain relatively silent about racism from the pulpit, Bible study groups may not touch the topic, and few church members in homogenous white congregations ever bring it up.

In other cases, churches may talk about race, but in unhelpful ways. Oftentimes, they try to do so in a “colorblind” way by emphasizing commonality and by minimizing or ignoring differences.

They claim they “don’t see color” and that all believers are brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of their race or ethnicity. These teachings become problematic when the varied life experiences, racial hardships, and history of black people is blotted out in a blob of contrived sameness. Unity does not mean uniformity.

Other churches may have a truncated explanation for how race works. White evangelical Christians, in particular, tend to think of race in individualistic terms. The problem, they say, is bad relationships — as when a person doesn’t like another because of race, or when someone uses racial slurs. The solution, according to this line of thinking, is to have more positive relationships across the color line.

Relationships with people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds is a necessary part of bringing about racial justice, but it is not sufficient. Personal relationships have little impact on structural racial inequalities such as anti-black police brutality, high rates of maternity-related deaths among black women, or the racial wealth gap.

No amount of one-on-one lunches, small group discussions or coffee meetups will automatically impact the broader issue of institutional racism.

White churches have to be attuned to how they may implicitly reinforce racism. Some Christian churches have started private schools. If those schools do not intentionally embed racial awareness into their curricula and practice, they are likely perpetuating misunderstandings.

Some churches, in effect, make adherence to the Republican party platform a litmus test for Christian orthodoxy. Most black people are not Republican, so political differences can create barriers to belonging.

If churches want to improve the way they teach their members about race, they should start by examining their understanding of the term.

Ask church leaders to define the words “race” and “racism.” Oftentimes there are as many different answers as there are people answering. The key here is to move beyond a narrow concept of racism as only an interpersonal phenomenon. Christians must acknowledge the ways race operates on systemic and institutional levels. Developing a shared language and definitions is a key to improving racial responsiveness.

Churches also have to talk about race. On any divisive topic, the temptation is to avoid discussing it for fear of offending someone. But people are already talking about race— at the dinner table, at work, in group text messages — and they often do so in unhelpful ways. With a shared language and mutually understood concepts, pastors and church leaders can be the guides their members need for talking about race in nuanced, spiritual and morally informed ways.

What if those young men who proudly posed in front of a defaced sign dedicated to a lynched boy had been deeply educated by their church about race and racism? What if they’d had a Sunday School class on the history of American Christianity and race? What if they learned to see what the Bible says from Genesis to Revelation about how to understand and celebrate differences? What if those young men had learned a robust doctrine of the image of God to better grasp the dignity of all people?

No one should need specialized teaching to know that standing with guns in front of a plaque detailing Emmett Till’s murder is racist. An elementary understanding of U.S. history and a modicum of concern for other human beings should prevent such offenses. Yet, whether churches lend more to perpetuating racism or providing remedies remains a pressing concern.

If churches, which have historically had such a large role in driving racism, do not effectively teach their congregants about race, then many Christians will continue to be part of creating racial problems rather than helping enact solutions.

(The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

How to talk about racism in the church without becoming bitter

How to talk about racism in the church without becoming bitter

Fannie Lou Hamer, of Ruleville, Miss., speaks to Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party supporters outside the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 17, 1965, after the House of Representatives rejected a challenge to the 1964 election of five Mississippi representatives. Hamer and two other African-American women were seated on the floor of the House while the challenge was being considered. She said, “We’ll come back year after year until we are allowed our rights as citizens.” The challengers claimed that African-Americans were excluded from the election process in Mississippi. (AP Photo/William J. Smith)

The American church has a problem with racism.

The issue is not new.

It includes support in the past for appalling acts such as lynching and racial terrorism and ongoing, inexcusable apathy. Although much has changed, the path toward deep diversity, authentic inclusion and radical repair remains long. Much of my time is spent telling Christians about the past and present concerning racism in the nation and the congregation.

Christians engaged in anti-racism work risk becoming bitter toward the church. In my speaking and travels, people often ask me, “How do you talk about racism without becoming bitter?”

Or they ask a similar question from a different angle: “How do you maintain hope in the midst of so much evil?”

There’s no easy answer.

At times, I’ve been tempted to give up on church people in frustration. Especially white evangelicals.

The 2018 midterm elections, for instance, revealed that yet again, white evangelicals chose to support a brand of politics that is inimical to people of color. In spite of the fear-mongering and overtly racist appeals of some candidates, 75 percent of white evangelicals voted for Republicans in the midterms.

Two years into his administration, white evangelicals remain the only religious group in which a majority view Trump favorably. More than 70 percent of self-identified white evangelical or born-again Christians have a favorable view of the president. Seventy-five percent of black Protestants have an unfavorable view.

It appears to me, as a person of color, that white evangelicals have little regard for my voice or those of people like me. Attempting to voice the concerns of black Christians among white churchgoers and receiving so much opposition makes it difficult sometimes for me to read the Bible and go to church.

I am still healing from wounds I’ve accrued over years of writing, speaking and teaching about racism and injustice. But no matter how discouraging the racial conditions in the church become, bitterness is not a healthy option.

To be clear, voting for Republicans is not the issue. The issue is Christians saying they support racial reconciliation on the one hand while simultaneously supporting politicians — in this case, Republicans — who traffic in racism and xenophobia on the other.

At moments like this, I think of Fannie Lou Hamer.

Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, speaks before the credentials committee of the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J., on Aug. 22, 1964, in an effort to win accreditation for the group as Mississippi’s delegation to the convention. The Freedom group, composed almost entirely of African-Americans, was opposed by the regular all-white Mississippi delegation. (AP Photo)

Born in 1917 in rural Mississippi, Hamer was the last of 20 children immersed in a life of poverty as a sharecropper. In her 40s, she got involved in the civil rights movement after she heard young activists give a presentation about voting rights.

She then dedicated her life to fighting for equal rights for black people and more humane treatment of the poor.

One night in 1963, Hamer and some fellow civil rights activists, all of whom were black, were taken into custody on spurious charges by white police officers. The law enforcement officials took them to a jail and proceeded to beat each one, including Hamer. The harrowing experience left her with permanent health problems and emotional wounds such as depression. But that didn’t stop her from loving people, even her enemies.

“I feel sorry for anybody that could let hate wrap them up,” she said. “Ain’t no such thing as I can hate anybody and hope to see God’s face.”

When I think of saints like Fannie Lou Hamer and how they endured far more than I ever have in the fight for racial equality, I cannot engage in the self-indulgence of bitterness.

I have to keep striding toward freedom because I am part of a legacy of freedom fighters who have struggled under far more adverse conditions and yet maintained hope in God and the church.

Another way I find hope is through community. Through my work, I’ve met true allies across the color line. These women and men are quick to listen and slow to speak, which makes them more informed and more effective collaborators for change.

I have also been deeply enriched by friendships with people of color. Black Christians, who often make up a minority whether in church or school or the workplace, need regular contact with others who share similar experiences and backgrounds. We need a group where we can vent, laugh and recharge — folks around whom we don’t have to explain our existence. We need relationships with people who “get it.”

Finally, I try to keep the racial situation in the church in perspective by distinguishing between the universal church and particular people and congregations. I have often felt betrayed by specific Christians and churches. Individual Christians have berated me to my face — telling me how I get race wrong. Churches and denominations have rescinded speaking invitations, and many, many others have been bold in asserting that race is a social or a political issue, but not a gospel one.

In the face of such barbs, I have grown cautious.

I do my best to carefully choose speaking engagements and writing platforms that will let me communicate my views freely while not exposing me to malicious criticism. Unfortunately, many predominantly white Christian outlets and organizations prove extremely hostile to any anti-racist messages. But those particular places do not represent the church as a whole.

Christ is building his church. And as the Gospel of Matthew tells us, the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

The church is a beautiful bulwark against bitterness. It is a church that spans across time, nations, races and ethnicities. It is an undefeated community. It is this church, imperfect though it is, that persuades me to persist. It is Christ’s church, universal and precious, that Christians who hate racism should fight to improve.

While the bigotry of individual Christians and institutions may bend us toward bitterness, the beauty of Christ’s bride hearkens us back to hope.

(Jemar Tisby is president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective,  co-host of the podcast Pass The Mic and author of “The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.” Follow him on Twitter @JemarTisby. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)