During his 1963 speech in Detroit, Michigan, “Message to the Grass Roots,” activist Malcolm X once said, “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery. That’s a good religion.” As I read another statistic on how many black people have died at the hands of police this year, I feel conflict: deep down inside I believe there is another way, but sometimes I have my doubts. It raises an important question during a time when the reality of racial injustice most easily breeds anger—As a Christian, how can I preach “love your neighbor” when my instinct is to fight back? That was the question on my mind as I entered into a dialogue with second-year MDiv student Caleb Campbell on a rare cloudy afternoon in Pasadena, California. As accounts of offenses toward black bodies continue to permeate my online news feed, how do I reconcile the black community’s approach to justice that often seems so different from the church’s? Caleb’s answer to the question is consistent—it always comes back to love. “That’s the responsibility of black Christians because we have to navigate these two worlds,” he says, urging that we have to bring the reconciling power of the gospel to our black brothers and sisters to see this is the key that we need. “It always goes back to love,” he insists. “There’s so much hope in that. Love has the power to overrule darkness.” His words serve as a reminder of my own hopes that love will indeed prevail in the end. I hold onto this aspiration as our lengthy conversation wades through the muddy waters of race, being a black student at Fuller, and grappling with the appearance of “respectability politics.”
Caleb grew up in Westmont, a neighborhood in the South Central area of Los Angeles only about 20 miles south of Pasadena, yet he had never heard of Fuller Seminary. It wasn’t until he started researching seminaries with high academic standards that Fuller emerged as a graduate institution committed to the fundamentals of Christian faith and rigorous scholarship. That scholarship has its blind spots, however, and we both acknowledge our disappointment with the lack of inclusion of the African American experience and its contribution to church history within the classroom. Yet some exceptions—such as Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics Hak Joon Lee’s course “Theology and Ethics of Martin Luther King Jr.”—have strengthened Caleb’s resolve to revive Christian principles that have inspired justice movements in the past. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement used the Christian faith as their framework for fighting oppression, but Caleb sees a new need for effective strategy in addition to Christian principles. We need to fight injustice with new strategies that reflect contemporary waves of thought, he feels, while continuing to look to those who came before us for cues on effectiveness. “King was able to make creative protest a powerful force against injustice. They used their imaginations, they prayed, they sought God’s help, and their demonstrations—freedom rides, marches, etc—were creative. We have to be just as creative, while keeping love at the center,” he says, relishing the fact that many of the efforts to spark change that he admires were birthed out of the black church. For both of us, this rekindles the frustration that the black theological narrative has largely been absent in our education as well as in culture at large.
Though Caleb believes that the #BlackLivesMatter movement has been evoking creativity and imagination resonant with Dr. King’s, on a local level he and a group of students are responding to the call toward creative protest by forming Onyx, a student group committed to empowering and developing black male students at Fuller. As vice president of the newly formed campus organization, Caleb reflects on self-determination, self-agency, and the ways in which African Americans can shift others’ perceptions of black men. “It’s very easy to point the finger away from ourselves, but at the same time we have to reflect on ourselves,” he believes. “We have to look at behaviors, patterns of behavior, that do not help our situation and that simply perpetuate stereotypes.”
Some critics would label Caleb’s approach a form of respectability politics, or criticizing one’s own community in order to appear more acceptable to mainstream culture. After all, the thinking goes, why should the onus be on black people to behave nicer, instead of calling white people to task for their racism and implicit biases? The task of reconciling, says Caleb, requires the unity of black and white Christians working together. “It’s not about attacking white people. This is a human problem, reflected in many different ways, and in one way or another, we’re all complicit.”
That responsibility needs to be exercised in the classroom as well. Caleb recalls times when white classmates have insisted that current examples of racial violence are merely isolated incidents, with no implied undercurrent. On the other hand, he also remembers when his American church history professor James Bradley led a devotional at the beginning of class on the day it was revealed that the white police officer who shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was acquitted. “He showed genuine, sincere grief over the whole matter,” Caleb remembers. “He prayed over it and brought Scripture to us to help us make sense of it. I saw deep concern and compassion, and that touched my heart.”
Love and compassion are two-way streets, and even though it can be a humbling reality, Caleb is determined to enter conversations on race with grace—at Fuller and elsewhere. We have to begin with the Christian context, he says, pointing out that who one defines as “neighbor” determines how one will treat others. “When you see that the biblical understanding is that all of humanity—everyone that you are sharing this world with—is your neighbor, that obliges you to show love to everyone,” he insists. As we seek to tear down walls, Caleb reminds me that even though current events make it seem as though retaliation is our only option, true love is demonstrated when both sides put their armor down and look for ways to understand each other. I think that is something worth fighting for, and my prayer is that hope in that truth will sustain us in the hard road ahead.