When George Floyd was killed in police custody on May 25 in Minneapolis, it sparked a civil rights movement right around the world.
The underlying racial tensions that have existed in America since its foundations were rattled again – triggering an emotional plea to once and for all end the prejudicial treatment of black and coloured Americans.
While issues of race play out differently across the globe, Hope 103.2 wanted to start a conversation to help understand the context of what’s happening in America, and what we can learn from it for our own experiences here in Australia.
Tim Ross is the pastor of Embassy City Church in Irving, Texas, author of Upset the World and presenter of the YouTube series Upset the News. His congregation is famously multi-racial, and as an African American he’s right at the center of discussions happening right now.
In this interview we can by no means cover every aspect of what the Black Lives Matter movement represents, but our hope is that this chat is one of many that helps us reflect on our role in this time in history, and – for followers of Jesus – how we can serve others and bring healing to those who are hurting.
LB: You and your church, you’re famously multicultural. You’re a really great leader from everything that I’ve seen, and so I feel like there’s no better person to be able to talk to than you right now, about the racial divide happening in America, and how this is affecting us more broadly. What are you seeing and what are you feeling right now about what’s going on?
TR: I’m heartbroken, I’m angry. I’m saddened that this still is a reality in 2020. But this is a long history over hundreds of years in this country that I feel has crescendoed, to a generation that is more galvanised, more digitised and more technologically connected than any previous generation prior to this one. So there is a massive outcry against injustice in a way that we’ve never seen in America up until this point.
LB: All 50 American states, and [more than] 18 other countries, have got on board with Black Lives Matter protests, making it the biggest civil rights movement ever. Why do you think the death of George Floyd was a tipping point?
“When that basic dignity of life is taken in the manner that it was taken, outrage is the result.”
TR: I think George Floyd’s death epitomised what Black Americans have felt in this country for hundreds of years. When you saw that officer’s knee on George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, with the man begging just to get air… what it epitomised with his hands behind his back, and a knee in his neck, was what so many black people have felt in this country over hundreds of years. And that is, above civil rights, above trying to get a hand up, above trying to get a handout, above trying to get equality – we just want to breathe.
And when that basic dignity of life is taken in the manner that it was taken, outrage is the result.
LB: What’s become a sort of catch cry of a movement, “I can’t breathe”, that seems to stand for the weight of racial prejudice that really just doesn’t give you that freedom to take a deep breath. Do you feel like that’s kind of what it’s saying?
TR: That’s exactly what it’s saying. You know, so many people have tried to politicise what Black Lives Matter means in America… But at the heart of those three words, Black Lives Matter, is this cry for America to own up to the fact that racism has had, and continues to have, a deep and lasting impact and wound on the black Americans that still live in this country.
Why the Riots?
LB: One thing that I found kind of puzzling: one of the narratives that a lot of the protesters are trying to shift is that black people are dangerous – the generalisations that young guys in hoodies can’t be trusted – all of that sort of stuff. And yet we’ve seen obviously some really violent protests – but yes, there’s been a stack of peaceful ones. For the people that have approached things in violence, why do you think they’ve taken that course of action, knowing that it doesn’t really support the cause?
TR: We’ve been trying to contextualise the riots for some time now. Dr Martin Luther King Jr said, years ago, that “a riot is the language of the unheard”.
This is the best example I can give: If you were in your home, and let’s just say you were married, okay? And when you came home, you saw your spouse in the bed with another person. You’d probably pick up a bat and start busting some things up in your own house.
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, years ago, that ‘a riot is the language of the unheard’. It’s temporary insanity. No, it’s not logical, but in the heat of the moment when anger spills over and it doesn’t have words to label exactly what it is, or I have the words, but nobody wants to hear them, that’s when we see things getting broken up.”
Now, some might think that’s a crass analogy. But I’m trying to get to the heart of what happens when you are in your own home – but in this case for a community, in your own neighborhood – when you’re angry, you reach for the closest thing to you, and you break it. You might punch a hole through the wall. You think, “well, that’s your own wall; why would you punch a hole in it?” Well, when you’re angry, and you don’t have words to express what you’ve been trying to say, you reach for the closest thing to you and you break it.
If that’s what we do as individuals; a community reaches for their neighborhood and they break it.
It’s temporary insanity. No, it doesn’t make any sense. No, it’s not logical, but in the heat of the moment when anger spills over and it doesn’t have words to label exactly what it is. Or, I have the words, but nobody wants to hear them, or they’re just outright ignored. That’s when we see things getting broken up.
The Experience of Being a Black American
LB: There is a lot of research that says racial marginalisation affects the psychology and the actual DNA, genetic makeup, of individuals who’ve carried that for so long. What do you think the impact of this support and this conversation is going to be on the generations of people who’ve been carrying such heavy psychological trauma for so long?
TR: Well, I can tell you the type of Impact is having. Even now in the last 12 to 15 days, there have been more conversations with my white brothers and sisters with their black brothers and sisters, that has probably ever happened in the last 100 years in this country.
White men and women who have been living in this country for years and maybe have never even had a conversation that goes beyond the surface of what a black man or woman has struggled with in this country – are having the type of deep conversations that is bringing lasting healing to the souls of black men and women.
We’ve even had groups of white people stand in proxy for those other white people that were racist or did show overt signs of prejudice. And they are apologising. I can’t even describe to you the type of weeping that is coming out of grown, successful black men and women, when a white person stands in proxy, and just says, “I apologise”.
We have not been asking for much. It’s not like we’ve been asking for a transfer of $1 trillion and then we can go set up our own little society so we can be okay.
Black people have had a different experience in this country than other people that have migrated to this country, whether we’re talking about the Italians or the Irish, or people from Asia, or people from the islands. Black Americans, Afro Americans, as we would be called or classified in this season; we’re even having a different experience than Africans who migrated over here.
It’s not just that they haven’t been discriminated against, but they don’t have, like you just talked about, the years of trauma in their DNA, that would make them flinch over the signs of racism that they feel.
Why Tim Ross Loves Australia
Can I share something about your country, that completely, made me fall in love with it?
It was January of 2010. It was my first time coming to Australia in my entire life. And I came to Australia to preach at a church and I was here for 11 days. When I came back home, I told my wife Juliet, would you want to move to Australia with me?
LB: We’d have you! Come on over!
TR: Here was the reason why it impacted me.
Australia was the first continent that was predominantly Caucasian, that I had ever been to in my life that I never felt that racist undertone, subtle or overt – because when you’ve been exposed to prejudice and racism for hundreds of years, you can feel it coming from a person in the same way you could feel if you went to a dinner party, and there was some girls there that just didn’t like you like, right? You just felt some weird vibes coming from them, you couldn’t put your finger on it, but you knew they didn’t like you.
Australia was the first predominant-Caucasian country that I didn’t feel that. And it was enough to make me want to move, on the spot… If we could get that here that would be beautiful.
Moving Beyond Political Correctness
LB: I’m so glad that’s been your experience because I I know that even in our own country, there are places where our own indigenous culture very much feels marginalised.
I feel like political correctness really does a disservice because it’s intended to make sure no one was offended [but] it’s also meant people are silent, because they don’t want to say the wrong thing. What can we do to facilitate safe spaces where people can be vulnerable and admit that maybe they’re naive? It’d be cool to learn; being able to ask questions and change some of those internal attitudes that silence really covers over.
TR: First, across culture, we need to have safe spaces and places where people can have conversations without offense, which means that you need to be able to ask any question you feel like you need to ask… where we can get context and have an understanding about what people that are different from us are going through.
Secondly, once we’ve been armed with that information, we have to become mirrors, to our families, friends, in our communities that are homogenised.
“When we’re challenging people, not only in public, but in private, that’s where we’re really going to see this change.”
I need black people to be a mirror to their black friends and family. I need white people to be a mirror to their white friends and family. So that not only in public, but in private, when we hear something that’s racist; because we’ve had so much cross cultural conversation, we can take that back to our more homogenised locations and go “You can’t say that, that’s absolutely racist”, or “That’s ridiculously insensitive”, or “That act or behavior is something that is really divisive, and I don’t think you should say that anymore”.
When we’re challenging people, not only in public, but in private, that’s where we’re really going to see this change.
LB: If someone wanted to have a conversation with you about pain that you’ve experienced or what your perspective is on issues of race, what would be the best way to approach that conversation with sensitivity?
TR: What’s been beautiful that I’ve been finding out, and I’ve heard this from so many of my black friends and family is, their white friends and their white neighbors are actually reaching out and saying, “May I have a conversation with you? Can you tell me how you feel?”
Dr John Townsend, he and Dr Henry Cloud wrote a book called Boundaries; last week he used his platform and had a video chat. And he only invited black people to come speak. He said, “I don’t want to have a dialogue with you. I want you to have a monologue. I just want to hear what you have to say. And I want to listen, and I want to learn, so I can understand better, how to support and how to help you.”
These conversations are happening because people are being curious. They’re being humble, and they’re not approaching it so defensively.
Explaining White Privelege
When I tell my white friends and family that they have white privilege, they’re not getting mad and trying to say, “No, I don’t”. “Yes, you do!” In the same way, being from LA, the inner city of LA, I have black privilege in the ‘hood. And if I went to the ‘hood, and I had you with me, you would be relying on me to use my black privilege to make sure that you felt safe, that you felt accepted, and that you felt like you had access to everything else that we were enjoying.
So all I’ve been telling my white friends and family here is that I have black privilege in the ‘hood. You have it everywhere else. And we just want you to use it to make sure that we are made safe, that we have access and that we are accepted and received equally.
This is why “BLM” is the bare minimum, right? To choke a man out like a dog in the street – PETA would’ve went crazy, if an officer would have done this to a dog. Yet, we have pictures in our Smithsonian Institute showing the lifeless bodies of black men and women hung from trees.
So “matter” is the bare minimum. We want to matter first, and then we would love to get a little bit of a tweak to the constitution that called black people three fifths of a person!
LB: I only recently came across that and I cannot believe that.
TR: There’s a lot of work to do here. A lot of work to do. But we don’t have to wait on America politically to move on this. These conversations are doing more than I think even America intended them to do. And that’s why we’re seeing such receptivity to the movement for justice around the world.
LB: When you look at white culture, particularly, what can we be doing [that’s not] patronising? I want to support people who need help. But I also know that I am not a black person. So I don’t want to speak up or say the wrong thing for a group that I’m inherently not genetically part of. So how can we do it in a way that isn’t patronising, but that actually does good?
TR: Let me tell you what I have said to all of my white friends and fam. Your voice is so important.
If I yell, I’m considered the “angry black man”. When my white friends yell, they’re “passionate white people”. And so the voice of our white brothers and sisters is incredibly important. When it is spoken clearly and is spoken loudly, people listen. It’s one of the most amazing things, one of the most amazing privileges you’ve been given.
I don’t shame you or any other of my white brothers and sisters for having white privilege. I just want to tell you how powerful it is and how to use it in the same way that Uncle Ben told a young ‘Peter Parker’ [Spiderman reference] – with great power comes great responsibility, right? You can’t have it and not use it for good for all people. And so your voice is important. Your presence is important.
I mean, you showing up in your beautiful white skin literally legitimises our outcry; in the same way in the 60s when Mark Martin Luther King did his “I Have a Dream” speech, white people’s presence, legitimise the words that he said. We can’t do this by ourselves.
If we’re the only ones that are that are raising our voices are the only ones that are that are showing up to be present, we will never get the movement like we will get when we all come together to do it, unify.
LB One of the criticisms I’ve seen… is that the church has let black communities down. From your perspective, where has the church missed the mark, in the conversation about race?
TR: In America, I can say that the most egregious place where the church has missed the mark is in is an area of their theology. They have allowed American culture to influence their theology more than Kingdom culture.
“In America, there’s too much patriotism in the nation, amongst believers, than there is a fidelity to Jesus Christ and our identity to all be brothers and sisters in Christ.”
It’s a white church and a black church and the Hispanic church… when in the kingdom, race was never mentioned. It was Jew and Gentile. It was those that God made a covenant relationship with starting with Abraham in Genesis 11. And it didn’t matter what nationality you were… if you weren’t a Jew, you were considered “everybody else”.
When we become believers in Jesus Christ, our identity actually supercedes our ethnicity.
In America, there’s too much patriotism in the nation, amongst believers, than there is a fidelity to Jesus Christ and our identity to all be brothers and sisters in Christ.
Learning Not to Generalise
LB: There’s stories being told of how parents teach their children how to behave around police so that you don’t have to fear for your life; how to behave in a store so that people don’t think you’ve stolen something – which is tragic in so many levels. But if we teach our children … that “cops are dangerous” – or in the “Me Too” movement – that “men are dangerous”, then this cycle is going to continue, and we’re keeping a wound raw. What sort of stories do parents need to tell their children so that people can move forward and not carry all of that history – without negating it, without belittling it?
TR: It’s a beautiful question to ask. I’m gonna bring my parents into this conversation now, Charles and Maxine Ross. So my mother was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, and my father was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. The South, during the 40s 50s and 60s, when they would have been a young adult, was completely different than what it is now.
They had experienced racism firsthand. They had experienced segregation first hand. They’d experienced what it was to sit on the back of a bus. They had experienced what it was to drink from a fountain that was only for black people. They knew what it was to go to a black restroom. To go to the back of the restaurant to pick up food because they couldn’t walk through the front door.
Yet they looked me in the eyes and said, “Don’t allow anything that you see in this country to make you think that people are always evil. Don’t allow anything that you see in this country to make you think that all police are bad”.
And my mom had a little extra weight behind those words because she actually worked for the Los Angeles Police Department for 30 years.
Not All Police Are Bad; Celebrate the Good
So we have a very high regard for law enforcement within our family and I went to school and studied administration of justice because I wanted to be a homicide detective. Obviously, God had other plans for me to preach. But if I had it my way, I would be in love in law enforcement right now.
And so because one thing is true, doesn’t mean that the other automatically has to be true.
There are some very abusive police officers in law enforcement. Yet there are hundreds of thousands of beautiful police officers who have dedicated their life and put their life there. They risk their lives every day to protect and serve their communities. And so it’s not a matter of either-or. It’s both-and. And we have to be able to address the evil that we see when we see it, and also be able to celebrate the good that we see coming out as well.
One thing that America has become masterful that through media is leading with bad news. We cannot allow the narratives that come from these spaces that don’t have Christ at the centre, to be what we rehearse privately and publicly.
LB: Do you think we can take this this moment [to deal with] the core issues in a healthy way?
TR: Yeah, I think I think the we have to keep the focus on the issue at hand. In America, we want racism to end… We want police brutality to end. No matter if it’s coming from a white man, a black man, an Asian man, a Hispanic man.
We don’t want people who have a badge to believe that they are above the law. And so we want every action of injustice from a police department to be met with swift accountability, and very, very strong consequences.
“In a society that condoned the murder of black men and women without consequence, we are saying now, we want people to be held accountable.”
If you kill somebody and it’s unjustified, you go to prison, just like the person that would go to prison with shooting at you. If you are found to be mistreating a person, we want you to be suspended indefinitely, or to go to some type of sensitivity training with a certificate that proves that you have changed; with a probationary period long enough to make sure that you’re not just faking it
We want to see tangible measurements of how accountability is going to hold people to do the right thing, not just because they’re reacting to a protest, but policy that’s going to change over time.
I took my parents to the Smithsonian African American Museum in Washington, DC in December of 2019. There was a picture of – so horrific – a picture of some black men that were hung [on] a tree and all the white men are facing the camera, business suits, overcoats and hats on. Some of them were actually smiling in the camera… these white men could hang black men, because they knew they weren’t being held accountable for their actions.
And so what we’re saying is in a society that condoned the murder of black men and women without consequence, we are saying now, we want people to be held accountable.
LB: This is a question for your pastor’s heart. If you’re somebody who has been hurt, marginalised, abused in any kind of way, I think it can be really easy to then perceive the world through a lens that says, “The way everyone is treating you, is because of your color… or your agenda … or religious beliefs”. How can we bring ourselves to a point where even if we have been hurt, we don’t always think it’s the reason why people are responding to us a certain way?
TR: I think for me I’ve always taken any encounters I have with humanity around the world on a case by case basis. So I individualise as opposed to generalise. That’s number one.
If you have been hurt by a specific people group over and over and over again… my advice for you is that you make sure that you get out of your heart, anything that would turn you into another version of this. I think counseling’s very important. A relationship with God is very, very important. And understanding that we have to be able to compartmentalise people’s behavior.
Let me give you Jesus’s minimisation of this – while on the cross being executed.. he is actually forgiving those that were doing the action. And so a lot of people will say, “Well, you can’t forgive them until you go through a process. You need to be angry”. But our chief apostle modeled for us this beautiful picture of forgiveness – while the act was actually being done. And he makes this important statement that gives a context that I think we all need: “Father forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.”
LB: I saw in a conversation that TD Jakes recently had, he said, “We need to get to a point where we don’t view things as black issues, but human issues.” Would you extend that to this current context and say that we shouldn’t really view this as an American issue? Because a lot of people go “this is happening in America”. We should actually view this as an issue for mankind.
TR: Absolutely. You know, I think one of the things that this is exposing is prejudice in the world. Where do we prejudge people based on the color of their skin, or who they worship or who they marry or the way that they dress?
What we’re saying is that needs to end everywhere. Right?
There are rights that are that are deserved, no matter what your belief system is, no matter what your political stance may be, no matter what style of dress you may have. There are certain things that you are that you have a right to, because you are a human that makes you different from any other one of God’s creations. And that’s how we should be looking at all of humanity.
LB: What do you think comes next? What are the steps that will bring healing and resolution in the long term?
TR: From a faith perspective, I see that the more we have these conversations, the more that we see people’s hearts broken over what God’s heart is broken over, we’re going to see a change in the way that we preach on justice; in the way that we activate believers to speak out against it; in the way our communities are shaped and formed.
Whenever those [Covid-lockdown] measures are fully up, I expect a lot of white people to start going to more churches of color. I expect a lot more black people to start going to more multi-ethnic churches because they’re going to go “You know what, I can’t get a true picture if the only thing that I’m surrounded by is people that look like me”.
“The more that we see people’s hearts broken over what God’s heart is broken over, we’re going to see a change in the way that we preach on justice; in the way that we activate believers to speak out against it; in the way our communities are shaped and formed.”
Also I believe that there’s going to be more political change because Generation Z, the oldest of them are at the voting age, now they’re over 18. And they’re going to make their vote count for people that are going to actually stand up for justice.
One of the things that has been very, very sad in American politics is the way that they play the evangelical vote or the Christian vote; they’ll say the buzzwords to give the appearance that, “hey, I share the same faith you do”. But then they have actions that are actually antithetical to the faith that they say that they [adhere] to.
So politically, laws are going to change. Voting is going to change. People that we thought would be in the Senate or in Congress are going to be voted out. There’s gonna be this new generation that rises up to really hold people accountable and affect change long term.
LB: If you’re a white person, and you’ve been hearing conversations like what we’re having now, and you go “hang on, maybe I am a little bit racist, and I didn’t even realise – maybe I have been staying in a bubble [of] people just like me; I haven’t been actively pursuing diverse relationships” – what would you say to that person? How they can take that realisation and then do something positive with it?
TR: So glad you asked that question. ‘Admit it, quit it, forget it’. And then open yourself up. The most interesting people are the most curious people. They’re the ones that don’t believe they know it all. They have something else to learn today.
Let’s stop saying that “we don’t see color”, and let’s be honest about what we’re really saying: “I don’t judge you differently because of color. But I do see that you’re a beautiful white woman, I do see it’s your beautiful black person, I do see that you are a beautiful Asian person. You have a culture and an experience that if I don’t know about, I’m actually limited in how much I know this world, and how much I know the world around me… Can we go to lunch, and I just want to listen, I want to know why you wear your traditional garb during these months. I want to know why St. Patrick’s Day is so important to you. I want to I want to know why Anzac Day is so meaningful. I want to know why.”
Let’s just keep curious. And the more curious we are, the more we’ll learn and the more we learn, the more we’ll be able to teach others.
LB: And I think this window of time has given people permission to be curious, permission to ask questions and I honestly pray that that stays with us. Tim, thank you so much for joining us. Is there anything else you want to say before we wrap it up?
TR: Okay, let me just say, thank you so much for using your platform to have a conversation that is going to bring a lot of people context. It is brave right now for these conversations to be had. And you’ve just given other people permission to be as brave as you. So I just want to thank you and your entire team, for opening up this time. I love you very much, I can’t wait to get back there in person. But until then, just pray for us out here. We’re doing the same for you. And together, we’re going to upset the world.
LB: I certainly hope so. It’s been an absolute privilege and a pleasure to chat with you Tim. Thank you so much. Thank you.