Darryl Ford was new to Atlanta, so new that he and his family were staying with his in-laws in their overwhelmingly white suburban neighborhood. As he and his young daughter rode through the unfamiliar area in an old pickup, he saw the blue lights and pulled over. A female officer approached and began a suspicious interrogation.

Through a perfect storm of coincidence, Ford’s out-of-state license was inaccurately flagged as suspended. Soon two more police cars appeared, and the officer informed him that the situation required a trip to the station. Embarrassed, Ford called his father-in-law to come pick up his daughter. But then two facts emerged.

First, in attempting to explain his presence in the upscale community, Ford dropped his military background into the conversation. Then he mentioned his job: church planter resident at Perimeter Church in Atlanta (he is now helping plant Ikon Community Church in the city’s East Lake area). The officer’s attitude immediately changed, and she apologetically allowed the veteran and pastor to continue on his way, saying she was sure they could work everything out later.

Ford can graciously laugh about it today, but it was not the first incident of its kind in his life. When he recounted the story to Bob Cargo, Perimeter’s church planting director, Cargo sighed and told Ford that he’d been guilty of DWB — Driving While Black, an all-too-common occurrence in Atlanta. A black man driving in a white neighborhood, Ford had been out of place. Though his professional credentials ultimately made him “safe,” his blackness had mattered.

Failure to Communicate

In the year and a half since Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, Americans have been forced to confront anew the reality that race remains a dividing line among us. But the national discussion is confusing, not so much because of what we say, but because of what we hear — or fail to hear — in the language we use. Differing experiences color our interpretation of terms, making some sound innocuous and others offensive, often in ways we fail to anticipate.

Even a common grounding in Christian brotherhood does not always clarify dialogue on matters of black and white. In their sometimes jolting book “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America,” authors Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith helpfully use the term “racialized” rather than the stronger “racist” in reference to an American culture (including church culture) in which race still contributes to unequal opportunity despite the absence of codified oppression. Unfortunately, this degree of precision is not typical of public discourse. Frustration and exasperation become byproducts of a failure to communicate well.

How, for example, could anyone be offended by the suggestion that “All Lives Matter”? Or why would anyone resent the label of “privilege” to describe a life well lived? Words and phrases such as “repentance,” “justice,” and “structural racism” are similarly confounding when hearers receive layers of meaning not always intended by speakers.

Malice, Privilege, and Individualism

Today, practically all evangelicals would consider abhorrent the notion that black lives have less inherent value — moral, legal, or otherwise — than white ones. They rejoice that slavery, Black Codes, and Jim Crow are no longer enshrined in law, and they condemn their forebears’ involvement in such evils. Indeed, many of their church denominations have crafted formal documents repenting of these and other past racist wrongs.

It is not difficult, then, for white American Christians to look at a legal system that now ostensibly treats all citizens the same and conclude that it is just. They can also look into their own hearts and, while perhaps identifying and confessing some stubborn forms of prejudice, absolve themselves of malicious intent toward their black neighbors.

Through this lens, whatever racism remains in society surely cannot be “structural,” since the law prohibits racial discrimination. It must therefore be isolated to a small minority of hateful individuals and thus beyond their responsibility to address in any proactive, coordinated manner. “Privilege” feels pejorative in this context, implying that white individuals must be cheating to gain an unfair social advantage. And whoever said black lives didn’t matter, anyway?

Emerson and Smith identified this admittedly oversimplified set of attitudes among white evangelicals in analyzing thousands of survey responses and hundreds of in-person interviews as they researched “Divided by Faith.” They also observed a powerful cultural strain of individualism that leads whites to view racial problems far differently than blacks. It is one reason they use the term “racialized” to describe contemporary American society.

It is a society still divided along lines of color. Overt bigotry and official license are no longer the tools of this segregation, however. Instead, according to Emerson and Smith, racialization is “increasingly covert, presented in non-racial terminology and embedded in the normal operation of social institutions.” Most critically, it is largely invisible to whites. Because they never experience and rarely observe any negative ramifications of racialization, whites are essentially colorblind, leading them to continue making benign choices that unwittingly perpetuate racial divisions.

The irony is obvious: Is not colorblindness the greatest of anti-racist goals? Or, to put it another way: Are we not to strive for equal treatment for all, without regard to race? Once again, a different understanding of terms becomes a stumbling block to unity.

Coming to Common Terms

Darryl Ford’s wife, who is white, remembers smiling and waving at the police when she was a little girl. Ford himself, who grew up in Detroit, learned to be distrustful. He also learned a few rules for the inevitable traffic stops. Keep your hands on the wheel. Put your wallet in your lap. Raise the pitch of your voice slightly. Say “yes, officer” a lot.

“I want my kids to have a better attitude than I did,” he explains, “so I am teaching them to smile and wave just like their mom did.” But he is also teaching them about reality. “They won’t have the luxury of walking around with a hood on and their hands in their pockets, just being ‘goofy,’” he says. Both his own life and the lives of his family and black friends evidence his point.

When Ford hears the term “white privilege,” this is part of what comes to mind. From traffic stops to networking for jobs to participating in staff meetings at work, he has seen unequal weights applied. It is not so much that white people get to break society’s written and unwritten rules; rather, they get to play by them. It hardly occurs to them that blacks do not, and that is the definition of privilege. “Privilege means never having to read the room before speaking,” Ford says. “It’s easy to be perceived as the ‘angry brother’ if my opinion is different, and that extends even to church work.”

Here the precision of the term racialization lends insight. Ford allows that the officer who stopped him for DWB probably had no hate in her heart. For that matter, it is plausible that Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown, may also be innocent of malicious intent. Labeling either person a racist may be unfair. But it does not therefore follow that race was not a factor — even the critical factor — in what happened in each case.

The Image of God Matters

For Christians especially, malice toward none is not quite the same as charity for all. We are not merely to stay out of each other’s way; rather, we are to bear each other’s burdens, rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn. We will be handicapped in doing so if we collectively remain blind to the experiences of our brethren who experience life differently because of varying degrees of melanin.

Deconstructing the faulty ideal of color blindness requires care. After all, we know that in one sense, our individual distinctions do not matter: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Any image bearer is redeemable, and all stand before the Redeemer on equal footing. Yet there is also value in our differences. Revelation 7:9 speaks of “a great multitude … from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” If the Creator wishes this to be, it must mean that we better reflect His image in our diversity than in our individuality.

There is ample support for this from the beginning of the Bible to the end. We were created male and female, complementarily illustrating the relational nature of God. And nothing about the context of Galatians 3:28 suggests annihilating the differences — no sensible evangelical ever speaks wistfully about being “gender blind.” In the New Testament, the church is one body but many parts, each gifted of the Spirit and crucial to the whole precisely because of its uniqueness. We minister differently, and we are sometimes ministered to differently. Black lives matter to the church in part because they are black.

Ford uses the analogy of a bowl of stew. “In a good stew, you want to recognize each ingredient because it contributes its own flavor and texture to a cohesive whole,” he says. “You don’t want a stew to turn into soup, where either one flavor dominates or everything washes out.” This understanding of the church reflecting God’s image is at the core of Ikon Community Church’s philosophy. The name “Ikon” is intentional for a congregation striving to represent the blended racial makeup of its community.

First Steps

Can the unifying image of God really break down the racialization in the American church? Emerson and Smith are pessimistic due to the entrenched nature of segregated congregations. Even movements such as Promise Keepers in the late 1990s and early 2000s succeeded only by degrees, focusing mostly on reconciliation between individuals. This is not unimportant — true repentance is always a miraculous work of the Spirit. But, with some exceptions, evangelicalism has achieved little in the way of changing attitudes, much less integrating churches.

Of course, racial integration is not the primary aim of the church. The unified, multicultural throng of Revelation will be a result of disciples being made of every people group; it will not arise solely from a practical church desegregation strategy enacted by Americans with a fix-it mentality. Even so, now seems as good a time as any to begin enjoying such heavenly fellowship, and that will take effort. If the prescription “go make a friend of a different race” is overly trite as the ultimate key to ending racialization, it is nevertheless a necessary first step.

Intentional friendships build the trust necessary for white believers to assent to the truth of their relative privilege. This kind of trust will lend validity to their black friends’ foreign-feeling experiences, experiences that would otherwise feel utterly foreign to them, like Darryl Ford’s DWB and need to “read the room.” Similarly, black believers can accept that their white friends intend no wrong in making choices that contribute to racialization — they are probably not even thinking about race when they move to the best school districts and attend the churches that feel most comfortable — even as they lovingly challenge the assumptions underlying those choices.

Pausing to Lament

What might it look like as relationships took root and branched out, expanding beyond individuals and families to small groups and congregations? Ford has a few ideas. “We like to focus on solutions to social problems,” he says, “but we have lost the capacity for lament.” If the body of Christ can listen to itself more attentively, it will feel its own pain more deeply — if one member suffers, all suffer together. This is a good thing, for it will make us groan more truly with the rest of creation as we await redemption. Jeremiah knew this during the Babylonian captivity and saw importance in pausing to lament the Israelites’ condition, even as he yearned for better days. If we do the same, we will be more gracious toward each other.

In lament we will see that justice means more than accountability for evildoers; it includes seeking out the places where abundant (or privileged) life does not flourish as it ought. It means we will hate this circumstance as God does and seek to ameliorate it as He requires in Micah 6:8.

In lament we will see that color  blindness, despite well-meaning idealism, makes us inconsiderate of the unique circumstances of those whose skin is darker or lighter than our own. Rather than co-opting calls for racial reconciliation into platitudes that cost us nothing, we will see that we must engage sympathetically with the color of a person’s skin in order to judge him properly on the content of his character.

In lament we will see that “Black Lives Matter” is not a statement that other lives do not. There is no need for the polemical response “All Lives Matter” when Michael Brown or Freddie Gray or Trayvon Martin lose their lives. Their lives matter because they bear the image of God, not because of their behavior or worthiness or respect for authority. There are no perfect victims; lives with rap sheets matter as much as those without, and they matter long before any climactic homicide, whether defensible or not.

In lament we will acknowledge and mourn that separate, segregated neighborhoods and schools are not equal, any more than they were when they were legally enforced. We will talk with each other about what motivates the choices that lead to these unintended consequences, and we will allow God’s Word to search and know whether there be any grievous way in us.

And in our churches, we will humbly lament that we have allowed consumerist preferences in music, style, and political like-mindedness to supersede our unity in Christ and physically separate us from each other in worship. The lives, black and white, that matter the most to us are those of the household of faith. Doing good to our brothers and sisters may not mean that our churches will suddenly integrate en masse. But let us still not grow weary of reflecting God’s image more perfectly. We will reap if we do not give up.

Phil Mobley is a writer and content strategist who lives in Lilburn, Georgia.