Pray like Nehemiah for America’s Racial Strife

by Sarah Colyn

Calling my brothers and sisters in Christ to prayer over the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd:

A 5th century Israelite named Nehemiah offers us a powerful model of what to do. Nehemiah’s story starts as he learns that his people are in trouble and shame (Nehemiah 1:3). His response to this terrible news provides us a model of how to respond to these killings and the broader trouble and shame they reveal. Nehemiah’s story is an important read that shows us how an ordinary person can utterly depend on God to rebuild a society that seems hopelessly broken. 

When he heard that the walls of the city of God were broken down and its gates burned with fire, Nehemiah sat down and wept and mourned for days, and continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven (1:4). Nehemiah’s mourning put his heart in deep alignment with God’s as he grieved over sin and longed for righteousness. Some of us may not feel very connected to Ahmaud’s, Breonna’s, or George’s stories, and may be uncomfortable with the idea that their killings have anything to do with us. If you have hardened your heart in reaction to what seems like politicization of these deaths, repent. Their loved ones are weeping. Ask the Spirit to help you share their grief, and weep with them. Lay down your ideological objections, and come close to humanity like Jesus did.

If you feel apathetic, resistant, or angry, ask God to shine His light inside and reveal what’s controlling your heart. If you’re not willing, ask God to help you become willing. If you distrust the pain and outrage of others because you don’t understand it, ask God to lead you to someone wise and godly who can help you. Don’t hold yourself distant from this lament — ask God to help you enter it.

Nehemiah’s lament led him into confession:  Hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. (1:6). His confession came not from a place of superiority, but from a place of deep humility as he put his shoulder under the burden of his countrymen’s trespasses. He was deeply offended by the evil that the Israelites were doing, but rather than dissociating himself, he identified with them and confessed their sin as his own. Some of us may take pride in our moral outrage. But any sensitivity or awareness you have about these issues is likely a gift of your circumstances or the privilege of your education. If your woke-ness has fostered a spirit of self-righteousness, repent. There’s a profound difference between being angry and grieved that “they” did this vs. that “we” did this. Nehemiah’s powerful leadership shows us how to pray with spiritual authority from a place of association with the trespassers. 

“As for me and my father’s house, we have sinned against you.” Through his confession Nehemiah sought a new move of God for his nation on the grounds of repentance. We can kneel before God in the power of the Holy Spirit, naming sin for what it is and crying out for His mercy to deliver our nation from its relentless and devastating consequences. Let us pray for those who committed these murders, pray for the investigators, prosecutors, judges, and jurors who will be appointed to bring justice. Let us pray for the pastors of predominantly white churches in their communities and around the country, and for our brothers and sisters in the pews of those churches. And of course, let us pray for our African-American brothers and sisters, that God might deliver them from the terrible consequences of ours and our father’s house’s sin.

Yes, Nehemiah worked for reform, and his leadership was tremendously effective in recruiting allies and protecting a violently opposed mission. But he started with prayer, because prayer changes our hearts. In dialog with our Father we become people who can wield redemptive influence in our families, churches, communities, and the structures of society of which we are a part. If we won’t get on our knees as fellow sinners, our impassioned voices for justice will be clanging gongs.

We have a deep stain in our souls, worked into us through the generations of slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, red-lining, and mass incarceration that runs through of our family lines and our nation. We need a heart-healing of the deepest order. None of us are good enough to accomplish this, and apart from God’s grace we cannot even face it. Nothing but the blood of Jesus can wash us clean and bring restoration. We need our hearts to be resymbolized; we need God to cleanse diseased and hateful images of African-Americans from every heart in this nation. This is not something our human efforts can accomplish, but Christ’s living water is powerful enough to cleanse, and pure enough to renew all things.

The Church is meant to be the hope of the world, including hope for healing our country’s blight of racial hate and injustice. White Christians need to intercede for one another and for the nation. Where we let the Enemy trick us into polarization and fragmentation, the Body of Christ is weakened to impotence, and the flow of His grace and healing power choked to a useless trickle. Our Lord has the prerogative and power to bring about shalom, to create the conditions in which mercy and truth meet, and righteousness and peace kiss. We are members of His Church, and He is calling us to take up the weapons provided by His Spirit. Let us engage in the essential work of prayer. Let us fall on our knees together in lament, confession, and broken-hearted intercession. Through the cross of Christ, God has provided the rescue from our trouble and shame, so let us kneel at that cross now and let the power of God loose.

For further guidance, please consider the following:

A Family’s Journey – personal testimony of racial identity and the consequences of racism, given by Sill Davis, MPC Vice-President, Wheaton MPC School 2019

Healing of Memories  – a lecture on corporate repentance focused on the sin of slavery and racism, given by Sarah Colyn, Wheaton MPC School 2019

Painting:  Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1900, The Savior [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons