What Lies Behind Dotted Lines

#GeorgeFloyd sparked this post, but by the time you read it, it could be another.

Or another.

Or another.

The video popped up on my Twitter timeline yesterday, and before I even watched, I could see what was about to take place from the posture of the policeman.

Oh, Dear God, no.

A sinking feeling. A sense of powerlessness. Despair.

I want to look away, but what I have to see, others have to live.

Worse is the realization that these murders of black men and women have not simply proliferated in our modern age. Camera phones have just given black communities the ability to put these images in front of willfully ignorant white folks like me. People who hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. People who really would just rather not know.


The whole situation reminds me of Amy Carmichael (1867-1951), a missionary to India white evangelicals love to champion. When Carmichael arrived in India, her ministry began simply enough: going house to house, village to village, with a group of ladies seeking to spread the gospel with whomever would listen.

Carmichael quickly began to realize that there was a system of oppression that served as a stumbling block to evangelism. She writes, “Caste is a thing with an iron hand: it grips, and it grips to death.” Whenever a woman expressed interest in the gospel—for the men had absolutely no interest whatsoever—it was the same story. The brothers of one young lady said, “Baptized! [That is always the crux, because it involves loss of caste]. She shall burn in ashes first. She may go out dead if she likes. She shall go out living—never!

Amy’s heart was drawn to those most oppressed by the caste system: widows and children. Young girls were often auctioned like chattel to whomever offered the highest caste, wealth, and position. Missionary nurses who frequently cared for these child-brides witnessed heartbreaking atrocities first hand. Carmichael’s publishers censored the grizzliest tales from her books:

“Where the dotted lines come, there was written what cannot be printed…It cannot be written or published or read, but oh, it has to be lived! And what you may not even hear, must be endured by little girls. There are child-wives in India to-day, of twelve, ten, nine, and even eight years old.”

Carmichael continued to write feverishly about the plight of young women and children in India, pleading with evangelicals back home to care. She began to unfold for her Western audience in books like Things As They Are and From the Fight the way innocent children were been systemically polluted through the practice of temple prostitution:

 “This custom of…child marriage, whether to gods or men, is an infamous custom…it holds possibilities of wrong, such unutterable wrong, that descriptive words concerning it can only ‘skirt the abyss,’ and…in the name of all that is just and all that is merciful it should be swept out of the land without a day’s delay.”

In response to this system of oppression, the Dohnavur Fellowship was born—almost by accident. On March 6, 1901, a seven year-old girl named Preena was rescued from temple prostitution and brought to Amy. Word spread of Amma’s compassion (Amma means “Mother”). Three years later, she had care of 17 children. In 1911, she wrote: “We began the nursery work in a little, long, low mud-room, which was kitchen, food-room, night and day nursery, all in one. Now we have spread into nine nurseries and a kindergarten… and are in the throes of building several new cottage nurseries.”


My point is not about orphanages or India. Carmichael’s publishers were worried about offending the sensibilities of their Western readers: They don’t really want to know.

Carmichael’s words will haunt me forever:

“Where the dotted lines come, there was written what cannot be printed…It cannot be written or published or read, but oh, it has to be lived! And what you may not even hear, must be endured by little girls.” 

In this era of camera phones, we are being forced to reckon with what lies behind the dotted lines.

In our clean Sunday best and our pristine church programs, we were never forced to look at what was taking place in the neighborhood on the other side of town. We never had to look into the face of a man pressed into the pavement. We never had to witness the truth. But the truth has found us out.

The legacy of Amy Carmichael confronts us. It will not be enough to shake our heads and say, “Well, we just have to convert the lost one sinner at a time.” What Carmichael realized in India was a satanic system of oppression that served as an effective shield against salvation. What is worse, she saw a system that degraded an entire people made in the image of God.

The system had to be dismantled. Holes had to be punched. Tunnels had to be burrowed through the wall. And as they did, masses of women and children came pouring through the breaches to experience the healing and safety of Christ’s embrace in the arms of Amy.

 In The Continuation of the Story, Carmichael writes about an eight year-old whose widowed mother passed away in the hospital. A nurse rescued the girl before temple priests could get their hands on her, and brought her to the Dohnavur Fellowship. At first the child was aloof and cautious. However, Carmichael writes:

“On the third day she suddenly woke to the sense of being loved. I was sitting on the floor in the midst of a ring of children when I felt a new little hand slipped into mine, and then suddenly the child’s arms were round my neck, and she hugged and kissed me as if she had never hugged or kissed any one in all her life—which probably she hadn’t…”

Brothers and sisters, we cannot look away.

#GeorgeFloyd

#BreonnaTaylor

#AhmaudArbery

To use the words of Amy Carmichael, what we are witnessing on our Twitter feeds does not even begin to “skirt the abyss” of the wickedness and evil we willingly ignore.

“In the name of all that is just and all that is merciful it should be swept out of the land without a day’s delay!”

Sweeping change requires evangelism. Amy knew that. So do we. Sweeping change also requires the courage to actively dismantle the system. Amy knew that, too. Do we?

Ignorance is one thing. But once we have seen what lies behind the dotted lines, we are accountable.

Will you feel sad again?

And again?

And again?

When will feeling sad finally prove an empty gesture?

Wherever we have been scattered as elect exiles, God has put us there to “seek the welfare of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7). We are the in breaking of the kingdom of God. The kingdoms of this world fall and Christ’s Kingdom rises as the Spirit works in us to “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:17)

What will you do about what is happening behind the dotted lines?

I have no doubt that the Amy Carmichaels of America will rise from the ranks of our dark-skinned brothers and sisters. To my white brothers and sisters: Listen to their earnest pleading! Join them! Follow their lead! We must become the breaches in the wall–a wall we have intentionally or unwittingly help build. Only then will “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

God have mercy on us.

“For he who avenges blood is mindful of them;

he does not forget the cry of the afflicted.”

Psalm 9:12

Published by Chad Ashby

Pastor at College Street Baptist Church Newberry, SC

10 thoughts on “What Lies Behind Dotted Lines

  1. Chad, this is one of multiple articles, blogs, or FB posts in which white people call for action — and yet there is not a single specific point made on that behalf. As Brian pointed out, what, specifically, are you asking people to do as a qualified response?

    I, too, think that the comparison of the caste system, which is still in effect in many places in India today, is not equal to the inequalities we have in America. Are there inequalities? Absolutely! Can people move up or down in in our economic and social system? Yes, and it doesn’t matter in which one they start, as we have multitudes of proofs on that.

    These posts seem to simply serve to salve consciences and yet in reality do little or nothing to effect real change. Have you called a congressman/woman or senator, state or federal? Have you in any way interacted with your local police/sheriff departments? Have we even bothered to ask our Heavenly Father for wisdom and discernment in truly putting feet to our words and MAKING a difference? What steps have YOU taken? What steps do you intend to take tomorrow? Next week? Next month? Next year? Exactly what steps toward reform are you advocating in this article?

    It is one thing to state that a problem needs to be solved, and this is one that I think very few reasonable people of any race would disagree about. And yet, of all the calls for action, none seems to offer any true path forward. So what is it you are actually proposing? These are deeply sincere questions, and though you cannot see or hear me, there is no snakiness or ridicule or anything else that could be construed as derogatory. I am truly looking for answers.

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    1. Cindi,

      Thanks for reading! And thank you for your passion for God’s mercy to heal our nation. I agree with you that zeal without action is worthless. I really appreciated Brian’s concrete suggestions as far as legislation goes. I admit dismantling the bailbonding industry (which is viciously predatory) or police unions will require perseverance and years of persistence in communities where they exist. In the short-term, these are some specific ways I have found to put faith to work. Perhaps some of them will fit your context: (1) Teaching in Sunday School and in our community on the contributions of blacks to the spread of the gospel in mission, (2) coaching in a recreational sports league, one of the few places where black, white, and hispanic families all come together in our town, and a place for comeraderie and celebrating the unique gifts and talents of our children (3) Teaching local high schoolers about the history of racism using books like “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”, (4) Volunteering in and chairing a local relationships/crisis pregnancy center that services families referred from DSS. Politics only take us so far, and strong families are an integral part to strengthening any community, (5) Attending MLK services in your community, a very small, simple gesture, I admit, but in our community in the Deep South, it means a lot to the black community to see you there, (6) Volunteering in an afterschool or reading program at a school with a high minority population.

      This list is not exhaustive, and I am still searching for answers like you! It’s funny you asked, “What are YOU going to do?” This is the exact charge I gave our church yesterday. Each member was sent home with the specific task to think of ONE actionable task that they were going to do to “seek the welfare of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7). I’ll have to let you know what we come up with!

      Grace and peace, Chad

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  2. It seems like the major question left open here is, “What system do are you arguing we should dismantle?” I know people who would answer that “Police unions,” and people who would answer, “The project of liberal democracy and rationality.” This is clearly a call to action – but as a call to *what* action?

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    1. Brian, my primary purpose in this piece is to go to another culture where white evangelicals would willingly admit a system of oppression (caste in India), and to try to show by analogy that we have the same kinds of social evil here in the US. As to action, I think the #1 goal must be to bring reform to the judicial system such that murder of blacks is prosecuted and convictions are secured—whether in white on black murder, black on black murder, police brutality, etc. There are a lot of moving parts that enable the continuing injustice, and I’m not going to pretend to have all of the answers. However, if we are unwilling to admit there is a problem, and police in particular are not willing to call out bad/wicked policing, it breeds more wickedness. I truly believe that solid convictions in these cases would force change. Obviously, other matters like voting out corrupt leaders, judges, etc. play a part in seeing this happen. Do you have particular thoughts, Brian?

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      1. A few, I guess, yeah.

        One is that I don’t agree that the caste system is of the same kind as racial problems in America. That’s not to say that there are not unjust laws, or even unjust systems, or *beyond question* unjust actors – but that to draw 1:1 comparison between that and an all-encompassing legally-enforced system of hereditary persecution is to blur the lines beyond usefulness in addressing the problem. There is a real and meaningful difference between laws that explicitly and deliberately encode racial or genetic animus, and laws that are simply unequal in their effect. The latter may well be bad, but they are not the same kind of thing.

        None of that, again, is to argue that Christians should not be on the forefront of combating racial injustice, or again that there is not racial injustice in America – there is! It is, however, to argue that we combat these injustices best by seeing them for what they are.

        Relatedly, I think any response has to identify concretely what ought to be done and how doing so would help to end these injustices. You – rightly, I think – argue against “feeling sad” as a response. I would argue that “feeling angry” is no more helpful in that regard; not all possible reactions that will be argued (by people of whatever race) will address the actual problems. There are an awful lot of folks today arguing that racial injustice demands the dismantling of systems that I think act to *reduce* racial injustice.

        To be more constructive, some concrete changes that we could urge on our representatives:
        1) Dismantle the police unions. Part of what makes reprehensible acts like this more common is that too few police officers face meaningful reprisal, and the reflexive protection of the union is a big part of that. Drive a stake through the heart of those organizations.
        2) End qualified immunity. This fits with the above; the number of police abuses that are justified under a claim of, “Well, but how could we *know* not to starve someone to death?” or similar monstrous absurdities is legion.
        3a) Repeal laws that allow the police to lie to you, while making lying to them a crime.
        3b) Radically reform the ability for prosecutors to hold prisoners under exorbitant bail, while offering plea bargains as the only viable means of escape. Both of these things prey most heavily upon the American poor – which means they disproportionately harm African-Americans.

        None of these changes are explicitly racial in their character, but each of them acts to shield racial animus; absent them, we might see a criminal justice system more rightfully afraid of the consequences of abusing its most vulnerable citizens.

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      2. The analogy I’m seeking to establish is of a categorical nature—as in, there *are* social constructs that oppress minority groups here as there were/are in India (some intentionally, others as a perhaps unintended result). We had overt “caste” in the South up until the 60s and later—our schools weren’t desegregated in SC until 1970s.

        Great concrete suggestions! Are these drawn from a particular resource?

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      3. Right, I recognize that – and it’s the categorical nature of the comparison to which I object. The caste system in India was an inherently oppressive construct; its function and purpose was to produce gradations of oppression. The Jim Crow laws in the US served the same purpose – but the use of the past tense is relevant here. There is racial injustice in the US, but I’m not persuaded that the systems are *inherently* racist in the same way.

        And that’s relevant, because an inherently racist system – a system whose design and function is to perpetuate racism – ought to be destroyed. On the other hand, a system that includes horrible racists and sometimes provides cover for them, counter to the aims and intentions of a vast majority of its participants – that system may well need reform, but it’s not clear it needs to be destroyed, or that it’s at all the same category of thing as the first. (Indeed, it may be that no amount of reform suffices to entirely prevent that latter descriptor; that’s not an argument against reform, but it is one against destruction.)

        It matters which of these two things describes various American systems, and it is not clear to me that it’s the former over the latter. Again, when you say “the system has to be dismantled,” I think it’s vitally important to be clear which systems – or which aspirations, if you like – we’re talking about. Are we looking to make the American judicial system more closely conform to its aspiration of “equality before the law” – an aspiration that was deeply, profoundly violated in this murder – or are we holding that aspiration itself up as a racist structure to be dismantled? I know of folks who would assert each of those positions.

        A good resource for seeing some of the viler aspects of American jurisprudence (and where some of them might be amputated) is the attorney Ken White, who goes by @Popehat on Twitter. Some of my concern regarding clarity in our goals comes from reading the work of Dr. Neil Shenvi, of shenviapologetics.com.

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  3. Chad, thanks for posting this. You probably don’t remember me, but we met at the first Immanuel Network Conference. I left Immanuel at the end of 2008. I’m assuming you came after that. Anyway, I’ve really appreciated your blog posts, especially around issues of race and justice. Part of my frustration as a black man is not only that things like this still happen, but that it feels like so many white brothers and sisters don’t understand how much incidents like this hurt. And sadly…I fear, many don’t care to. Thanks for your courage and compassion in addressing issues like this. Grace and peace, brother.

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    1. Hassan, thanks for your kind words. God bless you in your ministry, brother. This world is bewildering, and pervasive evil seems indestructible at times. Praise God our Savior is up for the challenge. May his kingdom come! Grace and peace, Chad

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