On racismPosted: October 14, 2017
Seventeen years ago, a classmate at my small, private Christian high school climbed atop the local Super Wal-Mart one night and planted a Confederate flag atop the squatty structure. He came to school and bragged about his derring-do.
When I was in college, I saw the movie Sweet Home Alabama at the theater the night it came out. In a humorous scene set in a Civil War reenactment, a main character uttered the line, “The South’s gonna rise again!” The entire movie theater stood up and cheered.
One of my grandfathers—actually the only family member who was a northern native and not a Southerner—warned me repeatedly to never date a black boy. At an elementary school sleepover, a friend explained that it was against God’s plan as revealed in the Old Testament for people to marry across racial lines.
Within the last five years, I had an extended conversation with someone close to me about whether or not it is okay to use the n-word.
Just a few months ago, a friend (who is not white) came to dinner and told us his co-worker (also not white) had been chased through the Los Angeles neighborhood where he was doing sales surveys by a car of neo-Nazis/skinheads.
I am not a white supremacist.
But I am American. An Alabamian, actually, although I don’t live there right now.
I don’t want anything to do with racism, but I don’t think the above incidents are all that isolated. Each was shocking to me, but probably they are not that surprising: I just don’t want to see it.
As I’ve watched current events (I wrote this after Charlottesville but the list goes on and on), I’ve swayed from horrified, to too tired to engage, and back to horrified. I’ve felt self-justifying thoughts (I’m nothing like those people) and guilt (my skin is white so I’m associated with this, like it or not). I lived overseas most of the past decade, and it’s times like this I wish I could run back across the ocean and disengage. I don’t want to own this. Yet it refuses to go away.
You are probably tired, too. Tired of all the fighting, tired of animosity, tired of the mountains of hurt. I don’t know what to do but, as a believer in Christ, I’m thankful the Bible addresses every issue known to humanity, including this. Discrimination against people of a different race was actually a huge issue in the development of the early church. In God’s good timing (and due to the fact I’m quite behind in my Bible-reading plan), I saw Scripture showing just this last week.
In Acts 10, Peter has just received a vision showing him that unclean foods are now clean, and has been called to share the Good News with an unclean Gentile named Cornelius. After all this revelation upended his understanding of how God relates to different peoples, “Peter opened his mouth and said, ‘Truly I understand that God shows no partiality.’” (Acts 10: 34) God makes clear he is not the God of one people, but that all are equal in Christ.
I like the story of Peter because Peter, you see, was not the kind of person you would describe as never having had a racist bone in his body. No, Peter actually waffled back and forth. Depending on who he was hanging out with, Peter sometimes upheld the gospel truth that there is no division in Christ, and sometimes got scared and decided he couldn’t eat with Gentiles any longer (Gal. 2:11-14). I like the story of Peter, because truth be told, I have racist bones in my body, too.
I wouldn’t admit that, even to myself, for a long time. The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children. Often those sins are visited on the children by becoming the sins of the children. The truth is, as an American and an Alabamian, I probably am the descendent of people who actually owned other humans. Even if I’m not, it’s certain that my family, even the poor parts of it, benefited from being white in a place that looked down on blackness. When Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, my mom was growing up right down the street and my grandparents were literally the “people of goodwill” with “shallow understanding” of whom he wrote. My history doesn’t define me, but it is a part of me. While I don’t want to claim it, that legacy seeps down and dirties the water.
In the book Homegoing, Ghanan-American (and native of Huntsville, Ala.) author Yaa Gyasi wrote, “Evil begets evil. It grows. It transmutes, so that sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your own home.”
My family did not teach me to be racist; no, they taught me “all men are created equal.” And yet, just like millions of people who have believed that line, I haven’t lived up to that creed. I fall short of it the way I fall short of the glory of God.
In the summer of 2016, the denomination of which I’m a member confessed of how it had, as an institution, supported racism, including as recently as the Civil Rights movement. I was deeply encouraged by this resolution. But truth be told…I wasn’t alive during that era, and it’s easy for me to point the finger and condemn sins which I’m 100 percent sure I didn’t personally promote. I’m glad to say other people’s sins are wrong, but find it difficult to deeply engage my own. I sometimes feel resentment because I don’t consider myself a part of the problem, but an innocent bystander. What I’m trying to say is my lack of personal ownership is a problem.
It’s hard to see racism in ourselves, in our families, in the simple, everyday ways we operate. But—please help, God!—I’m trying.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know.” What in heaven’s name can I—can we—do for the good of these years in which we are placed? Perhaps we can start by reflecting, deeply, on how we have allowed evil to grow in our own fields. We can cry. We can ask God for his mercy on us, and we can ask friends for their mercy to us.
I don’t have any answers. But I’m going to pray. Not just for the stuff out there, but for the stuff inside me. I’m going to pray for what’s happening out there, too. And I’m going to believe that, although painful, God is using this season of sorrow and suffering to purify and pursue his beloved, wayward Bride.