In 1996, I joined a group of men from a local church who went to a Promise Keepers rally in Washington DC. During the course of the day, racial reconciliation was a key theme in the teaching and worship times. At one point, the speaker invited men who were being moved by this message and who wanted to express love and seek or offer forgiveness to come down to the field of the stadium and meet other men who wanted to do the same. The guy next to me said, “I’m going to go down there and hug a black brother!” And off he went, returning an hour later with tear-stained cheeks. During the van ride home that evening he said what a massively emotional experience that had been and how he felt really changed. Then he mentioned that he still hoped black people would get off the welfare system, but he really felt good about his experience. I’m not sure that’s what his freshly hugged black brother had in mind.
I think that racism is the most concerning sanctity of life issue in the American Church today. I know that the abortion issue is the leading issue socially, but the reason my mind goes to racism is that, for the most part, the Church is not actively embracing abortion. But we do actively embrace racism. And since the Church is called to be the carrier of the sanctity of life ethic, it seems to me that racism is the more insidiously destructive in the cultural Christian framework.
It has been my observation that much of white America and much of the Church does not consider racism to be a major (or even minor) issue. We say crazy things like, “I’ve got lots of black friends!”; “My kids go to school with lots of Puerto Rican kids.”; “I love hip-hop!” We use the idea that Barack Obama is black as some communal point of glory, as though a bunch of people voting for one guy with black skin is going to do away with inherently present cultural norms and curses that have been actively embraced since before our nation was founded. Racism, racial prejudice and racial discrimination are generational iniquities and curses passed down from generation to generation on this land since before the conception of this nation.
Racism is the philosophical belief that ethnic background and heritage account for differences in character or ability of a race.
Prejudice is the attitude or posture of heart that results from philosophically embracing racism.
Discrimination is the action exhibited as a result of a racially prejudicial attitude.
One third of our founding fathers were slave owners, including Thomas Jefferson (the writer of the Declaration of Independence) who owned 150 slaves. Together, they signed a founding document declaring that all people are equal, and entitled to certain rights. What they really meant is that white, Protestant, male, landowners were equal and entitled to rights. Bummer for you if in 1776 you were black, red, Catholic or a woman. Most of these men would have described themselves as God-fearing Christians.
No, I don’t think this can be chalked up to cultural norms and a writing away of injustice based on a that’s-just-how-it-was-back-then attitude; glad we’ve come this far.
The Church today is freaking out about and warring against injustice around the world, fighting against slavery, sex trafficking, child labor, land seizures, governmental oppression, etc. Rightly so. The Bible and Holy Spirit who call and send us into these battles are the same that we’ve always had, though. A human is a human and love is the mandate. All sanctity of life issues are based in the love vs hate tension, and racism is the most deceptively profound to Christians.
In my mind, that is who this is about: Christians. Christians make up the Church, but in my mind, the iniquitous heritage of racism in America cannot be tackled by the Church, it must be about the Christian. Preaching against racism is fine, but I’ve never seen it produce transformational change in regard to racist belief. Going to a racially diverse church is great, particularly if it’s a true reflection of that church’s immediate geographic location, but I don’t think that is transformation either. Racism is a sin infection passed down from one generation to the next — person to person, family system to family system — empowered by fear, misunderstanding and isolation. Fear, misunderstanding and isolation are the three hallmarks of the absence of love. Without love, hate rules unchallenged. The choice to love or hate is a personal choice, that’s why this isn’t about “The Church” getting it right. It’s about me getting it right, and you getting it right. It’s about confronting the darkness of fear and weakness in my own heart, being honest with it, and pursuing a new, steadfast heart with Christ.
Do I think that we are all racists at heart? Absolutely. We are all also bigots, sexists, murderers, drunks, adulterers, fornicators, haters, idolaters, junkies, liars and cheats. All that evil and more is in there. Our personally perspectival Pelagianism is killing us, isolating us from one another and our histories and keeping us rooted in deception.
I am continually amazed at the lack of knowledge by American Christians regarding our nation’s history of racism and the battle for civil rights. Here are ten quick links for your perusal. I know it’s a lot of information, but I’d encourage you to read them or at least skim them and be reminded a bit about where we come from:
This picture of the segregated water fountains is the one that really gets me. It’s the same water, from the same pipe coming out the of the wall. It’s not about the quality of the product, it is simply that white people didn’t want drink from the same spout as black people. This is our story.
I haven’t even approached the racism leveled against Native Americans all through American history, Chinese railroad workers in the 1800s, Japanese people during World War II, or the current rash of racist offenses against Latinos. You could write forever about these things.
My purpose in this post is not to fix the racist issues in America, it is to hopefully offer a simple perspective on our own fallenness and the deeply destructive ways we have hurt one another, and wake us up to the fact that our roots and heritage will always be calling us to continue birthing hatred, hurt and racial division. We may have learned to be nicer about it, but it is still hurting us. This is not something to ignore or get over or move past or “let time heal”. Our fallenness and brokenness, and the fallenness and brokenness that birthed us, is something to be honestly recognized, engaged, and offered to God for His healing of each personal heart and story.