A colleague of mine yesterday expressed to me her jealousy that my church and I have decided to center a period of renewal for ourselves around the subject of racism – its root causes, the conditions that have perpetuated it and continue to do so, and what sorts of things we can do about it.
One might imagine that Christianity and its fundamental principle of all people as children of God would have ruled out any potential for racism. One might justifiably presume that Paul’s great declaration that “there is no longer Jew or Greek … slave or free … male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) should have such standing among us that we should choose no other course than of equality and equanimity.
But we haven’t. As the theologian Ben Sanders III points out, our history as Christians in the United States has included chapter after chapter of religious justification of slavery, segregation, and outright cruelty, which in turn have justified victimization and vilification of those on either side of our dividing color lines.
Perhaps our greatest obligation as Christians in America, now more than 150 years since the conclusion of the War to End Slavery, is to begin undoing the work that has preserved pain and division in our country, between our churches, and among individuals during the century and a half since this problem was supposed to have been solved with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution! And it saddens my heart to acknowledge that this is only the beginning… especially because my White and liberal heart imagined, ten (and more) years ago, that by asserting the basis for justice we had achieved it. Or maybe I just thought that the work was nearly done, because I was the White father of a Black child.
I have done as much as I can in this parenthood, to assure my daughter that she will be appreciated and affirmed not according to “the color of her skin but by the content of her character.” I have been amused and concerned when she was younger, to hear her talk about her skin as “brown not black.” And I admit an instant of shock and dismay when I read a DNA report that revealed, no, she didn’t have any Cherokee blood in her as her birth family’s tradition stated; the mix instead was with Scots Irish, indicating that there had been at least one rape experienced by an ancestor.
It is difficult to help her overcome her feelings of inadequacy, or at least of lesser beauty, because she isn’t able to flip her hair the way the pretty girls do on TV. Lead characters don’t look like her. Stories about children who do look like her tend to happen in the past and to be filled with acts of unspeakable terror or violence. Those stories that happen in the present tend to have little association with her lived experience. After all, she lives in a White neighborhood with White parents and goes to a White church.
Much as I will try to protect her from it, and even though her school district has high enough standards in its social justice policies to prevent most discrimination against students of color by their teachers and other students, there will come a day in her life when she is treated like any other Black child… not like any other child. (You know what I mean!)
There will likely come a day when she will be pulled over by a police officer for some perceived infraction and grilled or even mistreated, no matter how compliant she has been. Statistics simply are not in her favor in that regard.
So, I have to say, I’m rather proud to know about my colleague’s jealousy.
We aren’t going to solve the problems of our sinful society which have built upon the plainly wonderful fact that we all have differently colored bodies. But we can begin, as long as we are willing to acknowledge the mess we’re in. After all, the first step in any recovery is to admit that you have a problem and that you are insufficiently powerful alone to do a blessed thing about it!
My church and my family are going to follow our Higher Power and see where this journey for renewal might lead.
My wife and I are going to take our daughter to places where she ought to be proud her blood originates. We’re going to introduce her (and ourselves) to people and places and causes and culture, and even the architecture of ancient societies, from which she should be fascinated and proud to be descended!
My church, who are at their best a courageously loving people and who are the spiritual descendants of some who in 1866 could no longer bear the status quo of their society, will sincerely begin a process toward a deeper understanding of themselves in a racist culture.
And when we’re reunited, what stories we will tell!