It’s been a week and a half since the tragedy in Charleston. I couldn’t write anything before this because my words would have come from surface reactions to evil—bitterness, anger over things like guns and flags; oh, so many questions: why? why now? why ever? Have we learned nothing? Have our souls not been ripped open because of our blindness? How is it possible that we still look first at skin color? Why do we—why do I—want only to sit, worship, live with or near our own families, with those most like us?
But when I saw this picture, I felt an almost imperceptible whisper of hope. If we can take the small steps in our own lives with the small people surrounding us, change can happen. But what are those steps? In a recent conversation with a woman I deeply respect, we discussed how we must intentionally let people around us know that we disapprove of their shadowed racial remarks. We must understand how the little, frequently offhand comments about people of another race or ethnicity, the misguided attempts at humor in that same vein plant seeds that have generational effect. Children hear racism and prejudice even without words.
May I share two examples? The positive example first. I grew up in rural Michigan in a white working class family. My school was white. My church was white. My neighbors were white. My dad, however, worked in a Detroit factory at what might be termed a less-than-white-collar but more-than-blue-collar job. His co-workers were hardworking white men and women seeking to better their lives through honest labor. Because I’m an only child, I was “in on” adult conversations, especially hearing my dad talk after supper about his work day. I distinctly remember him saying, “when the sweeper and I were eating lunch today…” The sweeper?? When I questioned the meaning of “sweeper” (thinking brooms!), my dad explained that sweepers were janitors. And I knew that all janitors were black. I wasn’t told that I should have lunch with black people. I didn’t hear that black people are as good as (or better than!) white people. Racial equality simply slipped into my consciousness.
Now for the negative. Most of my uncles also worked in the greater Detroit area and they, along with my aunts and cousins, were frequent visitors to our home in the country. To this day I recall their derogatory terms (not to be repeated here) describing black people. Even the color of cars my uncles laughingly said were preferred by black people sticks in my mind to the extent that yet today when I see cars of that color, I recall my uncles’ words and smirking faces. Your jokes, your smirks, your words have generational effect.
The woman with whom I was speaking said we all have tendencies toward racial presuppositions. She—who lives, works and worships with people of diversity and is one of the most unprejudiced people I know—said that occasionally when she sees a person she might fear, one who looks “different,” one she might have a racist reaction to, she recognizes that reaction for what it is, and immediately checks (or reins in) that reaction.
I go back to my why questions. Have we, especially we Christians, slipped into sloppy living, thinking that things really are getting better, that we have already “solved the race question” so let’s get on with more spiritual issues?
Have we taken the Bible’s message and turned it into “mere” theology instead of applying it to our human relationships? Christ brought us together through his death on the cross. The Cross got us to embrace, and that was the end of the hostility. Christ came and preached peace to you outsiders and peace to us insiders. He treated us as equals, and so made us equals. Through him we both share the same Spirit and have equal access to the Father. (Eph. 2:16-17 The Message—emphasis my own.)
One word in those verses haunts me: embrace. An embracing relationship can’t be legislated. Parades, demonstrations, seminars, books can’t give it birth. Embracing means giving up my rights for you. It’s weeping for and with you. It’s working alongside you, having lunch with you. It’s opening not only the church door but the doors to our homes and hearts.