One day in the mid-1990’s when I was stationed at Ft. Eustis, VA, a young African-American soldier approached me and said he was sorry and asked me for forgiveness. I was a bit surprised; but he went on to explain that when he first saw me he assumed, because I happen to have no hair on my head, that I was a “skinhead.” He said that he felt bad about that after he got to know me.
I could have reacted with anger or resentment at that moment. How dare you accuse me of racism? How dare you associate me with a hate group? Just because I’m bald, you’re going to lump me in with the skinheads? By God’s grace, I didn’t respond that way.
But reflecting back on that incident these many years later, I actually think that this young black soldier was perfectly justified in making the assumption that because I was bald I was also a white supremacist. In his life experience, the clean-shaven head on a white man was the symbol of white supremacy, of hatred, of racism; and since I wore that symbol, he was justified in assuming that the symbol indicated a reality. From his perspective, it was both reasonable and safe to assume that I was a racist, until or unless I proved otherwise.
I thought about that event recently because I think part of what is going on in our society today bears some similarity to what happened between me and that young black soldier in the mid-1990’s.
Since slaves arrived on North American shores at Jamestown in 1619, the police and the judiciary in our society have acted as the enforcement arm of a coordinated system of hate, subjugation, and oppression. Because of this, the police uniform and the judge’s robe became the symbols of racism and discrimination. As recently as the 1960’s, in certain communities in this country, the police were the ones who made sure that black people didn’t drink from the wrong water fountain, sit in the wrong seats on the bus, eat at the wrong lunch counter, or go to the wrong school. Judges (many of whom were elected by popular vote) willfully and knowingly participated in a system that kept blacks out of certain housing communities, out of certain universities, and out of certain jobs. In the violence of the Civil Rights era, the baton that beat the black man was police-issued equipment. The boot on the black man’s neck was part of the police uniform. These are undeniable historical facts. So today when a white police officer shoots and kills a black man, all the outward symbols are present and sufficient for many people to assume that those symbols indicate a reality. In such cases, it is reasonable and safe to assume that the killing was an act of racism, until or unless it is proven otherwise.
For many white people in our country, this doesn’t make sense – partly because we are ignorant of history and partly because we enjoy the relative safety of our white privilege, and are simply unable to understand what it is like to be black in America. Many whites undoubtedly view the protests and the cries of “racial injustice!” arising from the black community as an exercise in digging up bones, taking us back to distasteful times … times we’d rather forget, when racism “really was a problem.” I mean, aren’t we past all of that? Don’t you know that most police officers good people, just trying to do their jobs? Yes; and those of us who are not racists are either grossly naive or willfully ignorant if we think that a couple of laws here and there, or a couple of decades of relative peace, can overcome nearly four centuries of coordinated, government-mandated, systematic injustice and the institutionalized subjugation of an entire group of people. The scars are too deep and the wounds too fresh; and sadly many new wounds are being created even today, in our “post-racial” society.
It is easy to move on and forget the past when you are part of the group that was doing the subjugating. Not so easy if you are part of the group that was subjugated.
Yes, a lot has changed since the 1960’s. Jim Crow is gone. “Separate but equal” is no longer the official doctrine. The Civil Rights Act 1964 is now the law of the land. Racial discrimination has been superficially eliminated from many structures and legal systems of our society. But with that superficial change, racism has receded to its original and long-standing home: the unseen recesses of the human heart.
Christians should understand this better than anyone else. We should understand that racism, hatred, discrimination, institutionalized oppression, and evil of all kinds will continue to flourish, even if we have made great strides in correcting our laws. It flourishes because it springs forth from the wickedness in the human heart. We shouldn’t be surprised when people cry “racism!” … and if the Bible is true in its description of the depravity of the human condition, then they are probably right.
Recently our church spent several months studying the book of Ephesians. In the opening two chapters, the Apostle Paul makes clear the depravity of the human condition and our desperate need of God’s intervening grace. We are “dead in our trespasses and sins,” Paul writes. We are born into a state of hostility with God; but Jesus Christ came to die for our sin, to reconcile us to God.
What is especially interesting about Paul’s letter to the Ephesian Christians is that immediately after he describes what we might call “personal salvation,” he makes a direct application to racial reconciliation. Speaking to a congregation deeply divided along ethnic lines, Paul writes these powerful words, speaking about Jesus Christ uniting people of different ethnicities:
For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation … so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. (Eph 2:14-16, NKJV)
Followers of Jesus in our society should strive to make the same point of application. Not only are we born into a state of hostility with God, we are also born into a state of hostility with each other; and the Bible makes clear that Jesus Christ alone is the solution to both of those problems. It is because we have peace with God that we can have peace with each other.
It is time for followers of Jesus to be a dominant voice in the narrative of racial justice in our society, so that the world will know the clarity of our message. Changes in laws can help, and clearly they have … but laws are not the answer. Social activism can help, but it is not the answer. Jesus Christ himself is the only answer. He is the source of peace – peace with God and peace with each other. If we don’t speak up and say this very clearly, then the most powerful voices in our culture will continue to be those who are driven by radical political agendas, those who wish to divide us further, or those who are peddling the false hope of man-made religion.
The way the church deals with racial issues in our culture is a powerful message to a watching world about what we really believe … not just what we say about racial issues, but what we do. If we believe what we say we believe, multi-ethnic churches should soon appear all across America. If we live out the truth of the Gospel that we say we believe, churches will be transformed into powerful and living examples that Jesus does indeed break down the walls of separation. And if our churches model God’s love, if we modeled human dignity and equality, forgiveness and mercy, the world will be more likely to believe us when we tell them that Jesus is the answer.
Engaging in social issues is a risky venture. As for me, I know I am going to make mistakes. I’m going to say the wrong thing … do the wrong thing. I am going to be misunderstood by people of every ethnic, political, and religious persuasion. Yes, many white Christians will mistakenly think that my efforts to apply Biblical truth to racial injustice is nothing more than “social activism.” But I cannot allow the fear of making mistakes or the fear of being misunderstood to keep me silent.