In the first two posts of this series (part 1, part 2), I shared how God rescued me from my sins, used my seminary experience to expose my racism, and then expanded my vision for reconciliation. But my journey is far from complete. While I think I’ve grown a bit, I’m still aware that I have a long way to go.
In this post, I want to share some reflections on the path forward. I would love to say these are “lessons learned,” meaning, I’m presenting to you things that are theologically resolved, personally applied, and pastorally implemented. But alas, I’m not nearly that far along on the learning curve. So read these not as “authoritative conclusions from a white guy,” but rather as some observations that are just coming into focus for me.
Here’s what I’m learning:
First, I’m starting to see that I must study the scriptures in a way that challenges my biases, not simply supports them.
Throughout history, the Jewish people have been on the blunt end of racial oppression; it was true in both Ancient Egypt and Nazi Germany. But in New Testament times, many Jews — particularly Jewish leaders — held a more privileged place in a slice of society. Rather than humbly receiving this blessing as a gift of God’s grace, these leaders became entitled. Sin polluted their perceptions, and the Jewish leaders adopted a position of superiority, often regarding Roman and Samaritans as inferior people.
I’m beginning to see how American evangelicals (like me) have often done the same thing. We can be pretty dogmatic about presenting truth in language that corresponds with our systematic categories. But, while dotting our theological I’s, we can also be remarkably blind to the ways our paradigms have failed God’s people socially and ethically. As Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr. observes, “our theology [is] deficient at the core, allowing much of the reformed community to peacefully co-exist with slavery, Jim Crow, racial discrimination, maltreatment of immigrants, cruelty toward first nations, etc.” So, I guess I’m asking…
- Am I reluctant to read books and commentaries written by people of color or minorities because I found their perspective too challenging to my biases?
- Have I allowed my doctrinal knowledge to insulate my conscience while failing to put God’s Word into practice?
Second, I’m learning that racial prejudice is an ideology of hate that can be fortified by social power.
Being racist involves judging another racial group to be physically, mentally, or morally inferior on the basis of that group’s shared history and heredity. Strictly speaking, racism, like all kinds of social favoritism (James 2:1-4), is common to man. It’s possible for white people to be racist against black people, of course. But it’s also possible for people of color to have racist attitudes toward one another – for an African American male, for example, to shame another black man because he talks “white,” which often means proper. It’s also possible for a minority culture to hate the color of the majority culture.
Prejudice is not first a color thing. It was genetically-installed in Eden as part of the fallen human condition.
But, having said this, it’s important to observe that racism, historically speaking, is most often promoted and perpetuated by social power. Dr. Jarvis Williams describes it this way:
“In the US, the majority group’s racist perception of minority groups led to the creation and implementation of laws and policies that socially and economically enslaved black and brown people to the white majority… A few examples of this impact are economic inequality, educational inequality, and the small, but increasing, minority of black and brown people with power in [evangelical leadership].”
As Dr. Williams observes, social power often expresses itself legally — first in social mores and then in actual laws. It’s a problem that spans all civilizations. In Jesus’s day, many Jews avoided traveling through Samaria. When Jesus made the trek, the woman he met there was shocked that a Jewish man had stopped to rest. She was more stunned when he asked her for a drink. Why? The gospel of John answers, “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans” (John 4:9). The phrase “do not associate” means that Jews wouldn’t even use dishes a Samaritan had used for fear of becoming unclean. This social midrash codified the Jews’ personal prejudice.
The Satanic symbiosis between racism and legalism keeps showing up all over the New Testament. In fact once you see this theme in the Bible, you won’t be able to stop seeing it. It’s why Peter had to explain himself to the apostles after sharing a meal with the Gentile named Cornelius (Acts 11). After all, what was Peter doing with one of them? Despite their experiences with Jesus, there were still places the “sent-ones” were unprepared to go.
The twin sins of racism and legalism influenced the early church debates about circumcision in both Acts 15 and Galatians. At stake was whether the gospel should be tied to mono-cultural laws and traditions or whether justification by faith transcends culture. Thankfully, “faith alone” won the day. But I’m realizing that our battle with the Judaizing heresy is far from over. Apartheid and Jim Crow laws may have been struck down, but many folks still lock their car door when they approach an intersection where an African American man is present.
Laws can institutionalize racism, but reversing them doesn’t eliminate the effects. So, I’m asking…
- Where would I need to go to have a conversation with someone who is racially or culturally different from me?
- Where might I hold an unwritten but legalistic social code that governs my interactions with others from a different race or socio-economic class?
Third, I’m beginning to understand that I can neither downplay individual sin nor overlook sinful structures in society.
Individual blame for racism remains essential, because prejudice springs from a sinful heart. True liberation requires more than social change. We need to be rescued by the Savior and experience ongoing gospel renewal. But I’m beginning to see that while I want to ensure conversations about racism keep personal responsibility in view, one’s individual culpability cannot bear the full freight of sin’s impact.
Lately I’ve been growing more aware of how sinful behavior and racist beliefs become enculturated and embedded in the institutions of our society. It’s everywhere — from racial profiling to unequal sentencing. And this seems to mean that when I think about racism, I must stretch my thinking beyond personal sin to the places where patterns of prejudicial behavior organizes itself into the structures, ethos, and shared assumptions within our culture.
This means I need to discern not only where I’ve been personally racist, but also the ways I’ve participated, sometimes unknowingly and without personally prejudiced motives, in unjust institutional systems. This will sensitize my conscience to where I may even need to repent of ways I have participated in systems that unjustly protect and preserve the majority culture’s prejudice.
As a white man, “I didn’t know” can no longer be an excuse. If I’m honest, I have to admit it should have never sprung me in the first place. Ignorance never absolved me of responsibility. It only added unwitting to my culpability.
This brings me to the biggest pill to swallow. I feel like I can no longer deny the reality of my white privilege. This does not mean that I’ve personally achieved my privileges in an exploitative manner. But it does recognize the benefits, prerogatives, and advantages that flow my way from a river of historical inequality. This is pretty hard to come to terms with, but there’s a whole history of exploitation back there that I’ve benefited from just because I was born white. So, yes, while I affirm that people from any race can be racist, I’m growing more aware of the ways a racial majority can construct and manipulate racial reality. It’s becoming a little clearer to me that a plain reading of history seems to show that racial majority in most cultures seems to bestow racial privilege and protect racial advantage. Propaganda's line in Precious Puritans says it best, "It must be nice not to have to think about race." When we, as white Christians, fail to acknowledge the existence and influence of “privilege,” that is in itself a way of wounding our African-American brothers and sisters. And while I believe that discerning racial discrimination has improved for minorities on the level personal experience, a substantial battle remains on the level of institutional postures and gestures.
What am I going to do about it? I’m not honestly sure. I need help from others to know how to proceed. But at the moment I’m asking…
- Where have I mindlessly held on to social or economic power instead of using my power to stand up and speak out for those who have been oppressed?
- Concretely speaking, how am I using my social standing to empower others who are on the cultural margins?
Finally, I’m seeing that the polarizing problems of race can only be solved among friends who stand on level ground at the foot of the cross.
It was into the racially-charged New Testament climate that Jesus came. Early in his ministry, as I referenced above, Jesus determined to travel through the region of Samaria. There, he labored to dismantle the racial and gender walls that had been erected by the culture. Even if you are already familiar with it, you may want to stop right now and read the narrative of Jesus and the Samaritan woman from the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John.
If you checked it out, did you notice how the disciples marveled at the fact this conversation was even taking place (John 4:27)? Jesus adjusted his disciples’ ethnocentric perceptions simply by engaging the Samaritan woman in dialogue. The significance of their talking must be seen in light of the prejudice against the Samaritans and the patriarchal tendencies of that culture. It’s shocking for the disciples, because Jesus engaged the woman as an equal even though he was not her equal socially or spiritually. He didn’t simply preach to the woman, but he invited the woman to give water to him. “In doing so,” John Perkins writes, “He affirmed her dignity. Then by offering her living water he related to her in a way that empowered her to rise above her past.”
We’re not Jesus. But often when white evangelicals do reach across culture, we can come across like we have a social or spiritual superiority. You know what I mean, we’re condescending from our heights of privilege to shower a little relational mercy on some “poor minority.” If it sounds like I know what I’m talking about, it’s because I’ve done it.
At the end of the day, the only good we truly have to offer is the good news of a crucified and risen Savior. That both humbles and inspires me. I know, I can’t solve the global problem of racism — I’m just one guy. But what I can do is model love, speak up, and express gospel-hope by cultivating honest friendships with people who don’t look like me. You can too.
- White Christian, are there feelings of superiority from which you need to repent?
- What can you learn from the minority culture members of your immediate community?
- Who might you befriend as a way to love and learn from another culture?
The Journey Home
God never promised that the journey forward toward racial reconciliation would be easy. From where I sit, it can actually seem pretty daunting. But there’s an ember kindled deep in my soul and I sense the Spirit blowing fresh wind to gently stoke a flame. For a guy who’s logged close to 6 decades sojourning through this world, fresh winds are more needed than ever….and I think they are better appreciated!
Pray for me as I walk this path. And should you feel a spark kindled within your own heart, come join me on this journey.
Up ahead there is a land of people united from “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). It’s our homeland, the place for which we were ultimately created. We know the destination. Each day we strive for it here will better prepare us to delight in it there.