It’s been a year since the harrowing events in Ferguson, Missouri. It’s unbelievable how much has happened since then—how many more instances of racism and violence we have seen, how our culture has responded, and how divided our responses still are, fifty years after many white people thought civil rights had hammered the last nail in the coffin of racism.
I’ve thought a lot about this, even gotten too caught up in my outrage at times, probably using the term “racist” a little too freely.
So many of us can only see one perspective, one side of the story. So many of us continue to cast blame on anyone but ourselves. Complex interpersonal and societal issues will do that. And this is certainly a complex issue. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized it has a pretty simple cause and solution, at least among the body of Christ.
The problem for white Christians, from the beginning, has been that we have failed to love our neighbors as ourselves. It started with slavery, when we decided that a different skin color and culture of origin deemed us worthy to own human beings and to consider them property. It persists today, in a much less dramatic, yet startlingly pervasive automatic reaction to judge people because of how they look and to which group we think they belong. And it is becoming alarmingly tangible in front of our eyes in instances of police brutality and other forms of violent racism.
We have failed to look in the faces of black people, whose skin was made in the image of God just as much as ours was, and see our skin, our eyes that see the world, our ears that hear good and bad messages about ourselves all our lives, our lips that speak out hoping someone will listen, our hands and feet that work and travel and endeavor to not only survive but to thrive, our minds that grapple every day with thoughts and worries and ideas, our hearts that burst with love and protection and loyalty and affection for our mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and husbands and wives and nephews and nieces and classmates and friends.
The sad truth is, though this is how Jesus calls us to view our African American brothers and sisters, so often we white Christians still look and see them rather than us.
We won’t stop letting our differences control how we treat and think about other people until we start to love them as we love ourselves, until we start to consider them just as thoughtfully as we do ourselves and the people we think of as being “like us.”
This, Jesus says, is how we are to love. That’s why racism is wrong. Not because society says or because it’s taboo or even because it hurts someone’s feelings.
Racism is wrong because it fails to see the inherent value in God’s creation. Love sees worth before granting judgment. Racism is a result of selfishness. Love is a result of selflessness.
We uproot racism when we look at someone of a different ethnicity and see ourselves. Or, in more practical terms, we uproot racism when we look at someone of a different ethnicity and see a friend or a neighbor, who is valuable and worthy as an individual and as part of a group of individuals whose culture may be different than our own.
Even when we recognize this and desire to live in such a way, we know we will continue to fail to love our neighbors. Not just because of race, but because no one is as important to us as we are to ourselves. That’s a consequence of sin, a reality of still being on earth, in earthly bodies. But that is no excuse. We are called to be better. To be different. To love. To lay down our stereotypes, our cultural preferences, our pre-formed opinions, the ways we were raised, our past experiences, our biases, our perspectives, our political opinions, our rights, and our lives for the sake of love. I’m talking about examining every part of what we truly believe in our heart of hearts and testing whether or not it lines up with what we say we believe—what the Bible really says.
The time has come for us to change. The Church must lead the way in the racial reconciliation our country desperately needs. Right now we still have an opportunity to get this thing right in our response to this particular moment in history. To act with truth, love, grace, and wisdom. It’s time to stop seeking diversity in our friend groups and congregations and organizations in order to look good; instead, it’s time to start seeking diversity in order to be good. It’s time to change for the better, to look at the world from the perspective of the systematically marginalized, to take the risk of loving our neighbors as ourselves. It’s time to show that our allegiance is not to a skin color or to nostalgia or to capitalism or to a flag or to ignorant jokes but to Christ.
But time is short. We need to act now.
It’s going to take admitting when we’re wrong. It’s going to take listening to hear when we were wrong and didn’t even realize we were wrong. And it’s going to take trying over and over again until we get it right. In our speech, in our actions, even in our thoughts.
This “we” thing isn’t just me trying to make these hard things sound more palatable. I really mean it when I say I’ve got a lot of room to grow, too. I look back at some of the things I’ve said and I look presently at some of the things I still think and say with shame, but also with confidence that the Holy Spirit can continue to trace new patterns in my mind that veer away from what my culture and white privilege and selfishness have taught me. And I believe He can do that for the Church in America as a whole. But I also think we have to put away the blinders and see the problems clearly. I think we have to want to change.
Racism is real. And it affects far more than we realize. If we claim to follow Christ, we must own up to it in our own lives and be willing to do what it takes to be a people known by our love and not divided by our prejudice.