Most of my life I have been thinking about race and religion -- as a child when my family left my native Costa Rica to move to inner-city New Jersey, as a teenager struggling to develop my faith and learning to navigate race relations, and then as a young adult serving internationally with a missions organization. The issues were always boldly present.
Now, as I live my "ever after" as the wife of a South African man, we are trying to raise a family that is intimately committed to God and, as an overflow, passionately committed to social justice. Last year we followed the election closely, and dinner time was lively with talk of politics, race, and religion.
Now candidate Obama is President Obama, and our nation has an opportunity to talk about race in a more honest and informed way. Just last week, Eric Holder, the first African-American U.S. attorney general, delivered a provocative speech that confronted our nation's seeming inability to talk to each other about race in more than a superficial way. Though his comments upset some, he did get us talking.
Last year, throughout the presidential campaign, I asked many of my friends and acquaintances a "race question" as a way to engage them at a deeper level. The question: "Why is racism wrong?" The superficial reaction was usually a variation of "It's wrong because it's just not right!" Okay, but why?
My answer to the question? Racism is wrong because it misrepresents God's intentions for man. It alienates man from God, by telling him that the color of his skin is a factor that determines how much God values and loves him. It is a lie with a profoundly evil inspiration.
Some in the Christian community, sad to say, played a major role in propagating that lie. All in the Christian community, gloriously, can play a major role in defeating that same lie. Allow me to share something personal.
In South Africa, for decades the Dutch Reformed Church had as part of its doctrine the separation of the races. In fact, the South African Prime Minister D.F. Malan, who vigorously led the campaign for complete segregation of the races, was himself a Dutch Reformed minister. Also in South Africa, the U.S. ,and other countries, religious leaders used the "curse of Ham" as found in Genesis 9 to rationalize racism, the premise being that Ham was the darkest skinned of Noah's sons. In other words, religious leaders, who are experientially accepted by many as representing God, told an entire continent that it was "less than" others.
Apartheid had a profound effect on my husband's family, in ways that I cannot even begin to explain here. Suffice it to say they suffered discrimination, had acres of rich wine land (and therefore legacy) confiscated because someone dared to cross the color barrier ... and so much more.
On a personal level, he had to get special permission to go to a white university because the "colored" university didn't offer the engineering courses he wanted. The "colored" schools were inferior and barely funded (unlike the white schools). He saw friends arrested and, in fact, he himself protested through street theatre. His was the generation of the township riots. When he first came to the States, he had a physical reaction of fear even at a traffic stop.
And here is a salient point -- he was classified "colored," not "black." Mixed-race people were considered colored. Black people endured a far more extreme and oppressive suffering than anything he and his family lived through.
And all the while, this system was being propped up and even strengthened by religious leaders.
Why do I tell this story?
South Africa did not dissolve into civil war, as many expected. I believe this is thanks to people of faith. What never made it into the news in the States or around the world is that, for years before the dissolution of apartheid, Christians gathered in groundbreaking multiracial prayer meetings to pray for peace. In Cape Town, for example, believers gathered faithfully, week after week, at Table Mountain to pray for justice and peace in the nation. Churches opened in public places, like malls, so all races could attend. All that while, Nelson Mandela sat in prison on Robben Island, reading his Bible and growing in wisdom and strength. God changed his heart from violence to forgiveness. And his ability to forgive, based on the understanding of God's unconditional love for him, led a nation to a peaceful transfer of power. It was the power of prayer and the testimony of people of faith that started the transformation.
It is up to people of faith to communicate to the world that God's love is the same for every people group and race. Which brings me back to Barack Obama. Whether or not you, or I, voted for him is irrelevant. As I watched him last month at the inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial, it became evident to me that he already was carrying the weight of the world's expectations on his shoulders. His responsibility is massive, and to me unimaginable, as the leader of the free world. Make no mistake, there is still a "free world" and an oppressed world, yearning for freedom.
To bring this full circle, with the election of President Obama a statement was made to people all over the world that have been told they are "less than" because of the color of their skin. Try, please, to lay ideology aside to hear my heart. There are little boys in Africa, running in the streets barefoot much like my husband many years ago, who may find a new power within to rise above their circumstances. It is no small thing to awaken a continent to its potential.
And we, people of faith, must rise to our potential. We must work night and day to make it clear that our God not only loves people of every skin color, but gives each and every one the opportunity to succeed or to fail, to lead or to follow. Our God is an equal opportunity God ... let us be equal opportunity people.
Barby Zúñiga Ward has been involved in intercultural ministry for more than 25 years, working internationally and domestically. She is on staff at Flamingo Road Church in Broward County, Florida, and on the Board of Directors of Houses of Hope International. She and her husband, Peter, own a software development company in Fort Lauderdale, where they live with their four children. Barby blogs at Cafecito.
This post appears courtesy of a partnership with UrbanFaith.com.
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