Race, Faith and Truth
I was in my office on a quiet afternoon when I saw the car pull into the parking lot.
Those of us who work in churches are familiar with people stopping by seeking a bit of financial help. But people stop by churches for lots of reasons. It’s best to wait to see what they want before making assumptions.
As I watched the African-American gentlemen get out of his car, I sighed. My peaceful afternoon was going to be interrupted by yet another request for help. We could do that, but it would take some time. He came into the church and I greeted him.
“Hi, how are you?”
“Fine,” he said. “But I think I’m lost. I’ve got this appointment at a business near here, but I think I missed a turn. Can you help me figure out where it is?”
So why did I assume he was looking for a handout? The only variable was the color of his skin. And in that moment, I realized how quickly I make judgments about people based on stereotypes that lurk within me. And I was grateful that I had kept that stereotype to myself when I greeted the man.
It is not very difficult to understand why there is a black church and a white church in America today, or to realize that this structure will not change in the near future. The religious atmosphere created by the coming together of blacks (who were slaves) and whites (who were masters) tended to negate any possibility of developing the true unity and oneness that scripture proclaims for the church. The agendas of the slaves were vastly different from those of the masters. Unfortunately, conflict over agendas, both stated and unstated, continues to be one of the reasons that blacks and whites do not come together to worship.
Eventually, Butch invited me to come to his home and meet his family. I felt deeply honored and very eager to go. But every time I asked him to write directions to his place, he would change the subject. Finally one day with pen and paper in hand, I sat him down and said, "Look, Butch, how do you expect me to get to your house if you don't write out directions for me?"
Awkwardly he began to scribble on the paper. I was deeply sad when I realized the reason he had hesitated before was that he could barely write; I was ashamed at my insensitivity.
That small incident was very significant to me. I went home that night and both cried and cursed. I could not believe that someone as bright as Butch had hardly been taught to write. I was furious at a system that had given me so much and him almost nothing, simply by virtue of our skin color. By accident of birth, I had all the benefits and he all the suffering. I vowed again through angry tears to do everything I could to change that system.
I suppose I could live my life saying, "I will never allow myself to try to understand white people. I will cut myself off from them. I will live my life as a black woman, and I'll just keep white people in boxes." But to do that means to keep myself cut off from a part of myself. And if white people do that about black people, I think the same is true: It keeps them cut off from a part of themselves.
For those of us who are Christians, I don't think we have any choice in the matter. I think God has made it clear that we're to be reconciled to God and each other. And if we're to be reconciled to each other, that includes everyone who happens to be in the world with us.
Reconciliation demands that you not take sides; it demands that you take a stand, I think—a stand that's maybe a merging of a lot of different pieces that represent several different kinds of philosophical stances. I think that one who chooses a road of reconciliation must be willing to look at more than one side of the coin.
WHO ARE WE? WHERE ARE WE GOING? And how are we going to get there? We can no longer answer these questions. Indeed, we have stopped asking them. But just as the future of blacks seemed to be in peril when integration was introduced decades ago, our future as a viable racial and ethnic group in this country will be greatly diminished unless a new model for racial and cultural development is established.
Jim Wallis sat down after the George Zimmerman verdict earlier this month to give his thoughts on race, faith, and truth.
"We live in our different worlds. That's not what we're supposed to do as the body of Christ."
IN SPIRITUAL AND BIBLICAL terms, racism is a perverse sin that cuts to the core of the gospel message. Put simply, racism negates the reason for which Christ died—the reconciling work of the cross. It denies the purpose of the church: to bring together, in Christ, those who have been divided from one another, particularly in the early church's case, Jew and Gentile—a division based on race.
There is only one remedy for such a sin and that is repentance, which, if genuine, will always bear fruit in concrete forms of conversion, changed behavior, and reparation. While the United States may have changed in regard to some of its racial attitudes and allowed some of its black citizens into the middle class, white America has yet to recognize the extent of its racism—that we are and have always been a racist society-—much less to repent of its racial sins.
Suddenly, it seems, white people are seeing the racial divide as looming larger than before. Race, so often dismissed by white people as an insignificant factor in contemporary U.S. society, has acquired meaning—meaning that they were working hard to ignore.
In light of the Zimmerman verdict, it’s taken my all to keep my spirit afloat. Upon the verdict’s announcement, I sat in shock and dismay, perplexed by the outcome. Despite anything revealed through the trail, a few facts remain: Martin, an unarmed teenager was followed and pursued by an armed adult, Zimmerman. Ultimately, Martin was fatally shot by Zimmerman, and Zimmerman’s received no legislative punishment for killing Martin.
Upon awakening from the trance of the verdict, I began crying as I held my four-month old son. I wept because as an African-American male, I’m fully cognizant of how dark brown skin will exacerbate his odds of being profiled and criminalized as Martin was. I am also aware that the neighborhood we reside in, by choice, on account of our faith, also increases his chances of being stereotyped. Nevertheless, irrespective of how stacked the odds are against someone, odds never define a person’s existence. Through God’s grace, communal support, social capital, hard work, and discipline my son can overcome these odds; but I must admit, my faith in this took a blow Saturday.