Faith, Racism, and the Future
A black pastor I deeply respect shared the post above on Facebook. His meme equates historical American slavery with the recent actions of a US Border Patrol agent on horseback who chased down an illegal immigrant on foot. Understandably, the Facebook post was generating quite a few comments. I typically pass by these types of memes, but this one grabbed my heart, and I felt compelled to weigh in.
The pastor who posted it is a man who has laudably confronted real wrongs in his work. I absolutely believe a Christian leader has to “speak truth to power” when circumstances merit it. I also think it’s important that we engage with issues of justice with an eye toward unity and peace. It’s not enough to shine a spotlight on injustice; our actions must be grounded in what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. might have called light and love. The Church should be pointing to a way forward, a better way: The Way of Christ.
I decided to weigh in on the pastor’s post. The dialog that followed was revealing, and it forced me to think through this issue more deeply. I began with the following comment on the meme:
“Oh my goodness. This is a horribly flawed analogy that I believe devalues the heinous nature of slavery. Enforcing a nation’s border policy is nowhere near morally equivalent to abusing and enslaving human beings for profit.”
The pastor replied:
I’m sorry that your privileged context doesn’t allow you to feel what so many black people feel when seeing traumatic photos like this one. This is a time when you should listen and learn, and be slow to offer critiques on matters in which you have little emotional connection to. The point of equivalence is the ongoing devaluing and violent mistreatment of black bodies by white men on horseback who work for the state. The “legal” injustices that happened during slavery by the slave patrols against black bodies is still happening today by border patrols against black bodies as they “enforce border policy.” So, what you call a “flawed analogy,” many of us call horrific reminders of the ongoing reality of racism in this so-called Christian country. As you stand outside of the black community to critique it, I stand inside of it to cringe and to cry out. As my brother in the Lord, I pray that empathy will become your hallmark before offering your analysis does.The Pastor
I was surprised by his words. Not just the personal attacks but the divisive tone as well. In hindsight, I recognized that I had failed to appreciate the temperature of the conversation. I should have framed my initial comment more graciously. Instead, I had stumbled into a conversation of the heart by offering a clumsy intellectual comment on moral equivalency. That might explain why this Christian leader made no attempt to “reach across the aisle” in his reply. Lesson learned.
A Better Response
As I considered how to respond to the pastor’s comments, I hoped to reset the tone and clarify my point. We are in a particularly sensitive place as a nation when it comes to discussions of race, and there is a persistent strain of post-Christian philosophy driving the conversation. It’s a worldview I believe is dangerous and should be challenged. I tried to proceed with caution:
“You make a great point, [pastor]. I agree with you wholeheartedly that empathy is critical as we listen and learn about these issues. And please don’t get me wrong: we need to confront racism whenever we see it raise its ugly head. I was raised in a multi-racial extended family and have been the recipient of racism myself. So, you’re right, I am not a black American. But I may not be quite as ‘outside’ this issue as you think. And listening and learning and empathy need to go both ways. No one chooses their race: that is God’s gift to each of us. Therefore, I don’t think anyone’s opinions should be dismissed or marginalized based on the color of their skin.
“The image of a man on horseback grabbing a poor man on foot tugs at our hearts and offends our sensibilities, mine included. No one wants to see anyone abused or mistreated. Yes, the picture looks terrible. And the emotion around it is real and valid. But what about the facts of the situation? Why do you assume the black man was being pursued because of his race and not because he was illegally entering a country and evading authorities? Protecting a nation’s borders is not an inherently racist act. Maybe you’re aware of some evidence about the horseman or the border policy that I am not. (If so, I’m all ears.)
“Here’s the thing: labeling a race-neutral interaction ‘racist’ does damage too. We all have a responsibility to use our intellect as well as our emotions and critique carefully. Racism exists and we must fight it and, yes, even get emotional about it. And I sincerely applaud you for the great work you do in that regard. At the same time, how are we ever going to end racism if all we see in every interaction is racism? As a nation (me included!) we have to develop the maturity to assess the facts and be willing to follow them wherever they lead. Otherwise, we risk lashing out and doing damage based on falsehoods and that doesn’t do anyone any good.
“If it’s discovered that the horseman’s actions were motivated by racism, I will stand up and publicly denounce the incident. If they were not, I hope you would stand up and defend him from being wrongly labeled a racist. Because if we label everything racist without regard for the facts, racism ends up meaning nothing. Yours respectfully in Christ, Rob”
The pastor never responded to me. But a couple of days later, one of his friends did:
I can see this whole message just flew right over your head huh??? I call it willful ignorance. Your first mistake was labeling this a “race neutral problem.” It indicates to me that you are much farther out of the loop of black folks’ experiences than you may be willing to admit sir. After that entire soliloquy about having a closer connection to multicultural family members and all that, you still sound, to me, either clueless or ignorant. You’ve experienced racism, have you? Interesting. But let me ask you about that racism you have experienced please. At the hands of whoooo, exactly?The Pastor’s Friend
“Hey, (name)! Thanks for your comments. As I said, I am all ears if I am missing something about this incident with the agent on horseback. If there is evidence that this poor man on foot was targeted because of his race, I am right there with you and will denounce it publicly as racism and abhorrent.
“As for the personal racism I experience, it comes at the hand of antisemites who, because of the ministry work I do and my last name, assume that I am Jewish. As a result, I am the ongoing recipient of hatred, name-calling, and verbal abuse. (How dumb is that?!) But more than that, I have also witnessed these sorts of mindless, hateful comments and attitudes growing up with a Korean sister and an adopted black uncle. I only mention this because you asked. And I only brought it up in the first place to explain that racism is not merely an abstract concept to me. That said, I do not believe a person has to personally experience racism to know that it’s wrong and empathize with its victims and stand against it.
“Look, I get that there is an instant, visceral response to seeing a white man on horseback grabbing a black man on foot. But the photo of the border patrol agent does not contain any explicit evidence of racism. Abuse of power? Maybe. Inappropriate law enforcement procedure? Possibly. Wrong-headed border patrol policy? Worth discussing. But racism? Help me see it.
“And, btw, racism is not found in the mere fact that a white man on horseback is grabbing a black man on foot. True racism, the kind we all need to fight against and denounce, requires intent. Maybe the guy on the horse is a racist who hates black people. That’s possible. It’s also possible he has a black wife and mixed kids and donates to BLM. Surely you would agree that it’s possible that a white border agent can apprehend a fleeing illegal immigrant of color without racism playing a factor. Or do you believe that scenario is racist 100% of the time?
“Here’s my concern. If we start viewing every interaction between people of different races as driven by race, we lose sight of who we are as people and how God sees us. Rather than seeing human beings in different situations struggling with different things, we start to see monolithic people groups such as “white men” and “blacks.” And that leads to objectification. Next thing you know, we’re referring to a poor, desperate man—who is somebody’s son and probably a father and husband as well—as merely a ‘black body.’ And in my opinion, when that happens, we are no longer working to end racism. We are watering and feeding racism, causing it to grow. As men of Christ, as we rightly strive for justice, we need to also be promoting unity and peace. To call out racism where it exists is justice. No question. To claim racism where it does not exist is injustice.”
A Higher Vision of Race
God sees race, of course. He is the Artist Who created a diverse universe, including all the possible human colors. However, while God is not “colorblind” with respect to mankind, His love, grace, and mercy are. He is no respecter of persons. “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt 5:45). God does not categorize us by race. In His economy, all human beings of all colors are equally Imago Dei—made in the image of God. All are invited into His Kingdom, regardless of skin color, gender, age, ethnicity, social status, and so on. And for those of us who have accepted His invitation and put our faith in His Son, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
It is easy to spot a yellow car when we are always thinking of a yellow car. It’s easy to see racism when we are always thinking about racism. The point isn’t about whether or not yellow cars or racism exist. We know they both do. It’s about where we focus our thoughts and efforts. Because it is also easy to find opportunities to promote racial unity and peace when we are looking for those opportunities. While standing up and calling out injustice, the Church must frame the conversation in the context of Christ and promote a Godly vision of unity. It’s not enough to merely point out what is wrong with the current picture. Let’s point to a better picture of the future. Let’s talk about what God says the world should look like and why.
My prayer is that Christians—especially Christian leaders and teachers (and, in particular, me)—will not operate out of a sense of anger or offense, viewing people in categories of “us” and “them.” May we instead bravely confront injustice while calling our brothers and sisters of all races to unity through a higher vision and a better way. This was the power of Dr. King’s message. He shined an unapologetic spotlight on racial injustice while casting a vision of a better future. His was a message framed in hope and unity and firmly grounded in Scripture.
Indeed, there is no better way to make my point than by closing with a short excerpt from one of Dr. King’s most powerful speeches. On August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he fearlessly called out racial injustice while casting a beautiful vision of unity and brotherhood across racial lines. His words are still moving. And they are all the more profound in light of the current conversation this country is having on the topic of race.
So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day down in Alabama with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.