There was an article in the Daily Herald (Chicago) this week about a group of 18 mostly African-Americans being asked to change tables at a local Buffalo Wild Wings because some regular “white” customers didn’t want the group to sit near them. This blatant racist behavior was reported and 2 managers were fired; some people were calling for a boycott of BWW until safeguards such as sensitivity training, etc. were put in place.
It is true that we don’t know the whole story, which doesn’t call the incident into question, but it does raise the question of why such a thing continues to happen over and over again after so much publicity and media attention. Racism is defined as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race/ethnicity based upon the belief that one’s own race is superior.” I think that this is too narrow a definition. While such feelings of racial superiority can be part of the mix, I believe that the underlying causes for racism are far more complex and deceitful.
In Numbers 12, there is an account of an older sister, Miriam, and a younger brother, Aaron, criticizing their brother Moses for marrying a Cushite woman. Cush was a region of southern Ethiopia, where black-skinned people lived. “Can an Ethiopian (same word translated “Cushite”) change his skin or a leopard his spots? Then also you can [not] do good who are accustomed to evil” (Jeremiah 13:23). As an aside: Moses had married a Midianite woman, Zipporah, 40 years earlier whom he had met in the Sinai region after his escape from Pharaoh. The Midianites were originally from northern Arabia, but many had migrated to Sinai. Reading between the lines, there is a good chance that Zipporah had died, or that she had left him again like she did in Ex 4:18-20, and was living with her father’s family back in the Sinai. Either way, Moses’ new wife was not Zipporah. I doubt that Miriam and Aaron would have complained about her after 40 years.
So the sibs criticized Moses for marrying a black woman, who was not an Israelite. The text implies that Miriam took the lead in this family dispute. We would call this racism, but it wasn’t racial superiority that prompted the slur. The underlying cause for this racism was jealousy (especially Miriam’s) of Moses’ leadership position and the belief that she could totally do a better job (note the “plague-gate” quail issue in Numbers 11). God punished Miriam severely by striking her with leprosy that turned her skin “white.” John Piper suggests that in Numbers 12:10 God is in effect saying, “you like being light-skinned Miriam? I’ll make you white as snow.” She was not punished for being a racist but, because she was jealous of Moses and criticized the leadership of someone whom God had appointed. Aaron confessed his sin and wasn’t punished, while Moses prayed for his sister’s healing and was heard.
This text is not only a study of how a leader handles criticism with humility and restraint, but also shows that there are deeper reasons for the sin of racism than just the belief of “racial supremacy.” There could be lurking a heart of jealousy, of fear, of inferiority, or of just going along with the crowd in order to be accepted. As we have seen in the case of the Holocaust, Hitler made the Jewish race a scapegoat for the problems of the nation. There could be that same blame-shifting mentality among some people who see law and order disrupted by the “foreign element” and people who don’t “look like” they belong here. A case in point is the story of the 61 yr. old white man in Milwaukee who was arrested over this past weekend for throwing battery acid in the face of an Hispanic man while shouting, “why did you come here and invade my country?”
Sins of the heart cannot be punished by human law, but it is fairly obvious that ignoring the deeper issues of racism yields little fruit. In fact, racism is a growing problem not a lessening one that can’t be treated as mere ignorance dealt with by prison time, lawsuits, sensitivity training, and politically correct language. In fact, such “antidotes” tend to inflame the sinful heart instead of being a remedy. Certainly a society must bring law into the picture in order to protect racial and ethnic minorities from oppression and hate crimes, but, at the same time, it cannot ignore the place of faith as a part of the solution for the racial divide because it is the function of religion (not law) to address issues of the heart. Thus instead of criticizing religion, society should encourage the practices of religious communities to challenge their membership to live out their faith and not in contradiction to it—especially as it relates to racial issues.
Jesus said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt. 15:19). He also told his disciples that you’ll be able to recognize the true and the false adherents to religion by their fruits, because a healthy tree cannot produce bad fruit and a bad tree cannot produce the good. (Matthew 7:15–20)
I believe that only a person in whose heart God has worked through the miracle of new birth, because of faith in Jesus Christ, can be changed from a racist to a “gracist.” This change does not usually occur overnight, but there should be an awareness of its existence in heart and attitude and a repentance that ultimately will lead to change. This repentance along with a humility to learn from and be in relationship with those of different ethnicities, brings healing of those deeper issues of the heart which often cause racial conflict, which Miriam and Aaron so vividly exemplified.
As faith communities we must continue to preach repentance and the new birth through faith in Jesus. We must also continue to examine our own hearts as well as challenge those who call themselves followers of Jesus “to put up or shut up”—to act like him, to love like him, or else they might prove to be false followers and filled with self-deceit. Jesus said, “When that day comes, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, cast out devils in your name, and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them to their face, ‘I never knew you: out of my sight, you and your wicked ways!'” (Matthew 7:22, 23 NEB)