Thoughts on Racism…

I am reposting this blog that I wrote back on November 8, 2019, before the recent events that have triggered our national discussion on race. I hope you read it again with new eyes and find it helpful…

There was an article in the Daily Herald (Chicago) this week about a group of 18 mostly African-American folks 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 racist request was reported and 2 managers were fired. Some people were calling for a boycott of BWW until safeguards such as sensitivity training for all employees , 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 dark-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, it could be 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 the way the story is unfolds in the text, racial superiority was not what prompted the slur. The underlying cause for this racially motivated criticism was jealousy (especially Miriam’s) of Moses’ leadership position and the belief that she could totally do a better job. 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 informs us that there are deeper reasons for the sin of racism than just an attitude of “racial supremacy.” Racism can also be caused by 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 racism among some white people who see law and order as being disrupted by immigration protests trying to populate this country with more of 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 only adds to the problem. 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 occur overnight, but there should be an immediate desire for racial reconciliation and a growing attitude of repentance that will ultimately lead to change from the inside out. This repentance along with a humility to learn from those of different ethnicities, will bring healing to the deeper issues of the heart which often cause racial conflict, which Miriam and Aaron so vividly exemplified.

As Christian faith-communities we must continue to preach repentance and faith in Jesus, as well as to demonstrate justice, mercy, and humility to all people regardless of race or ethnicity. (Micah 6:8) It is time for followers of Jesus “to put up or shut up” when it comes to the racial divide in this country—to act like him, to love like him, or else they might prove to be false followers filled with self-deceit. Jesus once said something that should make us all shudder and fall on our knees in humble self-examination: “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)

Just a Thought on Ferguson, Missouri

More than two months have passed since Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri—setting off confrontations between (mostly African-American) residents and (mostly white) police, and sparking a national conversation about race. But the precise circumstances of what happened on that August afternoon remain murky. The key issue is whether Wilson fired in self-defense, as he told investigators, or whether he fired without sufficient provocation. There are witnesses on both sides. On Wednesday, new evidence emerged, according to a Washington Post investigation and an autopsy report from the county medical examiner. The evidence isn’t conclusive, but it lends more credence to Wilson’s version of events.

The cry for justice in Ferguson will not ultimately be answered to anyone’s satisfaction. Pre-judgement on both sides of the aisle will prevent true justice from taking place. The grand jury is expected to reach a conclusion on whether to indict Officer Wilson next month. But the decision may not settle the question of what actually happened. Quite possibly nothing ever will. Yet, whether we talk about Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo or Rodney King, I realize that for me—a white, middle-class, old guy, race is merely a conversation. If I were black, it would take on a whole new meaning for me and my children and grandchildren.

There will be changes in the way the police do business in Ferguson, just as there were changes in Los Angeles after the King riots and changes in New York City after Amadou Diallo. However, we will never get it right. America will never get past the issue of race. It has been a part of the fabric of our nation since the Founding Fathers. As Alfred Doblin mused, “Maybe we are a nation with too much historical baggage and too many carpetbaggers to get to a place where the influx of black families doesn’t signal an exodus of white ones, or where an angry black man looks identical to an angry white man.”

In no way am I suggesting that we should not work for justice—heaven forbid; our world would totally implode. Working for justice is part of the very fabric of our Christian faith. Certainly we have made strides; we have an African-American president. But we should not be naive enough to think there is a magic bullet in our democratic system of government that will eradicate racism; after all it took five years into Obama’s presidency just to stop asking for his US birth certificate. We can make racism illegal, but we cannot legislate against the racist thoughts and intents of a sinful heart.

When Los Angeles burned in 1992 after the police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted, the mobs chanted “No justice, no peace.” In Ephesians 2:14, Paul said “For he himself (Christ Jesus) is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing walls of hostility–that he might create one new man in place of two, so making peace.” Jesus Christ has broken down the separation between hopeless humanity and its Creator God through the cross. He has also broken down the walls of hostility between people groups. On paper, the Church should be the one place in which Jew and Gentile, black and white should live in reconciliation and peace. Sadly, this is not usually the case. The Bible has been used to kick the Baptists out of Massachusetts, burn some “witches” at the stake, justify slavery, and defend the Jim Crow laws of segregation in the south.

However, I have more hope that the Church will be transformed than I do that my country will change. I see places where the gospel is reaching across the barriers of race and culture to produce this new humanity of which Paul spoke. For me, it begins by extending the grace of God to others on the basis of our common inclusion into the family of God. It also motivates me to move toward people who are different than I am—not only in race and culture, but also towards the marginalized, giving a voice to those who have none. The same way God moved toward me and my Gentile race while we afar off, still in our sins, to bring us near, even into his very own family in Christ. (Eph. 2:19)

I dream of the day when the Church can say to a place like Ferguson, “look at the gospel; look at what it has done for us.” It is happening in heaven right now and so I will continue to pray, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Slaughter in Africa…

mcentafrThis is the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the genocide in Rwanda. A constant message we hear from the nations is one of apology for not intervening and stopping the horrors there before they turned into genocide. A similar horror is taking place in the Central African Republic that demands the world’s attention before an apology will be necessary there as well. The whole world knows about the missing Malaysian airplane with 239 passengers and crew. Forty-four million dollars have already been spent on the search. There are thousands missing in CAR, and it barely makes the news.

Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, wrote the following article last week in in Time Magazine. He recently traveled to the CAR on behalf of the U.S. State Department, along with a Roman Catholic Cardinal and the President of the Islamic Society of North America. The trio was chosen because the religious make-up of CAR is 52 percent evangelicals, 29 percent Catholics and 15 percent Muslims. The following are his comments:

It’s not easy to explain what’s been happening. And, not everyone agrees to any explanation. The best chronology begins with a corrupt and failed central government that has been accused of injustice and incompetence. A rebel group called Seleka swept across the country with brutality and established a new government with a new president. The new president didn’t last long. An anti-balaka militia organized [itself] for protection and retaliation against the Seleka and have been accused of further brutality. A transitional government has been established, but it is poor, weak and often overwhelmed.

We heard stories that break your heart. Thousands killed, often with machetes; widespread rape, destruction of homes, shops and villages. There were 36 mosques in Bangui; now there are seven. One man told us that 13 of his brothers were burned to death the same day. Another told about a hand grenade thrown into a group of people while they prayed. The National Highway was closed by all the unrest, so trucks and supplies can’t access the country. Villagers have fled into the bush out of fear; their villages are empty, and no crops are being planted. One million people have fled the country or are internally displaced. There is a refugee camp at the little airport that swelled to 100,000.

Seeds for planting are not available; some will be imported from Cameroon, but they are also in short supply and giving priority to their own farmers saying that any surplus will be sold to CAR. There is threat of wide-scale famine. Before all this CAR was one of the poorest nations in the world with people living on less that $2 per day. Current shortages are inflating food prices. In Bangui, the capital of CAR, chickens are selling for $12 each. (To make a comparison: If you earn $50,000 a year in the United States, it would cost you over $800 to buy one chicken for your family.)

Some say that this is a religious battle between Christians and Muslims. It is a common assertion in our western press. I can see why they say this, since there are similar lines politically, demographically and religiously. However, the leaders we talked to in CAR insist this is not a religious war. To the contrary, the religious leaders are the loudest most courageous voices against the violence and the strongest promoters of peace.

As we sat in the ambassador’s residence, one of the militia representatives said that the people of CAR have not made God the priority. He said that most important in the Central African Republic is for the people of the nation to turn their hearts and actions to God. His prayer was that human tragedy would turn into spiritual renewal.

I am deeply disturbed by the hypocrisy of our own culture to racism. We can take such swift action against the offensive comments of an NBA team owner made in private, while we show little to no concern for Africans starving, suffering, and being slaughtered in CAR. Wouldn’t it be amazing if NBA Commissioner Adam Silver took that 2.5 million he is fining Donald Sterling, added several million more from any other owner or player in the NBA who ever made a racist comment in private, and then sent it to help our brothers and sisters in CAR? That would be an incredible statement! Back to reality- let us pray for CAR, financially help the aid organizations working there, enlighten our elected representatives, and do whatever we can to keep this tragedy on the world stage.