I am intrigued this week as my inbox has swelled with emails from every organization that has me on their distribution list. Each condemns racism and vows to evaluate their practices to ensure racism has no presence in their organization. I am intrigued not because I doubt their sincerity, but because much of this strategy appears to be motivated by social pressure rather than moral conviction.
I know from personal experience that racism is not eradicated by policy changes. As important as these changes are in dealing with racism, they be must accompanied by addressing the prejudices of the heart.
I spent the first five years of my life in Flint, Michigan. My parents were part of the “white flight” to a suburban farming community. So, for the first 14 years of my life, I lived in a racially sheltered and homogeneous environment.
Protests, Riots and Grumbling on All Sides
However, in the summers of 1968 and 1969 protests broke out and I became aware of racism and its ugly consequences.
Protests were sometimes accompanied with rioting, looting, arson, shooting and danger for everyone: African Americans, police and firefighters. My dad was a fireman and experienced several harrowing situations. I was concerned for my father when some individuals began to shoot at firefighters as they attempted to save buildings. My views of racial tensions were further complicated as I also watched my pastor march with African American pastors in support of civil rights.
I heard the mumblings and grumblings of congregants on both sides of the issue. Though I attended church with my parents, I did not know Christ, so I became more and more confused by it all.
I went to college with 50,000 other students and came into a personal relationship with Christ where I found some clarity on these issues. I built friendships with others of different backgrounds: African American, Asian, Hispanic, and Jewish. We came to vastly different conclusions on all sorts of issues because we didn’t share the same cultural and life experiences. I thoroughly enjoyed these friendships with diverse people because they stretched me to see what I had previously known much differently. I loved seeing life through their eyes.
However, like the congregation I grew up in, I noticed some who made commitments to Christ only formed relationships with others who were “just like them.” They didn’t pursue relationships with those who were different. They allowed Christ to redeem some of their beliefs but not all. It was okay for Christ to save them from their sins, but not totally transform their hearts.
As I was discipled, I took on many values from my mentor. My mentor guided me in developing my relationship with Christ through prayer, Bible study and application my life. Also, investing in others who would repeat the process. That worked!
But the challenge with this process is that we often emulate behaviors without developing a heart of surrender.
We Reproduce Who We Are
We teach what we believe but we reproduce who we are. If you don’t hang with people different from you, you are probably not learning to understand them. You won’t meet them in their own stories like Christ did. He tells us to make disciples of “all ethnos”, not just those who think, act, look, dress, believe or value what we do.
Jesus must be our example. He fully accepted people where they were. He loved them unconditionally, in spite of understanding their failures. Or possibly because he understood them fully! He saw individuals that no one else did, he dealt with them at their deepest needs along with their perceived needs. As a student, I too wanted to understand people rather than judge them.
As I grew in my faith, some ridiculed me because of the jeans I wore to church. I remember telling one elder who chastised me for my attire, that Jesus saw me naked in the shower, so he isn’t really wasn’t impressed by the clothes I wore to the service. I knew Jesus accepted me, but I struggled with the judgmental attitudes I saw in some Christians.
As I struggled to grow in the grace of embracing other people’s cultures, burdens, pains, scars, and stories, I realized that most histories much different from mine. They were who they were because of who they were, including when and where. I needed to understand, not judge! This is the heart of Jesus. Throughout the New Testament, Jesus seeks to meet a person in their own story and then help them grow beyond it. He meets people where they are and promises to never leave them there. The only times Jesus judged another was when they attempted to manipulate him.
So why do we as followers of Christ overlook our own prejudices?
Let me ask you: Who discipled you? How were you discipled? Who challenged your biases? Who will call you out?
Called Out — Embarassed
You may think you aren’t prejudiced, but all of us are. I’ve worked diligently since college days to not harbor prejudices in my heart. Yet, I have been called prejudiced several times—and the description has fit more than once.
I once had someone call me out in a meeting I led, it was embarrassing.
He was an African American pastor from the “hood” in one of the largest cities in the US and he learned early to sense prejudice. I was leading a discussion on worship with a group of pastors. This pastor said worship should be loud because God tells us “to make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” I challenged him, giving examples of liturgical traditions which have soft, ordered, and structured worship. As the leader of a number of congregations, he was insulted by my dismissive attitude and disregard for his person and position. He abruptly stood and left the meeting.
The question wasn’t who was right on the issue. The question was whether I regarded him as an equal brother. In that, I failed miserably. I had disregarded him, for several reasons, but one was his race. After smarting, reflecting and praying, I realized my error and needed to confess it to him.
The next Sunday, I drove three hours to his church to attend service. We experienced a great, and loud, worship time. I asked him and his wife to go to dinner with Mary Kay (my wife) and me after their service. At dinner I apologized for my insensitivity to him, his tradition and his leadership. His gracious response kicked off a wonderful friendship. There are few people who I would trust with my life more than this dear friend and brother.
I became a deeper person for his friendship. He made me someone I could never have been apart from his honesty, love, and forgiveness. But it took me being humiliated, then confessing my sin to him, before we could begin the journey of our relationship.
I Can See (more) Clearly
Several years after this event, Mary Kay and I traveled to his city and we stayed overnight in their home. We had a fun evening and when it came time to retire, they suggested we sleep in their bedroom. Of course, I insisted that we would be fine sleeping in the guest bedroom. Then with sternness in his voice, he said it was important to him that we sleep in “their bed”. He said it was a necessary step for him to overcome his own prejudice against the abuse he had suffered from white people. I cried.
At age 66, I am beginning to see some things more clearly than I did in my twenties.
First, I realize that for all humans, the hardest prejudice to see is our own. It’s so deeply integrated in our worldview. Second, I realize that prejudice is an issue of the heart which manifests in other areas of our lives. And last, only through brokenness, openness and repentance will we recognize, admit and change our hearts concerning our own prejudices.