Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
So said Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963. People with shallow understanding will give him due honor for this day, and then repeat the sins of the past for the next 364.
What is happening in the national conversation disturbs me greatly, though not necessarily in ways you might suspect. Whether or not a U.S. President says something derogatory toward large classes of people is important. But it is not nearly as important as how the body of Christ engages in the responses that follow those media moments and in everyday matters.
My heart was already heavy before the latest news cycle blew up. I had heard from three friends, unconnected with each other and in different parts of the country. Racism, expressed by other followers of Jesus, had brought them pain. And in the sharing, their pain became mine.
To protect them, I will not reveal their identities. Just know that these are real stories, real people. Also note that I am talking to and about my own tribe, white American evangelicals in general, Pentecostals in particular. I am hard on my own tribe, not because they are worse offenders, but because they claim a higher, more transcendent plain of living. And I hold them – and myself – to that claim.
Story #1: A woman, black, is related by marriage to a white pastor. A few days ago, the woman shared how this white pastor-in-law does not defend her against disparaging remarks about people of color, which makes her feel vulnerable. In fact, he dismisses such remarks as inconsequential. His response to her after dissing her concerns: “You need to pray about this.”
Story #2: A white pastor told me how his church has been going through significant changes. Lots of new people coming in, getting saved and baptized, reflecting the growing diversity in his community. With pain in his eyes, he shared how white people began leaving his church when the number of blacks started to grow. I inquired, Surely So-and-so did not leave because of black people coming? So-and-so being a wonderful person and a loyal friend. His pained eyes answered “yes”.
Story #3: A black woman went with her young son to a local coffee shop. There they overheard two white people, whom she recognized, having a conversation.
Said one, “We don’t have a single property for sale in the city for under $xxx,xxx. *Laughing* I’m proud to say I’ve had a hand in that. That should help keep those uppity Negroes from (neighboring town) out of our schools.”
Said the other, “I’ll be happy when the construction next to xx is done and I can stop locking my car again.”
I asked my friend if she knew if either was a Christian. I didn’t mean “Christian” as in American, but really, truly Christian. At least one, she said, was our tribe of Christian, a fellow Pentecostal.
After she shared this on Facebook, I watched her feed for a few days, watched how well-meaning white people offered all sorts of advice while black people chose simply to empathize. Advice from the safe seats is cheap.
A stabbing pain in my forehead.
I watched how people of my tribe reacted to gossip that Oprah Winfrey might run for president. Regardless the merits of that possibility, the concern from white friends came to center on hype about her supposedly saying old white men have to die. How terrible of her.
I checked out the full transcript where she said that some people would have to pass on before racism was a thing of the past. Actually I’ve said the same thing myself. There was a time when I thought that when the old racist generation expired we would be able to fulfill the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr.
But America’s original sin keeps getting passed down from one generation to the next, just as sins do. In this way Winfrey was wrong. Racism doesn’t die with old racists. Sins do not die with the sinners. In fact, they keep infecting each succeeding generation unless and until repentance is pervasive.
The grumbling Israelites of old died in the Wilderness leaving behind a courageous new generation of Israelites, only to have the old ugliness come back to haunt the descendants. And it happened generation after generation.
In 1994, an amazing event occurred in Memphis, Tennessee, when black and white Pentecostals came together and whites asked forgiveness for past injustices. Dubbed the Memphis Miracle, it came to symbolize the healing of racial tensions among Pentecostals from the previous 85 years.
However, we white Pentecostals do ourselves a great disservice if we see the Memphis Miracle as a once and for all resolution of past (and present) sins. In each succeeding generation, we must deny ourselves and take up our cross – daily.
Meanwhile, in response to the supposedly biased statements of Winfrey, some of my white friends have reconfirmed their biases about blacks being white haters. If it weren’t for people of color raising the issue, there wouldn’t be racism. So it must be their fault.
A sharp pain in my neck.
All those stories and the news about Winfrey came to me within a week of the big one: The U.S. President was reported to have said something embarrassingly bad about certain classes of people. He denied using a particularly awful word, but did not deny making comparisons that disturb me deeply.
(Watch people argue whether he said what he is said to have said on any threads or comments connected with this article, totally ignoring what I am saying about sin in the camp. Call it deflecting – and my mother, bless her soul, used to call deflecting a sin.)
I watch the response of people of faith, my tribe. Some are instant heroes to me as they channel prophets of old, calling out the racial tones embedded in the differentiation made between Norway and Africa/Haiti. Others deflect, divert, dismiss. They are as blind as that pastor-in-law, as that church member, as the white “saint” in the coffee shop.
The logic spewed in defense of awful statements is twisted, oddly little changed in the fifty years I’ve been tracking such statements. Even excuses for sin are transgenerational.
I want to throw up.
My mind goes back to that moment when as a very young preacher in Waco, Texas, I went to an elder pastor friend about the overtly racist rhetoric of other pastor friends. I was shocked that Pentecostal leaders would talk like that and I needed some godly advice on how to deal with racists in the ministry. His curt response was that I was too sensitive.
Too sensitive? Shouldn’t sin bother all of us preachers? Shouldn’t all of us Pentecostals be sensitive to the sins of racism? We, who were born in an astoundingly prophetic moment of racial healing on Azusa Street when “the color line was broken”? Decades ahead of our time?
When a white friend (also a Pentecostal pastor) recently stated on Facebook that only 1% of the white American population was racist, my first thought was, How am I so blessed to know all of them if there are so few? No, my friends, racism is as alive and well in our society as any other sin. But that has never been a valid excuse to excuse it.
Imagine saying to God: “I didn’t sin any worse than my neighbor.” Try that logic before the Throne on judgement day.
I have never been surprised when unrepentant sinners sin. It’s as natural as dirt. But I my heart aches when sinners-saved-by-God’s-grace sin and don’t see it as sin. For when Christians do sin and don’t repent, the witness of the Cross suffers. We betray our Savior all over again. Such I believe is the situation we have with these stories I have shared.
Why does the church, my tribe, continue to tolerate such sickness? We will not eradicate the racism in our midst until we begin to acknowledge it for what it is, that it is a detestable thing before our Maker. And how can we expect our gospel work to be victorious as long as there is sin in our own camp (remember the failure at Ai)? Just as when my own Fellowship kept blacks out of the ministry in the 1950s for fear of hindering the work of the Great Commission, so we too hinder the work of the Great Commission by our cowardice and unconfessed sins against our own brothers and sisters.
My friend, the one from the coffee shop, is hesitant to publicize her thoughts, so I will do so on her behalf while (hopefully) protecting her identity. Here were some of the questions she posed following that incident:
- Why didn’t they notice me?
- If they did notice me, why did they say it anyway?
- Why were they comfortable having such a blatantly racist conversation in public?
- What should I say to my son about what he heard and witnessed?
- How does this affect how I feel about myself?
- How does this affect how I feel about my community?
- Am I safe right now?
- Is it safe for my children to have friends among the children who live there?
- How long must I endure the silence of those who say they care about me?
- Why didn’t the other people who could clearly hear say anything?
- Does this person’s personal beliefs affect their work?
- Will these people’s pastors talk about racism in a meaningful way?
- What does it feel like to be completely free from these feelings, questions, and concerns?
#9 plows right into the center of my chest.
I encourage you to ponder the questions my coffee shop friend has raised. But I warn you not to be too quick with your answers. The object of your time of reflection is to, well, reflect. Dig deep. If your inclination is to act like a great white savior, then rest assured you will prove yourself a part of the problem and not an answer. My friend told me advice from the cheap seats stung.
Please, God, make us humble enough to understand that the Spirit is given us to help us break down barriers so that your Name will be glorified throughout all the earth. Please save us from the sin of racism. Not merely once and for all, but Every. Single. Day. Amen.