As someone who has been involved in the struggle for racial reconciliation for most of my life and ministry I am concerned at times with some of the rhetoric and conversation I hear and read from my side of the fence. What I mean by “my side of the fence” are those folks with whom I am in general agreement, those who claim Christ and who seek justice.
I am often dismayed, but seldom surprised, with statements made by people on the “other side of the fence;” those who are racist, and especially those who actually seek to defend hostile racial attitudes while still claiming to be Christian. I am also not that surprised by people we might describe as “on the fence;” those who want to take a neutral stand, who seem superior and condescending, who act like they don’t really have to take sides. This last group thinks they can escape blame for fostering prejudice, supporting an unjust status quo, or can justify being silent on those days when a righteous voice is needed.
I might be able to level criticism at these other people, at least at their statements or positions. I might be able to in general raise a prophetic voice at attitudes and commitments that I feel are antithetical to Christ, which I believe is my calling as a preacher and minister of the Gospel. However, I am constrained to make such statements, and to hold attitudes, and to foster only those emotions which are obedient to my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. This constraint means I must be restrained in returning evil for evil. The rules I live by are different than those who do not claim to serve Christ, and I only have a select drawer of weapons which I can legitimately use in this war.
So, when I read or hear from those with whom I mostly agree say things, or write things, or post, or blog, or podcast, etc. that I think are going in a direction of bitterness, or retreat, or separation, or self-segregating, or revenge, or arrogance, or self-pity, then I feel a bit discouraged, if not a bit annoyed. I also find myself wanting to give a warning.
As a white man I am very conscious that I ought never to attempt to speak for African Americans, or actually any group, including my own. I am certainly not the spokesman for white people. I am however a spokesman for God, and I certainly do not mean that in any presumptuous or arrogant way. This I accept as God’s calling on my life, and according to the power that God invests in me, and always bordered, controlled, and examined by the Scriptures.
There are those who write or say provocative things, and though sometimes the “truth” they are sharing might contain some of the truth yet not the complete truth, it sounds clear and radical enough to get our attention. Again, I am speaking about those on “the same side of the fence” as me. This provocation presumes motives, then seeks to stir up a reaction, and those who don’t hold to Biblical rules (even while claiming to be Christians) respond with hatred and racially vituperative rejoinders. I can roundly condemn all this racial garbage, all this meanness, all this spiteful and nasty commentary, and I most emphatically do.
At the same time I don’t feel as much pity for the victim because he obviously started the conversation in the way that he did to provoke a reaction but not necessarily to solve a problem. In other words it looked like he wanted attention but was not seeking some positive change. Such provocations cloud motive, and they are sharp enough to make people angry but not prophetic enough to bring repentance. On top of that the person who created the provocation tends to blame everyone else for not coming to comfort him. So, he repeats the cycle, and continues the alienation by blaming whole groups of people for those who acted sinfully. “…As much as it depends on you, live at peace with all men,” Romans 12:18 says. I thought that was Scripture, not, “as much as it depends on you start fights with all men.”
In this world of injustice, and then within the smaller world of those seeking justice is an even smaller world of those who seek justice but do it in the name of Jesus. I confess with great sorrow that not all of those who associate themselves with Jesus as savior have any commitment to seeking justice. In this relatively small world, (in this Christian community of justice seekers), there are various hurts, pains, reactions, intentions, commitments, and strategies.
There is no way any of us will completely know someone else’s pain. Proverbs 14:10 says, “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy.” I cannot deny how much hurt someone is feeling. However, I believe we can usually discern whether or not their response is Biblical. This goes back to being constrained and restrained by what Scripture teaches us. The delicate thing is that when people are hurting it gets a bit dicey to say to someone that they aren’t handling it well. However, if enough of us keep our mouths shut when our very own brothers and sisters, and comrades in this fight, divert us from Jesus’ endorsed behaviors and strategies we risk being taken down some very dark roads.
There seems to be in this present generation the idea that if a person feels hurt or can express that hurt in racial or ideological terms then they are free to say stupid things, even if in fact those things are not really Christian but sound like justice. As I read the Scriptures I think we are told to test every prophecy, which I take to mean we have to align ideas, comments, statements, and proposals for action up against God’s Word. The test isn’t how authentic the feeling might be, or how sympathetic we might feel to someone who feels hurt or slighted, or even brutally attacked. The comparison is with Jesus, who being mocked and reviled did not respond in the way he surely could have, with ten legions of angels to kick the snot out of the world.
The real heroes of course are not those who have simply had their feelings hurt but who have physically suffered, who have lost property, wholeness and health, family, and even their own lives but still forgave and rose above the bitterness and hate which would seem so humanly understandable. I am convinced it is miraculous for God’s people to respond to injustice in such a forgiving way, but these are the miracles which God uses to convert the lost and convince the haters of God’s mercy and justice. We still need these kinds of miracles, and we need less of petty sniping and bitterness.
There seems to be a certain amount of insecurity and fear about how to deal with unjust power structures and privilege, even if residual from history. Some of the discussion I hear or see is not the call to faith strategies, but about power strategies. Are we after racial reconciliation or not? To not be for it means to be after racial alienation and satisfaction in segregation. To not be for reconciliation now, to refuse to pursue it until there is “racial justice,” is to lose all hope that the Spirit of God is able to create new realities on earth before all is made right in heaven (and that is the only place and time when true justice will actually be brought to pass).
We can retreat into the status quo and seek to create our own little strongholds protected from the storm of reality. Let us acknowledge that this is indeed retreat and not a quest for justice. It might feel comfortable, but it is an illusion, and without the pursuit of reconciliation in the church we allow the enemies of justice to grow and perpetuate themselves.
Is the quest for the advancement of minorities in formally white power structures a quest for ego, a quest for status and power (even in the name of justice), or is it a quest for relationship based on love and respect? Is it reconciliation we seek, or simply position? Sometimes those struggles that happen between pastors, between a Senior and an Associate or Assistant are simply personality issues. Sometimes they are pissing contests between a younger man and an older man with the younger wanting position now, or feeling his ideas are better and he could run things in a better way. This is all too human and it doesn’t matter what race you are to have such struggles. We even have black men who don’t want another black man to serve under them because they fear competition, as we do with plenty of white men.
Let’s be practical; can a black pastor work in a majority white church and be legitimately loved and respected if he holds a subordinate position to the senior white pastor? Is he in fact an “Uncle Tom” type token? Is the church legitimately cross-cultural if it doesn’t have black senior pastor leadership? Now the reality is that sometimes people of color are tokens. Sometimes people are hired for “window dressing” and don’t have authority or real influence. Sometimes there is a racial paternalism and patronizing spirit in an institution and this compromises what real reconciliation is and demeans individuals and institutions. Truth needs to be spoken to power to help correct such misguided patterns of church life.
Yet, there is the corresponding damage of people making assumptions about black people in white institutions, and this has happened in all kinds of institutions and organizations, not just the church. Some have offered generalized opinions that a black person in white institutions has to be a “sell out,” a “self-hater,” or “somebody’s boy.” Wow, what racist destructive trash people sell and buy, as if no one could legitimately earn or keep place, privilege, and power on their own merits and not forget who they are or where they come from.
I have lived long enough to see some racial myths broken down. I remember being told, “White people in the PCA will never submit to a black pastor.” Well, in the Presbyterian Church in America that has certainly been proved wrong as most of the black senior pastors we have do indeed pastor majority white churches. Such racial myths will keep being made up and propagated; they usually have a motive, hold a portion of the truth, but are not usually positive or helpful.
I write this with the conviction that Jesus want us to be peacemakers and that the only consistently Biblical way to do that is through peace, not by fighting. As the Lord is my witness, and as my whole life of preaching might attest, I am not trying to protect anybody’s feelings from the painful conviction of truth. I just don’t think being mean, demeaning, or needlessly insulting is the same as “speaking the truth in love.” James 3:17-18 says, “but the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.”