SENSITIVITY TO RACIAL HURT AND GUILT
On a recent weekend I was forced to remember how sensitive racial and ethnic feelings are within some people. It was an interesting juxtaposition of one black man and one white man on two consecutive days in two different places, providing not so much a contrast but a similarity.
I will tell you in brief about the incidents and then seek to draw some conclusions, and I do this as much for my benefit as well as for yours.
The African American brother is a former drug addict and ex-con, who has struggled much since getting out of prison in being able to find and keep a job. He was going church to church to find help, and one church finally sent him to a PCA church (almost as a way of dumping him on a church they resented) but it turned out to be a good thing. The PCA pastor who pursued a relationship with this brother really began to help him by taking him to a potential employer, vouching for him, supplying transportation for him, and befriending him. So this black man is now a Christian and growing in his faith.
He had been to places seeking jobs, and felt insulted with what he had been offered, or insulted in receiving no offer at all. So, now there were a few of us going out to dinner and we went to a restaurant where he had applied for a job and been rejected, and as soon as we entered he began talking about it. During our time there the all white staff interacted with us, one lady identifying herself as being from the south as she tried to make some kind of connection with a few of us who were from Tennessee.
At one point this lady came out from the kitchen and asked us if we had any “black eyed peas” on our table. The one African American in our group, the man who had already felt disrespected by the people of this establishment became angry. He let it be known to the rest of us that he felt she had said this as a direct comment about himself, and he because so bothered by it he had to go outside and have a cigarette.
Now, it is unknown as to exactly what she meant. The best take on it was she wasn’t speaking about the brother at all, and the worse take was she was indeed trying to needle him. It was not obvious enough for anyone else to feel it was a racial insult, but the brother did. When he came back in all of us at the table were a little unsure about what to say, how to deal with it, or how to calm him down before things got worse. He certainly didn’t need any more legal trouble, yet his feelings were raw and real.
What followed next was a pretty good time of facing the possibility that this was the worst case, and asking the question as to how we, and especially our brother of color, should deal with it. How do we deal with our enemies, how do we deal with those who sin against us, how and when should we turn the other cheek? We felt it would have been wrong to be dismissive about his hurt or his feelings.
This brother has truly struggled and suffered in trying to change from his past, and has done very well over the last year in working hard to make a life for himself, and to grow in Christ. Far too often white folks have explained away racial bias and racial insult on the part of other white folks, working way too hard to come up with some alternate explanation or justification for why a white person said or did what they did. Attempting to dismiss and deflect the legitimate concerns, feelings, and anger of those disrespected adds further insult to injury.
Yet, some situations are ambiguous, they can be all about perspective and interpretation. So, our discussion centered on what any of us ought to do, as followers of Jesus, when we are indeed attacked. It was not about, “don’t be so sensitive,” or “stop playing the race card.” It was about the reality that the world is truly fallen, full of trouble and danger, and unfortunately, full of obnoxious people who don’t mean us well. Thankfully he decompressed a bit, and I had one more experience of how one stray word, phrase, look, or attitude can set off a fire storm, even if it is unintended, or especially if it is intended.
So, the next day I spoke to a bunch of white men. The crowd was completely white. I was in fact thanking them for their support for planting a church in a poor, racially mixed community. I was trying to inform them of how hard it might be, of how long they might need to stay committed, and of how different this church might be from their own.
Along the way I made remarks about our usual practice in the PCA is to plant middle class churches and not do much evangelism, but to take advantage of new suburban communities and transfer growth, and to give those new plants just 3-5 years to make it. I also spoke about how, in a mixed community, the worship might be culturally different, and God help me, I mentioned the Regulative Principal of Worship (although in a positive sense but with contextual appreciation, and attempting to be humorous, which sometimes gets me into trouble).
Afterwards, one of those white men, came and got in my face. He was angry and began to rebuke me for attacking the middle class, from whom most of the money would come to help plant this church and I “shouldn’t bite the hand that fed me.” He was offended by my remarks about worship, and he was offended that I assumed their churches didn’t care about racial minorities as they had a few in their own church, and middle class people needed Jesus too. He also thought I was referring to white southern churches and shouldn’t think the church (here, up North) had the same racial problems. This was his perspective and interpretation of my remarks, with which in all honesty I could not agree that what he thought I had said I had actually said.
What was similar about these two incidents was the emotion of anger, one that had been directed at others, and one that was now directed at me. Another similarity was the issue of interpretation and perspective. In both situations others didn’t take it the way the person being angry took it. By way of contrast, one brother seemed to listen and the other didn’t.
I was a bit amused that the Devil was tempting me to not take my own advice (which was to not return insult for insult), because I do feel insulted when my words are misconstrued. In God’s mercy I tried to humble myself, listen to his concerns, assure him I didn’t mean to insult (which when telling the truth I sometimes do but by no means maliciously, at least this time) and sought to make peace with him. I’m not quite sure how it worked out in his heart, but at least he didn’t hit me.
It might be some people need to wear warning labels over their heads: WARNING –this person might explode or go off at any moment, and your best intentions might be misinterpreted, and you should be careful to remember that some people have a lot of racial hurt and others a lot of racial guilt and they don’t know what to do with it. Others of us need an internal warning that reminds us that there is racism, and some are guilty, and to be dismissive of it makes things worse.