Content to Remain Blind
"Am I supposed to apologize for things that white people did 100 years ago?"
-White Man at Louisville Airport
This statement came during a conversation Lindsey and I had with a stranger last Saturday in the Louisville airport, after attending Together for the Gospel (a national conference on pastoral ministry).
Two things to know for the context of the above quote: 1) At the conference we had heard a passionate call from several of the speakers to take up the cause of racial justice and reconciliation in the church. 2) I was wearing a t-shirt advertising for The Gospel Coalition, who was one of the groups responsible for hosting the MLK50 Conference in Memphis two weeks ago.
As we stood in line, just moments before boarding the plane, another white man - presumably a pastor who had just attended T4G - out of nowhere said, "I've gotta be honest with you - I don't really like The Gospel Coalition." I was taken aback by the unsolicited denunciation of a group that I obviously support (since I'm wearing their t-shirt), so I asked him what he didn't like about them. The main reason he doesn't like them, it turns out, is that they give a platform to strong voices for racial justice, including their part in sponsoring the MLK50 Conference two weeks ago. I indicated that I actually was encouraged by the MLK50 event, and thought it was a positive step toward racial unity in the church, but he wasn't done with his denunciations. Next on his list of critiques was Dr. King himself, who "everyone keeps putting forward as this shining example of Christian faithfulness, when he denied essential doctrines like the virgin birth of Christ, and was a serial adulterer."
Because I was flustered by this point, and because I'm not an expert on the life and ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr., I decided to go around that topic and simply focus on the task of racial unity. "Regardless of what you think of Dr. King as a man," I replied, "surely it's right to carry on the work that he did regarding racial peace and harmony." I said this with a slight questioning tone, giving him an opportunity to affirm or deny the premise. By this point you won't be surprised that he didn't share my view. "I had nothing to do with slavery or Jim Crow. Am I supposed to apologize for things that white people did 100 years ago?"
Perhaps this man's sentiment is not unfamiliar to you. If you're Caucasian, maybe you've had this thought yourself. "Slavery wasn't my idea. I didn't support Jim Crow laws. Why should I feel guilty about it?"
Or perhaps you're familiar with other phrases often uttered by white-skinned Americans:
I don't think racism is really a problem anymore. I mean, slavery is over!
Why make a big deal about race at all? Isn't it the same as hair color?
Shouldn't we just be colorblind?
This is an enormous topic, and a sensitive one. There is more to be said on the issue of racial justice in our society, and in our churches, than I could possibly address in an article like this. So here's the only thing I'll attempt to communicate today:
We can't be faithful followers of Jesus Christ and be content to remain blind in these matters.
Like it or not (and whether "race" is really even an accurate term), "race" is a meaningful category in our society, and the issues of equality and justice surrounding it are bigger than you may realize. In my life, I've had the luxury of largely ignoring racial distinctions in terms of housing, educational opportunities, relationship to law enforcement, employment, status in my neighborhood, and a host of other issues related to "normal" American life. Why? Because I'm white. The fact is that many friends and neighbors of color - both inside and outside the church - do not experience this luxury. Their blackness is a key part of their identity (which isn't a bad thing) AND an important factor in their experiences in life, relationships, and opportunities.
The posture of many white people - exemplified so well by the man at the airport - to defend themselves, dismiss the issue as "in the past," and deem the whole thing "political," can be summarized by one word: blindness.
I confess my own blindness on these matters for years. I confess that I have far too often repeated the dismissive mantras of "in the past" or "too political." By God's grace, I've come in recent years to see that there's more to this issue than I have realized, and I cannot be content to remain blind. I must be willing to listen to different voices, learn from varied perspectives, and seek to understand the disparate experiences of people who don't look like me.
I think this humble pursuit of truth, understanding, and unity is required both by love of God, whose image is embedded within every human being no matter his ethnicity, and by love of neighbor. I want to invite you on this journey with me. I don't yet have a fully-formed plan of engagement on these matters for our church, but I believe it's important for us to turn our attention toward them, and seek to embody the heart of Jesus toward people of every nation, tribe, and tongue.
I'll close this by pointing you toward two resources to challenge your next step in this matter.
1) The Colorful Kingdom of God - This is the message I preached at Imprint Community Church on April 8, in light of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination. It's a journey through the Bible with an eye toward God's plan from the start to create for himself a wonderfully diverse people. If you weren't here that morning to hear it, I suggest you give it a listen.
2) Ligon Duncan at T4G - Below is a 3-minute video clip from a message given at Together for the Gospel last week. It was a powerful application of the second great commandment ("Love your neighbor as yourself.") to the issue of racial reconciliation. It's worth the three minutes it will cost you.