My father never joined the Klan. And Neo-Nazis would have disgusted him. He didn’t serve in WWII to see Americans goose-stepping down Main Street waving swastikas.

And yet, my father was an unapologetic racist.

Congregate2_EzeAmosIn his mind, blacks were simply inferior to whites. This was for him a fact of nature. The sun rises in the east. Leaves change colors in the fall. Whites are superior to blacks.

So he felt secure in his belief that whites should inhabit a higher social, economic, and political position than blacks.

As long as blacks showed the expected level of deference, he condescended in a genteel way. He restricted his use of the n-word to conversations with whites. He eventually learned that some whites—like me—would be offended by the word and watched his tongue more carefully in some circles.

Well, actually, around me he continued to use the n-word to get under my skin. Since I lived with my mother after their divorce and only infrequently visited my father, he would reinforce that I was always welcome by saying, “This is your home no matter what, even if you bring home a black woman.” Only, he used the n-word.

My father despised what he and others called n-lovers. He considered me one, I guess. So he was telling me that he’d make an exception in my case since I was blood and all.

It gradually dawned on me that my father did not harbor feelings of hatred toward blacks so long as they were poor and sort of servile. He grew indignant when they forgot what he considered to be their place.

The Civil Rights Movement enraged him. He despised Martin Luther King, Jr.. Whites who marched with Dr. King were traitors. N-lovers. Beneath his contempt.15counterprotest2-master675

What he considered uppity blacks and n-lovers were the enemy among us. He hated them.

In case you’re wondering, I do not share my late father’s view of the world. But to suggest that I have not been affected by the climate into which I was born would be a lie.

I bear no hatred toward people of other races. But I have unconsciously absorbed assumptions and attitudes and perspectives, and I have inherited privileges, that perpetuate the ongoing tensions and inequities between ethnic groups in America.

I’ve come to see ways in which our educational, economic, and legal systems benefit me while disadvantaging others. Racism is more than how we feel about each other. It’s how we’ve ordered our common life. And I still have a lot to learn about that.

In other words, I’m still working on what my whiteness means in the boiling stew that is America these days. The events in Charlottesville last weekend, and the fact that white supremacists are planning future events across the country, give this work vital significance. And I urge you to join me.

White supremacists reject this country’s central premise: all people are created equal. As it turns out, this is a central premise of the Christian faith. We are all equally children of God. And Jesus came to heal a world that has slipped away from that divine vision.

Those of us who follow Jesus are committed to doing the social and the spiritual work necessary to make God’s vision of this creation a reality. Loving your neighbor as yourself requires some heavy lifting. There is much about our society and our souls that needs changing.

The Gospels of Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus himself had an awkward lesson in racial equality.

A Canaanite woman approaches Jesus. (That’s how Matthew identifies her. Mark calls her a Syrophoenician.) A dreadful illness—a demon the text says—has taken hold of her daughter. The woman asks Jesus to heal the little girl.

It’s important to keep in mind that the Israelites had displaced the Canaanites when they occupied the Promised Land. The Canaanites were like the Indigenous Peoples conquered by the European transplants to America.

Canaanites weren’t just from a different address. They were a different people. Different blood. Different race. The book of Deuteronomy even gave a thumbs up to prejudice against them: “Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.” (Deuteronomy 7:2)

So, maybe it’s no surprise that Jesus ignores her at first. And yet, she persists. When the disciples urge him to do something about this troublesome woman, he tells them that it’s not his problem.

Eventually, Jesus responds directly to the woman. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Matthew 15:26)

This is especially shocking in Matthew. Mark places the little girl at a distance. Matthew leaves open the possibility that the child is peeking out from behind her mother’s skirt. In other words, the guy who said to bring the little children unto him just gave a sick kid the cold shoulder.

The woman then says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (Matthew 15:27)

imagesMatthew reports that Jesus praises the woman’s faith and heals the little girl. That sounds pretty pious. Mark’s earlier account lacks the stained glass glow. “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” (Mark 7:29)

In Mark’s version of the story, Jesus seems to be saying, “Oh, man! I’ve really been missing something here!” Recognizing that something brings new and even more urgent clarity to his work of reconciliation. And he came to this realization only by listening to a voice that he initially refused to hear.

We have work to do on race in America. Our work starts with listening. Listening to the voice of Jesus from people who can tell us what we’ve been missing. Informed by truth, we can march together toward true freedom and equality for all.

20 Comments

  1. Thanks, Jake. I’m sure that most of my generation can relate to your experience; I surely can, though my parents were a bit less vocal. I take it as a sign of hope that my own kids can’t begin to relate.

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  2. Hi Jake, I was amazed and grateful that you’ve posted again so soon and taken this discussion a lot further. I clearly remember the first time I REALLY realised how different life’s experiences can be for a non-white. I was about 20 and I’d chosen to attend a different church to my parents and this church had a Maori pastor. His daughter, about my age, told me how she’d been on a bus in Auckland and someone had spat on her because of the colour of her skin. I was deeply shocked and thinking about it now still brings tears to my eyes. It was then I realised my own father’s attitudes fell short. He wasn’t racist but his own attitudes were definitely tainted by his white experience of life. I realise now how important it is to know other people’s stories (as you’ve so rightly pointed out in other lessons on your blog). Thanks for sharing your own story in this post. God Bless.

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  3. I was born and raised in metropolitan Houston, TX. I never thought about race because the area I was born in was 50% Hispanic. My father was mayor of the city of South Houston, TX and he and my mother instilled in me and my siblings a strong sense of “Love thy neighbor.” That meant all neighbors whether black, white, brown, red or yellow.

    When I was 26 I moved to a more rural area near a smaller city in northern East Texas. I live there today. For the first 2 years I found it exceptionally hard to accept the ignorance I found. People who otherwise considered themselves Christians did not recognize that they were total bigots. I was totally offended by the language and found myself ostracized by a lot of people at work and society in general.

    Finally I learned to accept them as who they were. They were people filled with fear. They found that a sense of superiority filled a void of feeling “less than.” Most of the people I speak of were uneducated or severely lacking in quality education. They hung on to the bitterness of their great-grandparents who were alive during a time brother killed brother over freeing an enslaved and violated people.

    I still let my voice be heard as to my opposition to wrong and offending speech. But it has been 30 years since I moved here. Times have changed and a lot of the people have changed. People like you who were raised with parents who were racists, have rejected the hatred and have chosen a better life.

    God Bless, and thanks for sharing your personal story.

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    1. Thanks for sharing this part of your story, Phyllis. Just for the record, my mom was not racist. She was a survivor of a concentration camp and appalled by my father’s views even before they divorced. I’m struck by your graciousness and your courage with your neighbors.

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  4. Thanks for sharing this personal story, It is a wonderful teaching point. Your respect and compassion for all people is quite evident,

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  5. My parents were Baptist missionaries along the Amazon River of Brazil in the 1950s. I spent the first four years of my life being a white person among persons of color — being raised that we were all the same, except that my parents also spoke English. When we returned to the US and settled in rural Kentucky, I couldn’t understand what was going on around me. My thoughts just didn’t include such things regarding race, and we had been raised as children to consider everyone as humans — without prejudice and feelings of superiority. That being said, I realized by the time I was a teenager that my parents only went so far in this regard. They believed that the Bible prohibited the “mixing of races”. For them, whites shouldn’t even marry Asians, Brazilians, any indigenous persons, etc. I argued about this with my father, because his family was half Cherokee. He never changed his views, and I determined then that all this was nonsense to me. I taught my children that we are all just humans and worthy of love and respect (contrary to what relatives believed). I sincerely hope that we are dealing with the last gasps of racism and white privilege. It will take everyone shining a light on this and calling each other out to make any progress as humans. Thank you for being one of those shining a spotlight on truth!

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    1. Pat, thank you for sharing your story. And thank you for your supportive comment. I too hope that we are in the last gasps of racism and white privilege. And you’re right, we cannot sit on our hands and hope for the best. We have to speak up. Thank you for doing so.

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  6. Bishop Owensby,
    Thank you for your testimony about how race was discussed and how you heard the message and what you decided to do about it as an adult. As an African American, I am more sure than ever that it is vital that we here each others’ stories. I believe this to be the only way we can ever move forward in this country. I hope I will be able to share my story with you and the Diocese of Western Louisiana at some time.
    To change the subject, I hope and pray that the rain and flooding from Hurricane Harvey will be less that what they are predicting now. I hope the wonderful people of your diocese will come through this storm as they have through all the others – with faith in God knowing that He will never forsake or leave them.

    Blessings in Christ,
    Deacon Wayne Fletcher
    Diocese of New Jersey

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    1. Thanks, Wayne. I would be happy to hear your story. It would be a gift to WLA. And thank for you prayers. So far so good with Harvey. Heavy rain appears heading our way eventually, especially in the south.

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