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.
In 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.
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)
Matthew 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.