Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Race and the Gospel and My Mississippi

I am a son of the South – a son of Mississippi no less – born, raised, educated, and employed here for most of my life. I love Mississippi so much I moved back after moving away, choosing to raise my family here, choosing to plant my life here among some of the best people in the world.

But I am not immune to understanding our flaws, historically and currently. The issue of race has always been a big one. I grew up in an era where it was still socially acceptable to use the n-word in polite (i.e. white) society. People knew better than to say it in front of black people, but they used it with regularity when they weren’t around. The worst thing a white girl in my high school could be branded as was an “n-word lover,” and they could get that brand for something as simple as turning down a white guy for a date. My best friend once had a black friend at his home playing basketball with him in the yard. An older white man literally stopped in the middle of the road and just stared at them for about a minute, not saying a word. He didn’t have to say anything. They both got the message – this was not acceptable. Let me be clear - not everyone thought and acted this way, but a large number did. Whites and blacks could go to school together, they could play sports together, but having a friend over of a different race, or dating someone of a different race, were simply bridges too far. These attitudes were prevalent when I was a kid 20-30 years ago. That’s one generation. And I have no reason to believe they were isolated to the small town in which I grew up. It was a town full of really good people – still is. This is just how it was then.

I’d like to say I was completely immune to this kind of racist environment, but I was not. I said and did things growing up that I am ashamed of, made jokes that would mortify me if I heard them now, and more than anything, didn’t stand up when I saw things I knew were wrong. One thing I did learn early on though – this kind of racism that I was growing up around was completely at odds with what I was learning about Jesus in church. My granddad and pastor, an imperfect but honest man, preached a Gospel that simply couldn’t live for long with racism, even if he didn’t perfectly understand that truth. The Gospel he preached, the Gospel the Bible taught, simply wouldn’t allow one group of people to believe they were superior to another group of people in any way. So once I became a believer, I began to understand that. It was a lesson that was reinforced by the African-American friends I was making at my school – good guys who I played sports with, went to class with, and shared a lot in common with. Guys like Tyrone, Calvin, Daniel, Dale and Edgar – they taught me by example that we were simply not that different. Living my life with them showed me experientially what the Gospel taught me theoretically.

Now, let me be clear – much has changed in the last 25 years. There have always been many good Christians in Mississippi, but race has often been a blind spot. Many of them have come to see what Jesus demands of them over the years on this issue. Just like me, the Gospel has taught them much, including how racism and Christianity cannot co-exist. They were not convinced of this by rejecting the truths of the Gospel – understanding those truths better is what convinced them. Just like slavery and Jim Crow before it, white Christians realized the error of their ways by better grasping what Jesus demanded of them if they followed Him.

But after watching the events that happened at a Charleston, South Carolina church last week, the brutal murders of nine African Americans at the hands of a white racist, I’m reminded that the type of racism I grew up with – actually even worse than what I grew up with – is still around. It has not died yet. And many of the people spouting it are also claiming to be Christians. But real believers, white and black, can easily look at those ideas and quickly reject them as completely out of step with the Gospel.

But there is another sin to which white Christians who rightly reject this kind of racism sometimes fall prey – it’s the sin of, “Haven’t I done enough already?” This is an attitude that rejects racism, tries to look at all people as equals, and is possibly even sorry about their past racist actions, thoughts and words. But Christianity demands that we go further than simply saying, “I won’t do that anymore.” Jesus calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to be peacemakers, to put the needs and concerns of others above our own. Here is what Christianity demands of repentant racists – that they seek to be agents of reconciliation with the people for whom their attitudes have changed toward.

So the question for people like me, and for people like those good people I grew up with, is this – what are we doing to be God’s agents for racial reconciliation? It’s not enough to stop having racist attitudes and actions. We must actively seek to cross lines and mend fences. We must seek to see our thoughts and actions through the eyes of those who are different than us. And we must realize that because of what Jesus has done, through his perfect life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection, that we have more in common with our other-race brothers and sisters in Christ than we do with our same-race friends and family who don’t believe. We have a common bloodline now, one that is deeper and more important than the one that determines our skin color.