I consider myself fortunate to have been raised by parents who spoke about the evils of racial prejudice. I was rightfully appalled when I heard a racial comment spoken by a classmate in 1st grade. I was deeply affected by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when I was eight, so much that I remember what it was like walking to school the following day.
Dr. King’s death was a momentous event in my life. It affected me profoundly, but the darkness I glimpsed in the moment was as far away from me as the clouds way up in the bright morning sky that day as I walked to school.
As fortunate as I was to have had the good example of my parents’ just position on the issue of racism, I have been very slow to realize, personally, the real impact of racism in the routine lives of my brothers and sisters of color. The racism I understand (very incompletely) has has only slowly come into focus for me from the other side of that world.
I have never experienced racism directed at myself. I have not lived with the ever-present reality of racism bearing down on me from seen and, mostly, unseen sources (now).
I have never walked into a retail store knowing that someone, somewhere in that store, was watching me, suspicious of my every move. I have not driven my car in my own neighborhood conscious of the fact that eyes were following me, wondering what I am up to. I have not been stopped multiple times in my life on a pretense, though I was doing nothing wrong.
I do know the fear of being found out when I was doing something wrong, but that isn’t the same thing. I remember as a rebellious youth the fear that gripped me when I encountered a squad car at an intersection or when a squad car pulled behind me while I had an open container of alcohol in my car. But I could control my circumstances and change my ways to eliminate that fear.
I don’t know what it’s like to live in constant fear of circumstances I can’t control or predict – circumstances controlled by the fate of my birth in modern America with dark-colored skin.
As a child, I had hope and faith that we could truly see Dr. King’s dream come true: the dream that is deeply rooted in the American dream – that this nation would rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
We have made great strides, but the racism in this country is deeply rooted and pernicious than I believed it to be when I was child.
The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd are just the most recent examples of decades, generations and centuries of this cancer. The rioting that occurred last year is hard to understand from a purely rational perspective by those who don’t personally know the pain, grief, frustration and anger that wells up in response to injustice. Meanwhile, many people like me, people of good will, sit silently by.
We have not, yet, achieved the goal of the civil rights movement that was inspired by the tragic death of Dr. King. Half a century later, we aren’t colorblind. In fact, colorblindness has become a way of denying the racial disparities that still exist. Racial issues have gone underground and have become more insidious.
How does a white guy like me, who once thought that we had overcome racism with civil rights laws on the books, speak to these largely underground racial strains that remain? How do I conduct myself?
Some would say I have no legitimate voice to speak to these issues, but need to speak.
I recall Dr. King’s famous dream:
“[T]hat one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…. that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice…. That my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…. that one day in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
I can dream with him, and I can acknowledge that the cancer still remains. The blood of Ahmaud Arbery testifies to the cancer that remains in Georgia still. The blood of George Floyd testifies to the fact that the cancer is not contained in the deep south; it lives deeply rooted in the body of this nation still.
In the aftermath of these deaths and the burning police stations, cars and streets that exploded in violence into the national consciousness last summer, we are tempted to turn our attention to the symptoms while failing to take action to address the underlying disease that festers and gnaws at the soul of our nation.
We might be swayed to lose grip of the faith and hope we once had, but we dare not do that. The recent conviction of Derek Chauvin of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd is a harbinger of the kind of justice that gives rise to the dawning of a new day.
Not that we should revel in the justice handed down by courts in response to another life unjustly taken. It is necessary justice, but it isn’t the justice King dreamed of: the kind of justice and righteous living characterized by little black boys and black girls holding hands with little white boys and white girls as brothers and sisters – the kind of justice that doesn’t need the force of law behind because it lives in our hearts.
Thus, Dr. King said in his speech “Where Do We Go From Here?” Delivered at the 11th Annual SCLC Convention in Atlanta, Georgia, on 16 August 1967:
“I’m concerned about a better World. I’m concerned about justice; I’m concerned about brotherhood and sisterhood; I’m concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about that, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate through violence. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that.
“And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to humankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. For I have seen too much hate. […] and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love. And the beautiful thing is that we aren’t moving wrong when we do it, because John was right, God is love. He who hates does not know God, but he who loves has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.”
Faith and hope are a start, but they aren’t enough. Love does, as the famous book urges. Love doesn’t remain silent; love speaks up. Love doesn’t cross to the other side of the street when a neighbor lies bleeding in a pool of his own blood. Love compels the good Samaritan to act.
Love realizes that rioting is symptomatic of the cancer that threatens the lives and the very souls of the people who are most affected by it. Love doesn’t chide from afar, but comes close to heal. Love reaches out and touches those who are sick from the disease.
Love is a two-way street. Love removes barriers. Love is kind. Love always protects. Love always hopes, and love always perseveres, even when faith and hope seem lost.
Love is active. Love doesn’t sit silently by when our neighbors struggle under the weight of injustice. Love sees neighbors as brothers and sisters.
We may be tempted to call out the evil, the fruitlessness, and the irrationality of the violence that erupted last summer, especially now in the wake of a conviction. We might even be tempted to quote Dr. King’s own words on the subject, urging peace and love instead of hate and violence.
But, I think well-intentioned people need to ask who is our audience? Who should be the audience of white Christians, like me?
Dr. King said:
“I have a dream today… I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope.”
Faith and hope mean something poignant in the mouths of people who have little control over their fate. They are words spoken to God, sometimes in the face of circumstances that seem impossible, knowing that, with God, all things are possible.
These words don’t mean as much coming from people in a position of power, control, and favored status. As a white man who may not have caused the world of injustice that burdens my black brothers and sisters, I nevertheless speak from a position of status and favor. Thus, I think, these words from Paul to the Philippians (2:5-7) should inform me today:
“[H]ave the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.
Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.”
Not that I equate myself with Jesus or God, but if this is the attitude that Christ had, who was God manifested in the flesh, far be it for me to have a more exalted attitude!
Jesus was the ultimate privileged individual in history. He was God who gave up His divine privilege to become one of us. This is our example to follow.
Loving our neighbors of color means, therefore, having the same attitude that Jesus had. It means being mindful of our rights and our position that is not enjoyed by people who do not have the same privilege – the privilege of skin color being no liability – and being willing to empty ourselves.
I have sat on this piece for many months. I finish it now in the wake of the Chauvin verdict. While justice was served, I fully realize that it isn’t enough.
It isn’t enough that legal justice has been done. We need love to carry us beyond legal justice to that oasis of freedom and justice where little black boys and girls join hands with little white boys and girls, the glory of the Lord is revealed, and all flesh sees (and experiences) it together. We need love to guide us into a time in which legal justice is not required because justice reigns in our hearts.
Dr. King warned those who seek justice:
“What I’m trying to get you to see this morning is that a man may be self-centered in his self-denial and self-righteous in his self-sacrifice. His generosity may feed his ego, and his piety may feed his pride. So without love, benevolence becomes egotism, and martyrdom becomes spiritual pride.”
These are radical words – radical words that echo Jesus who claimed to be God incarnate. They apply to all mankind. We cannot rise to true justice without love and a God who shows us how to love, because God is love (as Dr. King said).
We find our path to this dream by recognizing that some valleys need to be lifted up, and some mountains need to be brought down. This isn’t work men achieve, but work that God who moves men to love does in us. Love, which doesn’t seek its own good, but the good of others, will guide us in this process, or we will fail.