The Great Divides
Part 3: Racism
We’re all colored people! This is week three of the Great Divides. We’re talking about issues that divide Americans and Christians. We’ve talked about homosexuality and abortion—and survived! Today, we’re talking about racism.
I grew up in Sweet Home, Oregon, a logging town in the Cascade Mountains that was lily-white. The only black person in our town was a foreign exchange student—Mike Weldeselassie, from Ethiopia—my senior year in high school. I had a cousin who was Korean, adopted as a baby. Other than that, everyone was white. Now I live in Spokane which is also very white. I don’t think I have a prejudiced bone in my body, but a few years ago, I began to realize that I was abysmally ignorant of what it must be like to live in America as a minority. So at the Lord’s prompting, I sought out a black man here in town and asked him to be my friend and mentor me in this. That man is Rodney McAuley, whom many of you know. He pastors Antioch Foursquare Church and has spoken here a few times. He has helped me enormously, and although I’m just a beginner in this, maybe I can pass on some ideas to you too. So here we go. Let’s pray.
Did you get a Tootsie-Roll Pop when you came in? Don’t eat it yet! Hang on to it, and we’ll have some fun with it later.
Luke 6:38 “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
I read that verse this week during my devotions and was struck again by God’s promise. Give and it will given to you. When we give to God, we’re investing our money in His work, and He promises it will be given back to us. In fact, He promises that the more you give, the more you’ll receive. Each time you use a bigger measure, God uses a bigger one for you.
You use a teaspoon, He uses a teaspoon to give back.
You use a cup, He uses a cup to give back.
You use a quart, He uses a quart to give back.
You use a bucket, He uses a bucket to give back.
You can’t outgive God. So what measure do you want God to use on you? Give and it will be given to you, pressed down shaken together and running over.
Introduction: Many people don’t think racism is a problem in America or in Spokane. They’re wrong. It’s a big problem we need to address and change.
ILL: A woman won a bucketful of quarters at a slot machine in Atlantic City, and wanted to stash the quarters in her room before joining her husband for dinner.
As she was about to enter the elevator she noticed two men already aboard. Both were black and one of them was big…very big! She froze. Her first thought was “These two are going to rob me.” Her next thought was, “Don’t be a bigot. They look like perfectly nice gentlemen.” But racial stereotypes are powerful and fear immobilized her. She stood and stared at the two men. She felt anxious, flustered and ashamed, and hoped they weren’t reading her mind, but her hesitation about joining them on the elevator was all too obvious. Finally, with a mighty effort, she stepped onto the elevator, and avoiding eye contact with the men, turned around stiffly and faced the elevator doors as they closed.
A few seconds passed, and the elevator didn’t move. Panic consumed her. “I’m trapped and about to be robbed.” Her heart raced and she began to perspire heavily. Then, one of the men said, “Hit the floor.” The bucket of quarters flew upwards as she threw out her arms and collapsed on the elevator carpet. A shower of coins rained down her. “Take my money and spare me,” she prayed.
A few seconds passed, and she heard one of the men say politely, “Ma’am, if you’ll just tell us what floor you’re going to, we’ll push the button.” He was having a hard time trying not to laugh. They reached down and helped her up. The average sized man said, “When I told my man here to hit the floor, I meant that he should hit the elevator button for our floor. I didn’t mean for you to hit the floor, Ma’am.” He spoke kindly, and bit his lip to keep from laughing.
The three of them gathered up the spilled quarters, and they escorted her to her room. When she was safely inside, she could hear them roaring with laughter as they walked back to the elevator.
The next morning, flowers were delivered to her room, a dozen roses. Attached to each rose was a crisp one hundred dollar bill. The card said, “Thanks for the best laugh we have had in years.” It was signed, “Eddy Murphy and Michael Jordan.”
That’s an urban legend that’s been around for years, but it illustrates one way that race affects us. Ladies, how many of you would feel uncomfortable stepping onto an elevator alone with a man of a different race?
ILL: How many of you remember Polish jokes? When I was a kid, they were very popular. The joke was that Polish people were stupid.
A friend of mine named Steve says that he heard so many of these jokes as a kid that he began to believe that Polish people really must be stupid, not as smart as “us”. He didn’t realize how deeply ingrained this idea was until he went to Poland a couple years ago on a mission. He was asked to speak to students in a Polish elementary school, and the teacher explained that she wasn’t going to translate for him. “The students want to practice their English,” she explained.
“They speak English?” Steve asked.
“Quite fluently,” the teacher said. Most of them spoke not just two languages, but 3 or 4. Steve, like me, is still trying to master English. Steve said that he suddenly felt like the stupid one.
Racial stereotypes are just one way that racism expresses itself.
Let me ask you some questions.
How many of you consider yourself to be racist?
How many of you think that racism is wrong?
How many of you believe that racism is a big problem in our nation? In our city?
Most, maybe all of us, would say that racism is wrong and that we are not racist. So let’s start with the question:
1. What is racism?
Webster defines racism as first, “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” In other words, racism is the belief that certain races are inherently superior or inferior to others. From this belief comes the second definition of racism as, “racial prejudice or discrimination.” If you truly believe that someone is “less than” because of race, then you will probably treat him accordingly. This is what most of us think of when we think of racism: prejudice, discrimination, unjust and unequal treatment based on race. Racism exists on two levels.
Individual racism is the personal view one holds that affects people on an individual basis. This is what is in your heart or mine.
Institutional racism is a “systemic and sociological condition that creates an environment in which particular kinds of people are excluded from the positive norms of that institution. It is the collective misuse of power that results in diminished life opportunities for some racial groups.” (Emerson and Smith). This is what happens when individual racism becomes the rule of law or the force of culture. Slavery was one example of institutionalized racism. So were the Jim Crow laws that were ultimately overturned by the civil rights movement. Blacks were not guaranteed the right to vote until 1965, and were barred from many educational institutions, restaurants and hotels, libraries and museums—the list goes on and on. That is institutional racism—built into the system by those in power.
This distinction between individual and institutional racism is important for us because Christians tend to recognize and address only the first. We think that if we can just convert people and change their hearts, we will eradicate racism. And there is certainly some truth in that. Without personal change we won’t ultimately affect social change. We can pass laws, but if we don’t change hearts, we’ll still battle racism.
But the other side is true as well. If we don’t have just laws and institutions, we unwittingly continue to propagate racism, even with good hearts.
ILL: Here is a parable that will help you understand.
Jim and Nancy are friends who are both seeking to lose weight. They answer an ad in the paper by a group called “Fat Away” that promises they will lose 40 pounds in 6 weeks. What they don’t know is that Fat Away is not a weight loss program but a research organization that is studying weight loss.
So Jim and Nancy show up at the Fat Away headquarters and pay their fee and are sent to two different Fat Away camps. Nancy attends a camp that offered every imaginable kind of exercise equipment, a healthy diet, and personal trainers for every camper. Everyone there is excited about losing weight. It’s the perfect environment for weight loss. Jim on the other hand attends a camp that has a single building with no exercise equipment and no personal trainers. In fact, the only thing there is a big screen TV with lots of movies, and the diet consists of junk food and snacks—an almost impossible environment for weight loss.
People from both camps came together at the two week weigh-in. Nancy had lost 15 pounds and was thrilled; Jim had gained 3! Nancy was horrified. “Jim, what is wrong with you? How can you possibly gain weight at this camp? You’d better get serious and try harder.” Jim knew she was right. So he went back and doubled his efforts. But at the next weigh-in two weeks later, Nancy had lost 13 more pounds, and Jim had gained another 2.
“Jim, I can’t believe you are missing this opportunity. Are you not motivated? Don’t you care? Are you lazy? What is wrong with you?”
“No,” Jim said. “I don’t know how you’re doing it. It’s not as easy as you make it sound. I don’t think Fat Away is being fair to me—they’ve made this really difficult.”
“I can’t believe you’re blaming others,” Nancy said. “You just need to change your attitude and work harder.”
Nancy, of course, assumes that Jim’s environment is exactly like hers. By not understanding how Jim’s environment affects his initiative and choices, she mistakenly assumed that the problem was all personal rather than systemic.
Emerson and Smith say, “racial practices that reproduce racial division in the cotemporary United States (1) are increasingly covert, (2) are embedded in normal operations of institutions, (3) avoid direct racial terminology, and (4) are invisible to most whites.” Invisible to most whites—we don’t see it.
ILL: A few years ago, I was visiting with Rodney who spoke of “white privilege.” I asked what that was and he explained that white Americans enjoy the benefits that come from being the majority in power, and that we are largely unaware of it. At first, I was offended. I’ve worked hard for what I have; no one’s given me “privileges” because I’m white. But as I’ve come to understand the systemic nature of racism, I understand what Rodney meant, and recognize that most racism is invisible to the white majority but very obvious to minorities.
Is America racialized? Do we have a problem with systemic racism? Many in the white majority would say no. They would point to the progress of the past 50 years and say that racism is a thing of the past. But consider the following:
Black Americans are more likely to be unemployed. The current ratio of approximately two unemployed blacks for one unemployed white has held constant since 1950.
In 1967, average incomes of black Americans was 59% that of whites. Almost 30 years later, in 1994, it was 62% of whites. Lower income leads to higher poverty rates. Nearly one in three blacks falls below the poverty line, compared to one in 11 whites.
The median net worth of blacks is just 8% that of whites: $3700 compared to $43,800. Even if all the homes and vehicles were taken from white Americans, they would still on average have greater net worth than black Americans.
Whites are 89% more likely to be given coronary bypass surgery than blacks. Black babies die at a rate over twice that of white babies; black mothers are four times more likely to die in childbirth than white mothers; and young black males are six times more likely to be murdered than young white males. The rates of arrest, imprisonment and capital punishment are all significantly higher for blacks than whites.
These problems are not just individual, but institutional or systemic. And it’s not just black and white. Racism is universal; it infects every race in our culture, and around the world. In Asia, the Chinese and Japanese and Koreans each despise the other. The Middle East is a hotbed of racial strife and so is Africa. Racism is everywhere. And here in America, the white majority has a dismal history not only towards blacks, but also Native Americans, and Asians, and even European immigrants. And it’s not just whites who are racists. There are people of every color who look down on those who are different than they are.
But what about us? What about Spokane? Spokane is 93% white or Caucasian. Hispanics comprise 2.5% of our population, but are a very diverse group, hailing from Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Europe. Asians comprise 2.4%, and are also very diverse, including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Vietnamese, Cambodian and others. About 1.6% of our population is African-American or black. And less than 1% is Native American.
ILL: How many of you have ever traveled abroad, where you were a minority and stuck out like a sore thumb? How did it feel? A couple years ago, Rick and I made a trip to Mongolia, China and Japan. Everywhere we went, we looked different and talked different than everyone around us. We tried to blend in, not be too conspicuous, and not make mistakes. While we loved the people and enjoyed the trip, it was a tremendous relief to get back home where we were in the majority again. Have you ever experienced that? Then you have some idea of what it might be like for a minority person who lives in Spokane with our 93% Caucasian majority.
Spokane’s reputation outside is “very white, very conservative, and a place where there are a lot of white supremacists.” Because we are not a very racially or ethnically diverse, many people here think that we don’t have a race problem.
Is racism a problem? Yes, for individuals and institutions both, and right here in good old Spokane.
2. What causes racism?
I’m thinking of individual racism. Here are a few causes of racism.
Ignorance. Not only ignorance of the facts, but ignorance of people. When we don’t personally know someone of another race, we’re far more likely to believe stereotypes about that race. But when you have a friend of another race, you know them as an individual. But we can’t blame it all on ignorance—many educated people are racists.
Fear and insecurity. We are all most comfortable with others like us. When you first walked into this church, you looked around to see if there was anyone like you here—not just racially, but age, gender, socio-economic status, interests. We all gravitate to people like us. And we are all a little afraid of people who are different. “Them. Those people.” Versus “us”.
Environment. Children are not born racist. They learn it from adults. Look at this picture. How will this child grow up? Racism breeds in families and social structures led by racists. We keep racism alive by passing it on generationally in our families and structurally in our society.
Selfishness—particularly the desire to protect power and privilege. It is very rare for someone to willingly share power and privilege. When we get it, we like to keep it, and usually at the expense of those who don’t have it. You can see this everywhere:
White South Africans fought for apartheid because they didn’t want to share power and privilege with the black majority.
White slave owners resisted the abolition of slavery because it threatened their power and privilege, their way of life.
This is human nature, which leads to one more cause.
Sin. This is the ultimate cause of racism. We’re all people, and we’re all sinners. Racism is sin, and ultimately is an expression of our fallen human natures and our rebellion against God who made us all in His image.
3. What does the Bible say about racism?
First, let me admit that the Bible has been used to support racism and slavery—wrongly used, I believe. Hitler quoted the Bible to support his racist theories of Aryan domination and annihilation of the Jews. South African leaders quoted the Bible to support apartheid. And closer to home, southern church leaders advanced Biblical reasons for supporting slavery. Here are a few:
Abraham and the patriarchs held slaves without God’s disapproval. Genesis 21:9-10.
Canaan, Ham’s son, was made a slave to his brothers. By the way, they also taught that “the curse of Ham” was black skin, so black people were consigned by God to slavery. Genesis 9:24-27.
Slavery was widespread in the Roman world, yet Jesus never spoke against it.
The apostle Paul specifically commanded slaves to obey their masters. Ephesians 6:5-8.
Paul returned a runaway slave, Onesimus, to his owner. Philemon 12.
This theology didn’t die with the Emancipation Proclamation. As recently as the 1960’s, many churches were still teaching that blacks were under “the curse of Ham”. The Mississippi Baptist Record published an article about that time arguing that God meant for whites to rule over blacks because “a race whose mentality averages on borderline idiocy” is obviously “bereft of any divine blessing.”
You can still read such twisted theology on Internet sites sponsored by white supremacists, but far fewer people believe it, and no Christian church that I know of teaches that any longer. But the fact that so many once did is embarrassing, and makes me want to apologize to my black brothers and sisters for what was done to their race in the name of God.
It is also true that Christians were the driving force in abolishing slavery both here and in England. And Christians, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. led the way in the civil rights movement of the 60’s. But King’s greatest disappointment was the failure of the white evangelical church to help him in the struggle. He expected us to partner with him in the cause of equality, but many of our churches sat on the sidelines, and others openly fought him. Churches like ours were, frankly, very late coming to the party.
So what does the Bible say about racism? A quick look at these verses should make it clear that God is the creator and Christ is the redeemer of all people.
Genesis 1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
The entire human race started with the first man and woman created in the image of God. Every human being, regardless of race or gender, is made in God’s image and has dignity and value. The Bible begins with one race—the human race. Then we fell into sin and divided. The Bible ends with Jesus redeeming fallen people and reconciling them to God and each other, creating one race again.
In Luke 10, Jesus said the most important thing is to love God with all you’ve got and love your neighbor as yourself. Someone asked, “But who is my neighbor?” and Jesus told the famous story of the Good Samaritan. A Jewish man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho was attacked, beaten, robbed and left for dead. A Jewish priest came along and didn’t stop, but passed by, and so did a Jewish Levite. Then a Samaritan came along and he stopped and helped the man at great personal risk and expense. Jesus asked, “Which of the three was a neighbor to the man in the road?”
I want you to notice two things. The hero in the story is a Samaritan. Samaritans were half-breeds: Jews who had over the years inter-married with Gentiles. The Jews hated them for being racially impure, and wanted nothing to do with them. Jesus deliberately picked a racial outcast as the hero of his story. This would be the equivalent of telling the story at a Ku Klux Klan rally and making the hero a black man, or telling the story in Israel today and making the hero a Palestinian.
Second, notice that Jesus didn’t answer the man’s question, “who is my neighbor?” Who must I love? Instead Jesus asked the question, “who was a neighbor to the fallen man?” The real issue for Jesus wasn’t categorizing or labeling people into groups that I must love or not love. The real issue is that I become a neighbor to whoever needs my help, regardless of race, and that I love them. It’s more important to be a neighbor than to define my neighbors.
John 13:34-35 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
First the great commandment: love God and your neighbor. Now the new command: love each other as I have loved you. Here is the heart of the Christian ethic. We are to love people. In God’s family, all the old distinctions become secondary.
The early church in the book of Acts struggled with this. Racism dies hard. The church was born on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, and Jews from many nations were there and included. But the movement centered in Jerusalem and almost entirely Jewish. By Acts 6, we see racial division in the church, and by Acts 8, God forced them to become racially diverse, scattering the leaders through persecution. The first stop was Samaria, where those darn Samaritans heard the message, believed and received the Holy Spirit just like the Jewish Christians had done. What could they do but conclude that God had included the Samaritans. But full-blooded Gentiles? Not yet. That would happen in Acts 10. Peter fell asleep one day about lunch time and had a dream about food. Peter saw a large sheet with all kinds of animals that were “unclean” for Jews and could not be eaten. He heard a voice say, “Get up Peter, kill and eat.”
“No way, Lord. I’ve never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
“Don’t call anything impure that God has made clean.”
This happened 3 times before Peter woke up and found some Gentiles at the door, asking him to come to Cornelius’ house. Jews were forbidden to go to Gentile homes, but God told Peter to go. And when he got there, he told Cornelius, “God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.”
This was huge! Peter was a racist—as far as he was concerned, God was for the Jews, and the rest of us could go to hell. But God changed his racist heart, and Peter welcomed Cornelius into God’s family, the first Gentile to become a Christian. The old barriers fell.
Galatians 3:26-28 You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Colossians 3:11 Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
There is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female, but we are all one in Christ. Paul wasn’t saying that the distinctions had vanished, but that they didn’t matter. In Jesus we are one. We are all people, and we’re all sinners equally in need of the grace of God. We’re all children of God. Red and yellow, black and white, we’re all precious in His sight.
2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
Whom does God want to come to repentance? Everyone! For God so loved the world. He is not the white man’s God. He is every man’s God. And this is the beautiful vision of heaven.
Revelation 7:9 After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.
Every nation—the Greek word is ethnos—we get ethnic from it—from every nation, every race, every tribe and people and language. John used every word to include every group, no matter what your skin color or language or nationality or race or people group. They’ll all be there in heaven, all standing before the throne of God where the ground is level. Heaven isn’t going to look like this—it will be much more colorful and diverse. So if you’re uncomfortable with diversity, with people of other races, you’d better start working on it or it’s going to be a long eternity!
As far as God is concerned, there’s only one race—the human race.
4. What can we do about racism?
A few practical suggestions:
First, check your own heart. Do you harbor prejudice, contempt, suspicion or hatred toward other races? If you do, repent—it’s sin! Ask God to forgive you and give you a clean heart.
Second, make a new friend. Look for and take the opportunity to build a friendship with someone of another race. Build a bridge instead of a wall.
Third, be sensitive. All of us who are part of the white majority are not aware of how difficult it is to be part of a minority. Don’t tell racist jokes—you may think they’re funny, but they hurt others and perpetuate stereotypes. Become more aware of how you talk and behave.
ILL: Paul and Elizabeth are friends who live in Seattle. They are black. Paul is 6’11” and is just finishing a 13-year career playing professional basketball in Europe. A couple months ago, Elizabeth visited a new church where most everyone was white. She attended a women’s Bible study, and afterwards as the ladies talked, one asked her what she was going to do that week. Elizabeth said she was going to visit her husband.
“Oh, what prison is he in?”
Elizabeth was like you—stunned. Now the lady that said that is probably not a flaming racist—just stupid! She made an assumption and spoke before thinking.
If you are part of the white majority, you need to check your assumptions and become more aware of the incipient racism all around you and inside you.
Finally, work for systemic change. We not only need to change our hearts, but we need to change the structures in our society that make it hard for minorities to get good jobs, and equal opportunities for education and housing and healthcare and justice in our courts. The fight for civil rights, for human rights, isn’t over yet. Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If one race is mistreated, so are you, because we are one race—the human race.
I’m going to finish by putting a human face on this once more. Let me introduce you to some folks from our church who are going to share with us: Kevin Blocker, Garry Campbell, Jose Hernandez and Dave Nakagawara.
What is it like to be a minority in Spokane?
What is it like to be a minority in our church? What do you want to say to us?
Pull out your Tootsie-Roll Pops and unwrap them. What color do you have? Tootsie-Roll Pops are like people: they come in lots of different colors, but inside, they’re all the same! I hope that every time you see a Tootsie-Roll Pop, you’ll remember that!