Most of us like presents of all types, and for many people, Christmas is one of their very favorite times of the year. Therefore, early Christmas presents are really special. Personally, gifts are not high on my list of “love languages,” but occasionally I receive a gift that really strikes a chord in my heart. Within a 24 hour period, I received several such gifts from people who responded to my blog. I wasn’t having a bad day or anything, so the gifts weren’t essential to my emotional well-being. But they were heart-warming to an amazing degree, causing me more excitement than I have experienced since I started this blog.
A White Brother
The first one I read was from a white brother, who out of his love and concern for his black brothers, reached out to a number of them to just hear their perspectives and understand them as individuals better. Although this is something I’ve been urging in my blog, he didn’t need my urging, for it was already on his heart.
A Hispanic Sister
The second one I read was from a Hispanic sister, whose story is delightful and underscores how very fortunate we are to be in a racially diverse church. However, one thing I have been hearing lately from black brothers and sisters is that we are much more diverse in our church assemblies than in our relationships outside our assemblies.
Just How Diverse Are We?
Honestly, this one came as a bit of a surprise for me. Since I became a part of this movement of churches (officially) 31 years ago, my wife and I have had close friends of different races. In fact, we enjoyed these kinds of diverse friendships long before that, even in the Mainline churches of which we had been a part (although those churches themselves were far less diverse than those in our present movement). But I have asked enough of our African American brothers and sisters about this to become convinced that the observation is too often true.
While I’m not doubting that we are not as diverse in relationships as we should be, given the rather consistent input I’ve received, I think another factor might be involved as well. I wonder if we have just become more selfish and therefore naturally hang out with those we are most comfortable with? Another way of putting it is to ask if we have just become cliquish in our relationships? It may involve racial comfortability, but it may involve comfortability that is not racial in nature.
Racial Comfortability or Just Plain Selfishness?
Here is why I raise this question. I have noticed that when our church services end, we naturally start conversations with those who are already our closest friends. We don’t venture out much beyond that, even to visitors. There was a period when first time visitors to church were immediately surrounded by many disciples and often asked repeatedly to study the Bible (even when they had little clue of what that meant!). Our reduced evangelistic zeal has likely resulted in our becoming more cliquish and perhaps less involved with those of different races along with it. To put it bluntly, without evangelism high on our priority list, selfishness gains ground and all types of fellowship lose ground. Something to think about…
But back to the second letter. As you read it, you will note that one size doesn’t fit all regarding our interracial fellowship and relationships. What I have been hearing from some (too many, frankly) doesn’t fit me (and many others) and it certainly doesn’t fit the situation described by our Latino sister.
A Black Sister
The third letter is from an older black sister who has been in our fellowship of churches for decades. Her upbeat example brightened my day, and her hope for us gave me hope. As I have said and will continue saying, racism in the world is a given. I hate saying that, but we know it is true. 1 John 5:29 states what we all recognize as reality: “We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.”
Satan has the world in his grip but we can pry them from his grip one at a time. On the other hand, we know that we are children of God, and with his help can change anything that he wants changed. To whatever extent prejudice, racism and cliquishness exist in us individually and collectively as a church, God can help us to eliminate it.
As you read these three letters, each published with the permission of the authors, I hope that your heart will be as warmed as mine has been. Enjoy!
Hey, Gordon. I just finished reading some of your blogs about racism, and appreciate what you had to say. I have done a good bit of research about slavery, the Civil Rights Act, population analysis, and racial representation in the history of the U.S. Over the summer, I preached to the Savannah church that as a white male, I do not and cannot relate to what Black America has been though (because it is not my history) and that I planned on talking to some of my black brothers to help me to understand. I got with a half dozen brothers that I was close to (and felt that we could be honest) and had long discussions predicated on the question of “What does Black America want from White America?”
I talked very little and asked a few questions when I did not understand something, and I learned a lot from those brothers and feel that I got closer to them. I definitely think it is beneficial for people to sit down face to face and talk, without making accusations or judgements (like most do on social media), and I appreciate what you are bringing to light through your blogs.
NOTE: Chris is a deacon in the Savannah church and serves as a church administrator, although he and his wife own their own business. He preached, but is not “the” preacher, in other words.
First of all, I want to thank you for starting the conversation about racism in America in our churches. Like you have stated, emotions run deep with our black brothers and sisters and we can all help. I am Central American and came to the U.S. when I was 12 years old. For the first time in my life I saw a black person when I arrived. When new Latinos arrived here, we were told by family, friends and neighbors (which by the way are Latinos because immigrants tend to move to other Latino communities and stay together) to be careful and stay away from blacks because they were dangerous.
In my early days in Miami, Florida, my mom and her friend got mugged at the train station by a black man. In another situation a black girl at my school (7th grade) wanted to start a fight with me for no apparent reason to me, since I did not know her. So, what I was told made sense for me after those incidents.
Thank God I became a Christian in the South Florida Church of Christ when I was 18 years old and I can say that Jesus transformed my heart. Half of my bridesmaids and half of the groomsmen at my wedding were black Americans and black Caribbeans. I married an Italian Cuban husband. The other half were Latinos and whites. By no means was this mix planned, it happened spontaneously. It truly was “the power of the blood” of Christ.
I’m sure my mom and dad were very puzzled, for they were silent about the racial mix. It looks like everybody in our churches needs to get more educated on black/white issues, if we are going to help each other. I might be wrong, but I don’t think black disciples talk much about racism to Latino disciples either. In my 22+ years in the church, I only have had conversations about racism with two people and that happened in the last two years. I believe the conversation is heating up. I look forward to following your blog because I love my church and want to see my brothers and sisters of any color and race being loved the way Jesus loves them. Thank God for putting this subject on your heart.
NOTE: When I asked Monica permission to print her story, she wrote back to give me permission, but also to express a concern. Here are her own words regarding that concern: “The only thing I have a concern about is that I shared how I was told by my family, friends of my family and neighbors around us to stay away from black people. I would not like readers thinking that I’m speaking for all Latin Americans or that every Latino that comes to America is told the same thing. This is simply my story and how my family viewed black people in Miami in the 1980’s. To my dismay, I have learned that a lot of the members of the most dangerous and violent international gangs are from my country. How can I in my right mind judge another group of people? I cannot do it, and we know our society doesn’t judge fairly.”
I am a 70 year old black woman, born and raised in the South. I’ve been a disciple for 40+ years. Your blog articles have encouraged my soul. Finally, the issue of racism is being talked about in the church. I have great relationships in the church. I’m a Crossroader, and when I was in the Crossroads church, my best sister/friend was white. Today, my best friend is white. But I feel like I never reveal certain feelings with them. I co-lead a Women’s Bible Study with a dear Republican sister. I’m ready to initiate a conversation with her – not about politics but about our unspoken feelings on the racial subject (at least mine). I believe God has brought his people to a place where we can deal with racism in the church!
NOTE: Dorothy’s disciple heart shines through bright and clear. One implication in her letter is very important, namely that relationships in the church supersede politics. I will have more to say about that subject later from both an Old Testament and New Testament perspective, but our highest allegiance is to the kingdom of heaven and not to the kingdoms of men, the United States included. If we have to agree on politics, we are in a heap of trouble. My most outspoken Democrat friend is an older white man. My most outspoken Republican friend is a somewhat younger black man. I know couples who cancel each other’s votes at the voting booth because they are in different political parties and have differing political views. As an older disciple, Dorothy understands what binds us together ─ the blood of Christ in the kingdom of Christ.
As I’ve mentioned several times, I have a group of carefully chosen advisors who have provided me with invaluable input for my blog. They have taught me, corrected me, and encouraged me. My intention from the beginning was to use them to also write some articles themselves for the blog. The article below was contributed by Michael Burns, and is actually a small excerpt from his upcoming book that is simply ground-breaking brilliant. I chose to publish this article during the Christmas season for reasons that will become obvious to you as you read it. But first, a brief introduction to Michael, followed by his thought-provoking article!
Michael Burns was born and raised in Janesville, Wisconsin in the United States. He taught high school history and coached boys’ varsity basketball at an urban high school in Milwaukee for nearly a decade. Michael married his wife, MyCresha, in 1997 and they have two sons that are 21 and 13 years old. Michael is currently on staff as the teacher for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Church of Christ, is the director of the Minneapolis Ministry Development and Training Academy, and a frequent teacher in the African Ministry Training Academies around Africa.
Does it Matter? (Blog Post 7)
Do me a favor. Read the next two sentences and do what they say after you have read them. Close your eyes and keep them closed. While they are closed, get a mental picture of Jesus in your mind.
Okay, you can open your eyes. Perhaps I should have encouraged you to read the next three sentences instead of just two. Hopefully you opened your eyes and are back to reading this. What did you picture? What did Jesus look like?
Does it matter what Jesus looked like? Yes and No. Scripture never gives a detailed physical description of Jesus. Those who knew him seem largely uninterested in such things. The closest the writers of the Gospels ever come is when they described the Transfiguration, and even then, the focus is on his heavenly transformation rather than what he looked like bodily. There is a physical description of sorts in Revelation (1:14-16), but Revelation is a deeply symbolic book, so any portrayal there probably needs to be examined for its symbolic meaning more so than an historical one. Isaiah prophesies about the Messiah to come, saying that “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him (Isaiah 53:2). Some have pointed to this passage to assert that Jesus was homely. But the point here is probably more that he wasn’t special or majestic in any way. Nonetheless, it doesn’t get into any specific physical descriptions either. In the end, Isaiah’s point is likely that he just looked like a normal person. Plus, standards of physical beauty change dramatically over time, so that wouldn’t mean all that much to us today if Isaiah was trying to communicate that he was ugly.
If Scripture seems unconcerned with Jesus’ physical appearance, should we care? No, in the sense that Jesus is transcendent. He came for all people. Anyone who is willing to enter the life of Christ is welcomed into his body and his family (Galatians 3:26-29). Jesus obviously was a Hebrew but exactly what he looked like and what color his skin was shouldn’t matter.
Did You See a White Jesus?
But, things are not that simple, are they? Because of what human beings have done in the two thousand years between his life and where we stand today, what Jesus looked like does have to matter. Here’s why. When I asked above what Jesus looked like, what did you picture? Let me be more direct and to the point. Was he white, with blond or light brown hair, tall and thin? Chances are good that he was.
The church I grew up attending had several pictures of Jesus hanging throughout the building. In one picture, a warm and jovial Jesus sat as children piled onto his lap, mesmerized by his words. In another, Jesus braves the rugged landscape of the wilderness carrying a lost sheep that he had found. Perhaps the piece-de-resistance was a reprint of the famous painting, the Head of Christ, created by artist Warner Sallman in 1941. Since its creation, this painting has become the iconic image of Jesus in our times. The one thing that they all had in common was that Jesus was decidedly white. He had long hair, thin features, very fair skin, and based on those pictures and every movie I had ever seen about Jesus, he was also stunningly handsome. This was par for the course.
In addition to pictures and movies, every Christmas card, every picture of Jesus in Bibles, virtually everywhere I looked, I saw a white Jesus. This was pervasive in the Western world in which I was a part of growing up. So much so that one day, while in my early twenties, I walked into someone’s house who had a picture of Jesus depicted as a more of what appeared to be a black man, and I was deeply offended and irritated that they would change the race of Jesus just to make him seem more like them. Of course, I knew even then that Jesus was Hebraic, but somehow that never clicked with me that first century Jewish people were hardly what we would call white. It never occurred to me that my image of Jesus was created to make him look more like me.
I don’t believe that, in the case of my experiences, those around me were intentionally foisting a white-washing of the gospel to intentionally prop up a white supremacist version of the Christian story, but it was very “Caucasianized” just the same, mostly by inaction than by anything else. Every Bible story book I read depicted almost exclusively white characters. Noah was a kind elderly, white gentleman with a long beard. David was a handsome white lad. Jesus and the apostles were always white. That was my perception growing up. To this day, when I visualize a scene from Jesus’ life in my mind, something very much like Sallman’s Jesus pops into my head for a second, and I have to be very intentional about seeing something else; something more accurate.
He Definitely Wasn’t White
Forensic anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians all agree that as a Middle Eastern Jew of the first century, Jesus almost assuredly had medium to dark brown skin. And given all the walking around and work that he did outside, he was probably quite sun-tanned as well. The earliest depictions of Jesus in art show this historical truth as they display a more classically styled Asiatic man with dark brown complexion. That was consistent until the sixth century when Byzantine artists began to depict Jesus as a man with white skin, a long beard, and hair parted down the middle. It wasn’t long before this light-skinned Jesus replaced the more historically accurate version, and became the standard fare for depictions of the Messiah.
People tend to naturally depict others as looking more like themselves, and this was no exception. But it was inaccurate and they surely would have known that this was not what a first-century Jewish man would have looked like. While it was erroneous at this point, it wasn’t harmful, at least not yet.
But if we fast forward a thousand years or more, we find Western Europe in the throes of colonialism and expansion. A close second to the economic motivations for colonialism was the missionary zeal that often followed, to call the darker-skinned “heathens” around the world into submission to Christ. Everywhere they took this version of Christianity mixed with colonial dominance, they sold a version of the white Jesus. Christianity was often misused to prop up and justify the horrors of slavery and the abuses of colonial conquest, and the purveyors of this syncretized version of Christianity and power seemed to go out of their way to make sure that everyone understood that Jesus was white.
17th century America was one exception. In the early days of America, white Jesus wasn’t a major factor. The Puritans rejected the practice of having any physical depictions of Jesus. They even rejected the “Publius Lentulus letter” which had grown quite popular by the 17th century. This letter was a well-known forgery, created sometime in the 14th century but was an attempt to look like a first-century description of Christ. It described him as having hair the color of a “ripe hazel nut,” parted in the middle and flowing and wavy once it got past his shoulders. It is a description that any super model would be proud of. It goes on to describe Jesus with smooth skin and a perfectly ruddy complexion of white skin, and a well-manicured beard. For hundreds of years the letter was known to be a fake, but over time it began to be accepted as authentic, most likely because it reinforced popular stereotypes.[i]
White Jesus as a Weapon
As the Puritan influence in the country waned, the image of white Jesus took hold powerfully. It helped slave owners justify their cruel treatment of others as they carefully explained that Jesus was a white man and that other races were the result of a curse. In fact, the doctrine of the curse of Ham was the standard biblical teaching in the West for hundreds of years. In short, this teaching asserts that Ham was the son of Noah who violated his trust and sinned against Noah. Noah then struck back at Ham by cursing him and his descendants forever with dark skin, the sign of the curse, and the status of being slaves to the descendants of Ham’s other brothers. This was not some goofy aberration that could be found only in the deep South. It was accepted as biblical fact in most of Christianity for hundreds of years. Blacks were slaves because they were the descendants of Ham. They should, they were told, accept that and be grateful that whites were sharing the gospel with them at all and giving them the chance to be forgiven and accepted as Christians.
White Jesus helped to make this lie possible and assisted many people to accept it without reservation. The reality of the Genesis 9 account of Noah and Ham is quite different, though. Noah did not curse Ham, he cursed his son Canaan. The text never makes it clear why, but one possibility is that it was a euphemism for sexual sin (compare the original Hebraic phrasing of Genesis 9:23 to Leviticus 18:7 and 20:11). The curse against Canaan, then, would not be a case of him being punished for Ham’s sin. Rather it seems to be a prophetic curse against Ham’s descendants who would be like him in his sexual sin. Whatever was going on here, it seems certain that it was referring to the Canaanites and has nothing to do with black Africa. There is no indication that the curse is dark skin, and in fact, this narrative has nothing to do with race in any way. Simply put, the curse of Ham ideology is absurd textually, but it did its damage for hundreds of years.
The white Jesus myth was often intentionally used to justify treatment of non-white people and convince them they were a lesser grade of human being. The mythology of white superiority was built up and strengthened immeasurably by the intentionally false depictions of Jesus.
“As a Jew, Jesus was an ethnic minority in the Roman Empire. Jews were marginalized by Romans, Greeks, and other non-Jewish groups in many imperial cities. As an infant, Jesus was a target of ruler-sanctioned infanticide, fled to Egypt as a refugee, and faced Roman tax collectors’ exploitation. Throughout his life, he knew the pain of being a member of an ethnic group whose culture, religion, and experiences were marginalized by those in power.”[ii]
In other words, the real Jesus was everything that this white Jesus being peddled across the globe was not. Jesus did not have power, he did not subjugate others. He was part of an oppressed ethnic minority. He knew what it meant to be cast off into the margins by the powerful elites.
Just imagine how differently history might have gone if the lie of the white Jesus wasn’t accepted or spread. How much more difficult, if not impossible, would slavery and colonialism have been to justify if Jesus was honestly depicted to darker skinned people as he really was, a dark-skinned man.
We can never know for certain the specifics of what Jesus looked like, but based on the genetics, culture, and realities of life in first-century Palestine, we can be fairly certain that Jesus was a bit on the shorter side, stocky and perhaps a bit muscular, with dark brown skin and hair. From this perspective, then, what Jesus looks like does matter. Because so much abuse and oppression happened using white Jesus as a weapon and tool, it matters.
It is odd that last year a new Star Wars movie came out with a black man in one of the starring roles. There was a great deal of outcry, debate and controversy surrounding that. Imagine the storm that would hit if a new Hollywood blockbuster came out with a movie about George Washington starring Don Cheadle as Washington. Yet, most Christians don’t even stop to think twice about white Jesus. Because of sin and abuse, it does matter that we strive for and demand authentic depictions of Jesus.
Jesus’ color doesn’t matter to our salvation but it does matter to the mission. Think of a biblical topic like the name of God. Does it matter what name we choose to use when addressing God, whether it be Father, God, Jehovah, or Yahweh? No, not normally. But what if we are studying the Bible with someone who has spent the last six months studying with Jehovah’s Witnesses? That topic has almost certainly been misused to beat them down and hurt them spiritually. They will have been told that their worship or prayers are invalid and offensive to God unless they address him by his proper name, which they will be told is “Jehovah.” Jehovah was never the covenant name of God. That name is derived through faulty translating work. The true covenant name for God as recorded in the Hebrew Bible is YHWH. But does it matter? It does because the concept has been misconstrued to hurt someone. We need to correct a wrong and so it does matter, I believe, that we not cement this false teaching and use the term “Jehovah” in this case where doing so could hurt or confuse someone.
Is a Perception Change Important?
We are called to be a cross cultural family of all nations. That is what God wants us to be. There should be no such divisions in the world as race but there are for now. We cannot fully change that in the present age. But we can recognize that a false version of Jesus was created and used to subjugate people for hundreds of years. It was misused to prop up a mythology that one race was superior to the others. The image of Jesus became a weapon. If you were honestly unaware of all that (and you may well have been), you are no longer.
Are we willing to see the image of white Jesus as something that has been used as a negative tool and has hurt many people in the past? Are we willing to return to the transcendent Jesus by returning to a more faithful image? That might sound counter-intuitive but because the image of white Jesus has been so seared into our collective conscious, it is naïve and ineffective to simply say that it doesn’t matter or that we just won’t use an image of white Jesus anymore. To counteract the damage done to God’s message of salvation for all people, we must, I believe, deconstruct the white Jesus image. I believe we need to actively teach about this abuse and show people what the real Jesus would probably have looked like. We should never, of course, worship images of Jesus, and in that respect, what he looked like is irrelevant. But it is important that we teach truth and correct the mistakes of the past, which I believe make it important for us to affirm and embrace a dark-skinned Jesus.
[i] Blum, Edward J. and Harvey, Paul, The Color of Christ, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 2012. Pp. 20-21.
[ii] Why Jesus’ Skin Color Matters, www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/april. Accessed 12/20/16
Originally, I had planned to write one blog article about some of the negative experiences during my youth as I watched racism operate, as well as one containing more positive memories. I decided to skip the negative parts, since those are so readily available from a number of sources and I have already shared some of them from my youth. Suffice it to say that I had racist friends and relatives who said and did things that were cruel at best. Their actions led to me distancing myself from some who had at one time been in the “best friend” category, and led my immediate family to distancing ourselves from more distant family members with whom we previously had a pretty close relationship. Sadly, they were products of their time whose other relationships bolstered their attitudes and actions rather than corrected them. I have had to pray not to have prejudice against prejudiced people, and that malady is not easy for any of us to see, much less to overcome. God help me; God help us.
A Real Louisiana Boy
I grew up as a real Louisiana boy. The state license plates started carrying the inscription “Sportsman’s Paradise” back in the 1950s, and still do. It is an apt description of a state chock full of huge wooded areas, lakes and bayous. Like many boys born in that era, I grew up loving the outdoors and did more than my fair share of hunting and fishing. My father was a bricklayer, and most of the common laborers who assisted them were black men. My dad, an avid hunter and fisherman, knew which of the laborers had knowledge of good places to hunt.
At age 9, I shot my first squirrel. We were hunting on the property of a laborer named Jake, or perhaps he just had access to the property. At any rate, he was known for his hunting prowess, and my dad took me to hunt with him as our guide. He took me as his trainee of the day and helped me locate and shoot my squirrel. All I remember about the day is the one shot I made and the friendly relationship my dad had with Jake. My father was big on kids showing respect for adults, so for me, it was “Mr. Jake.” I feel quite sure that my answering him was in my normal terms of “Yes Sir” and “No Sir.” He was tickled to be the one to help me enjoy my first hunting success, almost as excited as I was.
Parents Without Racism
When I say that my parents weren’t racist, I say it from the memories of my experiences with them and African Americans, not from being sat down and instructed about racism. I just remember that black people liked my mother and father, and I don’t believe for a moment it was because they thought they had no choice in order to stay out of trouble. As I continue, I believe that this point will become obvious.
When I was perhaps 12 or 13, I had a great-uncle do me a great favor, in spite of the fact that his racial prejudice came out of the pores of his skin. My great-uncle didn’t hunt, but he loved me and knew how much I loved to hunt. Thus, he introduced me to an older black man with the last name of Hollingsworth who owned a hunting dog. They all lived in the “sticks” as we called it, deep in the piney woods of Louisiana about a hundred miles from my home. I loved it there and went to visit every time I had the chance (and I made many chances).
Mr. Hollingsworth just went by the name “Man.” I think his name might have been John, but I never knew for sure. He just told me to call him Man, and he called me Gordon ─ friends on a first name basis. In the 1950s, do I have to mention that this was a very unusual relationship for a white kid? Older black people were often expected to say “Mr. Bob” (or whatever their first names were) to teenagers. That sounds weird to the younger generation now, but sadly, it was common when I was a teen (although not appealing to me personally at all). That is why I say that my relationship with Man was both special and unusual.
Loving and Being Loved
By the time I started hunting with Man, he was somewhere on the other side of seventy years old. He was a widower and lived in a very small, plain house. I suspect he was quite poor financially. I remember that there was no grass in his yard and no paint on his little house. But the inside of his house was immaculately kept. He didn’t have much, but what he had was well cared for. I honestly don’t think he liked much of anything about hunting at his stage of life, but he “took a liking” to me, and would take me hunting any time I wanted to go.
He would invite me over for breakfast, and cook a very nice and very delicious breakfast. Thinking back to that brings me both joy and pain. I loved it, but it must have put a burden on his very low income. We had a special bond built by spending many days hunting from daylight to dark together. When I think of that part of the state, where a number of my relatives once lived, the memory of Man ushers in the most pain emotionally. I really miss him. I wish I could have known what I know now, for perhaps I would have found more ways to encourage him.
Many stereotypes of black folks were common during my childhood, some so ridiculous that I could easily see through them as a kid, and others that were dissolved one at a time through experience. I remember that great-uncle of mine saying that black people smelled differently than white people ─ in a bad way. Of course, many black people in those days didn’t have indoor plumbing, so they had hygiene issues as would anyone who couldn’t bathe or shower regularly. For example, when I was quite young, that same great-uncle didn’t have indoor plumbing either. We took baths on Saturday nights in a #2 washtub with water drawn from a well and warmed (somewhat) on a stove, and our odors were none too good either. I guess Unk in his old age couldn’t smell himself or the rest of us! More to follow on this hygiene point.
A Hard First Job
When I graduated from the ninth grade, my father informed that he had a summer job lined up for me. That was a day of bad news. I wanted to fish and swim all summer with my buddies, like I usually did. But to say that my dad was old school would be to make a serious understatement. “Yes Sir,” I replied. I started a nine year long summer job track, working as a laborer for bricklayers and carpenters. That put me in the role of working with black men. The first summer’s co-laborer came to work every morning in freshly washed gray colored kakis and a pressed short-sleeved white shirt. I had on clean jeans and a white tee shirt, which were filthy by the end of the day. We worked hard all day, really hard. We had to build scaffolds for the bricklayers, stack them with bricks, mix mortar and keep the mortar boards filled with it, plus do various other related jobs. The maximum number of workers was supposed to be two laborers for every three bricklayers, but on my first job, we had four bricklayers to keep up with. It was a long, hot summer.
Three Lessons Learned During Summer #1
First, I learned that the odor stereotype was absolutely false. My laborer friend (and he quickly became a friend and mentor, a very good one) came to work as fresh as a daisy, smelling of some kind of aftershave. I came to work at least clean. At the end of the day, my co-worker still smelled like that after shave, and I smelled so bad that we kept the windows on my dad’s truck completely rolled down until we reached home where I hit the shower immediately. I couldn’t stand myself, I stunk so badly!
Second, I learned the value of hard work. My old school father evidently told both the boss on the job, the other bricklayers and my co-laborer not to take it easy on me, and trust me, they didn’t. As the years passed and I kept doing the same kind of work, I was just one of the “black” guys. I did the same work they did, and got cussed out by the boss when I messed something up, just the same as they did. I am so grateful for that, for many reasons. Can you imagine what my black friends would have thought of me if I had been treated differently than they? Thank you, Daddy!
Three, I learned that my black friend loved fishing as much as I did. We made a plan to fish together after work one day, for there was a bayou just behind the house we were helping build. He had a small boat and brought it to work in his truck, and after everyone else left, he and I went fishing. The house we were building bordered on the water as did the other houses in that neighborhood. It was the rich man’s part of town, which meant that a black guy and a white kid were fishing together in their back yards.
About that same time, my uncle in Central Louisiana told me about someone killing a black man with a long-range rifle who was fishing in the boat with a white man. The killer probably would have liked to have shot the white guy too, but knew the chance of being seriously investigated would have been far greater than for shooting the black guy. That, sadly, was the Louisiana I grew up in. But I didn’t care if my fishing buddy was black or white, as long as he would take me fishing, and he did. Then he took me over to the poorer white man’s part of town where I lived way after dark. Thinking back, that actually was probably risky for him. I’m just glad that my father had not the slightest hesitation about my time with my black co-worker and friend. If you are younger than 50, you have little idea of how unusual such relationships were where I was raised.
Long Hot Summers Continued
I continued to do that type of construction work as a common laborer until I graduated from college, and even the summer after I graduated. I had just gotten married and was going to start teaching school in the fall, but we needed money to survive the summer, and so I was back working with the black guys. From that first summer, we got along great. I never once had any relationship trouble with the black guys. I can’t say the same about a few of the white guys I served, but most of them were fine too.
An Unusual Recent Realization
As I said already, I worked as a common laborer for nine summers (and sometimes during school breaks) with black guys. Both they and I thought it was pretty cool. They respected my work ethic and liked my crazy humor, and I loved hanging out with them. My recent realization was rather surprising: in those nine years, I was the only white kid that ever worked as a common laborer on those jobs, and some of the jobs were big ones with many workers. I know the other skilled labor guys had kids my age, and I know that they didn’t have any more money than my family, but I was the only white boy who did it. I wonder now about why that was? Prejudice? If so, did they ask my dad why he let his son work with N____________? Since my dad was hot-tempered and a former boxer and street fighter, with the reputation to go with it, I doubt they said much. But it makes me wonder, and it certainly makes me appreciate my father more.
A Family Thing
It makes sense that I have been comfortable with black people for as long as I can remember. Daddy didn’t have social relationships with African Americans off of the job, except for hunting, but they respected him and he respected them. My mother was no different. We didn’t have much money, but at times we would have a black woman come to our house to help with the ironing. Mother’s relationships with them were nothing like the mess in the movie, “The Help.” They laughed and joked together, and I suspect had their tea times together. Mom just loved people ─ of all types.
I remember one day our ironing lady couldn’t find anyone to leave her son with, so she brought him to our house with her. He and I were about the same age, probably 10 or 11 years old. It must have been in the summer time, since we weren’t in school, but we had a fun day together. We went out in our front yard and played tackle football most of the day. That’s not easy with such small teams, but we did it ─ tackling and wrestling each other for hours on end. What did the neighbors think of this unusual sight? I don’t know and didn’t even think about it then, and certainly my mother didn’t care. So you see, when I say that my parents weren’t racist, I think the facts speak for themselves. Thank you, Mother!
Passing a Big Test!
I was a college undergraduate student from 1961 to 1965. That was right in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and tensions were high. Dr. King’s march on Washington was in the summer of 1963. My youngest uncle was still single at that time, and he and my favorite grandmother lived about 40 miles from where I was attending college in Louisiana. I didn’t have a car, but loved visiting them on the remote little farm on which they lived. Public transportation to that part of the state was non-existent, which left me with one option of transportation ─ hitch-hiking.
Although hitch-hiking was fairly common in those days, catching a ride to remote areas was pretty difficult. Once a friend of mine was going with me to my grandmother’s place (the hunting and fishing were off the charts good). A black middle-aged man stopped to offer us a ride. Keep in mind that this was in about 1963. That was a first for me, but we didn’t hesitate. As it turned out, our only problem was that he had enjoyed far too much to drink, and drove extremely fast on two lane, curvy roads frequented by very large and long logging trucks. He was very friendly and we survived the wild adrenaline rush. That trip made roller coaster rides feel tame!
Another time I was hitch-hiking alone, and a station wagon with four or five young black men stopped to offer me a ride. That one gave me pause, given the tensions and violence common in that era, but only for a moment. After all, I worked with black men every summer, and hunted and fished with some of them. In fact, Man Hollingsworth lived very near where I was headed, so I hopped in the car.
Then the talk started, and it was scary talk. These young guys talked about which of my body parts they were going to cut off first, and they were not laughing or smiling. I honestly gave myself about a 50-50 chance of dying that day. I was a non-Christian at the time, and had a serious gambling addiction which lasted about two years. Thus, I put on my best poker face during all of the threats and acted as if I weren’t afraid. I was faking it, but at least I didn’t wet my pants, so that should count for something!
When we reached the old country store in the little town where I was supposed to get out to meet my uncle, they pulled the station wagon over and let me out. I think I heard them laughing with glee as they pulled away, but I’m not completely sure. I had one huge emotional reaction ─ relief! I wasn’t angry, I didn’t say bad things about them, I couldn’t pull the stereotyping card because I had black friends that I knew well from working with them. I remember thinking to myself that given what those young men had likely experienced at the hands of white folks, I would probably have done the same as they did. I was just thankful to be alive, really thankful.
I understand much more now about what it must have been like to be black in those days (and in our day), but I knew enough then to realize that their lot in life was tough and many (not all ─ no stereotyping in either direction!) white people treated black people pretty badly. In thinking back to that time, I’m grateful to have been spared from angry racist attitudes, and grateful to have felt empathy for the very ones who had scared me out of my wits. Those young men were about my age, so some of them may yet be alive.
A Dream-Worthy Thought
I would dearly love to find one or more of them and sit down over a cup of coffee or a meal and relive that experience. I’ll bet I have been used as an illustration by them with their children and grandchildren many times, accompanied with many laughs. It would be fun to hear their stories and to just be thankful that times have changed for the better. Yes, I know they haven’t changed nearly enough, and this blog attests to that fact, but it would be a wonderful experience to laugh about that time together. Passing that one prejudice test was far more important than passing any test in college that I ever took. Thank you, God!
A Pat on the Back?
Some who are reading this might wonder if I wrote this article to give myself a pat on the back because I had relationships with some black people in a day when that was quite unusual. No, that wasn’t my reason for writing it, not at all. I was a very worldly, sinful young man who didn’t deserve pats on the back. I wrote this only to demonstrate what those times were like in my very young years and to describe why I am so thankful to have been raised as I was – without racist attitudes. The pats on the back are reserved for my mother, my father, the black folks who were willing to befriend me, and God. Somehow by his grace, I escaped one sin at least, racism, and I am most grateful.
Yesterday I read an article on Facebook by our dear brother, Scott Green, in honor of Martin Luther King Day. Not only did I think it was an excellent article, I was impressed that he wrote it while in the middle of his battle with brain cancer. He mentions the details of this in the article briefly, and the title ties into it as well. I asked and received permission to post his article on my blogsite, but waited until today so that I could relate to you the encouraging results of his MRI scan which he received earlier today. Although his type of cancer fortunately has a high cure rate, he still covets our prayers in his behalf. My goal in including his article is to share his thoughts with you and to increase his prayer cover. May you enjoy the former and embrace the latter!
Shoe Day and Martin Luther King Day
Today is the 32nd Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Tomorrow, January 17, is a Shoe Day for me, one in which I will have an MRI done to see if this fall’s brain cancer treatment was effective. By “Shoe Day,” I mean those days in which the focus of your life or death comes brightly into view, one in which you are wondering if “the other shoe will drop.” What will be found on the scan? Will the result point to life or not? As a cancer patient and survivor (thus far), I fight not to allow many days to be Shoe Days, but some, like tomorrow’s MRI, are hard to disguise. And in the valley of the shadow of death, framed by the idealism of Dr. King’s life, example, and famous words, I have some strong wishes for our church community and for our nation. How you hear them is wildly beyond my control, but I hope you can trust the spirit with which I write them—sincerely, honestly, and humbly, acknowledging that this is but one more word on the topic, not THE Word. But there are some Great Things I am asking of you today, and of myself in it.
First a quick observation: why was Dr. King so admired? What was he doing in the name of civil rights that was so noteworthy? Philosophers will remember Gandhi and “Satyagraha,” and most of us will remember, “non-violent resistance.” In my therapy practice, we might say this was a commitment to process over content/results. It was more important to King and his followers to engage a process of Unity over Division, Love over Hate, Light over Darkness, believing these values would win the day, than to have a forced result—and outcome mandated by torches, pitchforks, or guns. Fundamentally, King’s movement, in my interpretation, was committed to Inspiring, rather than Requiring, change. This he accomplished, and such process has a permanent home in my own heart because of his priceless work—work that cost him his life. I’m confident this is at least one of the reasons he is compared to Jesus.
Our Present Divisions
And how would Dr. King diagnose us today? I suspect he would not be proud of our division; not proud of our rhetoric; not proud of our crimes; not proud of our runaway slander; not proud of retribution and resentment; not proud of the way we have a “national conversation” about our frayed race relations. America, like most countries, has “scandal” in its history. “Duh,” you say. But today’s scandal is our poisonous love of division. Why do we love it? That has to do with ease and pleasure.
Temptation and sin are always pleasureable in the short run. In the face of our racial differences, it may be easy to be Proud and Superior, rather than Humble and Curious. I remember in junior high school how true this was even beyond race—I was different because I had come from a military base and family. Thank God I was fast, which impressed my enemies just enough.
Hate is also a pleasure. Short-term, it feels good to hate. For example, I hate the 49ers, and as a fan this generally feels good. Pray for me.
Essentialism makes division possible: the idea that The Past is Rubbish, because now, finally, WE have found the Magic Bullet to a particular problem. I suppose this is another manifestation of condescension. As Romans teaches, it’s better for us to accept that there are many “disputable matters” on which we should refrain from Judgment.
Dismissiveness supports division. Think this through carefully: “You just don’t get it,” is not an argument and in fact indicates that you either have no argument to make (persuade us!) or you don’t really understand your own arguments very well. Another version of this is “the facts show…” I have found over these decades that while it’s true Facts are Facts, most of our divisive conversations are about how we interpret those facts—yet another disputable matter. For example, Gallup today reported that eight years ago, 37% of Americans thought our race relations were poor, while today, 67% say so. Those are facts; but they can be interpreted many ways: for example, it shows we’re just more “aware” than we were 8 years ago; or, it shows relations are truly worse; or, it shows our rhetoric has become more poisoned; or maybe all three.
The Bible condemns (harshly, in my opinion) division; (there are too many commanding scriptures on it to cite here. Just Google, “what does the Bible say about Division?”). In Titus 3:9-10, we all read, “but avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” (ESV) Inspiring division is something that can take you out of the community (“disfellowshipped” we call it often); that’s how much it means to God, and to Christ, who died for our salvation, but also to destroy walls of division (Ephesians 2:13-14).
As Christians and community leaders, we should ask ourselves, “do my actions and especially my words, inspire more unity, or enable or rationalize division?” And in the spirit of Titus 3:9, we should be asking, “is the way we talk about this really “profitable,” or is it “worthless?” Is what we’ve been doing really working? If the answer is “Yes,” keep sharing with us the specifics of how that has worked in your family, your community, your church, so that we can learn and imitate.
If the answer is “No,” then shouldn’t we try something different? Or allow the memory of Dr. King to harken us back to something we forgot or put on the shelf?
The Way Forward
The way forward, as I understand it, has some palpable foundations. First, we must assume genuine dialogue between the injured parties. When I first began my work as a marriage therapist, I was engaged by a couple that came with a fundamental and, as I quickly learned, prohibitive problem: only the Husband was The Problem. The couples’ interactions showed this, and when I met with the parties separately, the wife confirmed the Truth of what I was feeling: to her, the husband was deficient, flawed, and unable or unwilling to “take responsibility.” In fact, she had already given up. When I suggested to her that this might prove to be a prohibitively condescending non-starter for healing, she began to assume I was “on his side.” As you can imagine, our work together soon ended. She was committed to what I now call, “Divorce Talk,” or Divorce Process; in such a state, collaboration is impossible. Everything is One Party’s fault. That person must “take total responsibility” or the other party will pack up toys and go home. And often they do.
Since those days, I have often asked couples to read Matthew 18:21-35 as a part of homework and assessment. In this scripture are the fundamentals of Healing between Sinners. Here are some of the basic realities God expects us to embrace, and these may be hard teachings:
- We are fellow sinners. Generally, God is not seeing one of us as a Perpetrator and the other as a Victim, though such a concrete tragedy is certainly possible. The victim of a rape is not somehow “asking for it,” and the victim of racism is not somehow causing it. But in the shadow of the cross, it’s clear God is looking for more basic equality of fault amongst us sinners rather than looking to emphasize linear (one way) blame. And those boundaries can be quite dynamic between people: a couple’s 8 years of mutual disrespect and mutual reactivity may precede a concrete move to Perpetrator, in which the man becomes an Abuser in a certain context. In such a context, the Way to Healing will involve a repudiation of Perpetration that is indeed Linear, but then a return to the mutuality process needed to change the longer term and more pervasive pattern.
- Our debts to each other should be evaluated with respect to the ways we have offended God. We have each offended God far greater than we offend each other; or at least that’s what the parable is teaching. If we don’t think that, then the parable is confronting us on our lack of awareness and self-righteousness. God is expecting an overwhelming Humility from each of us that makes transcending our offenses possible. The Humility is in knowing we have been forgiven “million dollar debts” we owe to God, our Maker. We must therefore not strangle our fellow servants—even racist ones. This is something Dr. King clearly understood and lived.
- Humility banishes resentment and all our “demands.” The unmerciful servant strangles the other servant and demands, “Pay back what you owe me!” Shouldn’t he have a right to his resentment? Isn’t it logical for him to demand restitution? At the cross, the answer is no. Jesus himself did not bring resentment or revenge to bear. I want to suggest that if we demand our “right” to resentment, then we are saying we are greater than Jesus—we don’t have to sacrifice like He did.
In the real world, this means, in the name of Healing, we generally surrender our right to “zero-sum” evaluations and communication. That means:
- Making my point doesn’t disqualifying your point. Both can have Truth in them.
- Validating my experience doesn’t mean invalidating your experience. Both are valuable.
- “Taking responsibility” is never a one-way effort. We’re in it together
- Tactics like “You don’t get it,” aren’t useful. It’s like saying, “You’re nothing,” because “I’m a better sinner than you.”
But again, isn’t there a time and place for linear blame? The Holocaust? Pearl Harbor? The KKK has killed my grandfather? Yes and indeed. We seek, rightfully, justice in these cases and pray that our hearts for justice will not be a hope deferred. And we rightfully fight for legal systems that will defend this. But far too often, I see and hear disciples trying to turn a more distant and abstract interpretation (“I think my Congressman is a bigot”) into another concrete judgment when we can’t possibly know the heart like Jesus does. We then dance faster and faster with one another in judgmental opinion-making, until we have burned every bridge and are living all alone in our Rightness.
Navigating Troubled Waters
How do we navigate such waters? Here are some ideas that have been healing and useful for me, and which I have striven to teach everywhere in every church:
- Respect each other’s experiences (1 Peter 2:17). Listen in the spirit of the Golden Rule.
- Defend Reputation since Love always Protects (1 Corinthians 13:7). That means fight for the best about each other rather than think the worst. It means looking for the Health more than for the Flaw, which is how God sees us (Romans 4:17).
- Call out and Oppose Slander (Mark 7:22 and many more). In the USA, we have become a society that enables slander. Our media is debased by it, and deeply infected with it. It is “normal.” But in God’s world, it is a serious and deadly sin. We should oppose it, and live as if Times v Sullivan (look it up) never happened. What if it were easy to sue you for defamation? We and our pop media are reckless with our words and quick to slander others. Better to raise questions than quickly draw conclusions (my grandmother 3:11).
- Defend Process over Short-term Results (like Dr. King did). To Dr. King, the ends did not justify the means. We desperately need communication processes that afford mutual Respect to quarreling parties, suspicious parties, resentful parties.
- Try to live in your own Story; don’t import someone else’s grievance from a different city, a different generation, or a different time. Sometimes we do this in a misunderstanding of Empathy. I can watch Schindler’s List and feel a desperate antipathy towards Germany’s 3rd Reich; that doesn’t mean that’s my current story living today in Berlin on Landhausstrasse. I don’t want to import that experience and project it onto my current neighbors. It just makes the puzzle of mutual understanding ten times harder to unravel. Isn’t it hard enough already?
There’s another shoe waiting to drop. As I go into the MRI tomorrow, I am praying scans will show overwhelming victory over cancer. And as I go into Seattle tomorrow, I am praying that we look for new, unpoisoned ways of talking about our biases, our bigotries, our assumptions, our judgments, our resentments, and our future.
Seattle, January 16, 2017
Addressing the Fear Factor
If you have been keeping up with my blog articles, you know that my main objective in writing is to strongly encourage interracial discussions in the church about racial issues. We are biblically the family of God, brothers and sisters in Christ. This family should be the “safest” place to express our hearts to one another about every subject that is meaningful to us. In some ways it is, but in other ways it isn’t. One of the most sensitive areas in our diverse fellowship is that of race related areas. Why don’t we talk honestly about this area like we do about many others? In a word, fear.
I know I am repeating some things I have already written about in earlier articles, but it is needed in my opinion. Our white members are afraid of stepping on land mines unwittingly and offending their black brothers and sisters. The land mines are hidden to us in direct proportion to our ignorance of black history and black culture. Hence my consistent emphasis on the need to talk and listen (better listen much and talk little, by the way). I want to know what others from different races and cultures are thinking. What does their world look like to them and how do they feel about it? What can I do to help share or lessen their burdens? Honestly, the main thing I can do to help is first of all to demonstrate that I simply care, and then do what I can beyond that where possible.
Dealing with white fears due to ignorance can also be helped by just availing ourselves of material about racial matters of which we are ignorant. Reading books and articles, watching movies and especially documentaries, in combination with asking questions, listening and talking will help solve so many of our fears and problems. People want to be understood, but they have to share their thoughts and feelings in order to be understood. I love all types of learning but I love learning about my brothers and sisters most of all. We are family. It’s high time we start functioning as family, in God’s way and with God’s help.
Our black brothers and sisters do appreciate the level of diversity we have in our fellowship of churches. Regardless of its limitations, it is still the best thing going regarding mixing people of differing cultures and races. Our black members don’t want to endanger what we do have, but they can quickly point out our limitations as they wish for a higher level of diversity. (I will have more to say about these limitations in a future article.) From hence comes their fears of broaching the subject of race. I appreciate those in my home church (Dallas/Fort Worth) who have pointed out what they are facing and feeling. It is leading us to better places. I appreciate similar progress being sought in other places. I don’t appreciate my white brothers letting fears motivate them to make excuses about why racial discussions under the umbrella of the church aren’t necessary or may even be harmful. The seriously harmful thing is to minimize what other members see as highly important to them.
Many of us, both black and white, are unsure about what terminology might be offensive to those of another race or culture. We are going to have to venture out of our comfort zones and risk using terms that will need to be corrected. I said as much in starting this blog. I said that I expected to make mistakes and be corrected. I have been and will continue to be. I have advisers who read what I write before I post it on my blog. I have readers who write me via email, some of whom ask to converse on the phone ─ which we do. I am much more afraid of doing nothing than of doing something wrong. The latter can be corrected much more easily and quickly, and it can promote learning.
Racism Goes Both Ways (NOT!)
In some fairly recent sermons on racial issues, I made the statement that racism goes both ways. I was corrected on that, and will no longer say it. The terms “racism,” “racist” and the like are loaded terms and have to be used carefully and sparingly, if at all. Quoting from my friend Michael Burns’ upcoming book, he defines racism as “A system of domination or oppression of one ethnic group or racial collective over another based on differences that are believed to be hereditary and unchangeable. For racism to exist, a group must have the power to enforce their dominance through either overt or implied means.” Thus, a white person may be a racist in their attitudes toward blacks, but while blacks may be highly prejudiced toward whites, they are not racist. The definition won’t allow it. Is that a big deal? Both words convey similar ideas on a practical basis, but using correct terminology is important when that terminology is controversial and sensitive to many. I appreciate those who pointed this difference out to me. I want to get it right when discussing a subject that is filled with tension in our society.
Other Loaded Terms
“Lives Matter” is another loaded term. I have said in sermons that while black lives matter, actually all lives matter. That is a true statement, but it is taking the title of a movement, “Black Lives Matter,” and using it in a way that can appear to be dismissive toward this group. One of my Boston buddies from the “Big Black Brother’s Club” days gave me a helpful example. He lives in a suburb in which someone put up a sign, “Dog Lives Matter!” As he said, it would have been fine to put up a sign that read “Protect Our Dogs!” But using “Lives Matter” in the way it was done is an obvious backhand against a recognized black movement. Whatever you may think of the movement (and opinions vary), showing such obvious disrespect is both stupid and racist. I am grateful that a loving brother helped me understand something that I needed to understand, and I will not use the phrase “All lives matter” as a result. I will state an obvious truth in another way. Learning is valuable stuff.
Terms with White in Them
We can add other no-no’s to our list of loaded terms. “White supremacy” and “white supremacist” are inflammatory and shouldn’t be bandied about readily. This is not to say that they don’t exist, of course, for the KKK is only one evidence to illustrate that they do. But calling a white guy by this term is not a good way to introduce meaningful conversation about race.
“White privilege” is another term best avoided. Although I did begin this blog with the term “White Privilege” in the title, I changed it to the current “Black Tax and White Benefits.” I had several reasons for this change, prompted first of all by Michael Burns’ book comments about the term. The idea of white privilege is going to be taken wrongly by poorer white people, who are wondering just where their privilege is. Further, it is a term associated strongly with politics, and right now an overemphasis on politics is dividing our nation amazingly. I am pretty much apolitical, although I am comfortable with those who are more involved ─ as long as politics doesn’t become their religion (and it has for many, including some who call themselves disciples of Christ). Finally, white privilege is simply not understood by many whites as an unearned privilege that comes your way just because of the color of your skin. Whether we understand those benefits or not, we definitely have them in comparison to those of other races – at least in the United States.
One Dead-End Dialogue
I did have someone write me about the term early on after I started my blog, a white guy, and his main objection seemed to be that it was a political term that he thought was misapplied often by political liberals. I tried to look past the adversarial verbiage in his letter, and I gave him several scenarios to find out if he understood that whites in general have advantages that most blacks simply do not have. His answers denied that, which told me that further conversation was going to prove useless. We did write back and forth several times before we reached the impasse. I am absolutely astounded by any white person that doesn’t think that black skin doesn’t put you at a disadvantage in many situations. Black tax is real. But the point is that I chose a term originally for my title that I thought would grab people’s attention, not realizing the implications of it. So, I stand corrected, am more knowledgeable and now have a better title. Whites do have benefits that blacks don’t have in many situations. Nuff said on that point!
What Should Black People Be Called?
This can be a confusing discussion, and can induce fear in white people of referring to the black population in the wrong way. Like all terminology, our language is in a constant state of flux, both from a technical perspective and from a practical perspective. In the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and following, “Negro” was commonly used and accepted by any race. Martin Luther King used it often. Of course, it was a bit too close to the slang slanderous word to suit a lot of people, and fell into disuse. Now we have Black, African American, Black American and People of Color (the latter being more in vogue now in intellectual circles, so I’m told).
To start with, what I prefer isn’t the issue in this case, although I do have certain opinions (not strong ones at all). Actually, I have opinions about what I think white people ought to be called, and “Caucasian” is definitely not one of them! Technically, this term traces back to a region of the world named “Caucasus.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines this region thusly: “a region of southeastern Europe (Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and part of southern Russia in Europe) between the Black and Caspian seas, divided by the Caucasus Mountains into Ciscaucasia to the north and Transcaucasia to the south.” As far as I know, I have no ancestors from this part of the world. Thus my question: why call me a Caucasian?
I rather like the online Urban Dictionary’s comments about this term, as the writer says:
The incorrect term used to label a “white” man or woman. The word Caucasian refers to a person who is from the region of Caucasus, which is in Europe bordering Turkey and Iran. Therefore, I am not a Caucasian being that I am not from Caucasus. I am, in general, European. Also I am not “white” being that I do not blend in with white paint, or white paper. I prefer to think that I have some amount of pigmentation in my skin, thank you very much.
So I’m just a white dude, with 12% black mixed in.
As I said, Negro is an outdated term, although at one time the whole world’s population was divided into three groups: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid. I personally prefer the term Black or Black American (the latter being a strong preference of two black men servicing my house for pest control). Saying that you are African American is fine is you prefer that, but unless you came recently from that huge continent, it seems a bit odd (to me at least). I wouldn’t say that I am a European American or a Scottish American, although most of my ancestors evidently came from there, given my family names. But I have no idea when they came, and it was certainly not recently.
Then we have the People of Color designation. That one reminds me of the old adage that says whatever proves too much proves too little. Everyone not white is a person of color. Reserving that term for black folks only is offensive to some others of non-white origin. I’ve asked Hispanics, for example, what they think of the term. One brother said with slight agitation in his voice, “Well, I’m not white, so if people of color are blacks, then what am I?” Good question, don’t you think? After all, the Latino population of the country is larger than that of the Black population. However, regardless of my preference, I use the other terms interchangeably in my blog, in trying to become all things to all people and respect the different preferences that I know exist.
A Black Brother’s Perspective and Preference
One of my blog advisers is Tony Chukes, a longtime friend tracing to my entry into this movement of churches in the mid-1980s. Tony served on the ministry staff of three different congregations for a total of 17 years. He is a member of the Denver church and also a member of their racial diversity group. I love Tony for many reasons, one of which is that he is built like me in that he is going to say what he thinks and not let fear stop him. We have some very interesting exchanges via email and on the phone! I am going to post one of his articles on my blogsite very soon, which explains how a systemic racism still pervades our society even though the slavery days are long past. Many still have a difficult time grasping this concept, and Tony’s article approaches it using a very interesting and informative analogy. At any rate, here is what Tony had to say about what those of his race are called and why he clearly prefers one term over the others.
People of Color
Let me begin with a little history. In January of 1970, Senator Daniel Moynihan wrote a memo to President Richard NIxon concerning what he called significant black progress in jobs and income. This memo introduced a concept called “benign neglect.” The memo was worded thus: “The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of “benign neglect.” The subject has been too much talked about. The forum has been too much taken over to hysterics, paranoids, and boodlers on all sides. We may need a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades. The administration can help bring this about by paying close attention to such progress ─ as we are doing ─ while seeking to avoid situations in which extremists of either race are given opportunities for martyrdom, heroics, histrionics or whatever. Greater attention to Indians, Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans would be useful.”
Whatever Moynihan’s intentions may have been (a debated subject), the term “benign neglect” took on a life of its own and was interpreted as an attempt to downplay the plight of blacks. Placing more emphasis on other non-black populations led to diluting what blacks received and was no doubt more palatable for many whites. Today, because of terms like “people of color,” we have all sorts of “special” types of people benefitting from the few affirmative action programs that are left. Black males came out on the short end of the stick, trust me! Everybody has some color so the term “people of color” should not be used to describe me. I am black and my color is dark brown.
I have several problems with the term “African American.” First, Africa is a continent. Nobody calls a person from European decent a European American. They are given the respect of being identified by their country ─ England, Germany, Spain, etc. There are 54 countries in Africa. Why is that same respect not given to people from Africa? Second, what is an African American? Anybody who lives in Africa can come over here and call themselves an African American. A white Berber, an Arab, a Jew, an East Indian, or even a white South African. I am none of these and do not wish to be identified with them. I have nothing against them, but they are not black.
Skin Color ─ the Deciding Factor
Every place I go I am easily identified by the color of my skin. We have a wide array of colors, mocha, almond, chocolate, coffee, light, bright, and darn near white. I don’t have to tell you how the word black has been vilified in society. Many times the word is used to try an evoke fear in people, but the bottom line is God made me this way and this is what I want to be called. I do not disrespect any black person who prefers African American, but I would tell them why I prefer black.
A Final Thought
Hopefully, this article has been helpful in easing our discomfort in talking with a brother or sister of a different race than us. In other blog posts, I have suggested ways to start conversations if you are black or if you are white. I won’t repeat myself here, so let’s lose our fear of making mistakes and get the conversations started (or continued). We may forget many lessons we learn, but the ones we are most likely to remember are the ones we learned by making mistakes. Fear of being corrected is a fairly silly fear, and it is certainly one that goes against the clear teaching of many biblical passages. Proverbs 17:10: “A rebuke impresses a discerning person more than a hundred lashes a fool.” Let’s lose our fears and learn from one another, perhaps especially through mistakes, for we are family!
February’s Black History Month is drawing to a close. I haven’t written about this earlier because, as I stated in one past post, 2017 is Black History Year for me. My writing focus for this year will continue to focus on racial issues that need to be addressed and solved in the church. I may write some on other subjects, but this is my subject of choice for the year as God sustains my life and keeps my mind functional. However, just because it is a special month designed to catch up (and ‘fess up) to history that was long neglected regarding the plight of African Americans and their often unsung heroes, I will dedicate at least three articles to BHM.
Black History Month had its earliest beginnings in 1915, fostered by the Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson and the prominent minister Jesse E. Moorland. They founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), an organization dedicated to researching and promoting achievements by black Americans and other peoples of African descent. Known today as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), the group sponsored a national Negro History week in 1926, choosing the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The event inspired schools and communities nationwide to organize local celebrations, establish history clubs and host performances and lectures.
President Gerald R. Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976, calling upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Since then, every American president has designated February as Black History Month and endorsed a specific theme. The theme for 2017 is “The Crisis in Black Education.”
Learning from Movies
I have seen many movies regarding the terrible status of black people through the earlier years in our country. Such movies were gut-wrenching and heart-breaking, leaving viewers like me discouraged at best and deeply hurt at worst. For me, the movies may have portrayed history, but other than that, they contained no redeeming value. I still have gruesome scenes etched in my mind from movies like “A Time to Kill,” “Mississippi Burning,” “The Great Debaters,” and “Twelve Years a Slave.” More recently, documentaries like “Thirteenth” contained similar graphic, disturbing scenes as we are reminded that our history is replete with unspeakable and violent injustices.
Movies like “The Help” are less disturbing to watch, lacking the violence shown in those others, but they are still very difficult for me to watch because they show what life was actually like for blacks during my childhood. Those memories are very sad memories now, although at the time, it was simply life as it was and most of us white folks were distanced enough from it to not understand just how bad it was. Thankfully, in “The Help,” they included a couple of scenes that did gladden my heart, the chocolate pie scene being the apex!
My Favorite Movies
Since Black History Month has its roots in the recognition and honoring of black heroes, I have been most encouraged by seeing several movies that do exactly that. I loved “Hidden Figures,” and have seen it in theaters twice already. It is historically pretty accurate, based on my study. My heart was thrilled when John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth in space, wouldn’t board the spacecraft until a black female math prodigy looked over the numbers one final time. Glenn trusted her more than he did the new massive IBM computer at NASA! Those three black women had to endure the racism of their day, but they didn’t let it stop them from using their talents to rise to the top and overcome much of the racist attitudes toward them from fellow workers with white skin.
Another movie I found inspiring was “Something the Lord Made.” Although it was originally an HBO movie, it is available for free viewing on You Tube in HD. I’ve watched it two or three times and will watch it again. Interestingly, the immediate family of the star of the show demonstrated three different ways to respond to racism. The father, a carpenter, focused on the progress that Africans had made in America. He reminded his two sons that his grandfather had been a slave, nothing more than a piece of property, and yet two generations later, he was a free man with a decent job and a decent (by comparison) standard of living.
One of his sons was a teacher, and he was very emotionally disturbed by the lack of equal pay for teachers of color. He was determined to fight this inequity, to the chagrin of his father. The other son, the star of the show, went from being a janitor in the laboratory of a young white surgeon to becoming one of the most revered trainers of surgeons in Johns Hopkins University ─ with only a high school education. He accepted his lot in life but kept working to improve himself until he won the respect and admiration of some of the world’s greatest surgeons. During that process, he and the white surgeon developed two surgical procedures that have saved literally millions and millions of lives. I will return to this movie in another blog, and further examine biblically these three varying views that each of the men in the family held.
Separating History from Politics
Another movie I saw quite by accident (providence, I think) was when I was just looking through titles on Netflix for something good to watch. This particular movie had Cuba Gooding Jr. as the star, and he’s a favorite of mine. The movie was “Gifted Hands,” portraying the life of Ben Carson. I know that some reading this article are somewhat dismayed by the fact that he ran for president as a Republican and now has become President Trump’s nominee to be the 17th United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
If you are among the dismayed in this case, please do not lose sight of the rather astounding accomplishments of this Black American. He rose from the poverty of a single parent home, could barely read as a child, experienced extreme racial prejudice in his early years, and yet became the greatest pediatric neurosurgeon in the world. The movie portrays all of this accurately, although it actually downplays the amount of racism and ridicule he endured on his way to success.
He is a Bible believing person with seemingly no skeletons in his closet. No matter what you think about his political positions, let me ask you one question. Would you rather have the President surrounded by those who have strong biblical convictions or those who do not? I can personally cast a very quick vote on that question. We have to be very careful not to be so caught up in political agendas that we lose sight of some important realities, and the Ben Carson story is one of these in my humble opinion.
Cheated ─ But Making Progress!
In talking with my old friend and now blogsite adviser, Tony Chukes, he told me about finding out about black heroes about whom he knew nothing from friends and how incensed he was that he was not taught about them in his history classes. And one of his special interests was in history! I understood, feeling much the same ─ cheated. Maybe there were more stories in my history books about black heroes than I remember, but I doubt it. My history courses were taught right in the middle of Jim Crow days, and blacks were still being forced to “keep their place,” and their place certainly wasn’t having hero status.
I am glad that we are becoming enlightened about black history, both the good and the bad of it. I remain convinced that systemic racism is ingrained in our culture, in spite of the fact that many whites are oblivious to it and themselves aren’t racist as individuals. However, the effects are going to be felt until we recognize it for what it is and take steps to eradicate it. We are making progress and I am thankful for the progress, especially in the church. More must be made.
Making Progress in the Church
In the Dallas church, we have a Hispanic brother who is an expert in the area of racial diversity, and along with a black brother on staff, they are working to educate us. They started by meeting with our ministry staff, dividing them into small but diverse groups, teaching principles and then having the groups discuss the principles. It was done in a way that the teaching and the discussions were spaced out so that not too much material was covered in one discussion setting.
Next, this was done with all of those in our Singles Ministry. Soon to come will be a similar session for all of our Bible Talk leaders and assistants ─ at least 250 people and perhaps closer to 300. Our leadership meant what they said to the church when they sent out that email which I mentioned in my first article on this blogsite. Other churches are doing similar things. We understand that the world is in a hateful mess and we cannot change our society ─ except as we change and let our light shine before them.
People have started noticing what we are doing and more will notice. We cannot force change, for God himself does not force change in people, but we can influence change by being the light set on the hill. As our congregations heal and help heal on these racial issues, we will have more influence than we now imagine. It is for that cause that I write and labor, and it is for that cause that a growing number among us are doing the same. If we can keep our hearts loving, our minds open, and our kingdom priorities in the right place, God will use it all and use us all. We are a family, a diverse family, and a family with the potential to affect the world. Let’s do it, together!