Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Reflections on Racism, Immigration, America, and Christian Faith

                Many years ago I was having a conversation with my supervisor. She was sharing with me her personal story of living in a very racist community that had absolutely no tolerance for anyone who was not white. Her employment brought her and her young son to live in that community but it proved to be a major mistake. She could not truly live. Every day she was assaulted with racial statements, denied service at restaurants or the grocery store, and her son, the only black child in entire school, was the victim of rampant bullying and hateful discrimination. After about a year, she requested an emergency transfer under hardship circumstances and was quickly moved to a new community and workplace. This is where I came to work for her.
                Upon hearing her story of being victimized by such blatant racism, I was shocked as I tried to conceptualize what that must have been like. It was—and still is—so far beyond anything that I have personally experienced, that could not really come to terms with how to empathize with her ordeal. So, in my ignorance, I told her that it must be a real blessing to live where we did so that she did not have to put up with racist people.
                She slammed her fist down on the counter and angrily challenged me, “Are you kidding me?” In shock, I just stood there wondering what I had said to offend her. She then went on to say that she was glad to be away from that other community, but nothing would change the fact that she was black and there were people who looked down on her for that reason. The only difference, she went on to say, was that those people in the other town knew they were racist and were at least honest about it. They hated her and everyone agreed on that fact. What angered her was that where she and I lived and worked, she found the racists were too ignorant to know that they were racist, too caught up in their own selfish worldview to see their own hatred, too shallow to realize how two-faced they really were. She went on to say how people would treat her with false respect, and then speak horribly about her behind her back. She shared with me what it was like to be followed relentlessly in a store because everyone just knew a black woman was there to steal, not buy. “It’s one thing to be racist and know it, even be proud of it, but I hate the most,” she said, “is those ignorant fools who are too blind to see their own hatred.” We continued to talk and I learned a lot about the clandestine aspect of racism and how much of society allowed institutional support of this sin in ways which made it easy for the rest of us to ignorantly believe we were doing nothing wrong. Essentially, we allowed our institutions do the sinning for us so it was easy to absolve ourselves of persona accountability.
                It was a lesson I learned over 20 years ago, and one that has never left me. Yet, in light of the present culture of incivility and outright hatred frequently expressed in the public sphere, as well as across much of Social Media, it is a lesson that needs to be taught. A South African Bishop and Pastor named Peter Storey once noted that the challenges he faced as a South African Pastor preaching against Apartheid was far greater than those challenges facing American Clergy facing the culture of American Nationalism. His point was that Christian and Biblical values had become so convoluted in the political and nationalistic fervor of patriotic priority that the task of preaching God’s justice and mercy was overshadowed by what he called the “red, white, and blue myth.”
                Those are strong words. In fact, they offend me. They cut to my heart the same way my supervisor’s condemnation cut me over 20 years ago. Then, I was forced to examine my own heart and see what racist beliefs, attitudes, and prejudices were secretly influencing my life. I found them and they offended me. Likewise, the myth of the red, white, and blue challenges me to look at the bigger picture of what is best for the world—God’s whole earthly creation—and step back from the arrogant and self-serving assumption that America deserves my absolute priority. Or, more to the point, my own political leanings deserve priority.
                The refugee crisis currently facing the nation more fully and completely brings this principle to mind. I have co-written a faith statement with several other brothers and sisters in the ministry that calls for a compassionate and just handling of the refugees from Central America that have been relocated to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, New Mexico. Some of the reaction I have received has been positive and affirming. Yet, some is not. Various arguments have been raised that generally point to same basic ideas. They have no right to be here because they broke the law and have no intention of contributing to our great nation, only draining from it and becoming the gangster thugs that are ruining our country. Besides that, if we can’t care for our Veterans and homeless, they certainly don’t deserve support. In very basic terms, they are not wanted here, not now, not ever! Yet, I have to ask, “Is that what America truly stands for? Is that how Christ would truly have us respond to such a humanitarian crisis?”
                Somewhere between the blatant racism my supervisor experienced so many years ago and the ignorant racism she experience when we worked together lies the very challenge we face today. Somewhere between the horrific conditions of what was Apartheid and the myth of the red, white, and blue, lies a stark reality that many of us are not truly addressing. Somewhere between creating an impenetrable border with massive walls and protective machine guns and opening our borders for anyone to come and go as they please, there is a better way—an American way, a Godly way! It is a way that places fear not in the person whom we do not know or understand, but places our trust in God. It is a way that recognizes that we can be stronger by working for a common good rather than simply asserting what’s perceived as being best for our little world. It is a way that balances compassion with discipline, grace with legalism, and love with restrictions.
                I do not pretend to have all the answers, nor do I assume that I fully understand the very complicated immigration system. I do know this. As a nation, if we allow ourselves to be ruled by fear, hatred, anger, and division, we will reap greater proportions of all those things. In regions such as Iraq, Syria, Israel, Afghanistan, and Libya, where war or the pestilence of ungodly violence is destroying whole societies, the fuel is fear, hatred, anger, and division—each faction seeking absolutist means to assert its sovereign control over those other factions that understand the world differently. Is this the path that we wish to take? Truly, such violence is not the way of Jesus Christ.

                Truly, I believe most Americans are good-hearted, honest, and God-fearing people. We may be, to some degree, guilty of ignorantly allowing our institutions—our government, our churches, our corporations, our media—do our sinning for us as we blindly pat ourselves on the back for being good people. Yet, there is a better way, a holy way, a Christian way, even a truly American way. It is time that we set aside our petty political posturing and raucous religious rhetoric. Jesus Christ was not an American or a Christian. On earth he was a Palestinian Jew living under Roman occupation. He did not transform the world by taking control over those in opposition to him, he transformed the world through loving sacrifice. It is time that we take on the law of love, and forgo the laws of hatred that are permeating our culture. It is time for those who proclaim Christ to live his love! 

Peter Storey quoted from "Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals" Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, & Enuma Okoro, Published by Zondervan Press, (c) 2010, Reading for July 16, Page 361. 

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