I grew up as the son of wonderful parents who instilled in me a consistent ethic of kindness and fairness.
My understanding of racism was predicated on that ethic of kindness and fairness. I do not believe there was a word that would have elicited a harsher response from Mom or Dad than if one of their children were to use a racial slur.
My parents raised my brothers, sister, and I to treat people based on who they were and not the color of their skin. Since childhood, I felt a certainty that I was not a racist. What is more, I felt that racism was a sin that defined our culture’s past more than its future. I believed the worst effects of racism vanished at some ethereal point between Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the Clinton administration.
I was wrong.
Our culture remains in the throes of racial discord and I have harbored more racial bias than I once believed. When I received a driver’s license at sixteen, I felt as though my world had no limits. I did not worry about where I drove in our small town, I assumed that wherever I was I was safe and would expected fair treatment. The first time a police officer pulled me over I feared how my Dad would react, not how the officer would treat me. I felt such a sense of confidence in my rights that at seventeen when an officer pulled me over for reasons that are still unclear to me and asked me for permission to search my vehicle, I told him “no” with absolute boldness. Minutes later I was driving back home without a ticket.
I assumed as a teenager in the deep south that my experience was much the same as my African American friends. I dismissed stories of racial bias by law enforcement officers and others as either abnormal events or excuses made by people who were not behaving appropriately.
Please know how ashamed I am to write that last sentence.
You read it right, I assumed that many African Americans who reported being mistreated deserved it because they were not behaving themselves as they should have. I never considered that if some of my African American friends from high school had refused to have their cars searched, they may have been put face down on the asphalt. I never listened closely enough to my African American neighbors to understand that there were areas of our rural county they avoided for their safety.
I did not personally hate others because of the color of their skin, but I believed racist ideas and those racist ideas informed the way I interacted with African Americans.
Theologically, none of this surprises me. I affirm original sin — the orthodox Christian belief that all humans inherit the sinful nature of Adam and are therefore predisposed to sinful acts and thoughts. God was gracious to correct my understanding of race by opening my ears and heart to the Scriptures and the voices of my sisters and brothers in the African American community.
God’s word speaks with resolute clarity that all human beings are created in the image of God. The book of Genesis shows us that being created “in God’s image” is not about looking like God, but instead is about doing God’s work. God commands his image bearers to “fill the earth and subdue it, have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). God intends for human beings to rule the earth in such a way that we present God’s image to the rest of creation. We rule as his vice-regents — princesses and princes who rule in the name of the Great King!
This view of human life means that each human life carries the value of royalty. The black woman born in South Rome, the Hispanic refugee who comes into our community seeking a better life, the middle-class kid from Meriwether County in the camo T-shirt — all have lives of tremendous value because God created them in his image.
If we listen to the witness of the Scriptures, we learn that each human life is valuable because God created each human life for a noble purpose. If we listen to the witness of our African American sisters and brothers, we learn that they are not treated with equality in our nation.
In the past month, I have been overwhelmed by the stories I have heard from my friends of color about the discrimination they have faced. For Christians, this is unacceptable. Every Christian, regardless of color or culture, has a responsibility to work towards shaping their world in accordance with God’s good desire. If not, then what could we possibly mean when we pray “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?”
I close with an invitation to all Christians, and especially to white Christians, to be intentional in our listening on racial issues. Listen to the witness of Scripture and hear the clear message of the Bible that the Creator values all people. Listen to the witness of African Americans in your community and hear the clear message that they, all too often, are not equally valued in our society. As we listen, let us pray that God would shape our hearts and minds through what we hear so that we would glorify our Creator in loving and supporting our fellow image-bearers.