Racism, Dealing with It
Editor’s note: in the wake of the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, a word on dealing with racism from Professor Leo Sánchez.
In a sinful world, racism will not go away. Every so often, it raises its ugly head in public. But rather than merely stating what seems so obvious—racism is a sin—here are some practical ways to confront it head on and deal with it.
Public displays of racism offer an opportunity for repentance. Not merely calling for someone else to repent, but for my own repentance. Which is actually more difficult than condemning racism in general because it makes racism my personal problem. Here we sin by commission and omission.
Our sinful flesh gladly finds ways to avoid people of other races or paint them in a suspicious light. Or it simply fails to acknowledge racism as a real problem in our society, or the pain people who have suffered discrimination because of the color of their skin go through on a regular basis. The appropriate response to this state of affairs is neither claiming to have “no racist bone in my body” nor appealing to one’s innocence or ignorance about America’s so-called original sin. Nor will winning an argument about whether racism is a personal or systemic sin save anyone either.
The sinful flesh finds all kinds of sneaky ways to avoid dealing head on with racism and ethnocentrism. So the best first response is simply to repent: “We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” And then to wait for God’s response, trusting in his mercy: “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” In this cyclical rhythm of repentance, of contrition and absolution, Christians learn to live daily under the sign of their baptism into Christ, drowning the sinful flesh so that a new creature may rise every day.
Public displays of racism offer an opportunity for vigilance. Sin is not only a corrupted state but an actual way of being in the world. This is why we do not simply confess that we are sinful by (corrupted) nature, but also that we sin specifically in thought, word, and deed. Accordingly, racism is not merely about people acting out their racism in public, but much more often people thinking and speaking in subtly racist and ethnocentric ways.
To be watchful is not to turn a blind eye to racism, pretending it does not really exist among “good” people like us but only among a few “bad” apples out there. Instead, Christians openly acknowledge life is a rough pilgrimage in the wilderness, where we are constantly vulnerable to the seductions of the evil one, including the idea that we are superior to others in some way. If having a superiority complex were not a perennial human problem, why would Christians have to be reminded to put others before themselves? We must, therefore, be careful not to become overly confident about our own power to resist the lure of supremacy, lest we become an easy prey to it without even noticing it.
Another common seduction we are vulnerable to is the idea that if we fight against flesh and blood, and kill our enemies (either literally, or more likely with our words), then we will do our part to eradicate from society the perpetrators of racism. Yet we know hatred only breeds more hatred. Here Christians must avoid the seduction of imitating the language of the world, the violence of words (even in the name of freedom of speech), which parades monsters while neglecting the potential harm to their own spiritual lives of an unchecked fear of and distance from people who look different from us.
It is easier to go after evildoers. And indeed, when we see evil, we must call it what it is. But let’s face it. It is more difficult to be accountable to others for our manner of speech, so as not to slip into attitudes toward people of different races and ethnicities based on stereotypes and myths perpetuated by sensationalist media. No one is immune from these seductions. So the proper response to racism is not to deny our vulnerability to it, but simply to be watchful and pray: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”; and “May your holy angel be with us, that the evil foe may have no power over us.”
Public displays of racism offer an opportunity for service. Contrition and forgiveness bear fruits of repentance. Grafted onto Christ the Vine, Christians bear the fruit of his Spirit in their lives. Racism, on the other hand, bears plain signs of the works of the flesh. It promotes enmity, strife, anger, selfishness, dissension, and party spirit. Amidst such sinful passions and desires, Christians dare to live and walk by the Spirit. Doing so is never easy. It entails sacrifice.
Where there is hate, Christians show love. Where there is sorrow, joy; where conflict, peace; where anxiety, patience; where rudeness, kindness; and so on. There can never be too much of these things in a sinful world. Walking in the Spirit is not without personal sacrifice. In showing love, we become the objects of hate; when sharing joy, we hear of the other’s grief; when preaching peace, conflict comes our way; when teaching patience, we bear other’s anxieties; when we show kindness, people rudely dismiss us.
Racism is an expression of egocentricity. It is a love of self which only loves those who look like self. It is a form of what Luther called our being curved in on ourselves. Service takes us outside ourselves, away from a misguided love of self and into the realm of neighbors who are different from us. We begin to see life in terms of the pain of others, including those whose race and ethnicity makes them the object of hurtful words and acts, and dare to speak on their behalf and defend them when they are portrayed in the worst possible light or their lives are threatened in some way—even if we suffer for it. No one said being a Christian is easy.
Public displays of racism offer an opportunity for hospitality. Racism is a form of exclusion and aims at alienation, a sin that seeks to destroy the human hope for acceptance and belonging. It teaches that humans can justify their lives—their worth and value—before others on the basis of the color of their bodies and the privileges accompanying their racial identity.
In a world where our churches and communities often remain de facto segregated, we begin to get comfortable with those who look and speak like us. We have a hard time crossing racial, ethnic, cultural, and social borders to meet neighbors on the other side. Perhaps we are afraid of the unknown. Perhaps we are too comfortable. We can call it whatever we want. But whatever the reason, we are missing out. What if God surprises us on the other side of the border and richly blesses us our lives with neighbors who look and speak differently?
Jesus was from Nazareth in Galilee, where nothing good comes from. Due to their proximity to Gentiles, Galileans were seen as less than pure and wise. Yet God surprises us and works out his salvation through a Galilean! And it is out of suspect Galilee that Jesus sends out his Galilean disciples to make disciples by baptizing and teaching. Here again, God defies common human expectations. In his own ministry, Jesus crossed into the lives of Samaritans, strangers and foreigners of mixed race and religion considered enemies of God. The Spirit of Jesus moved Philip in Acts to cross into the land of the Samaritans, where the evangelist welcomed them into God’s kingdom through baptism in the name of Jesus, and the Samaritans received the gift of the Holy Spirit. God’s house is wide and all races have a place at the table. Through these stories of divine welcome, we learn that justification before God is not by race but by grace.
We also learn to reach out to neighbors outside our comfort zones. One deals with racism by inviting people of different races to share life with us in our homes, churches, and communities. A welcoming attitude moves beyond merely being aware of the other while remaining in parallel universes. Hospitality crosses borders to learn from and collaborate with new neighbors. Got time for coffee?
Public displays of racism offer an opportunity for devotion. When people of different races fight against each other, or more likely (and perhaps problematically) keep their distance from each other, we have all lost respect for God’s creation. We no longer acknowledge that when we stand before another human being we stand before God’s own creation. Since worship includes faith and its fruits (love), racism gets in the way of the proper worship of God. It dishonors both the Creator and his creation.
True worship gladly receives God’s gifts of creation and redemption. When do we make time to revel in such gifts? The day of rest was just the time to do so. God’s people kept the Sabbath not merely through the cessation of labor, but by thanking God for the work of his hands and for saving his people through the Exodus. The broader point of the day of rest, however, was to make time any day in the midst of busy lives to behold the awesomeness of these divine gifts with thanksgiving and praise, joy and celebration. Today we are so occupied that we no longer stand still to soak in the beauty of God’s work, including the gift of neighbors, and to celebrate it.
Racism gets in the way of proper devotion to God because it denies the beauty of his creation, which comes in no other way than in many different colors. It also denies the gift of the church into which God has gathered unto himself, through his Word, a people from different nations, races, and languages. By resting in God’s promises of creation and new creation, Christians learn to look once again at neighbors of different races through the eyes of faith and love—namely, as God’s own precious creatures for whom Christ gave his life. They also learn to give thanks and praise to God for the lives and gifts new neighbors bring to them personally, as well as to the church and our world. And yes, they learn to rejoice in each other’s company and play together.
Come, Holy Spirit!
How then do we respond to racism, whether crass or subtle, not only in public but at all times? By looking in the mirror with the eyes of repentance, at our spiritual lives with the eyes of vigilance, outside of ourselves with the eyes of a servant, toward excluded neighbors with the eyes of welcome, and toward the Giver of all gifts with the eyes of devotion. This picture of life is, of course, quite a burden for any person to fulfill on his or her own. Inevitably, we will come up short when dealing with racist and ethnocentric impulses.
Yet Christ’s grace is abundant and he gives us his Spirit to provide what is needed along the journey. If lack of repentance, the Spirit will kill the sinner in us to make us alive. If lack of vigilance amidst the seductions of evil, the Spirit will make us watchful and accountable to one another in our thoughts, speech, and deeds. If lack of service and hospitality, the Spirit will warm up our cold hearts toward the strange other and bear his fruit in our lives, leading us to engage in sacrificial and welcoming acts on behalf of marginalized neighbors. If lack of devotion, the Spirit will give us rest in God to stand back and behold the colorful beauty of his creation in the face of our neighbors. So come, Holy Spirit! We need you!