Bible Studies

Dealing with Racism

One Relationship at a Time

Any easily noticeable difference between human beings may be exploited by Satan to bring about division in the Church.  One can take the case recorded in Acts 6:1, “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.”  In Acts 6 it was neither religion, race nor gender, but culture that became the basis for offense.  Both groups were women, both were Jewish and both were Christian; the difference lay in the degree of openness to Greek civilization the one group had as over against the other.  Some of these widows were born and raised in Palestine, spoke Aramaic and had kept a very Kosher house.  Others were Jews of the Diaspora; they came from a tradition that had made a measure of peace with the Greco-Roman world.

The fact of the matter is that the Hellenistic, Jewish, Christian widows were being discriminated against:  “their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.”   This is a classic example of what I like to call “benevolent” racism, what others call systemic racism.  (Though, of course, in Acts 6, it had nothing to do with what we today call race, because race, as we talk about it, is a modern concept.)  It was benevolent in that it was not deliberate, not done with malice aforethought; it was the fruit of systemic divisions within the human family.

Here is an example from my own life:  a couple of decades back I was an officer in the Rotary Club.  At the time, no Rotary Club in Central Louisiana had any Blacks or women.  The superintendent of schools, the state senator and other political folk, as well as the CEOs of most major companies were all Rotarians.  Business wasn’t necessarily done at lunch, but business connections were established there.  All things being equal, apart from federal law, Rotarians did business with other Rotarians.  It was not that Rotarians hated or viewed as stupid or dishonest those in Kiwanis; it was simply that people like to deal with their friends.  When you are negotiating an insurance deal for two thousand employees, and Joe Schmoe is a fellow Rotarian, you are going to tend to favor his offer over that from the guy in Kiwanis, other things being roughly equal.

I think the discrimination that was being practiced in the Church in Acts 6 was like that.  On the part of those doing it, nobody meant to do it; nobody was even aware that it was happening.  But it was happening, and those who were being discriminated against were keenly aware of it:  “the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews.”

That certainly has something to say about race in twenty-first century America, because America is a thoroughly racist nation, at least in the sense of systemic or “benevolent” racism.  When Blacks and Whites serve on a board and share power in decision making, the Whites, in particular, must be extremely sensitive that they do not give offense.  Merely intending no offense is not enough; Holy Spirit wrought sensitivity is essential.

Many African-Americans will not admit to racism because they believe that “an oppressed person cannot be a racist,” but they certainly will admit to struggling with very negative feelings about Americans of European ancestry. Since I am the only White minister who has consistently attended Black functions over the years:  Martin Luther King Day, the “City-Wide” Revival, and pastors’ anniversaries—a really big event in the Black Church—and since I have spoken up in public for Black folks, including having testified in court against a fellow White—a White college professor who had tried to defraud a Black minister—I have been somewhat accepted as a peer by local Black ministers.  It has been an eye-opening experience.

The men that I regularly pray with and with whom I have on occasion swapped pulpits in the past, are devout Christian pastors, but they sometimes struggle with hatred for White society and White people.  Why is that?

One Baptist pastor, who is a retired public school principal with a master’s from Columbia University, serves as a case in point.  He is originally from North Louisiana (that’s Baptist Louisiana as over against Roman Catholic, South Louisiana).  His father was a Baptist minister who spoke out about the poor quality of Black schools.  His complaint brought a quick response: their home was burned, and my friend’s mother almost died in the fire.  My friend’s uncle was lynched. (Not an uncommon thing in the first half of the twentieth century—it happened up North, too, even in places like Minnesota and Nebraska.) When the federal government desegregated the school system, my friend was sent to a rural, formerly all White school—not a happy experience.  Whites tend not to realize that the integration of the public school system has cost Blacks a lot more than it ever cost Whites.

Another pastor, whose background I cannot give in a public forum because I would not compromise what he told me in confidence, once shared this story. His mother worked as a maid, and he often did yard work while his mother worked inside.  One day their employer gave him some money to go to the store to buy some things and included enough money for my friend to get some candy.  While he was gone, this White man raped his Mama.  What recourse did they have for justice?  The anguish of his powerlessness has stayed with him all his life.

Our city, Alexandria, Louisiana, was scene to a wholesale massacre of Blacks by the United States Army:  ‘On January 10th., 1942, the U.S. Army experienced its bloodiest, most controversial and most highly censored racial incident in its history. This racial explosion took place in Alexandria, Louisiana, in a section of town know as “Little Harlem,” on Lee Street.’  One of the doctors in my congregation remembers seeing a machine gun nest on the top of city hall for some time afterwards.  Another brother, now a White business man and one of our elders, was a paper boy back then. He threw papers in the Black community—“They tipped much better than the rich Whites did.”  All he knew about the riot was that he “lost some customers. . . they were there Saturday afternoon, but not there on Monday.” Because Pearl Harbor had just happened, the federal government clamped news of the story down absolutely and quickly.  The incident has served to control Blacks in Central Louisiana; most refuse to talk about it.

Deception of Whites has been a necessary tool of survival for almost four hundred years.  Blacks picked up very early what White folks wanted to hear and became very adept at communicating it.  What was the alternative? Death? Being fired? Being jailed? Being beaten? One of my great uncles was a Sheriff in South Carolina.  One day he had a flat tire and ordered a Black man who was passing by to change it . . . the man refused.  Words were exchanged, and the man “cussed” Uncle Ned, who chased the man down and hit him in the head with a shotgun.  But the man got up again and ran away. This led to Uncle Ned’s saying, “The N.i.g.g.e.r.’s got his brains in his heals.”  This tale was sometimes told with peals of laughter at family gatherings when I was a boy.

The price for going from the cotton field to the kitchen was usually due to playing by the White man’s rules, and that included flattering “Mr. Charlie” about what a fine Christian gentleman he was.  It is why I think that White folk should not always take at face value what Black people tell them when it minimizes the difficulties and discrimination they still encounter. Fear of reprisal by the White establishment is very deeply seated in most older African-Americans. White conservatives and a handful of Black conservatives dismiss Black religious and political leaders as “welfare pimps.”  But what does the Black community really think about this charge behind closed doors, out of the hearing of White folks?  Most Whites will never know.  How sad!

The nineties were a disaster for race relations:  the trial of the officers who beat Rodney King, the O. J. Simpson trial, but most of all the efforts of the two major political parties to galvanize their core constituencies—Whites for Republicans, Blacks for Democrats—appear deliberately to have set out on a strategy of racial polarization.  The 1994 congressional races seem to have been the beginning of this tactic which has grown more strident over the past decade.  Black hurt has now been coupled with pessimism, a radically different situation than the fifties and sixties, when Blacks were optimistic and beginning to trust Whites who reached out.  Race relations on the White side have not gotten better either; it’s simply that racial discrimination has become more subtle, so subtle, in fact, that most racists cannot detect it in themselves.  And not a few Whites have come to fear the impact of Black political power.  Think of the future when Hispanics displace Blacks as the largest minority—where will Black rage be then?

I used to fret over my congregation being almost always exclusively White, now I try to strengthen the Black Church and promote Black pastors to my White friends.

Jesus is the only hope for our hopeless mess.  Politicians have failed; public education has failed; jails have failed.  The Church of Jesus Christ must not fail.

I think that the answer to racism is actually very simple; its cure is the reverse of my old political science professor’s statement:  “I can accept a Black on equal terms in an impersonal relationship, or I can accept a Black in a personal relationship as long as he is not my equal, but I cannot accept a Black on equal terms in a personal relationship.”

In other words, I must reach out to another person as an equal and prayerfully work toward the kind of intimacy that makes real communication and trust possible.

Somewhere along that journey toward intimacy, I have to be honest about my own struggles with racism, and I eventually admit to what almost all Blacks believe about almost all Whites:  I am a racist—in my case a “recovering” one.  I confess that sometimes I revert to the way I was programmed to think as a boy.  For example, if I see a White woman with a Black man, I have an instant, negative, visceral reaction—far more so than if I see a White man with a Black woman.

Sinless perfection isn’t what is demanded in God’s kingdom; honesty, confession and repentance are.  Just as sometimes when I notice a fine looking woman, I have to exercise that eye covenant that Job talked about in 31:1, so with regard to mental racial profiling, I have to make some quick choices about not thinking the way that is “natural” for me to think. Somewhere deep inside me, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray are lurking; their Bell Curve thingy just fits so well with what I “was carefully taught” by preachers, public school teachers and my family.  My wife, who was raised Baptist, remembers her preacher teaching them that Blacks were a high order of apes put here by God to serve White people—and that was in the second half of the twentieth century, in an urban church of a couple of thousand members.

When I join in singing “We Shall Overcome,” I am also singing about my own jihad within myself.  Honesty on my part invites honesty on the part of my Black friends.

My closest friend in the ministry is a Black Baptist preacher, the one whom I mentioned above whose house was torched back in the forties in North Louisiana.  How we became friends is an interesting story.

I had become convicted that I was to reach out to three other pastors to meet to pray for our community, and one of these men was Black.  I called Pastor Banks and asked for an appointment. He met me at his church one morning, and we talked back and forth.  It was very awkward, he was sniffing my motives like a watch dog does a strange cur.  We gently jostled with each other’s theologies and after about thirty minutes, he invited me to go into his sanctuary for prayer.  We both knelt down on the pulpit chairs and prayed.  He went first.  Then I started.  I don’t know what happened. Maybe I was just nervous, but suddenly I became conscious that I was praying like a Black preacher:  accent, inflection, cadence, volume.

Now, I may be crazy, but I’m no fool.  You just don’t do that.  People would think that you are mocking them.  I was so startled at hearing myself, I almost stopped, but I didn’t.  It almost seemed like I couldn’t; it seemed like it wasn’t me praying.  Then I became aware of something else—my back was wet.  The Black minister was still on his knees, but he was over me and tears were rolling down his face, so much so that they had dripped down his cheeks, onto my shirt and wet through to my back.

From that day on almost thirteen years ago, we have been fast friends. We’ve swapped pulpits; he and his wife and my wife and I sometimes go out to eat. We have done a lot together.  Most of all we pray together in a small group of pastors.

I had tried something like that decades ago, but it hadn’t worked.  Being a theological hotshot who still reads Greek and Hebrew, I came with “the White Man’s Burden.”  Smart ol’ Presbyterian Bob came to enlighten the Arminian, Baptist, King James reading Africans.  When those watch dogs got one sniff of me, they knew that I didn’t belong in their neighborhood.

In the late eighties I came with a measure of brokenness.  My small measure of erudition hadn’t kept me from life’s troubles and failures.  In the seventies, I had descended from my Presbyterian Ivory tower, sure I had a perfect family, church and theological system.  In the late eighties, I came having offered to resign from my pastorate because of family troubles, my wife having been run over by a log truck, my church having split and tending to a somewhat senile, live-in parent.  I came as a needy man looking for fellowship.  I came to learn from older pastors, occasionally sharing things the Lord had taught me, too.

My goal is getting people together that way.  Racism will die one relationship at a time.  But it’s a relationship, not just a quick trip over to the other side of town to ease a load of White guilt.  And relationships cost time and effort.  Unless the Lord does some kind of weird prayer thing like he did with my pastor friend and me, it takes a long time to build.  Part of the reason for that is that White folks get to feeling guilty and they reach out, but when work, church or family duties beckon, the commitment slowly dies.

Bottom line:  I would like to see every White pastor begin to pray about establishing a relationship with one Black pastor, just one.  Center the whole thing in Jesus and nothing else.  Begin to meet for prayer on a regular basis.  Open up and share your problems—get real, get personal, take risks.  Eventually, invite the man and his wife to go out to eat with you and your wife.  Then have them over to your house.  Then you could go in a couple of different directions.  You could swap pulpits; you could each ask another couple to join you; you could have a combined men’s prayer breakfast.  But there is one big caveat:  go when you’re invited.  Over the years, I’ve repeatedly heard Black ministers say, “We always come into the White community when you invite us, but you all don’t ever come into our part of town.”

The burden is on all of us to change that.


“You’ve got to be carefully taught!”

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year.
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear.
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
Or people whose skin is a different shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate.
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

South Pacific by Rodgers & Hammerstein