No subject discussed in the United States divides as widely, cuts as deeply and stirs as strongly as the subject of race. In spite of seeming gains in race relations, it appears that every generation experiences the jolting punch of a painful event that grips national attention and re-exposes the raw racial nerves that exist just under the nation’s skin. These jarring occurrences leave us numb and cause us to wonder if true unity across racial lines will ever be achieved. The deadly intersection of the lives of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman is the latest of racially charged and divisive tragedies. The reactions of people around the nation are varied and strong.
Some curse the media coverage of the trial that sprang from the event. Some criticize the pronouncements made from all sides claiming to have definitive answers to the questions this sad occurrence has raised. Others grit their teeth in frustration with respect to the seeming irreparable and never-healing separation between Americans of various ethnic backgrounds but especially between those who are Black or White. How should we deal with the deep stirrings of our souls in the face of such challenges and how should we now live in the face of new challenges to national unity?
We cannot ignore the questions raised by this event nor can we attempt to answer them from the limits of our own background and understanding. We must recognize that while it may true that there are many other events that more accurately expose more pressing problems that Black people face in the United States, it is also true that the ingredients of this deadly encounter reflect pertinent truths that represent major on-going stresses in race relations among the people of the United States. For the totality of our ministry life, my family and I have been at the tip of the sword, intentionally serving where the battle was often the hottest with respect to race relations. We have served as the lone “minorities” on most of the ministry staffs of which we’ve been a part. We’ve started ministries that intentionally crossed barriers and sought to unite people in the love of Jesus Christ. We’ve had our hearts stomped on, our feelings hurt and our spirits crushed. Yet, we press on in the Lord’s Name believing this battle of love must be fought regardless of the personal outcome for us. Based on our experiences, here are some observations this individual respectfully offers, seeking to add just a little bit of understanding and perhaps some hopeful strategies in navigating the murky waters of race relations.
The first observation is this: Each of us has a perspective greatly influenced by our personal experiences. Almost 50 years after the passing of landmark Civil Rights legislation, our lives intersect at the public level more than previous American generations: We can eat at the same restaurants, drink from the same water fountains, shop at the same stores, use the same public facilities, and cheer for the same sports teams while seated next to each other regardless of our cultural, racial or social positions. These are good things. Yet, there are significant differences that are not quite as easily detectable in a public setting: differences in T.V. viewing habits, differences in political affiliations, differences in musical tastes, different daily routines and different perspectives that are not necessarily observable from standing next to one another in the shopping aisle. The reality of our daily existences is perhaps the greatest source of information for our understanding how reality looks and considering what the possibilities of any number of situations might be. To one individual, fairness and equality are well-known friends and generally experienced sources of comfort while in another’s experience those same words represent the ultimate “carrots on a stick”. When our experience serves as the major source of information without a willingness to at least consider other perspectives, we virtually guarantee miscommunication, a lack of understanding and the dousing of any hope of constructive dialog on any level.
The second observation: People can’t handle the truth. Hearing different perspectives can be painful and uncomfortable, but avoiding the truth guarantees problems will never be solved. Imagine a doctor who would refuse to tell a patient the true extent of the disease or malady with which they are faced? No healing would ever be possible. Much of the persistence of racial disunity in the United States can be attributed to an unwillingness to face the truth. We don’t want to discuss the complex truth of our national past, we are polarized in our evaluation of the truth in our troubled present and we can’t bear to gaze at a very ominous vision of the truth for our future. We may be able with some effort to face the truths that support our perspective, but we just don’t have the guts to ingest the whole truth made available to us through various perspectives.
The third observation: We are cowards. We just don’t have the guts to leave our comfort zones to face the challenges that surround us. We aren’t brave enough to move into neighborhoods where the majority of people are different than we are. We don’t possess the back bone to stand fast when different people move into the neighborhoods in which we’ve planted our roots. We can’t find to courage to even periodically venture into the tougher places around town as volunteers or servants to show by our actions that somebody in this world isn’t confined by their background or identity. We can’t even gather up the steam to continually worship and serve together when we share the same creeds and worship the same Savior - and when we do, it’s very often not without much struggle and controversy! We are deeply divided by a cowardice that melts conviction and dissipates strength.
So what do we do?
We press on in hope clothed in the characteristics that are essential in being conduits of healing in our fractured world! We must not be characterized by fear. 2 Timothy 1:7 states that for those who follow Christ, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and a sound mind.” When we trust that God has placed us in this world not for the purpose of achieving personal comfort and an easy retirement, but for the purpose of serving Him and serving others, it frees us to take risks, to be bold and to be strong in going where others dare not go. When we are truly heavenly minded to the extent that we realize that this world and its pleasures are fleeting and passing away, it liberates us to do the hard things and to leave our comfort zones behind. When I realize the true call on my life as a human being who belongs to God and not to myself, I am liberated to cross barriers, take chances that enable me to react to a perceived threat not in a reaction of fear which might lead to death, but rather in godly confidence that might lead to a bridge of understanding and healing. When I know that I am God’s, I am freed to see what might be a potential approaching conflict not as an opportunity to strike first out of fear, but rather to reach out first out of love in Jesus’ Name. I’m empowered, I can love and I can think clearly when choose not to follow fear.
In addition to this, we truly keep hope alive when we choose to operate in the fullness of goodness that Jesus exhibited in His earthly walk by allowing God to fill us with His truth and His grace. The Bible says of Jesus:
“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Jesus’ was characterized by the two essential elements of dealing with all human problems – the need for grace and the need for truth. Notice that Jesus didn’t split the two 50/50 but was fully characterized by both. If we are ever to deal effectively on any level with the issue of race, we must be willing to enjoin painful dialogues that give us the freedom of telling the truth while allowing us the comfort of receiving grace. Truth without grace is disheartening. Grace without truth is impotent. In Jesus, we see God’s commitment to deal with us as we really are, while loving us with Who He really is and we must follow His lead!
Most of the deepest friendships I posses are characterized by these two essential elements of relationship. In one of these precious friendships, my friend asked for permission – and I granted it – to say whatever was on his mind, no matter how crazy, painful or wicked it might seem. He needed an outlet to go to and voice his rawest emotions and also needed a bridge to comeback where he knew God was calling him to be. I asked him if he would provide the same safe haven for me and he gladly obliged. Our perspectives of life are different. He is a self-described “redneck” and I’m a “soul man”. Yet in Christ, we hammer out these different perspectives on a regular basis seeking to be fully truthful, fully gracious and fully loving. It is an ongoing process that is a lifetime commitment. There are no warm fuzzies but rather a deep, blazing hot friendship that has endured the test of time and the relentless pounding of a hateful world. Even with the blessings of this wonderful friendship, I am not naïve: I do not believe that I will see total racial unity within my lifetime – even among Christians. Nevertheless, this friendship and many others like it, help me to see what could be, even in the world as it is. For this reason, Luz and I will continue to soldier on, crossing barriers, often while taking a silent beating, seeking to offer truth, grace and love everywhere we can, any way we can, to the greatest extent we can, for as long as we can. We call all those who dare to do the same! Until next time…