From the time of the death of Treyvon Martin on February 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida there has been a palpable escalation of racial tension in the United States. After the death of an African-American teenager, Michael Brown, on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri at the hands of a white police officer, Black Lives Matter was launched. Riots have occurred in Ferguson, Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Charlotte among other places. Nearly twenty unarmed African-Americans have been killed by police in the past three years. Some of these shootings were judged to be justified while others were deemed to be manslaughter or homicide. Several police officers have also been killed in the line of duty, intentionally targeted by black shooters. Over the summer there were five Dallas officers killed in one day by an African-American sniper.
What is to be made of all this violence? The hope that the racial issues of the past were all behind us with the election of an African-American president has been dashed. There are those who would blame Mr. Obama for the current tensions while others contend the system never really changed. Both the right and the left are using numbers and statistics to slant the truth to support their way of thinking. Some recent publications expose the history of white slavery in North America as though that somehow negates or mollifies the African experience in the Americas. Others will use real numbers to prove that more white people are killed by police annually than blacks. Does knowing that make the mother of either victim cry less?
The thing that troubles me the most, however, is when Christians perpetuate strife rather than peace, hatred more than love, and separation over inclusiveness, bitterness and contention instead of forgiveness and healing. How long will we continue to believe the myth that God is a respecter of persons? That some are forever cursed and some are forever blessed because of the pigment of their skin? Will we ever stop the spirit of unjustified and baseless superiority that accompanies our race or gender?
I grew up in a home where racially charged words were never permitted to be uttered. During the years of my youth, 1960’s and ‘70’s, I never heard or witnessed my parents being disrespectful to a person of another race. And I was expected to act accordingly. When my parents wanted to rewire their home they hired an African-American man who was considered to be one of the best in our community. The same was true when Mom wanted to add fancy plaster work to our living and dining room ceilings. There was no sense of being “loyal” to our race or only doing business with people of our color. People were people and they were to be treated as such.
In that sense, I suppose, my parents transcended their times and upbringing, but there were a couple of instances where they demonstrated that they were still products of their culture. For instance, I once heard my mother express suspicion about the motives of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and she had reservations about interracial dating. It was no different from what I was hearing from the preachers and Christian teachers of that day with “scriptural” quotations, no less, to support their positions.
It was from that setting that I traveled to Cincinnati to enter a small Bible college. The student body included many of differing nationalities, but only one African-American student, Richard Barbour. He and I became fast friends and through him my education into racial blindness began. Our first conversation was about inter-racial dating and marriage. I quoted II Corinthians 6:14 like I had heard a dozen or so preachers quote it before me, “Be ye not unequally yoked together.” (KJV) He asked me to finish the phrase. Finish the phrase? I thought it was finished. I soon discovered it was not. “With unbelievers” ends the phrase. That changes the whole meaning and it is clearly not about race. Two valuable lessons were learned that day. First, you better read the Bible for yourself and second, you can make the Bible say anything you want if you are willing to misquote it or ignore the context. Another incident that did not involve Richard directly awoke me to the danger of rash statements and the injustice of indicting an entire race because of the crimes of one or a few.
While working my way through college in the public school system of Cincinnati a couple of older African-American men, both World War II veterans, befriended me. It broke my heart when I heard them say that they did not believe the United States of America was their country. What a tragedy that two good citizens judged that they had served the cause of freedom at the peril of their own lives for a land in which they felt alien. It was completely foreign to my way of thinking.
Some years later I moved to a state in the deep south. I was bemused when I saw a bumper sticker that read, “Help clean up the south, buy a Yankee a bus ticket.” I would soon learn quite seriously what that meant when I interviewed with a church leader about pastoring in the denomination he represented. The meeting went well enough until he said, “Now I don’t want you bringing any of your Yankee ways down here to our churches. You will not be seen in public with a black man as long as you pastor one of our churches.” It was 1988! I thought the Christian church was more enlightened than that. Was that not all settled more than twenty years before? Apparently not. During another committee interview three years later I expressed pride in those around the table who had challenged racial prejudice and encouraged the participants to make their individual efforts part of the intentional ethos of the institution. Afterwards one of them took me aside and asked, “Where did you get those kinds of notions?” I was taken aback. He was a well respected leader in the Christian community. Did he not read the same Bible as I did?
From these encounters I became determined to rear my children color blind and preach/teach the word of God regarding all humanity. My children had the blessing of growing up in a multi-cultural community. On the small campus of the college where I taught Ethiopians, Eritreans, Kenyans, Rwandans, Japanese, South Koreans, Thai peoples, New Guineans, Hispanics, Latinos, Caribbean islanders, native Alaskans, African-Americans, and whites mixed with harmony in Christian love. There was no ill will or tension because we were one in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. It was a microcosm of the kingdom of God. As a result my children did not learn that people of European descent were “superior” to all other races and were not to fraternize with those “not of their kind.” What they learned and lived was Christian culture as it was meant to be.
God made all humanity in His image and likeness (Genesis 3:20). Christ died for all the ungodly and all sinners (Romans 5:6, 8). Peter, in Acts 10:32, was awakened to the fact that “God is no respecter of persons” when Gentiles received the Holy Spirit just as the Jewish Apostles and disciples had on the day of Pentecost. Paul wrote that there is no difference between Jew and Greek, circumcised or uncircumcised, Barbarian or Scythian, bond and free, male or female; we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11). Showing partiality to the politically powerful, socially prestigious, and handsomely wealthy to the neglect of the weak, insignificant, and poor is “evil” (James 2:1-9). It is no great leap to believe that all of the above apply to the pigment of our skin as well.
Yes, black lives matter. They matter to God. They ought to matter to you, too.