In the midst of protests and chants of black lives matter, what can I say that has any significance at all? After all, I’m a white guy (actually, kind of light beige) who grew up in a small town in northern Indiana that had no racial diversity. The closest we came to it was the Amish farming community east of town. Their lifestyle was different but they were of the same Germanic background as many of us town-dwellers.
But when you come of age in the mid-to-late 1960s and the controversies over Vietnam and race are all over the news every evening (remember, no internet or e-mail), you can’t escape what is happening in the wider world outside of small-town Indiana. Even the Olympic games in the summer of 1968 were affected. This photo of American medal winners raising a Black Power salute during the national anthem startled many.
Just before my senior year of high school, I attended a Lutheran youth conference at Purdue University. There were many excellent speakers covering many topics, but I will never forget what I consider my first introduction to how Christians should view racial antagonisms. One black vocalist offered a song that was enthusiastically received by the attendees. The fact that fifty-two years later I can still quote the opening words of the refrain means it made quite an impact on me:
Adam was a man made of clay
and God made all of us just that way.
Now just because I’m a color different than white
doesn’t mean I’m wrong and you are right.
At about the same time, I came across a book called Black Like Me. What made it particularly interesting was that it was written by a white man who made himself look black (by what means I don’t recall) and how that one external alteration to his appearance changed his life as he faced discrimination for the first time.
Due to my own Christian training, I believed—and still do—that we all come from the same parents who had all the genetic characteristics within them that has led to the variety we see among their descendants. In fact, I have an aversion to using the word “race” in the way we commonly do. Why?
“Aw, come on, Snyder,” I can hear someone think, “that’s so naive. No one is going to follow that maxim.” Yet I won’t apologize for something I believe is true. God is a God of variety. There is a proper understanding of diversity that comes directly from His mind and heart. We are all one despite external differences. We are all made in the image of God with all the same qualities: a mind to think, emotions to feel, a will to choose.
Yet I also know the reality that we face: people have a tendency to focus on the externals, thereby contradicting what the Lord said to the prophet Samuel when he sent him to anoint a new king and he thought that the eldest of Jesse’s sons had to be the one because of his external appearance. The Lord corrected Samuel with these words:
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or height, for I have rejected him; the Lord does not see as man does. For man sees the outward appearance, but the Lord sees the heart.”1 Samuel 16:7
David French, a Christian commentator on all things cultural, legal, and political (and one of my favorite writers), recently wrote about his experience, which in background is fairly close to mine. He had always said that we should concentrate on how far we have come in race relations. After all, we legally ended slavery and fought to end segregation and succeeded after many decades of trying. Now he believes we need to concentrate instead on how much farther we have to go. His perception changed when he and his wife adopted an Ethiopian girl. In his article, he explains how he saw his adopted daughter treated with suspicion in public places in a way that his other children had never been.
That became even more alarming when, during the presidential campaign of 2016, he critiqued Donald Trump’s character. He began receiving a flurry of hate messages, one depicting his adopted daughter in a gas chamber. He gives further details so disgusting that I don’t wish to repeat them here. Suffice to say that was a revelation that perhaps we aren’t as “over this race thing” as much as we would like to think.
The best way to heal this division is by being real Christians. My church is overwhelmingly white but has developed relationships with black pastors and other inner-city ministries. This is not carried out in some kind of paternalistic attitude; rather, it comes from a heart of genuine Christian love. The rector and the deacon who oversee these ministries have concentrated on partnerships with leaders in the African American community. There is depth there, not merely symbolism.
There is room for some symbolism, however. Last January, more than forty members of our church attended the MLK prayer breakfast. If one wants to call this symbolism, I understand, but sometimes just one’s presence can be a symbol of solidarity that is appreciated.
What we need is to stop stereotyping, which is a practice that can be found in all people, regardless of ethnic background. Watching one of the protest marches last week, I saw one protester holding a sign that said “All Cops Are Evil.” He was protesting unjust treatment of all minorities while practicing unjust treatment of all police, lumping the good in with the bad. Jesus said something about the log in one’s eye.
Then there were those who took advantage of the protests by inserting themselves into the crowd with no real commitment to the reason for the protest. Some were there for themselves, looting stores and setting fire to property. How do I know they weren’t part of the legitimate concern? Who suffered the most from that violence but the minority businessmen and businesswomen? That’s simply another form of injustice.
Will these protests culminate in real change? What I do know for sure is that no amount of protesting or changed policies can get to the root problem. Yes, they might lead to improvements, but the real issue remains the heart of man, which is sinful. Until we face that squarely and bring the light of the Gospel of Truth into injustices, no change will be permanent. Here is the goal:
Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, or free, but Christ is all and is in all.Colossians 3:11