Sometime after the death of Jesus, a man named Philip was walking down the road. He was a follower of Jesus and an all-around good fella. As he was walking, he came up next to a caravan carrying an Ethiopian man who was reading the book of Isaiah. Philip asked the man, “Do you understand what you are reading?” That’s a fair question when you’re reading the prophets. I don’t understand half of what they say. The Ethiopian man took Philip up on his offer and Philip hopped up onto the chariot. He explained everything that he was reading and how Isaiah had actually predicted the life, death, and reign of Christ. The Ethiopian man was absolutely blown away, and in an absurdly bold act of faith asked Philip, “There’s some water over there. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”
That’s a great question. Of course, Philip was on the same page as the Ethiopian man and baptized him right there on the spot for the world to see. It was that simple. Philip shared the Gospel, the Ethiopian man believed, he was moved by the Spirit, and was baptized. Neither man had any hang-ups about class, race, ethnicity, or sexuality (the man was a eunuch). The Spirit moved and they were both wise enough to move along with her.
Fast forward about 1400 years and the Ethiopian’s question would be answered very differently. What can stand in the way of your being baptized? The white man will stand in your way. My people would have stood in his way.
It’s difficult for me to write about this for a few reasons. Firstly, I am a white, heterosexual, middle-class, American male. In almost every respect, my people are the dominant oppressors. The true monsters of history wear my skin. They look like me. In another life, I could have been one of them. Even if I don’t actively join in the oppression, I reap the benefits of it. My life is easier and I have more opportunities because my people have taken them from someone else as the spoils of war.
In light of my situation, I do not claim any authority to speak for the oppressed and the mistreated. I will not assume to understand their lives nor will I offer my hand to pull them out of the societal pit they might be in. If my people have kept you down, then it is not within my power to lift you back up. That is just another form of control. I will not claim the titles of feminist or liberation theologian because those are titles that have power behind them that I cannot merely seize as so many of my kin have done. If there is to be a white-liberation theology, it would need to be one that explores how we can empty ourselves of the power that our ancestors ripped away from other people. My people can never be truly liberated until we are stripped of our institutionalized advantages.
All that to say, what I am about to write would be much better coming from someone who is not me, but hopefully I can add something to the conversation.
The leader of the most powerful nation in the world is a black man, slavery is universally condemned by every country in the world, schools are integrated, and everyone is allowed to vote. It would seem that racism should be over by now, but here we are scratching our heads as images of Trayvon Martin continue to fill the news media, self-righteous pundits give their unwanted opinions, and anchors give half-sincere consolations to the family. If you listen to people talk about this case, there is a definite racial undertone that sneaks in without notice. Sure, it’s easy to blame the hoodie. In Philly, there are a dozen suspects on the evening news who have no description other than “African-American male in a black hoodie”. I’ll admit that sometimes when I’m walking home at night and I see an African-American male in a hoodie with the hood over his head, I get scared. I start planning out how I will respond if I’m mugged, and then the INSTANT that he walks past harmlessly, I realize how prejudiced I am and I want to beg him for forgiveness. Truth be told, I see hundreds of African-Americans in hoodies every single day and not one has ever tried to harm me.
Why then the fear? How can I be so intentional about anti-racism, but so predictable in situations like that?
It’s hard for me to admit that I’m not perfect in this regard. We white folk pride ourselves on how un-racist we are.
“Oh I don’t see color”
“My best friends are all black!”
“I love everyone the same like Jesus did”
When Hurricane Katrina hit and New Orleans was flooded, President Bush was famously slow to respond. His administration was NOT prepared for the work that needed to be done, and as a result, thousands of people were left with nothing. Kanye West’s response was, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people!” After his presidency, Bush said that this was the lowest point in the eight years that he was in office. The attacks of 9/11, two wars, environmental crises, an economy in shambles, but it was the accusation of racism that was the lowest point in his presidency. White people want to pretend that we are past that silly racism thing and we are far more enlightened than our forefathers, but we as a people are not past it. We have just given it a facelift. How many black people are a part of the Tea Party movement? How many white people have a deep unexplainable fear of a black man in the Oval Office and couch their fear in terms of his economic policy instead? How many of us are secretly terrified to live up to the terrible things that our people have done?
Racism is alive and well, folks.
I could give you dozens of wonderful Bible verses about how we are all one in Christ without distinction, but you don’t need the Bible to tell you that. I could also write about countless studies of different races and ethnicities that found an overwhelming sameness to humankind regardless of skin tone or physical appearance, but I won’t bore you. I don’t want to make a polemic against racism. I hope that I don’t need to convince you that racism is ridiculous. What I want to do is to take this opportunity to provide a space for people to be honest for once.
I know full well that African-Americans are not dangerous people. That’s crazy-talk. I also know that there were still slaves in the 1800s. These people were not educated and were not accepted into society. After they were freed, they were still treated like garbage and had to claw their way up to even make it to the lowest rungs of the societal ladder. Without the same opportunities, many of them lived in poverty and their children were subsequently denied opportunities and continued that cycle. Once easy access to guns and drugs were introduced (by the white-man), then the cycle became a cyclone. This is not what Africa looked like before the white-man came through and ripped its people to shreds.
And now here we are in 2012, unable to enslave people physically because that’s not popular so we enslave then economically. Our country is systematically enslaving the Majority World by overwhelming them with debt, collecting tons of interest, and raping their landscapes for natural resources. It’s the same old song with a different name.
A part of me wonders if the deep-seated fear of minorities that so many white-folk have is actually the realization that our turn is coming. We’ve screwed over the entire world, and the world is going to eventually come for us. It’s only a matter of time before its our turn to suffer and we have DEFINITELY earned it.
So what can be done?
At this point, I have nothing more to say. I can see the problems, I can feel the problems, and I can discuss them from the outside, but I can only approach racism as a scientist would. This is not an issue to be dealt with in a laboratory or a board room because it is not an issue at all. We are talking about people not abstractions. I defer to you who live this as a reality. I will take my African-American friends seriously when they tell me their stories and I will listen without getting defensive. We have come a long way towards truly living together like Philip and the Ethiopian, but we are nowhere near the promised land yet. Friends, how do we get there and how can we who have been the oppressors help enable you to overcome the sins of my forefathers? How do we take the ruins of our society and build the Kingdom of God?