The early 90s presented to America the reality that it hadn’t gone very far since its days of segregation just a decade earlier. The beating of Rodney King and subsequent rioting at the acquittal of the officers showed that black Americans and white Americans viewed our judicial system differently. This difference was underscored by the trial of OJ Simpson and his subsequent acquittal. Both actions deeply divide white Americans and black Americans to this day.
Here we are, 2013, many decades removed from government-instituted segregation and we’re still very segregated. Now I do realize that I am white and some think that this invalidates me from speaking on matters of race, unless of course I am willing to bash “white-privilege.” But this only underscores how racism has so deeply infected our culture; last time I checked, I am human first, just as is any black person. In other words, racism is a problem we all have a voice on, it’s something we can all talk about and should talk about, because it impacts us all at some level because we are all human beings.
This is why the events of the Trayvon Martin killing and trial of George Zimmermann should be something any American, especially Christian, should mourn over. In the immediate facts of the case, Zimmermann shot and killed Martin. Without arguing over who’s at fault, the facts of the situation are that a young man who could have become someone had his life snuffed out. Whether he was responsible or not is irrelevant; he was made in the image of God, just like you and me, and his life was taken from him. He had feelings, he had thoughts, he had dreams, he had friends, and he had a family; any death, even if we bring that death upon ourselves, is a tragedy. If he attacked Zimmermann or was defending himself is irrelevant to the fact that his death is a tragedy.
Likewise, for Zimmermann, his life is ruined. Again, regardless of his innocence or guilt, he killed someone, he took someone’s life, and any person of conscience must struggle with such an action. If he killed this young man needlessly, if Zimmermann is the cause of the actions that led to Martin dying, then he must live with the guilt of murder and also face quite some time in prison. Any future he hoped for is now gone. If he is innocent, if he was defending himself and is found innocent, he must live his life knowing he still took a human life. He must live his life looking over his shoulder and living in fear that someone may come after him for retribution. No matter what, he’ll always be the man who killed Trayvon Martin.
A final victim has recently emerged on the witness stand, mocked and ridiculed by the media or viewed as a symbol of black culture by others. Rachel Jeantel has introduced white Americans to he more urban America, and what we’re seeing is two completely different cultures failing and refusing to understand each other. More to her own situation, however, this is a girl who must live with the knowledge that she was the last person to talk to Trayvon Martin. Yes, she lied to prosecutors, but only because she’s been raised to turn away from admitting to fear, and she lied because she was afraid to see Travyon’s body at the funeral and afraid to see his mother. For taking the stand she has been made to look like a fool to the rest of us. What finally got my blood boiling was seeing Glenn Beck read her tweets and mock her, failing to understand that inner-city education is a product of American values (or lack thereof).
The outflow from this has been devastating. If Zimmermann is found innocent or guilty there is the risk of riots from anyone. Some people on Twitter have claimed (though I hope it’s mere bravado) that they would kill a white person if Zimmermann is found innocent. Some responded saying they welcomed a race war (this came from whites and blacks). Such venom and glee over murdering a fellow human being shows, in my opinion, that we’re regressing. The Civil Rights movement was great because it was able to change the law, but it failed to change the people. That is not an indictment on the Civil Rights movement, but an indictment on our culture.
While this debate over the Trayvon killing takes place, we see another divide over a TV cook Paula Deen. Deen admitted in a very nonchalant manner that she used the “N-word.” This, of course, caused her to be let go by the Food Network and various other organizations. To me, this seemed like the obvious response, especially when you consider the context. She wanted to throw a plantation dinner where the black men served the white guests. Certainly, any modern company that cares about its image (and doing the right thing) would let her go. But apparently white Americans disagreed.
Even now, there’s a backlash forming against those who have turned against Deen. Many have said, “Well she apologized” or pointed to the fact she was raised in the South, so it’s just her culture. Others have said it’s hypocritical because rappers can say that word anytime they want to, but white people apparently cannot. The apologists for Deen have come out in legion.
What is interesting is how these two cases overlap each other. Jeantel said that Martin had a “crazy-ass cracka” following him. The use of the word “cracker” was viewed as offensive by many white Americans, the same white Americans who attempted to defend Paula Deen for using the “N-word.” Likewise, those who condemn Deen have seen no problem with calling a white person a derogatory word. The justification I’ve seen is that “cracker” can’t be demeaning to a white person because white people have never suffered under black people, so no dehumanization can occur because white people are in charge.
At the root of it all we have people talking about white privilege, black culture, slang, what words are acceptable, and the answers are dividing down the race lines. One side sees no problem with using dehumanizing language as long as you apologize, thinks their will be a race war, and implicitly looks upon the other has less-educated and articulate. The other side sees no problem with using dehumanizing language as long as it’s against the “ruling elite,” thinks it’s okay to retributively kill someone from a same race, and implicitly looks upon the other as oppressive. But in trying to fix the problems of racism we’re only touching a symptom, not a problem. It’s like trying to repair termite damage by painting over the wood; no matter how good you make it look, it’s still rotting from within.
The problem with racism goes down deeper to a problem with sin. In the American context the problem of racism as a sin is highly problematic for churches and something we really don’t want to deal with. If ever there was proof that churches have kicked Christ out of their presence it would be our average Sunday morning. Walk into a church and look at the congregation; chances are that 95% will all the be same color, one way or the other. That’s a sickening tragedy and is antithetical to the Gospel. America has a race problem because America has a sin problem, but that problem begins in the churches. It begins with an unwillingness to view someone else as a human being. It begins with an unwillingness to forgive. It begins with an unwillingness to fall more in love with Christ than to fall in love with what’s culturally comfortable.
The solution to America’s race problem isn’t found in more government legislation. You can’t legislate thinking. The solution is found in the Church acting like the body of Christ. It’s found in churches of different races coming together and working together. It’s found in working past some cultural differences and acknowledging that there is a bigger mission for us. In short, the solution to America’s race problem is love. And it is possible because I’ve seen it first-hand.
I attend a church where I think over a dozen languages are spoken (or at least close to it). North America, Asia, Europe, and Africa are all represented in the congregation. While the people are imperfect – especially since I started attending – to me this serves as an icon of Heaven; in Eternity we will all worship Christ forever. In our church the cultural distinctives are not lost, yet we all worship the same Christ and work with one another. And that’s part of the cure to our racism in America; we shouldn’t seek to be the same, but we should seek to love the same. That is, we will always have cultural distinctives and differences, and that’s great, but we shouldn’t let those distinctives turn into differences.
Think to the early Church which grew out of a very diverse culture. We like to think that because the Roman Empire was an empire, there was only one culture that Christians were speaking to. But within the Roman Empire there were many cultures, and it was to these cultures that early Christians went. They preached to Greeks, Romans, Africans, Asians, Barbarians, and so on. Of the many early saints few, if any, where white. There’s even African saints, such as St. Athanatius (called the “black midget”) and St. Moses (probably my favorite saint because he had such a hard time converting; I respect that), as well as many others. The early Church is often viewed as monolithic movement where everyone was the same; but the reality is that we only view it this way because the teachings were unified. The cultures, however, were various and diverse.
The Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov argued that God is many, yet one. That is, God is three Persons in one Essence. God is also infinite, meaning that God is infinitely diverse, yet infinitely unified. Every human being is made in the image of this same God, but we are finite. This means that every single culture is incomplete, though good (so long as what they do follows God’s holiness). Thus, our distinctives are a celebration of God, because in our distinctives we can still see God. But this should be met with our love for one another, that though distinct, we are not different, that though many, we are still one. Though our rooms may hold different decorations, we are all in the same house. The solution to our race problem, the solution to the ugliness exposed by the Trayvon murder case, is not the harsh rationality of justice, but the soothing paradox of love.