Growing up in the USA in the 1960’s, because of men like Martin Luther King, Jr., there was a lot of talk about racial equality and the Civil Rights Movement. I’m deeply grateful that my parents and the church we attended repeatedly and insistently taught that all people are made in God’s image and are of infinite value and fully (not separately) equal. More than fifty years later, it’s easy to forget that those were also times of deep anger, unrest, and social upheaval. Looking back now, it feels like in some ways like we have made real progress while in others, we have only come full circle.
No matter how you assess the contemporary situation, racism is much more than conceptual, theoretical, and systemic. For many, it is deeply emotional and personal. Sadly, when talking about racism, one of the first things that must be done is to define it since some increasingly popular definitions are not only unhelpful and unproductive, they are downright deceptive and dangerous.
For example, many today suggest it is impossible to be a racist if you live in a context of poverty, oppression, and discrimination. The assumption is that racism is inherently tied to power, and only those with social power and influence can possibly be racist in the truest sense of the term.
In response, I would suggest that while it is certainly easier for the powerful to express and uphold certain aspects of racism, especially systemic ones, this does not mean that racism, properly understood, is confined to social systems and influential segments of society alone. Racism involves more significant moral elements like attitudes of moral superiority, hatred, and distrust. Mindsets like these are not confined solely to those who are influential and well-connected.
Pride in anyone leads to and reinforces a sense of moral superiority. For example, it is just as easy to believe, “I am morally better than them because although I am colored, poor, oppressed, and powerless, they are immoral because they are rich, oppressive, powerful, and white,” as it is to claim, “I am morally better than them because I am white, smart, and hard-working, and ambitious while they are they are colored, lazy, stupid, and unenterprising.” One glories in their victimhood and difficulties, the other in their white privilege, but neither can claim an absence of racial or classist pride.
In addition, hatred gives anyone and everyone a sense of power and ability to vilify and reject those who are different than themselves, regardless of their socioeconomic or political situation. To suggest that the poor and oppressed are merely innocent victims of the powerful, unable to exercise any personal and social influence at all, is not only to dehumanize them but also to obscure the potential for racism that cuts across all social lines and lurks within the soul of every human being. It’s also a sure-fire way to harbor and justify self-righteous feelings of resentment and ill-will toward any and all who are different, especially those possessing greater power, opportunity, and authority.
Ultimately, feelings of hatred and suspicion lead to a deep sense of moral superiority as well as an active rejection of those who are different from oneself. Again, racism among the powerful and privileged is much more noticeable and systemically impactful, and that’s an enormous problem that must be actively addressed and redressed. But if those with less obvious positions of power refuse to recognize the potential presence of pride and hatred in their own hearts, the opportunity for real change at all levels of society will ultimately be lost because at its heart, the solution to racism is both theological and societal. The reason is that while societal structures and systems must be reviewed and revised, racism can only be holistically eradicated through an active pursuit of reconciled relationships characterized by mutual forgiveness, love, and respect, values that are deeply theological.
When calls for solutions to racism are made, I frequently hear that racism is both systemic and learned. While undeniably true, a centrally important third aspect frequently gets left out, namely the natural or innate aspect. In short, because of sin, racism is inherently easy for each and every one of us, regardless of our race or socioeconomic status. Thus, racism manifests itself both socially and personally. It is both learned and intrinsic, external and internal. Failure to admit and recognize all (and not just some) of these aspects will ultimately result in incomplete solutions to a larger set of problems.
Far beyond the systemic and learned aspects of racism, we naturally gravitate toward and are most comfortable spending time with people who look, act, think, and talk like us. Taking the time and making the effort to understand and befriend those who are different—simply because we are all human beings made in God’s image possessing infinite value—involves constant sacrifice, inconvenience, risk, and discomfort. It is something we must remind ourselves and others of continually. And we also must actively and intentionally move toward, listen to, and even embrace those with whom we disagree and who are very different from us. As we do, in the midst of the difficulties and discomforts, we will find deep joy and mutual enrichment as new friendships are forged, new understandings are found, and new pathways of growth and change are fashioned.
Throughout this process, each and every one of us should be willing to keep honestly asking this hard but important question: Am I a racist? The possibility of being or becoming one is always there beneath the surface, whether we are rich or poor, black or white, powerful or weak. Why? Because we all have the capacity and tendency to hate, belittle, and diminish the value of those who are different from us and strongly prefer the ones most like us. Self-admission of this is a helpful place to begin in the process of actively moving toward real solutions to racism. In this way, people can not only be taught against racism, they can also work with tirelessly humility toward reconciliation and reparation at all levels of society—social, political, economic, educational, and personal. But reconciliation is fundamentally a theological concept with a theological grounding. It takes people transformed by the gospel of Jesus who have first been reconciled to God to model that radical reconciliation with one another.
Thus, the goal for Christians is not mere recognition and affirmation of equality for all but the vigorous pursuit and realization of interracial community and communion. And this can only happen if we first humbly listen and seek to understand, entering into the pain, anger, and grief of those who have suffered from the ravages of racism. After that, we can more compassionately join in and work for viable solutions and lasting change together. Without true compassion and participation, we tend to only feel pity and attempt to alleviate our guilt by making token overtures that cost us very little and involve us only minimally. Real and lasting change requires getting our hands dirty, making real sacrifices, and taking genuine risks for the sake of the greater wellbeing of others. If Christians are unwilling to make these kinds of sacrificial choices, others will, but they will do so in promotion of very different visions for what justice and change should look like and how they should be brought about.
In closing, I often hear the phrase, “But we’ve come so far already.” And I think we can affirm that real progress has been made, but have we come far enough? One of the great myths of enlightenment rational liberalism is that social progress is cumulative, unidirectional, and inevitable. Real social progress is never any of these things. It takes constant work and intentional effort to push against the ever-swelling tides of racism, classism, tribalism, and all kinds of other sinful “isms” that are present not only in the hearts of the powerful but also in the heart of every man, woman, and child. These are the things that tear us and our societies apart, and unfortunately, are still at work in our midst. As Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Racial injustice, inequality, and discrimination remain to this day both within and around us. And as long as they remain, we have still not come far enough.