I had never considered myself a racist. When I was kid, my parents helped me send the coins in my piggy bank to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work. And I have family members who are African-Americans and Latinos. So I thought I was good.
I got my first hard look at my blindness when I took Greek from an African-American professor. He told us that racism was not a white problem; it was a sin problem. He gave international examples of darker and lighter groups hating each other. Afterward, I said I wanted to be color-blind, and he stopped me. “You need to see the color,” he said. “God made it. It’s just that the color does not matter in terms of equality.” I realized then that my elevating of “blindness” was itself a form of racism. The very thing God celebrated, I was ignoring outright—and congratulating myself.
Another glimpse came during a trip to the east coast. I had lived in Virginia for seven years as a teen, and at that time, Monticello—home of Thomas Jefferson—was my favorite of the historical sites within a day’s drive of DC. But returning decades later, I was shocked when I saw for the second time the evidence of Jefferson’s past as a slaveholder. What upset me most was that his record had not fazed me on previous visits. I could no longer downplay Jefferson’s evil by rationalizing that he was a product of his times. Jefferson knew the abolitionists’ arguments. I had excused him. How could I have been so blind?
I don’t know. But between the two above-mentioned instances, some events happened that probably led to some of the scales falling off.
First, I took Russian lessons, and only after six weeks’ practice could I correctly pronounce the formal word for “hello.” I went to Belarus as a journalist with a medical mission team, and these smart people struggled with a language that’s actually much easier than English. While there, I—a “word” person—had to operate from a vocabulary smaller than a kindergartner’s, and I suddenly reconsidered my assessment of people from other lands whom I had assumed were uneducated.
When I returned, I asked a Russian friend if she had difficulty operating from a limited number of words. She exclaimed, “Yes! That is the hardest part for me being here! In Russia, I am an engineer with an enormous vocabulary. Here, I can hardly express myself.” She was an engineer? I had no idea. After that, I started asking about the backgrounds of international students who cleaned my office after hours, and I discovered physicians, engineers, and pastors of enormous churches—all sacrificing the respect they received back home in order to have access to Christian education.
When I learned that a theology student was attending a church full of undocumented immigrants, I asked how he could worship with people who were clearly breaking the law just by being here—and he balked. I respected this man, so I wondered aloud how we could view their actions so differently. He pointed to Paul’s approach with Onesimus, who was in Rome illegally. First, Paul shared the gospel and discipled him. Once Onesimus was useful for service, Paul sent Tychicus back with him to Philemon to comply with the law. But first things first. In that conversation, I realized my own loyalties were more America- than gospel-focused.
Recently, some of my guy students have acknowledged their blindness to male privilege, and their attitudes have brought others healing. Not long ago, when I was at worship, I noticed that the artwork advertising a sermon series depicted only men. Later the person leading worship said, “The men will now come forward to take the offering” when he meant “the ushers will come forward.” Sure, the ushers all happened to be men. But nothing in scripture says a woman can’t usher. And the reference to gender suggested women might not be welcome to do so.
The more I notice such gendered statements, the more I realize how much grace members of underrepresented groups have constantly extended to those of us who live with racial privilege. We are blind in ways we don’t even know.
So here are some suggestions for moving toward unity in diversity. They are only a start!
1. Know that God loves ethnic diversity. The music of the Ideal Day will include every tongue, nation, and tribe worshiping him (Rev. 7:9). It will look like the opposite of Babel as the nations converge to offer their maker praise. Racial diversity in our worship foreshadows the coming Day.
2. Mourn, weep, and repent for the church’s past sins. I often hear, “Sure, Christians tolerated and even supported slavery. And at times, the KKK. But that was then. Today, I have nothing to do with that.” But what if Nehemiah had taken such an approach? Instead, he took responsibility for the sins of the group. Notice how he describes what he did when he heard about God’s judgment for his ancestors’ sins: “I sat down abruptly, crying and mourning for several days. I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. Then I said, ‘Please, O Lord God of heaven, great and awesome God, who keeps his loving covenant with those who love him and obey his commandments… I am confessing the sins of the Israelites that we have committed against you—both I myself and my family have sinned. We have behaved corruptly against you, not obeying the commandments, the statutes, and the judgments that you commanded your servant Moses’” (Neh. 1:4–7). Believers should have the same response to those who bring up the Crusades. They were part of the church’s past. Instead of downplaying them (especially by saying, “But the Crusades were not as bad as ____,”) the church has opportunity to say, “Yes! Our ancestors did that. They were so wrong. Many before us have repented, and we repent too. May Christ have mercy. How can we show love to those who differ theologically?”
3. Assume we all have privilege-blindness. One way to gain better sight: initiate conversation and listen well. When I meet one-on-one with fellow believers who belong to ethnic groups that differ from mine, I sometimes draw them out on the subject. And I find that almost without exception they have experienced racism in the church. But they don’t want to get pegged as “touchy,” so they usually say nothing about it. In the same way that I won’t bring up how we introduce the ushers, their love has been covering numerous statements made by oblivious people.
4. Love variety, as God does. Model diversity on preaching teams, on panels, on committees, in worship teams, in posters. Quote people of multiple ethnicities in your messages and examples. Add variety to your music. Invite those from a variety of ethnicities into your living room and meet them in their homes. Believe your team is deficient if you have a completely homogenous group. Actively pursue a combination of differences.
5. Acknowledge both the accomplishments and the sin. How can we acknowledge people like Thomas Jefferson? The Old Testament gives us a model. Here is how the author of 1 Kings sums up David’s life: “David had done what [the Lord his God] approved and had not disregarded any of his commandments his entire lifetime, except for the incident involving Uriah the Hittite (15:5).
5. Repent for the church’s current sins. And pray that the Lord will reveal your own blindness where it exists. Ask God to help you—us—to become tools that build the kind of church Christ wants to show his love to a divided world.