Five Sources of Our Racial Shame

Less than two weeks ago, a black cafeteria worker was shot by a policeman less than three miles from my house. He had been pulled over in front of an apartment complex where some friends of mine used to live.

Philando Castile’s death here in Minnesota, as well as Alton Sterling’s in Louisiana, and the deaths of five police officers serving in Dallas — and now three more in Baton Rouge — have exposed our shame as a nation. And it presses those of us in the Christian church, who claim to follow the teaching and ways of Jesus, with an opportunity to thoroughly examine our own hearts.

If we rush too quickly past our shame — if we minimize, justify, rationalize, or ignore it — we will resist the full transforming power of the gospel. But if we examine, confess, and turn from it, laying our shame down at the foot of the cross, we can be changed, and begin the process of healing, for hope-filled gospel ministry.

We each have an inevitable racial bias, a cultural lens through which we see the world. My tenets unavoidably begin with a caucasian bent as I apply them to my own heart. But racist tendencies are underneath the skin, in the heart of who we are as human beings, just as surely as pride and its countless expressions. Whether our racism is directed toward whites, blacks, or other ethnicities, it flows from ignorance, apathy, fear, judgment, and self-righteousness.

1. I Don’t Know: Ignorance

One racist tendency I have is ignorance — and it is not for lack of available information. Textbooks, literature, and even children’s picture books contain a history of the oppression of blacks in America, and so when I choose to, I can educate myself about this history as if it were a museum display.

My racist tendencies evidence themselves in the fact that I essentially choose to limit my thinking about racial oppression to Black History Month and Martin Luther King Day. Not being racially oppressed, I rarely consider the plight of African Americans, historically or currently. I may assume that racism is from a bygone era, that this problem has been removed from my country and my heart.

Not only do I treat the knowledge available to me as an optional add-on to my education, but I have not let what little I do know change me, adding a lack of personal, relational knowledge to my intellectual ignorance. I have little actual knowledge about African-American communities, churches, or homes because I’m rarely in them.

2. I Don’t Care: Apathy

Because I am rarely present in black communities, and African-American friends are rarely present in my contacts database or my home, I have had little genuine concern for what happens in those communities.

So when I hear about a shooting, whether it’s black-on-black crime, white-on-black crime, or black-on-white crime, I’m mostly concerned with my schedule tomorrow, and rarely concerned with how I, my family, or my church could be helpful. I’m not even moved enough to invite the black family in my neighborhood to dinner or to consider how I might help a black woman with her bags in the grocery store parking lot (my main current multi-cultural experience), let alone how I could initiate serving alongside a black church in that community.

3. I’m Scared: Fear

Another reason I’m not physically or emotionally present in the black communities in my city can be justified with statistics: fear. Some black neighborhoods have low-income housing, and where low-income housing exists, crime abounds. I know this, not from my personal engagement in these communities, but from the nightly news and social media.

The two-minute sound bite revealing the latest crime scene in an African-American neighborhood scares me, so when I see video footage of a dying black man with an officer’s gun aimed at him, I can easily default to the same fearful response and immediately distance myself from it emotionally — “Let’s wait for some more information” — while I turn this video off.

4. I’ve Decided: Assumptions and Judgment

When I let fear reign, it is an easy next step to pass judgment on people whose lives, problems, and communities I fear. Rather than engage people who are out of my comfort zone, I may make assumptions about them.

For instance, when I see a black woman’s live-stream of her boyfriend’s death, I may assume that he had a criminal record or threatened the officer. Rather than receiving her account at face value as I would any other eyewitness, I might question her motives and look for loopholes, based solely on how she looks. Though she has had no time to process or manipulate what she is streaming, I may not give her the benefit of the doubt but consider instead how her story might be proven unstable. I am not suggesting that more information should not be collected or processed by an actual judge and jury, but rather that I should examine my own heart as to why I’m inclined to invalidate this woman’s firsthand account when no contradictory evidence is offered by reliable sources.

If my friend’s son was killed while driving a car, I wouldn’t shrug and say, “It was probably a DUI.” I’d weep with her. When I assume that people in distress are getting what they deserve, I am not responding in a Christian manner. Has Christ given me what I deserve?

Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:10)

While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

Such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 6:11)

5. I’m Better: Self-Righteousness

Once I have passed judgment on situations that I fear, don’t understand, and am not personally affected by, I may internally congratulate myself on the fact that I am not in those situations myself. I do not have a criminal record. I do not go to parts of town where I could be easily hurt or my identity mistaken. I know how to talk to police officers. My children have a father who has a good job.

Rather than thanking God for his mercy and for the many resources (including a strong family, home, education, and income) available to me — blessings which I do not merit — I feel deserving of my good record. And so, silently in my self-righteous heart, I might say, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like that sinner,” rather than praying, “Give me eyes to see the true state of my soul before you! Have mercy on me, a sinner!” (see Luke 18:11, 13).

Where We Go with Guilt

As I consider the racist tendencies of my own heart, I know I am guilty, and that it is to my shame. Where can I go with such guilt? There is only one place — and it is the most shameful, filthy, revolting, beautiful, precious, hope-filled place in the world, the cross of Christ, where our God, once our enemy, became our friend, not by our initiative but by his.

He didn’t wait for us to come to him; instead, he took on flesh, lived a perfect life among us, and experienced the terrible shame of a criminal’s death, to pay for our criminal record of sin, all so that we could be reconciled to God.

And now, even as racist tendencies remain in our hearts and continue to be purged, we can confront our hearts without fear. He will give us new thought patterns: I’m learning. I’m engaged. I want to give the benefit of the doubt. I am no better than my neighbor, and the only righteousness I have that ultimately counts is Christ’s!

We can become agents of the healing our world needs as we view people through the lens of Christ crucified. Because Jesus came as one of us, and died for us, we are new creations who can make eye contact and smile, initiate conversations out of our comfort zone, pour out love in hard places, and grow in our understanding of, listening to, and empathizing with others.

We can enter into the suffering of others without fear that they will make us unclean. We can weep with those who weep. We can become like Christ who was slow to anger, slow to justify himself, that he might experience our suffering and sympathize with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). He will surely give us grace as faith works itself out in love.