Wrestling Through Racism

By Anthony Gammage

My first memory of racism came when I was about 11 years old at a dinner party with a beloved family member.  As we began to enjoy our meal, an Asian waiter came over to take our order and my family member informed him with all the venom in him that he did not want any of his [racial slur] chicken. The table gasped, my mouth dropped, and the waiter walked away in shame to get another server. What we didn’t realize at the time was that dementia had begun to take its effect on my family member’s mind and had peeled away layers of inhibition to reveal an active racism which took root during his time fighting in World War II, where two of his brothers had become Japanese POWs.

I’ve heard it said that we rarely see our culture, but rather see through it. That was indeed the case with me in my childhood. While the aforementioned incident is the first stark racist narrative I remember, I now realize looking back that the environment I grew up in was wrought with latent, covert, and sometimes hideously blatant racism, often against African Americans. Another relative swore he’d shoot any black man who would ever step foot on his property. Many others would use terms like “those people,” and “their kind” to introduce this sinister topic.  And it grieves me to think that by snickering, laughing, or even remaining silent, I too was adding to the raging fire that engulfs our nation.

St. Louis (Ferguson), Charleston, Baltimore, Dallas. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. These cities and names serve as sobering reminders of the reality that racism is still more alive and “well” in our nation than ever before. In recent weeks, I’ve wrestled with how I, being extremely white and part of the majority culture, should respond to what is happening around me. I’ve struggled with how, as a pastor, I should shepherd in this context. I’ve examined my own heart, because, If I’m honest, I know I have not escaped the siren call of racism in my own life. I’ve been broken, sad, angry, and ambivalent all in the same week. I’ve felt pride (the bad kind), weakness, and confusion as I’ve processed.  In the midst of all of this, I’ve stumbled upon some conclusions (or the beginnings of them) and resources that have helped me as I have been starting down this road.

  1. Start where the Bible starts – For me it has been helpful to start by reminding myself that the Bible straight-up condemns racism. It starts in the Garden as God makes all mankind in His own image (Genesis 1:27). God reminds Peter at the outset of the spread of the Gospel to the Gentiles (a different ethnicity than the Jewish Peter) not to call anything common that God has made clean (Acts 10:15). When Peter falls back into his racist ways, Paul quickly reminds him that he is actually acting contrary to the Gospel which has done away with the dividing lines of race through Christ’s death (Galatians 2:11-13; 3:28). The Bible has much more to say regarding this topic, but the bottom line is this…To reject or mistreat anyone made in God’s image based on race is to reject the Gospel itself.
  2. Response? In my wrestling, I’ve found myself asking, “How should I respond?” In asking this, I need to be careful, because even though this topic is relatively new to me, the issues surrounding these shootings are not new for my African American brothers and sisters. They have been responding to these things their entire lives. I need to realize I’m not going to come up with a solution that is going to outright change this situation overnight, or over a generation, or ever. I must constantly remind myself that I am not the Christ! But I can reflect Christ. My challenge right now is that I need to simply shut up, listen, and understand. I need to understand what my African American friends are feeling by trying, as best I can in the power of the Holy Spirit, to empathize. You know what this means, don’t you? A lot less talking. And I probably need to put myself in situations where I actually have more African American friends to listen to! I also need to understand things that are often misconstrued or even demonized in certain Christian cultures, like the Black Lives Matter movement. Here’s a thoughtful podcast that offers a helpful treatment of this topic.
  3. Repentance – I was talking to a friend of mine a couple of weeks ago about this topic when he looked at me and said, “Anthony, I’m far worse than a racist. I’m a me-ist!” Please don’t hear me minimizing the difficulties experienced by specific minorities in our culture, but my friend’s point needs to be recognized: the proclivity of the human heart is to mistreat and marginalize anyone who looks, sounds, or acts different than I do, or who makes less than or isn’t as educated as I am. We must be vigilant over these things in our own hearts and confess them when they arise while turning to the unifying beauty of the Gospel. We must also repent as the church. This letter is a beautiful example in our own denomination of our coming to grips with the racism that has been so abundant in the church throughout the last generation (and beyond). This year’s General Assembly began to address this by adopting an overture publicly repenting of these failings.
  4. Remember Jesus – Philadelphia church planter Brian Davis puts it well in his recent response to the tragedies of these recent shootings:

…However you engage this situation, the most important name this Sunday is Jesus. Jesus knows about suffering (1 Pet 3:18, Heb 2:9). Jesus knows about justice (John 5:30, Matt 12:18–21). Jesus knows about racial tension (John 4, Luke 10:30–37, cf. Gal 2:11–14). Jesus knows about being wrongfully treated (1 Pet 2:21–24). Jesus knows about surprise tragedy and perishing souls (Luke 13:1–5). Jesus knows our weaknesses, and he knows how to sympathize with us (Heb 4:15). Jesus knows how to show mercy to criminals, and he knows the penalty for sin, for he has suffered it for us (Rom 5:6–8). Jesus knows about living in a wicked world (John 1:9–11, John 3:19), and he knows about dying at the hands of wicked men (Acts 2:23).

And he knows about the glories of heaven, where God himself will wipe away every tear from our eyes, where there will be no more death, no mourning, no crying, no pain (Rev 21:3–4)—where everyone is invited to take refuge with God. Our Savior knows.

  1. I need to do something – I don’t know what that is, but I do know that blogging or even preaching on this topic isn’t enough. Maybe it’s pursuing a new friend. Maybe it is being a political advocate. Maybe it is going to the African American congregation down the street and praying with them. But something needs to happen to get me out of the colorless world I love to gravitate toward.

There is so much more left to be written and, more importantly, acted on by the church on this topic. I pray we are courageous enough to go there. May, by God’s grace, we be brave enough to examine the sinfulness of our own hearts and own the racism that is inside us all, regardless of our color. I also pray that as we see our own brokenness we also see the beauty of the racial divide-defying Gospel and that it motivates us to be a people of justice, seeking the peace of the cities, towns, and neighborhoods in which we live.