One of the most blatant acts of racism I’ve witnessed occurred on a bus in San Francisco, when a passenger boarded, got upset about something, and yelled a slur at the driver. Halfway down the bus, my chest started to burn with a conviction. I had to confront her in some way, but how?
Even in my brief chance to observe the young woman who’d said it, I could tell she’d pounce at the slightest appearance of provocation—an accidental bump, or a look she didn’t like. She seemed like the fool the author of Proverbs discourages one from even addressing. How could I possibly confront her?
Yet my chest continued to burn, as if this conviction would lift me out of my seat and march me to her if I waited too long to speak. As each stop passed, I watched the woman, heart thudding, to see if she would exit the bus. Meanwhile, I begged God for words that would not incite her to fresh abuse.
By the time we reached my stop, the bus was packed, but the woman hadn’t yet left. As I squeezed my way toward the exit, I paused in front of her and took a breath for courage. “You would be more beautiful if you didn’t talk the way you did to the driver,” I said. The compliment seemed to disrupt her default defensiveness. “Oh, I would, would I?” But that was all.
Pausing next by the bus driver, I apologized for the other woman’s words, almost in tears. The bus driver shrugged. “Happens every day,” she said, then closed the door and pulled the bus back into the street.
An ‘Innocent’ Segregation
Until recently, most of my loved ones and friends would identify more with my position in that story than that of the bus driver. Few to none would admit any affinity with the woman I confronted.
I grew up in a middle-class family descended from Polish, English, and other immigrants, in which encounters with blatant racism were rare. In no small part, that’s probably because I grew up in fairly segregated parts of two majority-white states: Washington and Arizona.
Although my dad frequently befriended co-workers from other countries, and relatives on my mom’s side spent decades in Asia, no one ever remarked on the relatively homogenous communities we inhabited. And though the Bible clearly depicts God’s future kingdom as a richly diverse and integrated community, my earliest exposure to His plan for restoration focused more on the absence of sin and death than on how God planned to upend His people’s intensely divided worship.
Segregation seemed to happen by accident and persist in a natural fashion that we could do little to disrupt unless possibly God chose to bring a few other people of different ethnic heritage into our lives. As a home-school student, I read short biographies of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, but not until attending a public high school and university did I learn more about the many deliberate acts that enforced segregation well into the twentieth century. And not until recently did I learn about the redlining policies and predatory loans that ensured segregated neighborhoods and maintained housing discrimination in places from Chicago to the Bay Area, where I now live.
At some point, we become responsible for what we’ve received.
Perhaps because so many of those I know and love grew up in a segregation for which we feel no responsibility, we don’t acknowledge much less feel culpable for the distortions and flat-out lies we believe in the absence of meaningful contact with people somewhat different from us. Yet who hasn’t seen such ignorance in reverse?
As a Christian, you’ve probably met people with no church experience who expect you to look like their caricature of a born-again evangelical. If you work in law enforcement or the military, you’ve probably encountered many negative views of your work among people with little knowledge of you or what you actually do each day. If you voted for Trump, you’re probably frustrated by what those who don’t share your political views seem to think about you.
When someone else misunderstands a fundamental part of who we are, we tend to hold the other person responsible for it. We call them biased, prone to stereotypes, and even deceived or subject to spiritual darkness.
But what if they were born into a family of Buddhists or atheists? What if they happened to choose a church where most attendees voted Democrat? Is it their fault they happen to live within such self-contained communities?
If I’m “innocent,” then they’re innocent. Many of us unfairly hold others more responsible for the same things that, when we ourselves do them, we think deserve impunity. When it comes to others, we often judge too harshly.
But when it comes to ourselves, we often judge too leniently. The argument of innocence by inheritance only goes so far. At some point, we become responsible for what we’ve received. If I was born into wealth as a child, but learn as an adult that my family got its money when my great-great-grandfather robbed yours, I face a choice between complicity and integrity.
The Spiritual Reality Behind the ‘Natural’
As a young child, I sometimes wondered why God chose to give my soul a pale-skinned body, with straight hair and hazel eyes. Why did I get this particular family, this time in history? With so many centuries of hardship, so many billions of people in poverty and discord, wasn’t it rather unlikely that I should be born into comfort, ease, and love?
From an early age, I desired more relationships with people of different ethnicities, especially those from African heritage, with whom interactions seemed especially tense among those around whom I grew up.
But segregation held strong.
Then one day almost three years ago, I spent about an hour in listening prayer with God, in which I walked through all of my most painful memories of interracial misunderstandings. For months and in some cases years, I’d struggled to even admit I felt that hurt, to admit that I associated it with our ethnic and racial differences.
Because most of these wounds involved strangers, I also hadn’t tried to work on forgiveness for the pain I felt so guilty admitting. I had such a strong sense that I shouldn’t feel what I felt that it was hard to admit I did. But the listening and healing prayer I’ve learned at my church starts with bringing what we’re feeling to God—raw as it may be—then gradually asking Him to reveal what we have come to believe about Him, ourselves, and others.
All of the Bible’s primary models for community—the Trinity, marriage, and the church—depict an intimacy and unity that consists in interdependent diversity.
So, memory by memory, I walked through those moments, named my pain and the lies I believed, asked God to show me the truth about Him, myself and others, and then repented of my belief in the lies. For how intense some of these memories were, my prayer time felt somewhat humdrum. Afterward, I even wondered if it had done any good.
But a few days later, I experienced a powerful conviction that I needed to publicly confess my racism, in an article I’d already agreed to write but planned to frame quite differently. And in the three years since, God has gradually but dramatically changed my circle of friends. All those years when I longed for community like I’m starting to have, I thought it would take an outside change. I never realized that my “natural” experience of segregation had a spiritual root I could deal with through confession and repentance.
Where We Fit in the Story
In the past few years, I’ve had many conversations about racism with fellow Christians. Among those with backgrounds similar to mine, they often frame their relationship to racism something like my place in that scene on the bus: an “innocent,” outside observer, who condemns blatant racism when confronted by it. But the real issue isn’t how we do or don’t relate to racism; it’s how our segregation and prejudice hold back God’s plan for human flourishing. Ultimately, I spoke to that woman on the bus in hopes God might use me to nudge her toward the community He made her for: a world in which she could love and respect that bus driver as her equal, while celebrating how God divinely imparted his image on both of them.
All of the Bible’s primary models for community—the Trinity, marriage, and the church—depict an intimacy and unity that consists in interdependent diversity. Indeed, God’s physical design for male and female suggests He made us different in part to enable greater closeness. What’s more, Paul, in his analogy of the body, suggests we the church experience God most fully when we are most completely present in our diverse roles and forms.
If we Christians seek to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and seek to love our neighbors as ourselves, we cannot abide segregation and prejudice within the very community God calls to loving, vibrant, interdependent diversity. Here are some steps you might take to address that, depending on where you’re at in the present story.
If you’re burdened and troubled about racism: Consider joining me and a group of others who fast and pray on Mondays about the church’s response to racism and racial injustice. Ask God to open your eyes to more of what He wants you to see and do, and invite Him into the places of your heart that you don’t know need more of His presence. If you don’t feel personally convicted about racism, but experience some segregation: Ask God for more integration and deeper relationships in these spheres. Ask Him where and how you can help bring His kingdom more fully in your community. Ask God to open your eyes to more of what He wants you to see and do, and invite Him into the places of your heart that you don’t know need more of His presence.
If you don’t experience or observe segregation as a significant problem: Ask God to show you where He wants to move in your community and spheres of influence and how you can be a part of it. Ask God to open your eyes to more of what He wants you to see and do, and invite Him into the places of your heart that you don’t know need more of His presence. And lastly, if you’ve been wounded, misunderstood or wronged in an interaction with someone of a different ethnicity: Ask God to help you bring your pain, anger, and other emotions into the light of His love and truth. Ask God to show you the truth about what you may have come to believe through that hurtful experience, and to bring more of His kingdom love and healing into that part of your life.