Today is Martin Luther King day in the United States. Though this celebration was met with much opposition in its origins some years ago I am persuaded that it reminds us, sometimes most uncomfortably, of our very long struggle regarding race. It also reminds us of the need to remain ever vigilant to address the injustices and racism that still remain. Martinlutherkingface
I personally believe Dr. King was an American icon for social change and that his legacy, though not perfect, is properly honored by us all today. I thank God he helped us to truly pursue the day when his children, and all other children, would "not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." 

The sad truth is that such a day has still not yet come. Maybe it never will fully come in America but people of good will and true faith must not stop trying to bring this about.

I believe that most white Americans do not want to be racists in any sense. It is not cool nor is it acceptable in the modern context. But wishing for this not to be so just doesn’t make it so. King’s vision of a color-blind society is perhaps as far away now as ever before. Many injustices, before the law, have been corrected. For these gains I am sincerely thankful. But much more needs to be done. People of justice, mercy and love ought to be at the forefront.

The contentious politics of color and race are also with us now more than ever. As much as Barack Obama has sought to not enter this race minefield others are forcing him to do it in ways that are very questionable, to cite just one contemporary example of how we handle this issue. Whites often think this is true because black leaders cause it when they emphasize "blackness" in some sense. March
Many of us think that we whites are, in reality, the truly color blind ones. We think that we can look at a man or woman who is African-American and quite easily ignore their color. I do not think this is the reality of the situation at all. Whether it is a function of residual white racism, or even reverse black racism, or some version of political correctness, thinking that I do not notice that a person is black is ludicrous. This does not mean that I must always be a bigot. It does mean race and ethnicity are so much a part of our American life and this culture that we can never fully avoid it. Each of us has some stereotypes, some prejudices, some residual impact of the influences that shaped our lives in this society. Trying to act like this is not so is neither healthy nor a real solution to the race problem in American culture. And the church is still at the center of much of this problem, not a part of the solution at all.

Cynthia Tucker, in her syndicated column, noted today that University of Washington psychology professor Anthony Greenwald, an expert on implicit biases and common stereotypes suggests that we cannot be as "colorblind" as we think. But this is not the end of the story. We can "learn to put aside

[our] biases to make rational fact-based judgments about people who may be black or Mexican or Mormon." Martinlutherkingcoretta_2
This strikes me as obviously right. If this is true then we can begin a process of change. But how? By first acknowledging that we have a problem. By admitting that we employ racial stereotypes and that by them we form opinions that are generalized and often wrong.

Greenwald administers an Implicit Association Test. When people who do not think they are racists in any sense take his test and then find out that they really are prejudiced about race they are often furious. They refuse to admit they have such stereotypes and that this connects them with racism in any sense, implicit or explicit.

As I read Cynthia Tucker’s column, and I often disagree with her deeply on many issues, I found myself saying, "She is clearly quite right about this." It reminded me of a conversation last year with a black brother who is in the process of becoming a Roman Catholic priest. He was in my home one evening when we discussed the great movie, King_of_scotland
The Last King of Scotland
. My friend is a mild and gentle Christian without any desire to make race a dividing point between us. He simply noted that he saw this movie, of course, as a black man. For this reason he saw it very differently than I did. The movie, as you probably know, features the story of the late dictator Idi Amin and the bloody trials he brought upon Uganda. But the movie puts a great deal of emphasis upon a young Scottish physician who served Amin, of course a white man. Even the title is "white." This real story is not about Scotland but rather about Africa. And the people in the movie who are the real heroes are the black people who help the white man escape so that he can give the real story of Uganda to the West.

What can we do about this, as both black and white Christians in America? We can begin by admitting that King’s dream was right. And then we can further admit that we have a long way to go yet. We can also be more honest about our stereotypes and our fears. We can discuss these issues with people who are black, or white as the case may be, and then pursue helping one another to see how we are still bound by our racial experiences in this land. As a white Christian I believe that I should take the lead, since love always leads the way and because my inherited stereotypes help to perpetuate the problem at so many different levels. Denying it only hinders the dream. Facing up to it opens up real possibilities for change.


A Prayer for Today:

"God grant me the grace to be more open in hearing what you are saying to me through my black brothers and sisters. Help me to be quiet much more often, to listen much more attentively and to not assume that I am completely color-blind. Make me an agent of reconciliation in both your church and my culture."

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  1. Gene Redlin January 21, 2008 at 11:47 am

    I have never been in favor of slow and moderate change. It doesn’t work. It leads to inert institutionalism. Dr King said in his I have a dream speech:
    This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.
    As I get older I see the folly in gradualism. It is tranquilizing. It delays the pain but doesn’t eliminate it. We need a BIG BANG to get things done. That is more true in the Church than anywhere else. Without radical, sudden and dramatic change nothing happens.
    Jesus came to earth and God hung on a cross. All in 3 years. All in ONE BLACK Friday.
    THEN IN ONE DAY he defeated death.
    And in one Day Pentecost came and changed the face of true faith and still comes today.
    Not Gradually. Suddenly. Dramatically.
    Why do we think that we can implement change a little at a time? Trying to please people. If we try to please people we can’t please God.
    MLK was against gradualism.
    SO AM I!

  2. Don Broesamle January 21, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    As eagerly as we in the church may (must) deal with others in a color-blind manner, just as eagerly do we engage with others who likewise see THEMSELVES in a color-blind manner. Relationship, and honesty in relationship, is encouraged when each party considers the other as more important them himself … or more simply, CONSIDERS the other … PERIOD. Sadly, many minority “leaders” do not allow “their people” to approach life thusly, and thereby encourage the existing chasm. Sadly, too many folks listen to and believe that commentary, to their own relational deficit.
    Gladly, in the church more than anywhere else we DO find folks who see themselves and relate with others without such overburden. Dancing is so much more graceful with a willing partner.
    While we may decry gradualism, we cannot abandon it in our personal responsibility to love one another. “Good works that we WALK in.”

  3. Nick Morgan January 23, 2008 at 3:22 pm

    This is a very interesting post John. You are correct in that race relations in our country still have a long way to go, in the church especially. I live in what may be one of the most racially divided cities in the country, and we’re in the midwest, not the south. What troubles me the most however, is that there are African American leaders around who in truth are as far from Dr. King’s message as the white’s were in the 60’s. In my city there is a lot of “reverse racism”, or better titled “get-even-ism” within certain segments of the African American community. I have experienced personal animosity from co-workers because I belong to a union that is predominantly white, (most blacks refuse to join) and because of conflicts back in the 60’s and early 70’s, (when most of our current membership were in diapers at best) many of their older members continue to act as if things and people are exactly the same today as they were back then. It keeps our organization very divided along racial lines and perpetuates false statements, predjudices, and mistrust between our two employee organizations. And yet, the actual union is the only truly recognized bargaining agent for our employer, so anything the union bargains for benefits all employees equally regardless of race or color.
    Everything you said in your post I believe was right on target, but I do believe that the Jessie Jackson’s and the Al Sharpton’s have contributed to a very destructive and counterproductive attitude in some of the African American community that seems to imply that only whites, not blacks, are capable of racist attitudes and behaviors. And this is just plain UNTRUE and WRONG. Since original sin infects and affects all of us, we all have plenty of room for self examination and repentance, whether from racial predjudice, or hatred and resentment toward those with racial predjudices. Much rhetoric I hear lately from some African American leaders sounds much more like Louis Farrakhan than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King was absolutely right in saying that CHARACTER, not skin color, is what should matter, and this has to be true across the board.
    God bless!

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