Where Does Your Neighbor See Racism? (Part 1)

Karl Barth, arguably the most prolific theologian of the 20th century, once advised young theologians to “take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” Another renowned theologian, David Wells, suggested that all theology revolves around two poles: the world and the word of God.

These theologians drew from what Jesus made clear: His followers would be in the world but not of the world (John 17:15-16 cf. 1 Corinthians 5:10). And yet, we—Jesus’ followers—are called to do good to all people, especially other believers (Galatians 6:10). Ours would be the task of emulating our Lord, who came not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45). And so, we ought to seek the good of our neighbor (1 Cor. 10:24; Philippians 2:4). Jesus taught a you-before-me ethic, one oriented around others; this was a basic point of his parable about the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

However, when he heard that parable, a crafty lawyer thought it begged the question. So he brashly asked Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?”

The Scriptures make clear that this was not a genuine question; rather the lawyer asked it in order to justify himself. Don’t miss the irony: The lawyer asked about serving others in order to serve himself; he wanted to get out of the burden of love but somehow still get into the joy of heaven.

Jesus answers the lawyer’s question with a parable that implies that our neighbor can be someone whom we don’t expect or respect or someone who doesn’t expect or respect you; in other words, it might surprise us who our neighbor actually is.

We might be surprised by who our neighbor actually is—someone we don't expect or respect. Click To Tweet

I say all this because often, when I write about race, someone—often a white brother or sister—pushes back. And to be clear, folks have the right to pushback, however unfounded their pushback may be. Nonetheless, an objector’s pushback is usually about them, not their neighbor. That is, their pushback is rooted in their perspective, their experience, them, them, them. I often hear: “Well, I don’t think that’s the case…” Such a mindset renders empathy impossible; as one theologian put it: “Many people don’t want to put themselves in another person’s place; they want to put that other person in their place.”

Of course, we have a right to hold our own opinions. But the Christian life is, in no small part, about glorifying God by giving up our rights to serve others—not ourselves. As Christians, we are not beheld to our opinions; we are beheld to loving our neighbor. To state the matter more clearly: Our neighbor’s plight ought to be greater to us than what it might cost us to sympathize with it or undertake it altogether. This should be the case, I think, especially when we don’t understand our neighbor’s plight given that lack of understanding often breeds strife.

Proverbs 18:2 states the matter starkly:

“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.”

One way that I have tried to increase my own understanding of my neighbor’s plight is by reading works written by people have a different worldview than I do. As I’m in the world, I want to read literature from the world, and filter it through a biblical mindset, so that I can better love those of the world. And because everyone is profoundly influenced by the culture they’re in, there’s a good chance that learning how to love people of the world will teach me how to love those in the church. After all, where do people in the church come from but the world?

Our neighbor’s plight ought to be greater to us than what it might cost us to sympathize with it. Click To Tweet

So, I try to read from other people’s perspectives because I’m a pretty loveless guy, and I have a lot to learn. As a poet, I gravitate toward reading poetry, and I was struck by a poem I saw via Button Poetry—America’s largest provider for spoken-word poetry. While some of Button’s work is crass, a line from a poem struck me:

“Remember: White Supremacy is not the shark after you; it is the water.”

What a horrifying metaphor. I’ve experienced my fair share of racism as an African-American, though I probably wouldn’t have described racism in such pervasive terms. But that’s just it—this poem isn’t about how I would necessarily state things. Nonetheless, my impulse was to universalize my experience; to think about all the good experiences I’ve had with white people, and I have had a ton of those good experiences with white family and friends. Yet many of my black and brown brothers and sisters haven’t had those experiences. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in My President Was Black:

“For most African-Americans, white people exist either as a direct or an indirect force for bad in their lives.”

Thinking about that reality, it caused me to think about where my neighbor may see racism. I started tallying up a sample of where in my own life I saw racism or an effect of it. What did I see?

I saw racism when I walked down a street in America’s beautiful capitol city, holding my white wife’s hand, and a white man called me a nigger-rapist to my face; this was in 2015, and the event came in the wake of Eric Garner being unlawfully choked by a police offer who was later released with impunity. Fast forward one year: I went home, watched the news, and I saw a noose hanging as a hate-crime, this one dwindling from the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Again, this occurred in the “nicer” part of town—the north side. So I headed to the Southside, to a poorer part of town and saw another noose, another hate crime; this one hanging from a public high school. These nooses made a merism of sorts—they were two bookends that said from start to finish and all the way through you cannot escape the racist tide. I walked to the park—again, in the nice part of town—and saw a statue of Abraham Lincoln freeing a slave, reminding me of the horrible legacy of slavery in this country. I sat down in the park, opened my book, “Between the World and Me,” and found Ta-Nehisi Coates telling me to never take my eyes off of these things, these racist things. I was reminded of sisters who told me that their churches weren’t helping them lift their eyes up to Christ, to look up and through these things; their fellow members didn’t seem concerned with their experience. This sad testimony was compounded by The Southern Baptist Convention, where I saw pastors woefully unaware of the threat a group like the Alt-Right posed for my existence. And then Philando Castille’s killer was released with impunity; here I saw yet another terrifying merism, and I ran out of chalk to keep tallying up all that I saw…

Beloved, I’m not saying we shouldn’t  challenge each other. But I am asking if our pushback comes from a self-centered impulse or a genuine place of wonder—one that comes after the hard work of really trying to understand our neighbor; one that comes in order to continue—not silence—a conversation; one that doesn’t presume the worst but assumes the best. Given that it’s June and LGBTQI Pride month, a brother recently confessed to me how everywhere he looks, he sees temptation and sexually immoral sin. It is the culture, the air—the water. As I have labored to understand race better, I am trying to turn my question from, “Where do I see racism?” to “Where does my neighbor see racism?”

After all, there’s a good chance that they might see it everywhere.

Where Does Your Neighbor See Racism? Click To Tweet