Article Oct 5, 2016

Race and the problem with apathy

One click of the send button can be so revealing and sometimes painful. My young friend in his late 20s didn’t mean to hurt me as he shared that as a white male, he really didn’t care about the plight of African-Americans. The conversation went something like:

Me: “Here are some issues I have seen in the church and society as it relates to the African-American experience.”

Him: “I’ve never really cared. It has never been on my radar. You’ve opened my eyes. Thanks!”

That is an oversimplified version of several exchanges, but in the end, it’s what I walked away with. Our recent correspondence, which he gave approval to share, often left him in shock. He didn’t know that African-Americans had been marginalized. He was unaware that Affirmative Action had been used by many to declare any black achieving person as receiving handouts. And at one point, it seemed to surprise him that one could desire to marry another regardless of ethnicity.

I was thankful for the interactions because he is a humble learner. He didn’t know much about race and other ethnicities. He didn’t understand, so he sought to gain understanding. That is commendable. It takes a level of humility to admit you don’t know—and at one point, didn’t care—and to want to learn.

Looking at today’s segregation

What has been difficult for me, and perhaps even grievous, is the fact that it wasn’t even on his radar before he met me. In his defense, why would it be? He is in a white community, white church, white family, with predominantly white friends. There’s hardly any context for him to think outside of his white suburban culture.

Our segregated neighborhoods and churches help contribute to this lack of context. A 2012 article in U.S. News reported on a study conducted by researchers at Dartmouth, the University of Georgia and the University of Washington, which revealed that not much has changed from the segregated times brought on by the Jim Crow laws. Their study, which may not be a surprise to many, finds that African-Americans remain concentrated in segregated neighborhoods, and diverse neighborhoods are rare. They also discovered that immigrants tend to populate among themselves.

In addition to our segregate neighborhoods, there are stories of racial profiling, such as NYPD’s Stop and Frisk program that targeted 54 percent black, 31 percent latino and only 12 percent white. We’ve seen the story of a couple not allowed to marry because they are interracial. And who can forget the current racial divides, shootings and fear? Or, perhaps we forget too easily.

Asking hard questions

My point is there are plenty of stories about race today that should cause each of us to pause and ask hard questions.

Part of my friend’s struggle to care seems to me to be apathy. It’s simply easier to coast through life not worrying about others who aren’t immediately associated with you. It takes effort to know those not like us, to study history and ask hard questions. This apathy could be masked by the thought, “Haven’t we all moved past racism now?” But the stories above prove otherwise. We get used to “our own” and can soon fall into the temptation to be partial.

James, inspired by the Holy Spirit, spoke strongly about the temptation to be partial toward others, reminding us that it’s ultimately about the second of the great commandments—to love your neighbor as yourself. He wrote: “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:1, 8-9 ESV).

This is a serious offense, and we should take heed to his warnings. Yes, he is addressing socio-economic partiality, but as we grow in our understanding of the imago dei, the gospel, the mission of Jesus and the diversity of the kingdom, we quickly see that God is not partial in regards to race and ethnicity as well. And once we’ve sown seeds of partiality, we will reap separation and a lack of understanding.

Are we holding on to sin that we need to confess? The beauty of confession is that it is not received with condemnation, but grace. If we confess our sin, God is faithful and just to forgive and purify us (1 John 1:9).

Forgetting our history

I also wonder if this apathy and partiality has deeper roots than merely not caring. Maybe part of our apathy is that we’ve forgotten our history. Though no one would say it out loud, I wonder if there remains a feeling of superiority rooted in our nation’s history.

Eighteenth century slavery shines a dark and devastating light on the treatment of Africans as inferior and enslaved in our country.  Slaves were desperate for the gospel, yet a stumbling block was put in their way. They were told their only real duty was to submit to their masters. In his autobiography[1], Peter Randolph, a slave until emancipated in 1847, recounts worship times for slaves:

There was another church, about fourteen miles from the one just mentioned. It was called “Brandon’s church,” and there the white Baptists worshiped. Edloe’s slaves sometimes went there. The colored people had a very small place allotted them to sit in, so they used to get as near the window as they could to hear the preacher talk to his congregation. But sometimes, while the preacher was exhorting to obedience, some of those outside would be selling refreshments, cake, candy and rum, and others would be horse-racing. This was the way, my readers; the Word of God was delivered and received in Prince George County. The Gospel was so mixed with slavery, that the people could see no beauty in it, and feel no reverence for it (pg. 64).

Examining our theology

In the antebellum South, pastors and church leaders would use Genesis 9:18-27 to justify slavery and as a proof text that blacks were not only inferior, but destined for slavery. The text describes Noah pronouncing a curse on his youngest son Ham, who had shamed him by looking at his father as he slept naked and inviting his brothers to join. The curse wasn’t actually on Ham; it was on Canaan, the son of Ham, and stated, “a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers” (Gen. 9:25). The curse of Canaan was misinterpreted and applied to all of Ham’s descendants for centuries. Why is this important? Ham’s descendants were most likely black African. Therefore, the curse of Canaan has been used to justify enslaving black Africans.

In his book, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, J. Daniel Hays explains that these beliefs put African-Americans in the inevitable position of inferiority. Slave owners, clergy and the like claimed slavery as a prophecy from God.

After the American Civil War, the “curse of Ham” was used by white clergymen to fight the notion of racial equality and the rights that would accompany such equality (voting, education, etc.). . . . Keep in mind that this position was popularized in the United States primarily to justify slavery . . . This view implies very clearly the theological view that the imposition of slavery on Black Africans by White Europeans and Americans was in fulfillment of a prophecy by God and was, therefore, justified (pg. 53-54).[2]

Choosing to care

We are a country that has been plagued by division and racism, specifically among blacks and whites. My generation is still fighting the effects of the sin from our past. And I imagine the erroneous and harmful teaching in the past still affects those generations before us. Though we may not teach intentionally the inferiority of blacks today, we still see the subtle—and not so subtle—evidence of that mindset remains.

I am not suggesting that every man or woman who doesn’t care about issues of race and ethnicity is automatically cursed by the sins of the past and thinks he is superior. I’m saying it’s worth us considering, given the long history of segregation and racism in our country. It is also worth evaluating when we remember that this belief was preached in our pulpits.  

There are compelling reasons why we should all care about the struggles of various ethnic groups in the U.S. The greatest of these has already been mentioned: love. We should love our neighbor sacrificially through learning, listening, hospitality and sharing gospel truths. God loves so much that he deemed it necessary to give his only Son as a sacrifice for us. The very least we could do is ask God to give us a heart that cares for those he created in his image.

My dear friend who admitted not caring about the issue of race in America has since changed. He does care, deeply. But it didn’t come from remaining apathetic. He dug in, read, asked good questions and began to take notice of his neighbor. God began to change his heart so that what was once an unknowing, uncaring, apathy became a desire to love and serve others—those different from him.

We all need to reflect on our own apathy and ask the question: Do we really care? And then, like my friend, die to ourselves, break free of our self-absorption and learn about others. This will not only impact our own hearts and souls but also the church. Our congregations are going to change, and we will want to be ready.

Notes

  1. ^ Sernett, Milton C. African American Religious History, Duke University Press, 1999. “Plantation Churches: Visible and Invisible” by Peter Randolph. P. 63-75.
  2. ^ Hays, J. Daniel. From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race. Inter Varsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois. 2003.