Some Christians believe that racism doesn’t exist in America, and that talking about it will just create more problems. There are plenty of others, however, whose personal experience tells them that racism does, indeed, exist and that it is a problem in need of resolution.
Are we, as followers of Jesus, doomed to perpetual polarization over this issue? Or can we model a way forward for the rest of the country and the world in these divided times?
Whether you believe racism exists or not, one thing seems certain: we cannot move forward together until we understand and acknowledge the wrongs of the past and seek to make them right.
The Abomination of American Slavery
Sadly, I suspect that many American Christians are largely ignorant of the history of racism in America. Nineteenth century American slavery and the state sponsored racism that followed were much worse than my high school history books ever portrayed. In the intervening years, several books and historical accounts have served to enlighten me. Knowing history, I believe, is necessary to not only avoid repeating it but also to aid us in developing understanding and empathy for those who are different than us. As followers of Jesus, we must be willing to confront this terrible past and see where the ugly racism of the human heart has led our ancestors—and where it can lead us today, and often does.
One book that woke me up to the horrors of American slavery is Solomon Northup’s graphic and harrowing 19th century memoir, Twelve Years a Slave—recently made into a motion picture. Northup’s book documents his true account of being kidnapped as a black freeman in America and sold into slavery. Read it, and your heart will ache for days, maybe even for the rest of your life.
The atrocities had only begun when human beings created in God’s image were loaded like cargo onto slave ships to be transported to the Americas, where they would become fuel for the American economy. To increase profits, a slave ship owner would cram as many African men and women as possible into the hold of their ship. Stripped of clothing and confined to small spaces with little headroom, the newly enslaved were tightly chained to plank beds where many succumbed to disease and died a terrible but “merciful” death on the long trip over the Atlantic Ocean. The PBS mini-series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, documents well the horrors of this journey through the “Middle Passage.”
Northup’s account of slavery in North America shows that upon arrival in the New World, things only worsened for the enslaved. By law, “negroes” had no inalienable rights in the land of the free, and were not considered persons under the United States Constitution. Enslaved men and women were nothing more than a commodity, human chattel, the property of the white man or woman who bought them. On the slave owner’s auction block, babies were torn from their mother’s arms—never to be seen again. A husband was sold to a buyer in Texas, while his wife went to a Virginia planter.
Historian Edward E. Baptist in his book, The Half Has Never Been Told, describes how Charles Ball, a young enslaved boy, was ripped away from his mother who had just been sold to a Georgia buyer:
“A Maryland man bought the little boy and wrapped him in his own child’s spare gown. Putting Charles up in front of him, the buyer turned his horse’s head toward home. Before he could leave, Charles’s mother came running up, weeping. She took Charles down into her arms, hugged him and pleaded through tears for the man to buy them all. She only got a moment to make her case. Down came the Georgia man, running in his heavy boots, wading into her with his whip, beating her shoulders until she handed Charles over. The Georgia buyer dragged her screaming toward the yard. The crying boy clung to the Maryland man, his new owner” (Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told, 18).
As if forced separation wasn’t enough, enslaved women were routinely raped by their white “Christian” owners, their bodies forced to submit to the master who owned them. Some masters kept lists of the scores of enslaved women they had raped, many of them young teenage girls. Thus, any semblance of family structure or social network in the African American enslaved community was perverted and destroyed by the brutality of the white enslavers. Add to this the systematic physical torture—the brutal lashings and beatings—that Southern plantation masters frequently inflicted on those they claimed to own, and it is not difficult to conclude that American slavery left indelible physical, mental, emotional and spiritual scars on the enslaved and their descendants.
What Does This Have to Do with Me?
That’s pretty terrible, someone will say, but how is it relevant to today?
There’s a curious biblical story found in Second Samuel chapter 21 that illustrates how seriously God considers the mistreatment of our fellow human beings, and our collective responsibility to make wrongs right.
“Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year. And David sought the face of the Lord. And the Lord said, ‘There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.’. . . And David said to the Gibeonites, ‘What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?’” (2 Samuel 21:1, 3, ESV).
Here, the people of Israel collectively suffered from a famine in the land because of the atrocities committed by Saul against a certain ethnic minority in the land of Israel, the Gibeonites. Israel had sworn to the Gibeonites that they would not be killed, and Saul had broken that oath. This Bible story fits with the overall biblical narrative that we as human beings owe a debt of love to each other, and that we ought to defend the oppressed and seek to rectify wrongs they have suffered. Notice how honestly and forthrightly King David confronted the issue. First, he “sought the Lord” to ascertain the cause of the famine. Once he discovered the answer, he did not merely issue an apology and then tell the Gibeonites to “get over it.” He asked the question that that demonstrates true repentance: What can I do to make this right?
Ellen White certainly agreed. Over thirty years after the end of the Civil War, she wrote:
“The American nation owes a debt of love to the colored race, and God has ordained that they should make restitution for the wrong they have done them in the past. Those who have taken no active part in enforcing slavery upon the colored people are not relieved from the responsibility of making special efforts to remove, as far as possible, the sure result of their enslavement” (Review and Herald, January 21, 1896).
For more than two centuries, the abomination of slavery was committed in our land, as an entire race of human beings was brutalized. Should we not be at least as honest and proactive as King David was in seeking to bring about justice and reconciliation?
While slavery and certain forms of discrimination are now be illegal in America, overt state sanctioned racial violence and discrimination are much more alive than many realize. Both victims and perpetrators of government endorsed racial segregation and violent intimidation are still occurring today. Recent political events have merely torn off the scab of festering resentments among ethnic minorities, fueled by widespread poverty, disproportionately high rates of incarceration, and harsh prison sentences.
Legal history illustrates how deeply racism has been interwoven into the laws and customs of American society. For example, Virginia was the first of the American colonies to codify the enslavement of “the negro” and others based on the color of their skin, their country of origin, or their religion. “An act concerning Servants and Slaves” was passed by the commonwealth’s General Assembly in 1705 and delineated in detail the rights that white Christian owners had over the bodies and destinies of slaves and their offspring. Over 150 years of legalized brutality followed, culminating with the Civil War.
But widespread brutality toward blacks in America didn’t cease with the Civil War. In fact, lynching—defined as the act of killing someone without a legal trial—continued with a vengeance, with over 4000 blacks being lynched in the South between the years 1877 and 1950 alone. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit human rights organization, describes the lynching of African Americans as “terrorism, a widely-supported phenomenon used to enforce racial subordination and segregation.” These “lynching’s were violent and public events that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials.”
Why were they lynched? “Many African Americans who were never accused of any crime were tortured and murdered in front of picnicking spectators (including elected officials and prominent citizens) for bumping into a white person, or wearing their military uniforms after World War I, or not using the appropriate title when addressing a white person.” To add insult to injury, “people who participated in lynching’s were celebrated and acted with impunity, purchasing victims’ body parts as souvenirs and posing for photographs with hanging corpses to mail to loved ones as postcards” (http://www.eji.org).
Meanwhile, it wasn’t just African Americans who were experiencing discrimination in the land of liberty. In the infamous case Korematsu v. United States (1944), the Supreme Court upheld as constitutional a presidential order that required American citizens of Japanese ancestry to move from their homes to internment camps. This, for no other reason than that their looks differed from the majority white population—and because they might possibly pose a national security threat. Sound familiar?
Keep in mind that many of these events happened during the lifetime of many Americans still alive today—incidents that are etched into the memory of both victims and perpetrators. Far from being a thing of the distant past, state sanctioned segregation and racial discrimination and violence is relatively recent American history.
When the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in 1865, slavery officially became illegal in the United States. But while the black man was legally free, he was not free to be the white man’s equal. Far from it! Following Reconstruction, the United States Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) upheld state imposed racial segregation—the “separate but equal” doctrine. Many whites in both the Northern and Southern United States supported the Court’s decision because of their belief that people with white skin were inherently superior to those with darker skin. Southern states enacted laws—known as “Jim Crow laws”—that effectively relegated blacks to the status of second-class citizens. These discriminatory laws, combined with violent harassment and intimidation by white supremacist groups, discouraged blacks from voting or exercising their legal rights. The “Black Code” laws continued in full force until only a few decades ago when the Court overturned the Plessy decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1955) and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
But while laws serve to enforce someone’s rights, they can’t change the perpetrator’s heart. And while laws have been enacted with the intent of eliminating many (though certainly not all) forms of racial discrimination, evil still lurks in the human heart. Only God’s powerful love—manifested through us—can change the heart and bring about repentance, reconciliation and forgiveness.
Today, statistics show that people of color still experience racial discrimination—intentional or otherwise—in America’s criminal justice system and beyond. In a system where only the wealthy can afford to post bail, pay court imposed fines, or hire effective legal counsel, people of color are disproportionately disadvantaged. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “approximately 12–13% of the American population is African-American, but they make up 35% of jail inmates, and 37% of prison inmates of the 2.2 million male inmates as of 2014.” EJI founder and public interest lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, has highlighted this issue in his captivating book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. It is a must-read. Meanwhile, human rights groups point to a rise in xenophobia and overt racism in America. White supremacist hate-groups, once thought to be dying out, have been emboldened by the recent political winds blowing across the land and are now becoming more mainstream.
The Christian Way Forward
In the face of all of this, how should a Christian living in 2017 respond?
King David’s actions toward the Gibeonites give us a place to start. David seeks God, admits that there is a problem and realizes that, even though he personally may not have created the problem, it is his responsibility to help solve it. He then reaches out to those who have been wronged and seeks to make restitution and bring about reconciliation.
Shouldn’t Christians seek to understand the pain of those who are hurting within our midst due to racial injustice?
Shouldn’t we be the first to seek the healing of the wounds caused by racism that fester within our society, by demonstrating love and seeking justice?
Of course, the greatest act of reconciliation is the cross of Jesus Christ. There, an innocent God demonstrated self-sacrificing love to solve a problem that was not His fault. “Beloved,” John wrote, “if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.” Nowhere is this kind of love more needed than in the divided world and church of today. God wants to heal the wounds caused by racism and bring every nation (ethnos), tribe, tongue and people together into one family.
As a white man in America, some of my Christian ancestors undoubtedly aided and abetted the institutions of slavery and government-sponsored racism that I write about here. I can’t help that they did that, but I can choose to confront racism in my own heart and be proactive in seeking justice and reconciliation today. God has recently given me a verse that has become a sort of theme verse for me, and which speaks to our responsibility to the oppressed:
“Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:3-4, NIV).
I pray that Jesus will live out these words in my life. I hope you will make that a prayer for your life as well.
Steve Allred served as a Seventh-day Adventist pastor for over a decade before recently stepping down to practice law and be a part-time stay-at-home dad to Eli and Vivienne. His law practice includes partnering with the Church State Council (Pacific Union Conference) to represent plaintiffs in employment discrimination and civil rights cases. Steve is happily married to Cheri and lives near Sacramento, California.