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My wife, Joy, and I lived in south-central Los Angeles during the early ’80s. We joined an African American church where, on many Sundays, we were the only pink faces. My pastor, my teachers, my friends were black. They remain some of the most godly, loving and gracious people we’ve known, people who reached out and accepted us in our naiveté.
 
Occasional camping trips to a California beach state park provided an escape from the city for us. While walking from our tent to the surf, I felt my burdens lift with each step. Unless we had brought black friends along. Then, every step felt heavier. That’s because everyone watched us, peeking out of tents or from over raised books. We were a threat.
 
It wasn’t easy to get my black brothers and sisters to talk about it, but sometimes they would lift the veil and tell their stories of being excluded, accused, passed over, insulted, peered at suspiciously. I heard the advice they gave their children: “Don’t talk back. Be compliant. Use yes, sir and no, sir. Don’t wear those clothes.”
 
As one sister explained, she had to always be on guard, sizing up people and situations: Is it safe here? Am I going to be seen with respect, included, valued? Or will I be mistrusted, questioned, doubted?
 
My church family—people I dearly loved—repeatedly experienced prejudice and suspicion, like a dark cloud overhead. Their response—to remain positive and loving—astonished and challenged me. We all talk about loving our enemies. They did so.

Most fellow whites I know do not grasp just how pervasive and real this prejudice remains. Nor do we understand how privileged we are, how our society’s systems work for us while regularly denying opportunity to people not like us. We are blind to this privilege, I’m sure. Yet it’s real. Until we “get it,” we won’t work to change it. 

Blindness exemplified
When we know what to look for, we can find examples of this blindness all around us, yet the July 2013 trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin is a good national example. Whites pushed back when people of color charged the jury with racism, didn’t we? Why did African Americans see racism, when whites did not?

It goes back to what African Americans experience of the justice system. The objective facts are that blacks receive harsher sentences than whites for the same crimes1 . Police stop blacks far more frequently2 , and prosecutors file charges far more frequently against blacks3 .

So when a jury without a single black person exonerates a white person who initiates an altercation with a young black man and ends up killing him, it’s hard to dismiss it as simply one incident. Rather, that was one more incident in a lifetime of incidents.

As President Obama pointed out when he commented on the Zimmerman trial, that lifetime of incidents “inform[s] how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.”

I’m not rehashing Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence. My point is that African Americans’ ongoing experience of prejudice leads them to suspect racism. Once again, the system seems stacked against them.
 
Some insist that the media was responsible for turning the trial into a black/white issue.
This denies the reality of an ongoing, persuasive prejudice against African Americans and many other people who are “different.” When whites get defensive about this prejudice, they dismiss something that is real and difficult.

Sure, as a white person myself, I have been “profiled” and judged simply because of the color of my skin. Yet there are major differences between the kinds of prejudices experienced by whites in this country (and, most importantly, the consequences) and those experienced by minorities.

We whites, for example, rarely are denied a job or turned down for an apartment rental, etc., because of our skin color. When that does happen, it’s usually due to affirmative action and it outrages us. But for minorities, these kinds of experiences are everyday.

We rage at the occasional injustice; they live with injustice.

Following Jesus’ lead
So how do white followers of Jesus navigate this minefield of hurt, injustice and misunderstanding? How can we be peacemakers the next time our conversations turn to racial situations in the news?

I think a good starting point is to humble ourselves and accept that perhaps our perspective on racism might be inaccurate.

This isn’t to suggest that we are guilty of intentional racism. Rather, it’s to acknowledge our ignorance and to suspend our defensiveness and judgment on issues relating to race. Instead, let us become learners—seeking to listen to and understand the painful experiences of people of color and recognize the preferential privileges we whites enjoy.

This goes far beyond simply becoming “friends” with one person of color. Research discussed in the book Divided by Faith confirms it: Not until relationships are deep enough to withstand some painful honesty about our privileges, and until we stand alongside our friends and experience their mistreatment, will we be in a place to love—and to work for equality.

I think all this argues for the importance of making multicultural churches the norm. We need to live life together. Those of us in positions of privilege need to actively become servants. It’s past time for people of color to pastor our churches and populate our boards.

As followers of Jesus who believe in the sanctity of life—that all human beings are of equal worth—we aren’t supposed to mirror our polarized society by being defensive about and denying racism. Instead, let us demonstrate the way of the kingdom, not avoiding Samaria but deliberately going there and being present there. As my wife and I experienced, we’ll see Jesus, in all His breathtaking power.

Follow this blog conversation to explore the complexities of dialog on this topic. And consider two books by Christian sociologists, who researched what it took to build genuine multiracial relationships and churches to bridge the gulfs between us: Divided by Faith and United by Faith.

1 McClatchyDC news bureau, “Racial disparities in sentencing rise after guidelines loosened,” March 12, 2010. 2Do a web search for “Blacks stopped more often by police.” In city after city, you’ll find reports detailing this practice. 3The Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, “Justice on Trial: Race and prosecutorial discretion.”

Dennis Hesselbarth is taking a sabbatical after serving for 26 years as pastor of Hilltop Urban Church (EFCA) in Wichita, Kan.

13 Comments

While I agree with the thrust of this article, your allegation that Zimmerman “initiate[d] the altercation” inevitably IS a “rehashing [his] guilt or innocence.”

Your article would have retained more of the power of its argument without the injection your own biases. Best to have left it out altogether. There are plenty of other race-tinged issues that can be commented upon (the current panic over the supposed prevalence of the “knock-out game” amongst African-American youth, for example).

— Steve on January 22, 2014 @ 4:14pm

I was recently in a conversation with a lady from Poland, raised under communism until her last year of high school.  Her father was an officer in the Polish military. My first contact with communism was when I was in the U.S. military being taught Russian by people who had escaped communism, and they were all very negative in comments about communism.  My point, as it relates to racism is this:  we are all products of our upbringings and experiences.  We usually do one of two things; either rebel against our backgrounds or embrace them. We can not ignore who we were brought up to be. Jesus, while fully human, was also fully God.  While He knew and understood all our prejudices, He rejected them all and died for every one of us who will accept Him as Lord and Savior.  The only answer to racism, communism, abortion, bullying, drugs——every one of our human prejudices and weaknesses is—-to try every day to be more like Him.  Any other solution is worthless.  He is the one and only way, truth and life we are to experience to be human as God intended us.

— Gary Thomsen on January 22, 2014 @ 4:48pm

The absurdity of this defies description.

When you decide of include black racism and black on white crime, then it’s time to repost.

And consider leaving anything by Cornell West out of the discussion. He’l may be one of the worse racist and race baiters in America.

Where are our black Christian brethren speaking out against those racist black leaders dividing our Nation?

— Donald Moeser on January 22, 2014 @ 5:00pm

It is sad that innocent blacks are profiled.  But even some black leaders admit that they are afraid to enter certain black neighborhoods.  Just look at the knockout punches leveled in public places recently at elderly white people.  All of these cowardly offenders were young black men.  The solution for the woes of our minority citizens must arise in the family.  We know that 72% of black babies are born outside of wedlock, and that the best predictor of poverty is the single parent family.  These fatherless families are more prone to breed crime, drug abuse, and other ills.

— Warren E. Anderson on January 22, 2014 @ 6:38pm

Hesselbarth has explained the cancerous situation in the United States, among the Christians. The popular saying, which says that racial discrimination is in its worst on Sunday mornings is very apt. This is true all over the world; particularly true is the ‘preferential privilege’ of the dominant group right from the time he/she steps out of his/her residence.

The hue and cry, and the anxiety of setting up of ‘the ethnic ministries’ by some national churches in the USA (and elsewhere) appears to be hasty actions to amend the neglect and indifference of average Christians (and pastors) in their behavior to ‘the other’ right in front of their worship centers. (I am recalling the question raised by a Church Leader, about such a household in front of his House of Worship. 
I am glad that Hesselbarth has found the right remedy in (para 5 under ‘Following Jesus’ Lead)! Hope and pray it will be implemented by the Church!         

— John T Wattachanackal, MSW, D.Min on January 22, 2014 @ 7:33pm

What a disheartening article. If I am white I am a racist. That’s it. If I deny the charge then I am not humble enough to admit the truth and must be immediately enrolled in the nearest EFCA reeducation camp. No thanks. For freedom Christ has set me free and I refuse this legalistic burden.

— Naomi on January 22, 2014 @ 11:20pm

Thanks Dennis for the challenge. Hard to hear and to receive, but better blows from a friend, than kisses from an enemy! May God help us to be agents of grace in our world as we share the good news of Christ in every realm!

— Dave Hyatt on January 23, 2014 @ 9:18am

Steve, thank you for your instructive comments. I debated the inclusion of the Zimmerman incident for the very reason you mention it. I finally decided to include it solely to illustrate how differently whites and blacks perceive racially “tinged” incidents, due to their different experiences. I am sorry if it prompted a different response. Please don’t allow that to take away from the reality of the differences.

— Dennis Hesselbarth on January 28, 2014 @ 11:22am

A number of comments bring up problems within the African American community, especially black crime, which, like white crime, is very wrong, no matter what the reason. Are we subtly implying that because the African American community has it’s problems, somehow whites are off the hook for their prejudices? That the systems in our country that favor whites over persons of color are ok, or that we have no responsibility as followers of Jesus to work to change them? I know it’s natural to be defensive when others point out areas of failure. Can you and I, as followers of Jesus, go beyond that to love, to look at the very real pain of others? If we do, if we’ll listen and learn and especially get to know persons of color, the heart of Jesus within us will move us with compassion. That was our experience, and I suspect, will be yours as well.

1 Cor. 12:26 “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” When people who say they love and follow Jesus aren’t suffering along with others who suffer, then perhaps we need to stop and ask, “Maybe there’s something off kilter in my heart?”

The Great Commandments, which encapsulate the whole biblical message, boil down to love - loving God, loving our neighbor as ourselves.

— Dennis Hesselbarth on January 28, 2014 @ 11:26am

Naomi, could I suggest a different way to respond? Does it bother you when others are mistreated? If a friend, for example, is mistreated, I suspect your heart is pained. That’s what love does. Could you frame this in terms of loving others?

Our hearts rightly cry out for the unborn, for victims of sexual trafficking. If you and I will get to know people of color, our hearts will begin to cry out for their suffering. Could you think about approaching this whole area of racism in that way, instead of feeling burdened? The great commandments are about loving our God, our neighbors, and one another. It’s a joyful way to respond to injustice.

— Dennis Hesselbarth on January 28, 2014 @ 11:37am

Thanks Br. Hasselbarth & Sr. Naomi,
Christ purchased the freedom that we enjoy with His blood to prepare a blameless bride, His Church,for His great and coming wedding banquette. He ain’t coming until we (black, yellow, white, green, etc.), who have accepted His saving grace clean our act and start obeying His commands—first being to love one another and demonstrate that love to a hungry and dying world. Worldly privileges or ‘toys’ or the prejudices/injustices only point to the need to look in the mirror of God’s word and see how I stand (really needy and pathetic—ready for His cleansing blood to wash me). 

— Lucy on January 28, 2014 @ 3:21pm

Thank you Dennis. As always you make me think. The New Testament had many pointed racial incidents that make it clear that blindness is not new. It can be ever so invisible. We have much to learn. They were blind to it as we tend that way even now. Better to have a talk out in the open together. You give me hope….Lord Jesus help us.

James 1:19

— Alejandro (Alex) Mandes on January 28, 2014 @ 11:39pm

Talk about stirring up the fire!  This article assumes falsely that blacks and whites are two separate cultures, or at least that none of us exist in a society of truly mixed cultures.  The challenge of your article is to love those who write this kind of satire.  “Love suffers long”, so I will try however.

— Mark Harbour on March 13, 2014 @ 4:44am
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