On Racism in My Own Heart

Contributor: Kris Shepherd

I have wanted to write this blog for a long time. I have wanted to write this blog for a long time because it needs to be said. I have not written this blog multiple times in the past because I was afraid it wouldn’t be perfect, it wouldn’t be enough. And even now I struggle as I write because I know it will never be perfect, it will never be enough. But in order to do enough, to stand up for what I believe in and for what’s right, I have to begin by doing something.

When Michael Brown, a black man, was shot to death by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, on August 9, 2014, my first thought was, “Oh, God, please let it be justified.” I remember thinking I didn’t want another event added to the long list of events that have caused people of my own race to be judged racist. I remember feeling like an unjustified killing would drop me and my white brothers and sisters down another rung on the ladder we have been trying to climb up from the abyss of racism; an abyss that was formed through the disgusting atrocities of slavery in the 17th – 19th centuries and still lingers through the (more subtle and often-denied) racial injustices of today. Now, I can hardly believe this was my initial internal response to the killing of a human being, but it was. And it disgusts me. But what came out of my own response was the opening of my eyes to just how wide-spread this response was.

Over the following days and weeks, I noticed a stark difference in the (general) responses of my white friends and that of my racial minority friends. There was a very distinct line drawn between these two groups, with one side looking to justify the officer’s actions by defaming and looking for guilt in Michael Brown, and the other side pointing out the simple humanity of this young man whose life ended far too early. This event became a mile-marker in the long process for me of seeing my own prejudice and bias and working to root it out.

The events of this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, have, again, exposed the abhorrent hatred that still exists in our country within groups like white nationalists and white supremacists. As I have thought about these events, I have been trying to figure out how I work to help end them. As I have prayed through what my response should be, a couple of things came to mind.

First of all, as a human, as a Christ-follower, and as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I believe each and every individual has inherent value given to them by their creator and is made in the image of God. As such, I whole-heartedly stand against the racist actions taking place in our country today. I stand with those who fight against oppression, and I pray for peace and restoration in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia and across our nation. I also pray for the complete transformation of those who spew such hatred and commit such violence against others. These actions and ideologies stand in complete opposition to the heart of God and the mission of Jesus Christ. I will no longer stand on the sidelines while people stand in fear of others based on their skin color, religion, sexuality, or nationality. Jesus stands with the oppressed, so I do, too.

The second thing that came to mind is to give a pathway toward reconciliation. I cannot on my own stop the racist and hate-filled actions of other people in our society, but I can begin by stepping into the transformation that Jesus has for my own life and, in doing so, become an agent of reconciliation with those around me. My prayer is that my own journey will help you, too, begin to step into the transformative power of Jesus and become a better peacemaker in a country that continually leans ever-closer to violence and racial separation. (Note: most of my words are directed toward those who are white, but I believe they can be applied by all)

As I write these words, I am reminded that anything and everything in my life flows back to one source – Jesus Christ – and my response to every single situation that arises should be guided specifically and purposefully by what I know Jesus’ response would be. With that said, here is what I have learned thus far in my journey toward rooting out racism in my own heart:
1. I have to show up
If you were ever involved in sports, music, dance, or any other form of extracurricular activity as a child, you should know how important this is. Looking up into the stands or out into the crowd for my parents I can remember would either bring complete jubilation or a deep sense of sadness. I know I do not singularly hold a huge sense of importance to any current stand against racism and oppression, but showing up matters. For far too long I and most white people have simply looked away when bad things have happened to minorities in the United States. From the Japanese internment camps of WWII to the race riots of the 1960s and all the way till today, we in the racial majority have found it far too easy to ignore these major issues because it doesn’t feel like it affects us. It’s not my problem…it’s theirs.

But that’s not the way of Jesus. Before the year 4 BCE, the earth was mired in sin. The people of Israel had turned their backs on God and decided to do things their own way. There was absolutely no reason for God to feel like he had to do anything. It wasn’t His problem…and, yet, the disciple John writes in his recording of Jesus’ life that, “The Word (Jesus) became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). Jesus came to earth. He showed up. And he did it to begin the process of reconciling us, humanity, to God, divinity.

So the first step for us in the process of reconciliation is to show up – to look directly into the faces of those afraid of the violence being threatened against them; to watch as the videos come across my screen of those protesting the oppression that is still being inflicted upon them; to choose to see something that doesn’t FEEL like it affects me.

2. I have to get close
I can remember going to baseball and basketball games as a kid. We always sat in the nosebleeds where we could see the events of the game unfolding and feel the atmosphere in the stadium without paying an arm and a leg to be there. When I was in high school, a friend of mine invited me to join his family at a Dallas Mavericks game. His dad’s company had season tickets, and we were the lucky recipients of them for that game. I remember getting to the arena and not heading immediately upstairs. In fact, we headed into the lower bowl. And descended down, down, down, all the way to around row 13. I remember watching the players and seeing a completely different ball game. I could see the sweat on their brows and the expressions on their faces. I could hear their shouts and grunts as they exerted themselves beyond their normal physical limitations. I was close enough to begin getting an idea of how those actually playing the game felt throughout the game.

For much of my younger years I had glaring racial blindspots I was completely unaware of. It wasn’t until I got to grad school and became good friends with several non-white individuals that I began to recognize just how far I had to go in my own understanding of race relations. For the first time in my life I began to hear first-hand the stories of individuals being followed through neighborhoods by police officers who thought they didn’t belong there; being watched as they walked through stores as if they were a known diamond thief walking through Kay’s; being stood over in a park by an officer who “just wanted to know what they are doing” but felt the need to keep his hand ON HIS GUN the entire time. Those are NOT normal interactions, and those are not events I have ever even remotely had to face myself. And yet individuals who are far more loving and harmless than I, have endured them on a consistent basis throughout their life…solely because their skin is not white. And suddenly my eyes began to open to a problem I thought had been taken care of decades ago. I began to understand why some people still feel oppressed. And I began to finally see the role I still played in their ongoing oppression.

In case you’re on the fence about whether or not you should get close to others who are different from you, know that is exactly what Jesus does All. The. Time. In John 8, the religious leaders of the day bring a woman whom they have caught in the act of adultery before Jesus. They throw her on the ground next to him and, knowing full well their law calls for them to stone her to death, they ask Jesus what they should do. There are absolutely no similarities between this woman and Jesus. One is a sinner, the other a saint (er…God); one is a woman, the other a man; one is powerless, the other completely powerful; one is unquestionably guilty, in the other they can find no fault…no matter how hard they try. And the angry crowd simply wants Jesus to put his stamp of approval on what the law clearly states should be done anyway. The answer is easy – Jesus has already taught multiple times on adultery. But when asked what to do, he squats down near to the ground. He, essentially, gets even closer to the woman. Then, when pressed for an answer, he stands up and tells the men holding the stones that whichever one of them has never made a mistake may throw the first one. Jesus COMES TO HER DEFENSE. The men all walk away, and Jesus encourages the woman to take this as an opportunity to receive his grace and live a new life.

Getting close to others is the way of Jesus. If I am not close enough to see the sweat on another’s brow, I am not close enough to say anything about their situation. And I am not close enough to bring reconciliation between the oppressor and the oppressed.

3. I have to participate
I have to be honest – this is the part I have struggled with the most. I have shown up, and I have gotten close at times. But I have never fully participated. Part of the issue is I don’t feel like I have time, and yet Jesus didn’t have time eithe Except he did. Because he made time. Jesus didn’t have to do anything for us, and yet the Bible tells us he died to save us. He sacrificed his own life for us. He laid down his life in order to raise ours up.

If showing up and getting close does not lead me to action, then I have missed the most crucial step of this entire process. I am still working on stepping out myself. This blog post is, in part, my first step. I don’t yet know how to go to their neighborhoods, how to step into the lives of others and participate in bringing restoration of the broken relationships between people of different races, religions, etc. And yet the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls me, beckons me, compels me to move, to join into the re-creating transformation God is doing in our world. To not actively be part of the solution means to passively be part of the problem. God calls us to step out.

This is step one – speaking up, drawing a line in the sand, taking a stand. Will you join me in repenting for our own negligence when it comes to the continued oppression of minorities in our country? Will you join me in beginning to step out and participate in the stories of others so we may continue to call out the powers and authorities in our country that continue to both ignore and perpetuate the oppression of those who are different? And, if you know some of the steps we may take to become better peacemakers and reconcilers, will you step into my story to help me as I figure it out?

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