I think that the answer to racism is actually very simple; its cure is the reverse of my old political science professor's statement: "I can accept a Black on equal terms in an impersonal relationship, or I can accept a Black in a personal relationship as long as he is not my equal, but I cannot accept a Black on equal terms in a personal relationship."
In other words, I must reach out to another person as an equal and prayerfully work toward the kind of intimacy that makes real communication and trust possible.
Somewhere along that journey toward intimacy, I have to be honest about my own struggles with racism, and I eventually admit to what almost all Blacks believe about almost all Whites: I am a racist -- in my case a "recovering" one. I confess that sometimes I revert to the way I was programmed to think as a boy. For example, if I see a White woman with a Black man, I have an instant, negative, visceral reaction -- far more so than if I see a White man with a Black woman.
Sinless perfection isn't what is demanded in God's kingdom; honesty, confession and repentance are. Just as sometimes when I notice a fine looking woman, I have to exercise that eye covenant that Job talked about in 31:1, so with regard to mental racial profiling, I have to make some quick choices about not thinking the way that is "natural" for me to think. Somewhere deep inside me, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray are lurking; their Bell Curve thingy just fits so well with what I "was carefully taught" by preachers, public school teachers and my family. My wife, who was raised Baptist in northern Florida, remembers her preacher teaching them that Blacks were a high order of apes put here by God to serve White people -- and that was in the second half of the twentieth century, in an urban church of a couple of thousand members.
When I join in singing "We Shall Overcome," I am also singing about my own war with myself, sanctification. Honesty on my part invites honesty on the part of my Black friends.
My closest friend in the ministry is a Black Baptist preacher, the one whom I mentioned above whose house was torched back in the forties in North Louisiana. How we became friends is an interesting story.
I had become convicted that I was to reach out to three other pastors to meet to pray for our community, and one of these men was Black. I called Pastor Banks and asked for an appointment. He met me at his church one morning, and we talked back and forth. It was very awkward, he was sniffing my motives like a watch dog does a strange cur. We gently jostled with each other's theologies and after about thirty minutes, he invited me to go into his sanctuary for prayer. We both knelt down on the pulpit chairs and prayed. He went first. Then I started. I don't know what happened. Maybe I was just nervous, but suddenly I became conscious that I was praying like a Black preacher: accent, inflection, cadence, volume.
Now, I may be crazy, but I'm no fool. You just don't do that. People would think that you are mocking them. I was so startled at hearing myself, I almost stopped, but I didn't. It almost seemed like I couldn't; it seemed like it wasn't me praying. Then I became aware of something else -- my back was wet. The Black minister was still on his knees, but he was over me and tears were rolling down his face, so much so that they had dripped down his cheeks, onto my shirt and wet through to my back.
From that day on about fifteen years ago, we have been fast friends. We've swapped pulpits; he and his wife and my wife and I sometimes go out to eat. We have done a lot together. Most of all we pray together in a small group of pastors.
I had tried something like that decades ago, but it hadn't worked. Being in my own mind a theological hotshot who still reads Greek and Hebrew, I came with "the White Man's Burden." Smart ol' Presbyterian Bob came to enlighten the Arminian, Baptist, King James reading Africans. How do you spell pride and arrogance? When those watch dogs got one sniff of me, they knew that I didn't belong in their neighborhood.
In the late eighties I came with a measure of brokenness. My small measure of erudition hadn't kept me from life's troubles and failures. In the seventies, I had descended from my Presbyterian Ivory tower, sure I had a perfect family, church and theological system. In the late eighties, I came having offered to resign from my pastorate because of family troubles, my wife having been run over by a log truck, my church having split and tending to a somewhat senile, live-in parent. I came as a needy man looking for fellowship. I came to learn from older pastors, occasionally sharing things the Lord had taught me, too.
My goal is getting people together that way. Racism will die one relationship at a time. But it's a relationship, not just a quick trip over to the other side of town to ease a load of White guilt. And relationships cost time and effort. Unless the Lord does some kind of weird prayer thing like he did with my pastor friend and me, it takes a long time to build. Part of the reason for that is that White folks get to feeling guilty and they reach out, but when work, church or family duties beckon, the commitment slowly dies.
Bottom line: I would like to see every White pastor begin to pray about establishing a relationship with one Black pastor, just one. Center the whole thing in Jesus and nothing else. Begin to meet for prayer on a regular basis. Open up and share your problems -- get real, get personal, take risks. Eventually, invite the man and his wife to go out to eat with you and your wife. Then have them over to your house. Then you could go in a couple of different directions. You could swap pulpits; you could each ask another couple to join you; you could have a combined men's prayer breakfast. But there is one big caveat: go when you're invited. Over the years, I've repeatedly heard Black ministers say, "We always come into the White community when you invite us, but you all don't ever come into our part of town."
The burden is on all of us to change that.
"You've got to be carefully taught!" You've got to be taught to hate and fear, You've got to be taught from year to year. It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You've got to be carefully taught!
You've got to be taught to be afraid Of people whose eyes are oddly made Or people whose skin is a different shade You've got to be carefully taught!
You've got to be taught before it's too late, Before you are six or seven or eight To hate all the people your relatives hate. You've got to be carefully taught! You've got to be carefully taught! South Pacific by Rodgers & Hammerstein
I didn't remove it. Someone else must have. But I will say in response that we must temper our judgments about people in the past by remembering that we are all creatures subject to time, and we can only see our sins and errors as God shows them to us. No time period on our planet is perfect. We in the early twenty-first century have insights that those in early and mid twentieth century did not have and vice versa. We must remember that we, too, have our blind spots, just as did they.
The spirit of an age profoundly affects how those living within it look at reality.