Last December, Motormouth Maybelle belted out the peppy lyrics, “I know we’ve come so far, but we’ve got so far to go,” in NBC’s Hairspray. A heartsick feeling welled up as I wondered, Have we really come so far? The 1960s musical explores a hopeful time when segments of America rose to fight racial segregation. Would Motormouth Maybelle be impressed with our progress in 2017? As I reflected, I posted this on social media:
If you’re watching NBC’s version of Hairspray tonight and thinking how ridiculous segregation was and how far America has come, think again. Living in Baltimore and observing blatant and ongoing racism with my own eyes makes me hurt for my black friends. We haven’t come far enough, friends. Stand up and defend. God’s kingdom is every tribe, tongue, and nation.
While most of my black (and non-white) friends agreed and thanked me for speaking up, a few of my white friends seemed surprised. “Why must we see race at all?” one asked. This question demonstrated to me a naïveté and breakdown in understanding that’s keeping many white Christians from strengthening race relations for the sake of the kingdom. We have a duty that extends farther than personal freedom from guilt.
As white believers, it’s easy to believe our only part in racial reconciliation is to avoid personal racial prejudice and to agree God values all people. If we can check off these two boxes, we can blame the problems on everyone else. However, when there are divisions among Christ’s body (including but not limited to racial divisions), all of us must labor to repair, rebuild, and restore for God’s glory. Yet such restorative work will never happen if we think the problem only exists outside ourselves.
We Need Perspective
As a white, middle-class suburbanite, I’m never going to be the best barometer of how to sensitively work towards racial reconciliation. For those of us who have never lived on the other side of racial tensions, asking “Can’t we just be colorblind?” may seem culturally sensitive and accepting. But ask black brothers or sisters and they’ll tell you they’ve never been afforded the opportunity to forget the color of their skin, nor do they hope to. Denying their ethnicity would mean denying part of their God-created identity. If I don’t understand these nuances, it’ll be hard to love and serve others.
To love people, we must understand people. If I base my view of race-related tensions on my own relationships and experiences, or I generalize my understanding of an entire group of people based on the experiences of one or two minority friends, my perspective is going to be embarrassingly limited.
If all my friends are white and come from the same socioeconomic class, how can I understand the plight of my neighbor whose ethnicity and opportunities differ from mine? My own lack of cultural understanding might as well place the black man or Hispanic family next door an entire world away. While conversations about race are a great starting point, without a variety of perspectives we are the blind leading the blind. We need the assistance and insight of friends of color—which first demands we seek, find, and value friends who look different than us.
We Need Humility
Raise your hand if you’ve spoken the words “Well, the problem with race relations is . . .” or “Well, you know we could fix this if we just . . .” Yes, my hand is up. Platitudes like these assume simple solutions. While we can pontificate on problems all day long, if we could have easily fixed things we already would have. Can we begin with humility?
We need humility to recognize that while we may not personally notice racial biases, they exist. My black friends and their children are not always afforded the same opportunities, courtesies, and respect I take for granted. We need humility to admit we have a long way to go in redeeming the brokenness caused by past generations that still lingers today. We need humility to listen without assuming we know all the answers. When people different from us share experiences, perspectives, and advice, we need humility to hear and ask questions when we don’t understand—and even more when we think we do.
We Need Practice
We also need to be on the lookout for opportunities to grow. Practice seeking other perspectives. Practice stepping into uncomfortable conversations. Practice having your opinions challenged and corrected—and resisting the urge to defend yourself. Practice staying levelheaded in the face of a seemingly unfair characterization of your opinion. Practice asking friends of color, “Is this my ethnically unique interpretation of the situation?” Practice admitting your viewpoint isn’t the only one out there.
Practice boldly standing up for truth when you see or hear it maligned. This may mean challenging a friend’s harsh words or mindset in person or online. It may mean challenging a family member. Standing up for truth means caring about God’s heart for people more than you care about your own angle, experience, comfort, or allegiances. Practice being a friend and a fellow comrade in the battle against racism.
We Need Jesus
We live in a broken world. All will not be right—not even close—until King Jesus returns. While we won’t solve the problem of racism (this would require solving the problem of sin), we can surely work to glorify God in our relationships with people of every race by standing in the gap. While Motormouth Maybelle’s words “I know we’ve come so far, but we’ve got so far to go” are poignant, a greater anthem should guide our efforts:
Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth. (Rev. 5:9)
Until this vision becomes reality, may we do everything we can to work for Christ-centered racial reconciliation on earth—on earth as it is in heaven.