Fighting Discrimination

Image courtesy of Victor Habbick at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Victor Habbick at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this country has lost its ever-lovin’ mind. It is clearer than ever before that we face sharp distinctions between categories of people. Distinctions in and of themselves are not bad things. Our lives fall into categories based on a variety of things: age group, ethnicity, gender, education level, income, homeowner or renter…and the list goes on and on. It’s impossible to live a “category-free” life.

The problem is when we discriminate based on categories. In simpler terms, discrimination is about playing favorites. Every grade-school child knows about playing favorites. The popular or athletic kids are always picked first for games. The kids in the negative categories (unpopular, overweight, uncoordinated, whatever) are discriminated against and picked last – if picked at all. Playing favorites. Discrimination. It’s the same thing. It’s about treating some people more or less favorably based upon some quality or characteristic.

This isn’t a new phenomenon; it’s been going on since the dawn of time. In his letter to the Diaspora James writes:

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2:1-8)

James’ audience had a particular problem of treating wealthy people better than they treated the poor. The rich got the best seats and the most attention. The poor got the floor and the cold shoulder. The principle at work in his churches is the same principle that drives discrimination today: paying attention and responding to outward appearances is the primary way of showing partiality.

Not only is discrimination incompatible with authentic Christian behavior but it is actually sinful. It is contrary to the will and character of God to discriminate against and treat people as less-than because of a category to which they belong. If you show partiality you are committing sin. That’s not me saying that – it’s the Bible. The Bible repeatedly tries to move us away from a mindset of discriminating against people, showing favoritism, because of their categories.

One of the most popular stories from the Gospels is about Jesus calling out his disciples for discriminating:

Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:13-14)

Even Jesus’ closest companions fell into discrimination. It happens whenever we start to think less of someone because of his status. He doesn’t count as much, he’s only a child. She doesn’t count as much, she’s just a woman. They don’t count as much, they’re not _________ (fill in the blank). There is no room for discrimination in God’s Kingdom. God doesn’t play favorites – why do we? It’s because we let our identity come from our categories rather than from God. We’re ethnic before we’re Christian. We’re political before we’re Christian. We’re employees before we’re Christian. We’ve got our priorities backwards. We need to shed the classifications of this world. Our sense of identity ought to come from God.

So what’s the answer? First, we have to change our allegiances, our priorities, our categories. We need to stop seeing others with the classifications of this world and start seeing people through God’s eyes. It comes down to loving people the same way you love yourself (a biblical concept). No one wants to be treated as less-than or other-than. So don’t treat others that way.

Second, we need to see OURSELVES without the categories of this world and see ourselves through God’s eyes. One of the early leaders in church history was a young guy named Timothy. It seems that some preferred to classify Tim by his age rather than by his calling as Pastor. Paul instructs Tim to shed the human classifications and to remember the calling that God has given you.

It’s time to make a change. It’s time for Christians to lead the charge. We should not put up with discrimination. We should recognize that identity is not determined by human categories but on our Creator. Imagine a world where physical distinctions disappear and we treat each other decently simply because we’re all made by the same creator. It’s tough – I know. But try. Drop all the other labels and put on this one: CHILD OF GOD.

How about you? How have you been discriminated against? In all honesty, how have you discriminated against others?

Listen Up, Shut Up, and Calm Down

So is a grenade...
So is a grenade…

We may not live in the Wild West but sometimes we sure do act like it. We become gunslingers, looking to take down our enemy at high noon. Instead of six-shooters, though, we use words. Words have power.

With our words we can cut people down. With our words we can cripple another. With our words we can destroy a reputation or even cripple a business. Words have power. You may have found yourself on the wrong end of someone’s words  – what they say to you or about you is terrible and difficult, like looking down the barrel of a .357 Magnum.

Perhaps you’ve already faced the destruction that comes from someone’s harsh and hurtful words and now you’re trying to recover as best you can. Words have power. Choose them wisely.

Too many fail to see how powerful their words are. The tongue can be an ugly thing. We throw around terms and phrases without thinking about the consequences of those power weapons. In the Army every warfighter has to qualify with their rifle. When we go to the range to shoot the instructors are clear to remind Soldiers that they have the responsibility to know where their targets are and what lies beyond. Every time a bullet comes out of the rifle the Soldier is responsible for what happens on the other end. What would happen if we started treating our words in a similar fashion? Stop speaking so quickly and think about your intended target and what happens beyond. Where do the words go? Who might the words hit? Human speech has an enormous capacity for harm or for good. Words have power. Choose them wisely.

The Bible has some practical advice on how we should behave when it comes to our mouths. Not merely some abstract thoughts here – concrete steps on what we can do to gain control of our mouths, to stop tearing people down, and to start building people up. It’s not difficult at all – just three things to remember:

~ Listen up, shut up, and calm down. I don’t know about you, but every time I’m told to “do something” there is a part of me that wants to rebel and do the exact opposite. I remember one time when my wife thought I was driving too fast and told me so. Rather than admit that I might be going a little too fast I punched the gas. Not smart, but that seems to be a human response. When God tells us to listen up, shut up, and calm down there’s part of us that wants to say, “WHAT?!? YOU CAN’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO!” Of course, the Bible doesn’t phrase it so coarsely. It says:

“Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”

Yeah, that’s much nicer. But the point is the same. We too often fly off at the handle and speak without listening, embracing rage and anger. I don’t want to beat a dead horse but we’ve seen just this thing happen in response to the Zimmerman/Martin issue. God says, “Listen first, speak second, and hold back on the anger.” But we’re doing just the opposite! An entire nation is quick to speak, slow to listen, and fanning the flames of rage and anger. In all fairness, it’s both sides of the fence that are behaving this way – not merely one party.

We forget that words have power. Racist words. Sexist words. Slander & Gossip. Manipulation. There are many ways that we use language to cut each other down. And we let our rage fuel our pet issues. But the Bible is clear that human anger may bring about vengeance or payback but it does not bring about divine justice. It doesn’t reflect the character of God nor does it accomplish that which God would regard as true righteousness.

It’s hard even to imagine our world filled with people who are listen first, take their time to respond, and stay calm. But it will never happen if we don’t start to imagine it. Imagine a world where people actually lived out watching what they said and using words wisely. This means we need use our words to build up and not tear down. Like a little spider or a hand grenade – the tongue isn’t so big, but is capable of great damage.

Be careful, little mouth, what you say….

How about you? How have you been hurt by words? How have you hurt others with your words?

My Kids Don’t Know They’re Black

Family - Christmas 2012

I’m a White man married to a Black woman. Actually, she’s only 65% Black. She wanted a DNA test for our anniversary and, being the romantic that I am, I got it for her. So we know that 65% of her DNA traces itself to Sub-Saharan Africa.

But the DNA test also shows that 29.8% of her DNA traces back to European descent. It was a shock for her. She sat looking at the test results for minutes with her mouth agape, processing the information. When I asked her a question she stopped me and said, “Give me a minute – I’m having revelations here!” Nowhere in her personal sense of identity and self did she imagine that such a large chunk of her DNA was European. But the world in which we live doesn’t give a hoot. You see – she’ll always be Black here in America.

So here we are; a White man and a (partially) Black woman. And we had the audacity to bring children into the world. So what are they? Seriously – how would you classify them? They’re 65% European and 33% Black. Do you classify them as White kids or Black kids? That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m asking You, the reader. How do you label them?

We choose not to label them. They’re just our kids. To them, skin color is merely a description of their outward appearance – right now it plays no part in their sense of ethnicity and heritage. They only know that Daddy’s side of the family is “peach” and Momma’s side of the family is (mostly) “Brown.” Descriptively, they see themselves more on the peach side than the brown side. If you were to listen in on my daughter talking about family you would hear her describe herself as “peach.” They don’t have any vested interest or history in skin tone and identity. But the rest of the world does.

I find it odd that parts of the world, even parts of our community in the good ol’ U.S. of A., label my kids based on their parents rather than on themselves. For a Thanksgiving project my daughter’s class colored paper Pilgrims. Everyone in the class got a peach pilgrim to color. Not my daughter. She was given a brown Pilgrim. There was no malice involved. There was an assumption made because my child has a brown parent. She was classified as brown. It tore her up, not because she has an aversion to brown skin but because she wanted a Pilgrim that she thought reflected herself – one that matched her own sense of identity. Even well-meaning people in our church have described our kids as brown, not realizing that they have a different self-image.

I will pause here to admit that I’m getting angry and choked up as I write this. These are my kids we’re talking about – my babies – and the idea of people making them feel “other than” tears my heart out and makes the protective parent in me LIVID.

I’m not writing this because I have a problem with brown-skinned people. I don’t have a problem if my kids decide they want to identify with my wife’s side of the family and their “brown” heritage. It’s part of who they are. One day they’ll understand that better and we can have open discussions about identity and ethnicity. I think that would be wonderful.

No, I’m writing this because it seems that our country recently has lost its ever-loving-mind when it comes to race relations. The Zimmerman/Martin incident in Florida only highlights already existing tensions.

The original incident, the trial & verdict, and the national response show that there is still a racial rift in this country. Recently, President Obama made a statement that was, in my opinion, an attempt show solidarity with a grieving Black community and to help enlighten an unknowing White community.

I have seen and heard a lot of outrage at the President’s remarks. I have seen some ugly behavior and some terrible words thrown around. In my opinion (and that’s what you get – remember…my blog) the President was not making any statement as to the guilt or innocence of Martin or Zimmerman. The heart of his message, as a Black man, was:

“I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”

Years of slavery and abuse, yielding to discrimination and abuse, yielding to a façade of equality, have given the Black community a unique filter through which it interprets events. It’s a filter that lends it a sense of identity and purpose. When White America waves a dismissive hand and says, “It’s not about race” we are saying that our interpretation of who you are and what things mean matters more than your interpretation of who you are and what things mean. It’s an exaggerated scale of what happened with my daughter’s Pilgrim. My lens is better than your lens.

It does no good to tell someone that the lens through which they see and interpret events is wrong. It’s their lens. You have your own. A better conversation is to say, “I want to understand your lens and paradigm and then want to share with you about my lens and paradigm.” It’s hard to do – we all believe that our own lens is the best lens, the only correct lens. But sometimes our lenses get smudged and dirty and could stand being wiped off. It’s the only way to move forward.

As it stands there is too much of an Us vs. Them attitude when it comes to race relations. We focus on the “other than” instead of focusing on the unifying and uniting elements. Here’s the thing – In God’s Kingdom, there is no such thing as “Us and Them.” We’re all part of the community of faith. It doesn’t matter what your ethnic background is, for our faith transcends ethnicity. This isn’t a concept limited to the New Testament. It’s also found in the Old Testament. God tells Israel:

You must regard the foreigner who lives with you as the native-born among you. You are to love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt; I am Yahweh your God. (Leviticus 19:34)

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul tells a story of how the Apostle Peter acted differently towards Gentile Christians than he did towards Jewish Christians. Paul called him out and Peter repented.

We’re in a situation today where many people seem to prefer to exercise their politics before their faith. White and Black alike play the “race card” on each other. Neither side is exempt or immune. We certainly fail to treat each other like equals with the same privileges. We certainly don’t love the “other” like we love ourselves.

It’s time to change. We don’t have to continue down this path. We can turn around. We can work to see things through the lens of the other and help the other to see through our lens. We can work on finding common ground. We can work on true equality – which really only seems to come from God (humanity has a grand ability to botch things up). We can love others the same as we love ourselves.

So be careful how you talk to people. Be careful how you talk about people. Words have power, and you can use them to build or destroy. I firmly believe that God would prefer us to build. So watch what you say. When you speak, say it in love. And whatever you do, watch how you treat my kids.

They don’t know they’re black.

Related Posts:
~ Reflections on Race from a Mixed-Race Couple

America: Still Racist After all These Years

Racism. It’s still there. Sometimes it feels like we pretend it doesn’t exist but it does. It affects the way we look at people. It affects the way we treat people. It affects the way we talk about people. But it’s not something we address openly and honestly until something blows up and then everything is chaos and then all hell breaks loose.

No, I’m not even writing this in response to the Paula Deen debacle, though it certainly seems to fit.

Paula Deen’s situation reminds us that, no matter how far we have come, we are a people that draw lines of distinction based on race and heritage. Sometimes those lines of distinction are good and result in a renewed sense of pride and family background. I applaud people who utilize websites like ancestry.com or 23andme.com in an effort to know and appreciate their genetics and history. Knowing from where we come and from whom we come goes a long way in helping us create a personal sense of identity.

In regards to the words we use to define ethnicity, I do believe and emphatically suggest that we call people what THEY desire to be called, not what we think they should be called. I am Anglo-European. Let’s be totally honest, I’m Scottish on one side and Irish on the other. I’m white. A honkey.  But I’m married to a brown-skinned woman. It doesn’t matter what language was used around me growing up, she deserves to be identified in the way she chooses; Black, African-American, Negro, or even colored (which is how some of my wife’s older relatives still refer to themselves). Anything less is disrespect towards her AS A PERSON. It doesn’t matter where people come from – call them what they desire to be called.

This was part of Paula Deen’s problem. As an older white woman from the south, she probably grew up with some choice descriptors for brown-skinned people. And let’s be honest – it’s hard to break free from the language and images that were around during our formative years. It really takes a lot to move beyond how we were raised.

This is not to excuse something she might have said nearly 30 years ago, but it does help to understand where she is coming from and how she is wired. But this is a great illustration of the problem. Racism exists still. Many people don’t even realize that their behavior is racist – and that’s just wrong. It’s when you hear someone telling a story about someone else and they just “happen” to throw in the description of ethnicity.

“I was help up at knifepoint by this wild-eyed Mexican guy…”
“I was cut off by this black lady…”

We are racist every time we feel a need to describe ethnicity. Does it matter what race the thief was? Does it matter what race the crazy driver was? It adds nothing to the story except for the racist subtext you want to convey to your audience. We are racist every time we alter our behavior because of or around someone of different ethnicity. We are racist, and I don’t mean “we” as in “European-Americans like me.” Humanity is racist – we divide along ethnic lines.

Yet there is supposed to be a kinship that supersedes ethnicity. The bible says that we share a new family through our faith that moves us beyond all titles, descriptions, and subtext. It is no longer white, black, Hispanic, Asian, whatever-mix-you-want-to-be…. We shed all of that with one new title: CHRISTIAN.

This new title is supposed to characterize all we say and do. It’s supposed to saturate us and flow out of every pore. It’s supposed to take the old way of thinking about things and people and replace it with God’s way of viewing things and people.

Yep – we’re a racist planet. And we always will be as long as we hold to our ethnic identities over and above our spiritual identities. So, Christian, it’s time to grow. It’s time to change. It’s time to let stop identifying yourself by your race and to start identifying yourself by your faith.

Who are you?

My name is Chris. I’m white Christian.