Racism: The Elephant in the Room (part 1 of 3)
I really don’t want to talk about topics of prejudice and racism. I really don’t. I don’t want to stir the pot and make anyone mad. I don’t want to receive emails and texts from people who want to argue with me.
This is the first of three articles on the issue of prejudice, racism, and discrimination and how I’m dealing with it in my own head. This article contains my personal thoughts and reflections on the race issues that our nation is facing. I’m not an expert trying to correct anyone. I like to write. It’s my way of sorting through the jumbled plate of spaghetti that is my thoughts.
So if you disagree, or if you believe I’m not thinking correctly, please show me some grace. I’m open for dialogue, just not angry debate. Angry exchanges have a way of stopping helpful dialogue. I don’t have the time or patience for that.
I wasn’t going to attend the monthly pastors’ network meeting this week because I was busy and behind on my work. But I’m sure glad I did.
The guest speaker was Dr. Alexander Jun, a Korean-American who is the first non-white moderator of the Presbyterian Church of America. Dr. Jun also served as a local church pastor, professor at USC, and currently at Azusa Pacific University. He led us in a discussion about racism that was helpful and enlightening to me. This was especially timely due to all the craziness sparked by the recent white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia.
That meeting with Dr. Jun challenged me to not stay silent on this issue. Being an Asian-American, it’s my cultural tendency to not to make waves when you don’t have to. The Japanese have a saying that goes, “the nail that stands up gets pounded down.” I know that I’ve been pounded down in the past on social media from “friends” when I posted something that they didn’t agree with. However, I feel that being silent at this time wouldn’t help anyone.
Racism is a real issue. It has been around for a very long time. If you don’t think it is, then you’re choosing to not see it. It might not be as overt as it once was, but racism has never left. Just because you haven’t experienced overt racism against yourself doesn’t mean it’s not right in front of you. If you have the courage to look deeper, you’ll find it.
Do we have to talk about racism?
I’m a pastor and there’s a subtle underlying expectation in my circle that I shouldn’t be “political” because of the influence I bear. I’m not even sure what being “political” means. I’m not endorsing any candidate or political party. I’ve never given direction in voting for a specific policy. Even so, churchgoers usually don’t want their pastors to talk too much about political issues.
Most pastors I know steer away from talking about political issues because it’s inherently divisive. Well, that’s unless you pastor a monocultural church with only one political perspective. Then you can endorse candidates and pass out directions on how to vote all you want.
Churchgoers would say,
Pastor, please don’t talk about politics. Stick to the Bible and spiritual things. Just focus on teaching us what Jesus taught.
Hmmmm. Sounds like great advice. The problem is that Jesus talked a lot about race, division, racism, power, politics, along with other “spiritual things.” Jesus didn’t avoid talking about these issues, and He didn’t separate it because everything is a “spiritual thing.”
One of the clearest examples of this is the story of the “Good Samaritan.” This is what Jesus said in Luke 10:25-37,
25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” 28And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’
36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”
37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
This well-known story is one of Jesus’ most beloved teachings. Usually when teaching this story, the focus is on being a good person that responds to the needs of others in personal, practical, and generous ways.
I’ve taught this passage many times, and that’s how I teach it every time. But I must admit, I completely ignored the context of the passage.
In telling the story of the “Good Samaritan,” Jesus wasn’t just talking about doing good. He was specifically challenging the racism in the hearts of His hearers. Jesus was intentional in His attack of racism, and He talked about it a lot. And if you don’t see this, as I said before, it’s because you choose not to see it.
Why did Jesus tell this story about the Good Samaritan? He told this story to answer a theological question asked by an expert in the Jewish writings. This Jewish theologian wanted to test Jesus and find fault in His teachings.
In their conversation, Jesus asked the Jewish theologian, “How would you sum up the commands of God?”
The Jewish theologian answered by paraphrasing the most famous passage in the Jewish Bible, known as the “Shema.”
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
Then Jesus said, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”
Then the Jewish theologian wanted to “justify himself” and asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Racism is a Spiritual Issue
This is the question that compelled Jesus to tell a story of the Good Samaritan. This story is essentially about the racial divide between Jews and Samaritans that they distrusted, hated, and avoided. This story challenges the status quo between how the religious Jewish people looked upon the Samaritan people.
The Jews looked down on the Samaritan people with a sense of righteous indignation. Notice that Jesus could have answered the Jewish theologians’ question in any number of ways. They were talking about how to apply the most basic principle in their entire religion: Love God and love your neighbor.
Jesus didn’t talk about walking old grannys across the street, or putting nickels in the cups of beggars. He didn’t even say, “Go and preach repentance to those Samaritans.”
What He said was something entirely earthshaking to the ears of His religious Jewish audience. In the story, the religious Jewish priest and Levite didn’t even both stop to help their own Jewish brother who was in need. Theologians will explain that there were justifiable reasons for their choice not to help. Regardless, the point was that they weren’t being a good “neighbor” to their own fellow countryman.
No, the religious Jews were not the hero of this story. A hated member of that half-bred race, a Samaritan, was the hero of this story. It was the Samaritan that overcame the racial, cultural, and historical barriers between their two peoples to help the Jewish person in need. In doing so, this Samaritan proved that he was a “good neighbor.”
He had to overcome many barriers to help the injured Jew. He crossed racial and cultural barriers. He even had to overcome the barriers of his own personal prejudice and hatred towards the Jews that looked down upon him and opposed his people.
When this Samaritan saw the injured person, he didn’t see a Jew. He just saw a person in need. He got off his donkey, bandaged the Jewish man’s wounds, took him to get medical attention, and nursed him through the night. The Samaritan had to pay the hospital bills because the Jew didn’t have medical insurance. And he didn’t even wait for thanks or recognition. His actions are an example of Jesus’ Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
After Jesus tells this story, He brings the racism issue out to the surface. Jesus asked the Jewish theologian, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor?”
The Jewish theologian was trapped. There’s only one correct answer. The Samaritan was the true neighbor in this story. So he begrudgingly said, “The one who showed mercy.” Notice, the Jewish theologian couldn’t even bring himself to say “the Samaritan” by name.
What do you think Jesus was trying to get at with this question? He was trying to get the Jewish theologian to see how his view on issues of race effects how he applies the commands of God. Remember, the original question was, “Who is my neighbor that I’m supposed to love as I love myself?”
Jesus told this story to say,
Can you see that the Samaritan is also your neighbor? If you want to be faithful to the commands, you also have to love the Samaritans as you love yourself.
The Jewish theologians own words trapped him. He said that the true neighbor was the Samaritan “who showed mercy.” Jesus then challenged him to “go and do likewise.”
I believe that Jesus was inferring two things by that statement, “go and do likewise.”
1) Samaritans are also your neighbors.
First, I believe Jesus was telling the Jewish theologian that in order to faithfully apply God’s command to “love your neighbors as yourself,” he has to also see Samaritans as his neighbors.
Jews had a long and convoluted history with Samaritans. They have similar family trees but were separated by the religious decisions by their ancestors. Samaritans chose not to remain faithful to the Jewish traditions and they embraced the traditions and cultures of their new home in Canaan. Because Samaritans intermarried with the Canaanites, Jews derisively called them “half-breeds” and treated them as second-class citizens that they avoided at all possible means.
Maybe this is too simplistic of an analogy, but this is not all that different from the religious and ethnic tensions we find in Israel today with Jews and Palestinians. Both Jews and Palestinians trace their lineage back to Abraham and Isaac. But the Jewish lineage follows Jacob, and Palestinians follows his brother Esau.
So, I believe that Jesus was saying that we need to see all people, even the ones our fathers’ despised, as our neighbors.
Do you see it? Jesus is talking about race.
How do you apply God’s most basic commands? You first start by seeing Samaritans as neighbors. If you cannot do that, you cannot faithfully fulfill God’s commands.
You can’t truly “love your neighbors” if you think that is only referring to people who share your skin color, culture, language, education, or religion. If don’t know who God is telling you who to love, you can never fulfill this command.
2) “Loving your neighbor” involves showing mercy.
The second thing I believe that Jesus was emphasizing has to do with power and opportunity. In the story of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan was the one with the power and opportunity to be “neighborly” and help the injured Jewish man.
Here’s how the Jewish theologian answered Jesus’ question about who was the true neighbor: “The one who showed mercy was the true neighbor.”
Then Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”
What does that mean? This is what I believe Jesus was saying,
“Go and show mercy to those in need, especially if you have the power and opportunity to do something. Regardless of race, religion, creed, or color.”
Mercy is a strange thing. Only those in the position of strength and power can have the opportunity to show mercy. Mercy has nothing to do with who deserves what. Mercy is about loving others in personal, practical, and generous ways when you have the power and opportunity to do so.
Now, I’ve recently heard a definition of racism as “prejudice + power = racism.” I’m not sure that this is the best definition of racism out there. I’m not even sure if I agreed with this definition 100%. I know that there are a lot of smart people out there who disagree (interestingly, it’s usually the people in positions of power that disagree). Even so, I believe there’s an issue here that no one is talking about. It’s the issue about power. Like Uncle Ben told Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Racism is not just an issue of prejudice. Prejudice is “pre-judging” another person or group based usually on stereotypes. We have to admit that we are all prejudice, all the time. We can’t help it. We can’t know every person, so we lump people into categories, good or bad. It’s something that we can’t help. So we need to first admit the we are prejudice all the time. For example, I’m prejudiced against fans of the L.A. Clippers. I naturally think that a Clippers fan either doesn’t know anything about basketball or is just a hater. Or else they would cheer for the Lakers like I do.
So, yeah. I’m prejudiced. I prejudge people all the time. Sometimes I prejudge them in a good way, others times in a bad way. When I see someone carrying a Bible and singing in church, I prejudge that they’re good people. That’s prejudice too. I’m prejudging them and assume that they have good character. For all I know, they could be terrible people who pull the wings off of flies and root for the Clippers.
But when our prejudice is about an entire race or ethnic group of people, that’s where it gets really dangerous. This kind of prejudice will eventually lead to discrimination, where you treat a person of the other race differently. Then when you add that the belief of superiority and power structures, and that’s how you get racism.
I’m not trying to excuse anyone. I’m just saying, that we are all culpable for racism and discrimination because it begins with something we all have, prejudice. All we need is to add a little power to your prejudice, and we have a big problem.
For example, one of the clearest examples of institutional racism is what we’ve seen in South Africa under Apartheid. The prejudice between black and white South Africans produced racism and discrimination against the blacks when the whites were in power. However, when the tides changed and the more populace blacks got the power, the white South Africans became the victims racism and discrimination. The only thing that changed was who had the power. Their prejudice in all their hearts and minds never changed.
Go and Do Likewise
“Go and do likewise,” Jesus said. Go and show mercy to someone in need. Extend mercy. Help someone in need especially when you have the power and opportunity to make a difference. That’s how you “love your neighbor as yourself.”
“And who exactly is my neighbor?”
The Samaritan is your neighbor. The one that your fathers have hated and oppressed. The one who you think is beneath you. The one who you think is ignorant, undeserving, and unworthy. The Samaritan is your neighbor. Now go and love him as you love yourself.