It was a hot summer night in a small central Mississippi town. The Great War was in full swing in Europe, and theater goers were flocking to see Birth of a Nation, the silent movie about the Lost Cause. Outside a tiny jail an angry crowd began to gather. They were intent on lynching a young African-American man accused of a relationship with a white teenager. She was pregnant and had accused him of the deed. My grandfather, who was a leader in the community, stood before the crowd and urged them not to commit murder. He promised them that the guilty man would be placed on the train that very night and would never again return to the community. The crowd’s anger began to dissipate, and they returned to their homes. My grandfather had heroically stood down a lynch mob. However, as with most southern stories there’s a twist. My grandfather knew exactly who had the relationship with the girl, and it was one of his relatives. Neither truth nor justice was served. An innocent man was forced to leave his home.
Race in America
Man has managed to use the artificial construct of race to discriminate, demean, enslave, and murder. Race has been a moral blight on this country since before the Constitution. In a classic case of kicking the can down the road, the Founders thought that slavery would gradually disappear, and they glossed over the problem. Their hope was thwarted by the advent of the cotton gin which made slavery economically profitable. The Civil War was fought basically over slavery despite what advocates of the Lost Cause have asserted. Following Reconstruction, the South endured eighty years of racial suppression with Jim Crow laws. Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, followed by the great civil rights decade of the last 50s and early 60s, led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was the prophet of the civil rights movement with his life cut short in Memphis in 1968. Since the 1970s we have seen gradual progress in race relations with voting rights expansion, African-Americans in political offices, school integration, economic progress, the election and re-election of an African-American president, and removal of housing restrictions. However, progress has been marred by the breakdown of the African-American family, inner city blight, the cocaine epidemic, white flight from homes and schools, predatory lending, criminal justice inequities, white backlash, and voter suppression. Bothersome but understandable are African-Americans’ angry reactions to the history and symbols of America.
Repentance before Forgiveness
How do we get past race in this country? The Bible speaks powerfully about forgiveness. We are all guilty of sin and need forgiveness (Romans 3:23). The lack of forgiveness breaks our relationship with God (Mt 5:23-24). However, the current trend of using apologies to excuse behavior is unacceptable. “Hey, I apologize, so we’re all good.” The Bible demands more than this. It demands repentance before forgiveness can occur. II Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and heal their land.” Luke 17:3: “So watch yourselves. If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them, and if they repent, forgive them.” Repentance means turning away from whatever prejudicial action you committed. There must be a clear change in course, not just an apology. Thoughtlessly wearing blackface or confederate uniforms in college requires subsequent actions demonstrating understanding and care for African-Americans.
So, how shall we repent and receive forgiveness from our African-American friends and co-workers? There could be a different answer for each of us. I personally need to think more deeply about my own racist upbringing and try to eliminate any lingering prejudices. At work I must be extremely fair in every interaction with my co-workers. I should be more compassionate and empathetic in understanding the adverse effects of early childhood poverty and poor schools. Outside of work I should support our church’s involvement with the Heights Ministry and the Healing Center. Nationally I should think hard about conditions that exploit poor minorities, particularly payday loans, voter suppression, and capital punishment. I should think about regressive taxation such as the sales tax and should instead support progressive taxation such as inheritance taxes. I should consider supporting restoration of citizenship to prisoners who have paid their debt to society. Granting forgiveness will be a choice made by my African-American co-workers and friends. To rephrase Dr. King, my hope is that I will be forgiven for the color of my skin based on the content of my character.