Can we have an honest conversation about racism?
Not a lecture.
Not a list of excuses.
Just a conversation.
An honest one.
Maybe I’m asking too much.
We live in a time when everything is racist. Beards are racists. Hurricanes are racists. Athletes with strong opinions are racists.
Here’s the problem with that.
When everything is racist, nothing is racist.
People who are continually accused of being racist for the most mundane things will not be too apt to deal with actual racism when it shows up, whether in the streets or in their own hearts.
And make no mistake, there is racism in our hearts. There’s not question about it. If you don’t believe me, take a look at two brothers. One was named James, the other John.
James and John came from a prominent family. They were deeply religious. They were followers of Jesus. You could say that they followed him closer than most anyone else who has ever lived. They literally walked with Jesus. They were two of his closest disciples.
Jesus was moving closer to his crucifixion. His internal GPS was set to Jerusalem. But he had a few stops to make along the way. One of them was in a place called Samaria.
Samaria probably doesn’t mean that much to you today. But for Jews in Jesus’ day, it was the last place you wanted to be. It was common to go out of your way just to avoid the region. Samaritans were seen as filthy pagans by Jews. They were a mixed race with a mixed religion and that made them pure evil.
So of course, Jesus decided to take his disciples there.
Jesus sent messengers ahead of him to make arrangements for his group to have a place to stay. It’s here that we learn that the hate was mutual. Samaritans hated Jews too. So much so that they would not allow Jesus to stay in their region. This wasn’t like the time just before Jesus’ birth when there was no room in the inn. If there were signs out at Jesus birth, they would have read No Vacancy. This time, they would have said No Jews.
James and John were irate. This was nothing new. Jesus had already nicknamed them Sons of Thunder, not because of their love of meteorology but rather due to their short temper and passion that often went a little too far.
After hearing what the Samaritans had done to their Master, their stereotypes were confirmed. These people really were filthy. And James and John had the perfect answer to that filthiness.
“Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Luke 9:54 (ESV)
They wanted nuclear war. But this was no holy war that they were wanting to start. It was personal. It was racist. It was godless.
We know this because of the words that they used and the response of Jesus.
Notice that they asked Jesus if they, not God, could call down fire from heaven. As if Jesus’ throat was too sore. There have been plenty of times when God sent fire down from heaven. There will be more of these times in the future. Sometimes fire needs to come down from heaven.
But why was it wrong to ask for it this time?
Remember Jesus mission? He had set his face to Jerusalem. His mission was the cross, not ethnic cleansing. James and John forgot that. In a very real way, the Samaritans were not the only ones who rejected Jesus that day. James and John, two of his closest followers, did too when they put their agenda above his.
Jesus’ response is classic.
He rebuked James and John and they all went to another place. A problem that James and John wanted to address with nuclear war was taken care of simply by going a few extra miles away. Oh the damage that we do in the name of our selfish agendas masked as righteous causes.
Although Jesus moved on from Samaria, he wasn’t done with the region. Some time later another one of his disciples came through and told them about the Christ they had once rejected. This time they listened. And they repented (Acts 8:4-8).
And somewhere along the way, James and John did too.
James would be the first of Jesus 12 disciples to be martyred (Acts 12:1-5). History tells us that he forgave his executioners and did his part to make peace with them. John would be punished for his devotion to Christ too but he would live much longer than his brother. He went on to write about sin.
If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. 1 John 1:10 (ESV)
And he wrote about love.
Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 1 John 4:8 (ESV)
What happened to change these men who once wanted to make the Samaritan sand glow?
The empty tomb.
The Holy Spirit.
That changed everything. And we desperately need that change today.
But instead, we are currently engaged in a ridiculous game of racial volleyball.
Rather than weeping with those who weep because of what racism has done, we bring up stories from the past to justify the evil. A guy from one ethnicity gets jumped by a group from another. Rather than condemning it as evil, the people from the same ethnicity as the group that dished out the beating remind us of the time when the tables were turned. As if that justifies everything.
“Yeah, but one time a bunch of black guys…”
“Well, one time a white man…”
All this does is expose our self-righteousness. Some people foolishly fail to acknowledge that there is any sin in their hearts so it’s understandable that they fail to see racism there. Still, they make God out to be a liar but at least they’re consistent in their foolishness.
Others are a little more irregular.
They readily admit that they are sinners. They confess their temper problems. They are well aware of their struggles with lust or greed. But when it comes to racism, it’s as if Abraham Lincoln himself came through and removed that particular sin from every human heart and it’s no longer an issue.
If James and John, two of Jesus’ closest disciples, were not immune to it what makes us think that we are?
If we’re ever going to have an honest conversation about race, we have to start with the one we need to have with God. It needs to be a conversation about repentance. I’m not talking about a one time prayer. And I’m not talking about apologizing for something your ancestors did a long time ago. I’m talking about your heart. And mine. Right now.
A lot has changed since James and John wanted to call down fire on Samaria.
And a lot hasn’t.
We still desperately need Jesus to put an end to our silly game of racial volleyball. We need personal repentance. We need to recognize how our lack of love runs parallel with our lack of devotion to God. There are tough questions that we need to ask ourselves but racism is a tough topic. Tough topics are usually best dealt with when they begin with prayerful, honest personal reflection.
So can we have an honest conversation about racism?
I hope so.
But that conversation must first be between each individual and God before it ever happens anywhere else.