This post originally appeared in The View, the newsletter for St. John's, Decatur. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn more about St. John's, click here.
Earlier this month, I drove down to Montgomery for a wedding. I had been planning the trip for months, having reserved the whole day on my calendar for the festivities. A few days before the trip, however, I learned that a colleague had died and that his funeral would be at a church outside of Birmingham earlier that same day. A quick calculation confirmed that I could easily attend both, and I considered it a gift from God that I was able to.
I pulled off of the interstate at the exit where the first church was located, and I realized that I still had some time to kill, so I drove up to a gas station to use the restroom and buy a soda to go with the lunch that I had packed for myself. As I walked toward the men’s restroom, I passed by a young black man, who had finished a few seconds before I arrived. I closed the door and locked it behind me, grateful for the privacy of modern conveniences. Then, I saw it. Scratched into the wall by the commode were the words “I Hate Niggers.” (In writing this article, I choose not to abbreviate the racial slur because I do not want to sanitize something that I believe is a stain on our culture that we must confront in its totality.) Elsewhere on the wall were other smaller though no less significant proclamations of racism—repeated use of that word as well as swastikas and references to the KKK. Some were written with permanent black marker. Others were carved into the plastic or Formica surfaces. Some had been scratched out. A few counter-arguments about rednecks and trailer trash were offered. It was a stunning canvass of hate.
I was amazed. “This is the twenty-first century,” I said to myself. “What is going on here? Aren’t we past all of this?” Then I remembered the teenager who was exiting the restroom when I arrived. What did he think? What does it mean to see these symbols of hate carved freshly into the bathroom walls? What thoughts and emotions rise up in a young black man’s heart when he sees the vestiges of persecution, fear, torture, and death inscribed onto a modern day facility? For a man that young, Jim Crow would have been primarily a history passed down to him by his grandparents, but the hatred of that segregationist past is a life he still encounters today. Because of my race, I have the luxury and privilege of pretending that those words and symbols are legacies of a bygone era, but those bathroom walls remind me that, for many, those legacies are still real and active.
History shows us that these struggles are nothing new. In the first century, the apostle Paul urged the Christian community to move beyond racial prejudice and the division that it was creating in the church: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Paul likely borrowed those words from an early confessional statement associated with Christian baptism, using them to undergird his theological argument that, in Jesus, distinctions of ethnicity, class, and gender all fall away. His opponents believed that the way of Jesus was exclusively Jewish and that Gentile Christians must first convert to Judaism before becoming Jesus’ disciples, but Paul would have none of it. As he understood it, the way of Jesus Christ was threatened by those who saw meaning in those differences, and he wrote furiously against those who attempted to maintain any sort of ethnic segregation.
In the centuries since Paul wrote those words, we have lost sight of the necessity of racial equality in the kingdom of God. By the time the four gospel accounts were written, anti-Semitic sentiments, which had grown within the Christian community in the latter part of the first century, were enshrined as holy writ. Since then, theologians and churchmen like Martin Luther and George Whitefield—both heroes of the church—used the bible to justify segregation and slavery. “Sure,” we might say to ourselves, “those people and their ideologies are locked in the past—products of a time when religion reflected the society at large,” but what are we the church doing to ensure that the world looks more like the kingdom of God?
The persistence of racism in our society is a direct challenge to the authority of God and God’s reign on the earth. Whether we are carving the words into the bathroom stalls or shrugging our shoulders when we see them, we are perpetuating a culture where differences in race and class and gender are concrete. Those ‘isms cannot be present in the kingdom of God. They are the very powers of this world that stand in opposition to the way of Jesus. Thus, we are condemned by our silence. Even by doing nothing, we are standing in the way of God’s kingdom.
In Jesus Christ there is no longer black or white. In Jesus Christ there is no longer rich or poor. In Jesus Christ there is no longer male or female. Paul did not write those words to describe a kingdom that exists in the distant future—an eschatological place and time where there will be no such distinctions. Instead, he wrote of the present-day reign of Christ that has existed on earth since Jesus set us free from the bondage of sin. Whenever we are silent in the face of such racism, we refasten those chains onto ourselves as well as those who are the targets of our culture’s racism.
I am thankful that I rarely hear someone say the word “nigger” anymore. I would like to think that that points to an improvement in race relations since my childhood, but I suspect that is because such racist words and thoughts are now reserved for the privacy of a bathroom stall or a putting green or a dinner table—places and times where a member of the clergy is not present. But you don’t have to be a priest to stand up for God’s kingdom. Start with something as simple as telling your friends that you do not care for jokes like that. Consider asking those in your social circle whether by “those people” they mean “African Americans” or “Latinos” and then ask them what race has to do with whatever issue they are talking about. Stop pretending that everything is just fine simply because our country elected a black President or because our church elected a black Presiding Bishop. Pay attention to the writing on the bathroom walls. Acknowledge that this world is still a long way from the kingdom of God. Look for things you can do or say to bring all of us closer to God’s reign, and then do them and say them.