It’s been a very long time since I’ve posted on this blog. Three years to be exact. A lot has happened in our country during that time span, the most obvious to me is that we are even more divided today than we were just a few short years ago. We’re divided politically, we’re divided ideologically, and we’re divided racially. Those differences can intersect or happen on their own. This post is going to be about racism. This post is going to be about my journey with regards to how my eyes have been opened to my own prejudices, and how my heart has been changed.
I’m the descendant of a Confederate. My first ancestor to this country on my father’s side of the family fought and died while fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War. The history of that part of my family was never a huge focus, but it was a known fact that our family fought for the South. We didn’t have Confederate flags flying or anything, but there were a small number of plaques and wall hangings around with the flag and the words “Confederate States Of America.” I should probably know more about the history of my family, but it is my understanding that this part of my family did own slaves in the state of Virginia. From what I’ve been told, my ancestors had a reputation of being fair slave owners. Of course, as the decades pass, it is more difficult to verify things like that, but I state these things to provide some perspective of my family.
In the area where I grew up, the majority of the population was white. According to the 2010 census, Lewisburg, WV is 91% white and 5% black. I would say that probably hasn’t changed much since I was raised there in the 70s and 80s. My parents did not raise me to be a racist, there were never any derogatory discussions about people of other races in our home growing up. We were taught to respect people of other races. However, because the majority of the people that I was around were white, I really didn’t spend much time considering the experiences of people of different races. In addition, there were other people in my life who held on to racist attitudes that began to take root in my heart and mind. There were also experiences during my college and military years that affected me, and I allowed them to affect me in such a way that I began to hold on to some racist attitudes. By the time I was headed into my mid-20s, I was well on my way to being a racist.
In 1997, I began my journey as a Christ follower. While it didn’t change my attitudes right away, this is where the journey began. Where the true transformation came was several years later, when I decided to read through the Bible for the very first time. It was then that I realized that if I was going to truly follow what Jesus taught, I had no choice but to begin the process of letting go of those old attitudes and feelings. To follow what Jesus teaches about equality, love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness, you cannot hold on to racism. You don’t have a choice. If you’re going to hold on to racism as a believer and follower of Christ, you are making a choice to ignore what he taught.
The year of 2016, unintentionally, challenged me to go deeper into the roots of racism. The causes, the results, and the responsibility of the believer. In addition, the heavy responsibility of a father leading his family in such a way that these attitudes are not repeated in the next generation. The first step in this unexpected journey was reading the book “Under Our Skin” by Benjamin Watson. If you want to read a book that is going to challenge you to dig into racism, this is the one you want to read. (You can purchase it here.) Ben’s book was born from a social media post that he did after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. As an NFL player, Ben has the platform to have a large impact, which is what happened after his Ferguson post. As a Christ-following black man, husband and father, his perspective is one that I have come to admire. (As an added bonus, I got to meet him not long after reading his book!) This book gave me a look into the life of a black man in our society, how he confronted racist attitudes growing up on the South, and how racism had impacted the previous generations of his family. It also challenged me to remain vigilant to teach my sons that our skin color gives us no greater status in this life, and to continue teaching them to look past skin color to the human being under the skin.
The next step in this unexpected journey was during a weekend getaway to Charleston, SC in August of 2016. Charleston has always been a special place for my wife and I. We love the city, its history, its culture, its vibe. It is one of our favorite places to visit. After walking around Battery Park and the Market on a Saturday afternoon, we drove to the Emanuel AME Church. I don’t have to recount what happened at a Bible Study on June 17th, 2015. In my time, I don’t remember a hate crime so evil. 9 people lost their lives at the hand of a young man who was trying to incite a race war. Standing in that place, even standing in the parking lot where he drove his vehicle through to park that evening, it made me hurt and feel optimistic at the same time.
Why weren’t there riots in Charleston like there were in Ferguson, Baltimore or even Charlottesville (OVER A STATUE!!!)? Because love won. The forgiving spirit of that small church in Charleston pervaded the atmosphere and stamped out the hatred that Dylann Roof was trying to spread. When the family members of the victims looked at Roof in the courtroom proceedings and said “I forgive you”, love won. Honestly, from a human perspective they had every right to hate his race, every right to stand in the streets and let anger take control. But they decided to take away the power of the enemy, the enemy who wants to sow hatred, anger, and division. Division is Satan’s greatest weapon, if he can get us to retreat to our respective corners and keep others at a distance with our stance, he has taken a big step toward making sure we stay in our corners. Somehow, the family members of the Emanuel AME shooting victims were able to live this out in the midst of tremendous hurt and grief.
Back to my heritage and upbringing… I could cling to my whiteness and let my Caucasian heritage be what I identify with. I could cling to the Confederate flag as a symbol of what my family fought for over 150 years ago. I could put stickers on my car, wear t-shirts and hats, make sure that everyone knew that I was a Confederate loyalist. I have the freedom and right to do that here in our country. But should I? Should I do this if I ever want to engage people of other races to see what their experiences and perspectives are? Is it going to help or hurt my chances of being able to spread the love of Christ to people of other ethnic backgrounds?
The greatest thing that I learned during this journey is this: as a Christ follower, if we put our allegiances to our heritage and skin color ABOVE our allegiance to Christ and his teachings, we have allowed a stronghold in our life that will only perpetuate the division that we see before us. If the generations after us have any hope of coming together peacefully, we have to be willing to walk a mile in someone else’s skin.