A Race Reckoning

1968 2020

Have you noticed there is a tiny bit of unrest in America these days? Something has surged forward, grabbing our attention, almost overtaking the Coronavirus pandemic.

We’ve been hit with the devastating reality that more of our African-American brothers and sisters have encountered tragic deaths. They’ve been murdered.

Elijah McClain
Ahmaud Arbery
Breonna Taylor
George Floyd
Rayshard Brooks

I still can’t believe what we saw in the video footage of George Floyd’s murder. It is a haunting image.

There has obviously been much reaction in light of these deaths. The reactions are not simply because of these deaths. It is remembering so much more that has gone on for centuries. But it was out of these deaths that we have reached a climax in our nation today.

From the protesting and riots, to the rebranding of certain products, to the pulling down of confederate statues, to the push for Mississippi to change its state flag, to the call to end white depictions of Jesus. It is a lot. We are seeing, hearing, and encountering the voice of change in ways we haven’t in quite some time.

I believe that we are experiencing one of, if not the, greatest race reckoning since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

I am not for violence. I am very much anti-violence (I am a pacifist, as they say). I believe violence breeds violence.

But I also understand why violence erupts.

When one of my boys has a meltdown, or multiple meltdowns in a row, I am learning to not simply punish him for his bad behavior. Instead, I need to get down, sit with him, ask questions, give him space to share, listen, pray with him, and hold him. It is in doing these things that I usually realize why my son erupted in the manner he did. Not only that, but I am transformed as a dad and human in general.

With the current race eruptions of our day, perhaps we could learn to employ a similar measure. Some are. Others are fighting against it, primarily because their way of life and ideology is being greatly challenged. For me, I’m willing to be wrong, to listen, to learn, to not belittle, to find out more, to stand with, and (notwithstanding a Coronavirus pandemic) embrace my black brothers and sisters. Call me naïve, but I am willing to lay down my rights to encounter change—change that I believe God would ask of us.

But let me also say this: Even if I haven’t been wrong and complicit in racist talk and actions, I want to be like the Old Testament leader Nehemiah. Yeah, I need to give a little Bible lesson here.

In the Bible book that is named after him, we find a very interesting situation. The Jews and their beloved city of Jerusalem, including their temple, had been decimated many decades prior to the events that the book of Nehemiah recounts. They had worshipped idols, turned to other nations as their great protector, oppressed the poor, disobeyed the great torah-law passed on by Moses, and so much more. But now, by God’s sheer grace, made available through the Persian kings of that time, the Jews were able to begin returning to their homeland.

Finally, after about 70 years in total, there was some restoration at hand.

As the book begins, Nehemiah receives word of what is going on back in Jerusalem, particularly that the city wall (an important piece of protection) was completely destroyed. With this, Nehemiah moves into a great lament, one that includes weeping, mourning, fasting, and prayer.

With this, Nehemiah launches into a specific prayer, with these words of note: “. . . I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses” (Neh 1:6-7).

Did you notice that little word in there? It shows up three times—we.

Now, we don’t know Nehemiah’s age at the time of this situation, but we can make a pretty educated guess that he was either not present during the destruction of Jerusalem that had led to the Jewish exile, or he was very young. Do you see where this is going? I very much doubt any of this mass wickedness and subsequent destruction was Nehemiah’s fault. Still, the man stood recognizing he was part of a people that had been wicked, which then led to their demise.

Let me say it clearly: Nehemiah did nothing wrong. But Nehemiah prayed as if he had been complicit with his ancestors.

I have learned a lot from this prayer of Nehemiah.

I wonder if all white-Caucasian Christians can learn from this as well.

With everything in me, I don’t want to be racist. And, I don’t think I live a racist, discriminatory lifestyle. I have very close friends who are African-American, I live in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in a city (Memphis) that is predominantly African-American (64%). Not to mention the work I have tried to engage in with the poor, homeless, Muslims, etc, that has somehow instilled some sense of listening and understanding of people very different from me. Still, I am aware, even ashamed, of my thoughts at times. But I am trying to learn, to grow, to listen, to be present to my black brothers and sisters, especially in this time. I am willing to keep examining my own heart, thoughts, and actions, because I know my own sinful tendencies.

My point? I don’t live a racist lifestyle (I don’t think). But I’m willing to be wrong, willing to say “I’m sorry,” willing to pray prayers like Nehemiah. Because when I do, I am formed in the way the people of the Bible were formed – collectively, rather than solely as individuals.

So, here we are with this major race reckoning of our day. I know many people with skin color like me that don’t like it. It irks them, it angers them, it makes them uncomfortable. But that’s what a reckoning does. Whether we like it or not, we have had and still have a problem in this country. We are facing something that, perhaps, we haven’t quite faced in some 50 to 60 years. And you know how the 1950s and 1960s went? Lots and lots of violence by white folk to stop a movement toward full liberation for our African-American brothers and sisters.

Violence breeds violence.

Listening breeds listening.

Repentance breeds change.

What will we do as we encounter this reckoning moment in history?

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