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“...When I assume wrongly about the background, experience, and challenges of the lives of those around me, I remain handicapped in my attempts to love them.”
As I sit down to write this it is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2018. It’s been exactly 50 years since his assassination. There are so many parts of his “dream” that have come to fruition, and so many parts still unfulfilled. It’s fascinating to think back on what life was like just 50 years ago in our city. It can be disorienting to try to determine both how far we’ve come in this past half-century, and how far we haven’t.
I grew up as a young white boy in an almost exclusively white town on the Colorado plains. I became a young man in a suburb that was just barely more diverse. And as we’ve put our roots down in this beautifully diverse and complicated metropolis, one of the greatest lessons I have learned is that racial justice in our cities and in our towns hasn’t come near as far as I had been led to believe.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not faulting my teachers or those that raised me. I don’t think this was intentional. There are many different reasons that contributed to my assumption that racial differences and racial difficulties were a thing of the past. I came to believe that we lived in a post-racial world, one where the biblical ideal was coming into reality: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).
Because I thought we were living in a post-racial world, I assumed that the best way to view and treat others was to be “colorblind.” I shouldn’t see you as a black man because that would mean you’re different from me. I see you just as a man. I shouldn’t see you as a Latina woman because that would mean you’re different from me. I see you just as a woman. This seemed to me the best way to affirm our equality and to echo Paul’s ideal set forth in Colossians. In fact, when our kids began attending a school where they were/are a racial minority, this is probably the worldview I handed them.
But is that what Paul meant in Colossians 3:1? Is the biblical ideal colorblind? I’ve come to realize that is simply not the case. First, biblically: Paul is not seeking to erase cultural distinctions here. He is simply asserting a primacy of identity. As those who have been transformed by Christ, our primary identity is as his children. Every other piece of our identity is subordinate to this declaration that we are children of God. As Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). Baptism into this one Spirit does not make us not Jews, Greeks, slaves, or free persons, but it does make us fundamentally united.
Second, practically: being colorblind leaves you unable to truly know and understand those you’re called to love. To treat a friend who grew up in France as though they grew up in the same way I did is to fail to truly know that friend. In the same way, to treat a Korean-American friend as though he did not have Korean ancestry, cultural experiences, and, to some extent, Korean self-identity is to fail to truly know him as well.
Of course our complexities run much deeper than the surface level distinction of what our culture calls “race.” A dark-skinned friend who grew up in Ghana has a very different culture and experience than a dark-skinned friend who grew up in Brazil who has a very different culture and experience than a dark-skinned friend who grew up in Culver City. But their dark skin is still a significant part of their experience and, in our fallen world, a basis upon which many people have probably pre-judged them (for good or bad).
To many ears, this seems too simplistic or basic to spend time writing. Of course we don’t live in a colorblind world! But to many of us (especially many of us “white” people who came of age in the 80’s and 90’s), that’s exactly the worldview that we imbibed. And it has taken me longer than I would have liked to realize that I have slighted and misunderstood too many of my dear friends and brothers and sisters in Christ by trying to “not see” their racial identity. I see now that I should have seen their racial identity as a unique part of their experience and who God created them to be.
We are all one and equal in Christ. But while our identity in Christ does reorient all of our other identities, it does not erase our unique differences of culture, experience, strengths, and weaknesses.
If you were to assume wrongly about my background, my experience, and the challenges of my life, you would fail to know and understand me. And, as a result, you would be handicapped in your attempts to love me. And when I assume wrongly about the background, experience, and challenges of the lives of those around me, I remain handicapped in my attempts to love them.
But acknowledging racial, and more specifically ethnic, distinctions can seem like a scary thing to engage in, especially for those in the majority culture. For most of our country’s history an acknowledgement of racial differences has been the basis for the assertion of racial superiority. But, of course, that is not the way of Christ.
However, in acknowledging racial distinctions we gain a window, not necessarily into who a person most fundamentally is, but into their experience in this fallen and broken world. Race is a human construct created to make arbitrary distinctions between peoples for the sake of asserting the superiority of one over another (for more on this topic, see this article). And while it would be wonderful if “race” as a concept had never been invented, the way forward in our fallen world is not to ignore it. We can’t wish away such a profound cultural dynamic. Instead, we must see it for what it is in our culture, and understand it as a piece of the puzzle that makes up each unique individual we have the pleasure of knowing and the responsibility of loving.
The color of your skin does not tell me about your ethnic heritage, your cultural values, your personality, your level of education, or even what language you speak. But because we live in a racialized society the color of your skin does tell me about your experience in this fallen and broken world.
So, what is the way forward then? To be honest, in many ways I’m still looking for the answer to that question. I have learned far too much over the past several years to assume that my education, my clear-eyed awakening (I’m pretty sure I’m too white to use “woke”), has concluded. There is still much more to be learned.
But what I do know is that Scripture (as always) shows us how to walk the path ahead. After asserting that we are all united in Christ, and that the identities that used to divide us are no longer who we most fundamentally are, Paul (a Jew sent to Gentiles) instructs us with this:
“Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Colossians 3:12–14)
Lord, may it increasingly be so in my heart.
Scott serves the church by overseeing leadership, development, global ministries, and counseling/discipleship.
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