Standing In The Gap Of The Real And Perceived
Behind the uproar over recent incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, and support around the country over that uproar, is the same discontent that has fueled earlier protests, such as those in the Occupy movement, or those following the death of Trayvon Martin. The problem with these protests is not that racial and social injustice does not occur. It certainly does. Such injustice needs to be addressed on a case-by-case basis, not with the assumption that it is everywhere until, on a case-by-case basis, we find that it is. Blacks getting killed by whites, and black people being mad about it, does not in itself prove that white people are guilty of wrongdoing.
But what causes blacks en masse to automatically declare any and every newsworthy public altercation involving a black person as racially motivated? Why does the black community as a whole ignore the most glaring evidence against drawing conclusions that assume racial bigotry as a primary motive? Why does any criticism of President Obama immediately draw accusations of racism? Whatever the beliefs behind these trends, it is miring hope in the black community, and it’s not a nationwide cartel of evil law enforcement officers that nurture such beliefs. But let’s not paint all blacks the same color, as one political party does:
I grew up in Charleston, S.C. in the 1970s, in lower income, minority-rich neighborhoods and apartment complexes. Back then and there, only one minority existed: black folks. But from my schoolyard perspective, they didn’t look like a minority. Blacks were everywhere, just like whites. Trust me; I have felt the nervous dread of being white on a Saturday night.
Nonetheless, that upbringing in Charleston gave me a real appreciation, and a real love, for the black population. Blacks have brought, and bring, immeasurable value to American culture, and in so many positive ways, America has been shaped in no small part by the contributions of former American slaves and their descendants. They should be proud, and the rest of America should be thankful.
I’ve never walked in a black man’s shoes. Neither has he walked in mine. But we’ve walked side by side together many times. Just as he came from slavery, I came from a ransacked, scorched, occupied, defeated land, one that was oppressed economically and politically for over 100 years after that defeat, and still suffers broadly from that stigma. Don’t get me wrong; I wouldn’t equate my heritage in the New World with 300 years of the kind of slavery blacks experienced in the Western Hemisphere. There are different kinds and degrees of slavery.
My ancestors were never Southern gentry, but subsistence farmers, having much more in common economically with slaves than with plantation owners. I’m as sure that they fought in the Civil War as I am that they were not big slaveowners, if slaveowners at all. My own father did indeed walk to school barefoot, pick cotton in the Southern summer heat, and have many a breakfast of “tomato gravy and biscuits.” I have ancestors from the late 19th century who were full blooded Cherokee. My grandfather, who fathered eleven children with my grandmother, got snookered badly by a rich white man’s greed, some say, breaking his spirit and destroying his dreams of raising his family to a higher socio-economic station. My father actually spent a night in jail on a murder charge because he “looked like” another white man. I can remember stories of systemic reverse racism that held my family back from certain opportunities to get a fair shake at the American Dream. I’ve been mugged for being the wrong color on the wrong street on a cool October evening, one block from my house. I’ve been told to get to the back of the bus. Shit happens.
So, like many blacks, despite my considerable intelligence, blinding good looks, and irrepressible charm, I struggle to shed a poverty mentality and, to a smaller degree, self-identification as a victim of circumstance.
I can continue to carry all of that into today if I choose, as I often do, wittingly or not. But how long should I allow 1865, 1957, 1963, and 1977 to dictate who I am now, or what I leave behind to my children? Though the elite of this world still consider me a slave, a resource to be managed, they still give me a measure of opportunity and security to exercise a certain amount of freedom within the construct they provide. It’s no more, and no less, opportunity than that of any other freely moving citizen in these United States, and certainly as much as anywhere else in the world. There is still plenty of room to prosper for the person that is willing to use the system as cunningly as it uses him. There is no room for those who refuse to play at all, or who try to disrupt the system overtly. In this matrix, none of us is “the One,” per se.
But we are here for a reason. Christians are charged to live as much as we can at peace with those around us, and within the system that governs us. If the system asks me to bow to a giant chocolate bunny, well, then, we will have a problem, because I’m a Christian, but I really do love chocolate. Until then, however, I am charged to live, work, and express myself within the system. And in that, I have every freedom that the guy next door to me does. His prosperity is not an indicator that there is less out there for me. It is instead a possible indicator that I need to examine his means rather than his motive, since the latter is common among us, and see if I can learn from his success to produce my own. We all have general obstacles, as well as personal obstacles, to battle in our quest for success. But economic abundance in the Western world is limited more by our imagination and drive than any other single factor, whatever our racial profile.
Lastly, and most importantly as a Jesus follower, there is this to consider: my legacy is that of my King, not my president, and need not be of my ancestors. Although economic prosperity is my inheritance as an heir of the Kingdom, material wealth is in itself not an end, but rather a tool I am afforded ultimately in service to my King. Along the way, there is nothing wrong with enjoying a Hawaiian sunset, a new car, or a private college education for my children, if it leaves me in debt to no man.
But those milestones of prosperity are really small victories, shiny trinkets, cotton candy for the wise. My intimacy with a Savior who would use me to feed the poor, heal the sick, raise the dead, and invite a lost world to share His love should be my real treasure. If I’m missing that intimacy, I’m really missing everything, and I will always be poor in every measure that matters. Compared to my citizenship in the eternal Kingdom of God in Christ, my citizenship anywhere in this world is just a temporary resident visa, and should be considered as such. It governs me externally for the time being, and I show respect for the status given me, but I am not owned by it. My heart belongs to my King, my loyalty to His kingdom.
That is my future, if I believe, because I will live what I believe. But like many of my black brothers and sisters, the more I blame my past for my present, the more the brokers of that past will co-opt me, and the more and longer I empower both to enslave every minute of my future, emasculating myself in the process. What stops that is my refusal to make my belief the plaything of any temporal, earthly power. Or, as Neo said of the frustration of our real and only Adversary, “Choice. The problem is choice.”
In that is also the good news of Jesus Christ, though. In the Garden, God gave us a choice, and we blew it. Then when we got caught, we blamed each other! Hmmm… see the pattern? We chose the illusion of self-sustenance over the favor of God. That choice actually sent us into a death spiral, though, because God is the giver of life, and apart from God, we die. So for a while, it seemed we were doomed. But then Christ came and restored our relationship with our Creator, and now we have another chance. We can choose to accept or reject Christ’s work for us. That’s the good news; we can choose life again! God has said we can have what we want, whatever that is! Life or death. Continued slavery, or freedom in Christ. Eternity with Him, or insisting upon our own path to certain destruction. Either way, God will oblige us. But the choice for life — prosperity, if you will — in our existence here and beyond, now and for eternity, is ours, and ours alone.
The reason so many blacks still feel enslaved 150 years after the 14th Amendment freed them from the institution of slavery, and 50 years after the Civil Rights Act demanded that they be treated equally in public and private, is because the body can’t be free if the heart and mind are still shackled. No matter our melanin content, we are all slaves to the degree that we look outward for the grantor of our freedom. Real freedom begins inside us, and only comes through Christ Jesus, where “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one…” (Galatians 3:28)
God’s love makes us free, and free indeed. Deny that, and we will always be slaves. Accept it, and our freedom starts today. If we choose.