A few weeks ago, I watched a video of last year’s unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. I watched rioters break through a store wall before looting it. Most of the looters grabbing whatever they wanted were white.
This is not about race. People on one side of the Ferguson divide say black people just want entitlements and will stop at nothing to get them – imagining that is not racist. People on the other side say black people suffered for centuries under white domination, and what goes around comes around – and imagining it not racist to label blacks incapable of rising above their circumstances when so many do. This is not about race – and never was. It is about law-abiding decent people versus law-defying indecent people of all tribes. It is about being part of the solution or part of the problem – seeking authentic reconciliation, or being so smug in our prejudices we despise conversation.
As a cadet teacher forty years ago, I taught in an inner-city school. A black student came on with attitude from our first encounter, and it seemed to me every exchange was a bomb waiting to explode. After about two weeks of (in my mind) great effort to approach him with courtesy and respect while maintaining my authority, I asked him to remain after class. “You tellin’ me I can’t go home?” he growled. “No. I am telling you I want to talk to you.” We sat down, and I asked him to tell me what it was about me that so ticked him off. He admitted that his fifth grade teacher was openly racist and constantly demeaned him. He said he decided then to shoot first and ask questions later with any white teachers he had. He added that he was not sorry for this.
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I asked him to look at me carefully, which he did. I asked him if I in any way resembled the teacher who had earned his hatred. He said I did not. “Then suppose you and I start all over again – today – and look at each other as who we are. If you see me putting you down when you’ve done no wrong, push back; if not, give me a break and I’ll do the same for you. You remember I am the teacher, and I’ll remember you deserve my respect.” We got along famously after that. But we had to have a frank conversation.
Let’s be clear about two things. One is we have come a long way this past half century. A black man in the White House most potently symbolizes that progress. That civil rights legislation so passionately fought for in the 20th Century is rarely invoked today is another; we Americans have learned to honor one another – like the black man who taught twenty-year-old me to survive in the streets. The richest expression of general harmony is the plethora of ministries of reconciliation such as PrayNorthState; I travel the world honoring and being honored by people of all ethnicities. They have my back, and I have theirs. This camaraderie is common over millions of back fences.
This reconciling camaraderie surfaced in Ferguson as black activists embraced white cops in the wake of the shootings of two officers.
Another is that racism remains in America. It is as ugly as it ever was, and most of it comes from the rich and powerful inside and outside government. The Crow People and their Montana reservation sit atop untold reserves of oil, gas, and mineral wealth; the federal government blocks their efforts to tap it – they are, after all, Indians, while the environmentalists who have the ear of government are white. Alaska natives passionately desire the prosperity that would follow opening the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge for drilling. The same white progressive environmentalists in bed with government are putting a quarter billion acres of Native land off limits to protect the ring seal. Hollywood – white progressive Hollywood – snubs an achievement like the film, Selma, for academy award consideration. There is racism in America, but it is not coming from middle-class traditional values types.
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The bottom line is that whenever we take the time and display the courage to have a frank discussion with each other, it usually works just fine. Authentic reconciliation is about speaking the truth – with passion – as we understand it. It is about listening to the truth as others understand it with respect. It is finally about God re-framing the conversation. Our function is humbly granting Him permission; that permission carries life-giving promise. And it is not about race; it is about right and wrong.
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