I learned something significant this year: I Iearned that I struggle with racist tendencies. A variety of experiences and readings have helped me to see these tendencies hiding in that corner of my heart where fear lives.
I told one of our children about my struggles and he replied, “But dad, it can’t be that bad. You and mom adopted two Korean children!” I appreciated his effort to encourage me, but recognized that our family’s adoption stories don’t eliminate this struggle.
Social scientists have a name for my struggle; they call it implicit bias. They will say that a natural human survival mechanism is that we park our life experiences into various categories, that race is one of the categories we work with, and every category is assessed in terms of positives and negatives associated with it. Our natural tendency is to especially notice the happenings in our environment that reinforce the positive and negative assessments that we have formed. Thus, if left unchallenged, implicit bias is self-strengthening.
The Scriptures have a way of naming my struggle too. “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me,” declares David in his great Psalm of confession (51: 5), and the Apostle John makes David’s general observation more specific:
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. (I John 4: 16-20)
A great deal of fear lives in that category in my heart called, “following Jesus in a racially diverse world,” and my daily disciplines of repentance are struggling to release that pit of fear at the foot of the cross. I’m grateful for the Calvinist teaching of total depravity, because it frees me to acknowledge, name and seek to release that fear into the outstretched arms of a Savior whose mercy knows no bounds. That rich doctrine offers me no room to pretend otherwise.
In a kind of strange way, I’m also grateful for Donald Trump’s three-fold (at least) challenge to the Christian church: (1) He has participated in making fear the central dynamic of the current election, so that his campaign fuels fear concerning where the Obama/Clinton trajectory will lead, and his opponent fuels fear about a Trump presidency. (2) As the leading public advocate for the birther movement, he has signaled that racial fears that fuel conspiracy theories are central to his agenda. (3) In his world, being Trump means never having to say to you’re sorry unless you’re caught in undisguised lewdness on tape.
Yes, I’m grateful for the challenge Trump lays before the church of Jesus. The combination of these three markers brings me (and the entire Christian church) to a fork in the road where I must choose between hardened, unrepentant, prideful anger or deep, sorrow-rich repentance.
At this fork, I find myself praying prayers like these: “Lord, the news cycle has helped me to see the great pit of fear that lives inside me. I feel paralyzed and confused. Pierce my fear with the power of your Spirit, that the reconciling love, joy and peace that flow from the wounds of Jesus may heal my trembling heart and free me to be a witness to the coming of your shalom-ful kingdom.”
Twenty five years ago the bard Leonard Cohen recorded a tune called “The Future,” which includes this haunting refrain:
Things are going to slide, slide in all directions, Won't be nothing, Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold
And it has overturned the order of the soul
When they said REPENT, REPENT, I wonder what they meant.
Cohen’s “future” is our now. Maybe the strongest witness the church of Jesus can provide today is to embody repentance amid the blizzard of the world. At any rate, my depraved soul tells me I have no other option.