A story is told about the Civil Rights movement in Charleston, S.C. According to the story, a black pastor went into a Laundromat to wash his clothes. As he walked into the facility, he saw two signs, one on each side of the room. One sign said “Whites” while the other said “Coloreds.” So, being the law-abiding citizen he was, the pastor washed his white clothes in the machines under the “Whites” sign and his colored clothes in the machines under the sign “Coloreds.”
This was brought to the attention of the city council, who took it up at their next meeting. The wise city fathers agreed that the signs were, indeed, not clear, and ordered that they be taken down. And that was the Civil Rights movement in Charleston.
I had the privilege of being stationed for most of my 20 years in the military in either South Carolina or Japan. For me, born and raised in Michigan, both locations were cross-cultural experiences. I discovered both cultures had something in common. In Asia it’s called “saving face,” in the American South it’s called “politeness.” Both cultures place a premium on not making the other uncomfortable in human interactions.
It strikes me that there is something for us to learn from this. The response to the unrest in Charlottesville has been direct and forceful. Racism is sin, and sin needs to be confronted and removed. Perhaps at least some of this response comes out of the culture of the American North (where almost all Christian Reformed Churches can be found) rather than a clear listening to Scripture. When Jesus summarized the law of God, it was not “root out all sin,” but “love the Lord your God ... and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-38). The Apostle Paul reflects this teaching in I Corinthians 13: “If I have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal ... I am nothing ... I gain nothing.” “[Love] is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protect always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
There is no doubt racism is wrong. The question for those of us in the Christian Reformed Church living above the Mason-Dixon line is, how do we face this wrong without keeping records? How do we challenge our nation to face our racism in 2017 (in both the North and the South) without hauling out the long list of racial sins of the past (which, according to the Gospel, have been atoned for on the Cross of Jesus Christ) to strengthen our case? How do we not delight in evil (so we can advance our political agendas?) but rejoice with the truth (that racism IS sin, that ALL are created in the Imago Dei, regardless of race, gender, or culture).
Karl Marlantes, in his book What it is Like to Go to War (New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011) writes “In any dispute both sides have a perspective that deserves to be heard, that neither side is totally right — each possesses a partial perspective. Both sides are flawed and fragmented; neither possesses absolute truth.” (p. 48) What strikes me is that this Marine Corps Vietnam Veteran understands and articulates what we in the Reformed tradition have maintained all along, but in the emotion of the moment quickly forget, namely that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), that human depravity is universal, that “even our best works in this life are imperfect and stained with sin.” (Heidelberg Catechism answer 62), that “in this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience” that God requires in the Ten Commandments (Heidelberg Catechism answer 114), that Christ Jesus died to save sinners [including Klansmen], of whom I am the worst” (I Timothy 1:15 NIV), that there is such a thing as common grace, and that God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4).
Is it possible that the city fathers of Charleston understood something about the Gospel that we have lost? Too often we use the tools of guilt, and especially shame, to push for change. We in the North have shamed the South. Not only did General Sherman unnecessarily burn much of it to the ground at the end of the War (in the South, there was only one war), but we continue the shaming narrative that Southerners are all racists rather than pointing out the guilt in specific racist behaviors. Shame is a powerful tool, but it has no place in the arsenal of the Christian.
Years ago I attended an event where the Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul was the speaker. I will never forget the prayer he offered, which went something like this. “Lord, thank you for not revealing all of our sin to us at once, because we would not be able to take it.” As we engage in the spiritual battle against racism, I encourage us to be sensitive and loving to those who have been caught in its ugly claws. May God give us God’s heart for sinners whose transgression is expressed through the evil of racism.