In light of recent racial violence in the United States, Rev. John Eigege has begun writing a series of letters about racial reconciliation to his calling church, New Life Christian Reformed Church. John is a community chaplain with Christian Reformed Home Missions in Houston’s Third Ward neighborhood. Do Justice will be sharing these letters with the wider CRC community over the coming weeks.
Last week, we explored some foundational and self-evident truths. God created a diverse and unified family of human beings. One Race. Many Ethnicities. Yet humanity deviated from God’s grand and beautiful design. We created division where God created unity. Racism is not part of God’s grand design. Human beings are the architects of racism. However, through Jesus Christ, God is reconciling us to Himself, and to each other, rebuilding what we destroyed. He also calls us and empowers us through his Spirit to tear down all walls of hostility that separate us, as we look for the coming of his kingdom where people from every tribe, tongue, and nation will serve our Righteous and Just King; Jesus!
However, if we are honest, we look at our world and know that “things are not the way they are supposed to be.” As we watch the news and log into our social media accounts, it is evident that humanity is not living into God’s vision for unity. Racism is real, and has historically, and continues to, tear us apart. How should we respond to what we see, and specifically, how should the church respond?
I think there are three postures the church can lead our society to practice well: Confession, Lament, and Repentance. In confession, we identify and name our collective sin of racism. We acknowledge that it is real. We admit it to God, and to people groups who’ve been mistreated and discriminated against. Next, we lament deeply the injustice that this sin of racism has caused, and the dividing walls of hostility it continues to put up between us. We identify the impact of the sin we have confessed, and we mourn together. Next, we repent of this sin, turning away from it and completely orienting ourselves to a new paradigm of living and being together. When we repent, we work together for justice and reconciliation that will tear these walls down and build bridges in their place.
This week, let us focus on some things we need to confess and places where this land needs healing. We need to confess the sin of racism, one of the farthest ways that humanity has deviated from God’s grand and beautiful design. In the document, “God’s Diverse and Unified Family,” the CRCNA uses this working definition for racism; a prejudicial attitude and/or behavior directed against persons on the basis of their race, manifesting itself interpersonally as well as institutionally.
This working definition helps us see that racism doesn’t only affect our interpersonal relationships, but our institutions too. Racism is systemic. Like a sickness that comprehensively weakens the immune system of a human being, racism affects and weakens universal systems in our society that are designed to enable human flourishing: government, education, healthcare, employment, criminal justice, housing … the list goes on.
In order to confess well, we must create safe space for vulnerability and honesty. Confession is not easy, because it requires us to be brave, to look into the past to find where we have messed up, and move courageously to say we are sorry. In confession, we look for actions that destroy human flourishing, and confess these wrongful actions. Shame tells us that because we did something wrong, or something wrong was done to us, we should be paralyzed by victimization or victimhood. However, the gospel of Jesus Christ frees us, creating space all of us to come together to find healing.
My hope as I highlight some sins in history that need to be confessed is that the wrongful actions of people, and not the perpetrators themselves, are seen as the enemy. As we join hands to battle racism, our fight is not a fight against or between red, brown, yellow, black or white. Our fight is against an ideology that explicitly casts our brothers and sisters, with whom we are co-heirs with Christ as somehow more superior than, or inferior to who God says we all are. Our battle is against a system that creates a hierarchy of human value, an ideology that is completely antithetical to the creativity of our God, and the justice that is at the core of his being.
Let’s talk history, and highlight a few movements in American history. We human beings are quick to claim positive trajectories in our history. We stand on the shoulders of our parents’ and grandparents’ constructive achievements. We stand on the positive foundations of our nation’s beginnings. However, history is not one-sided and is not all positive. We have also inherited and learned evil cultural attitudes and laws, which shape our understanding of, and actions toward each other.
If we Christians claim that the sins of the first human beings still affect us today, then surely we can be honest about the racism in America’s history, and how it still affects us today. With confession, I want to focus on history. Next week, as we lament, we will look at how this history affects us today.
“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” But we must also acknowledge that he was not just an explorer. He was authorized by the church to take possession of lands he “discovered,” lands that were already inhabited by others. Since non-Europeans and non-Christians occupied these lands, these lands were up for the taking. This is what historians call the “Doctrine of Discovery.” It was racism that disregarded the humanity of Native people and claimed to discover the ancestral lands that people already inhabited, refusing to recognize the fully functional societies and communities already in existence, solely because of the skin color of the native inhabitants.
What ensued after Columbus was the systematic colonization of Native Americans and their lands, genocide of their people and attempted genocide of their cultures, from Canada all the way down to Argentina. This was justified because Native Americans were considered to be savages, less human than white Europeans. Racism led to further isolation by the United States of Native American communities, to the extent that these communities are almost invisible in contemporary American society.
Let’s move to a different chapter in American history. The transatlantic slave trade forcibly took millions of the brightest, strongest, and best Africans and made them slaves. What was the justification of this? It was the sin of racism. Blacks were considered less than human, inferior to whites, good for nothing else but to serve their white masters as slaves. Even the education of blacks in America was solely so they could serve their masters well as slaves. They were stripped of their African names and given European names. Families were separated. Africans were not treated as human beings but as property.
Many European nations began abolishing the enslavement of Africans in the 18th century, and this happened officially in the US in the 19th century through the Emancipation Proclamation. However, this did not guarantee freedom for black people in the US. The century and a half after the abolition of slavery would see some of the deepest forms of racism and segregation, sanctioned by law, that still plague African American communities to this day. In the founding documents of the United States, after declaring, “All men are created equal,” we see that African Americans were legally considered as only 3/5ths of a human being. It is racism that blinds our eyes to seeing the humanity in others, because of difference in skin color and ethnicity.
We can open up the pages of numerous other chapters in American history, which are tainted by the sin of racism. We can open up the pages of Japanese-American internment camps after Pearl Harbor. It didn’t matter than the people forced into these camps were Americans. Because they were ethnically Japanese, they became the victims of discrimination, land seizures, and torture. We can open up the pages of Latino Americans, many whose land was seized and many whom were deported from their lands. With all the immigration of the 20th century into the US, second-generation immigrants of European descent are somehow seen as more “American” than Latinos who have called regions like Texas and California home for many generations. These examples are just a few.
So what should we do with this history? As people of the truth, I believe we embrace all history; both the positive history that makes us proud and the negative history that makes us really uncomfortable. We cannot claim what we do not name. And until we name this side of history, and claim it as true, then the people of God will continue to make the same mistakes. Let us together acknowledge the destructive ways racism shows up in the history of America as a nation. Like Nehemiah, let us see the brokenness of our society and confess even the sins of our fathers.
Racism is not part of God’s original or continuing design for human flourishing. In racism, there is no common ground for valuing all humanity equally. Racism creates a hierarchy of human value. Racism always marks some humans, based on skin color or ethnicity, as superior and others as inferior. In America, racism is real, and it negatively affects us all! We must acknowledge and admit that this enemy is real, and keeps us from living into the fullness that God has for us.
So let us confess racism together.
This is a portion of a prayer from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:
We thank you for making one human family of all the peoples of the earth and for creating all the wonderful diversity of cultures. Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellowship and show us your presence in those who differ most from us.
From the bondage of racism that denies the humanity of every human being and the prejudices within us that deny the dignity of those who are oppressed, Lord set us free: Lord, have mercy.
From racism that blinds oppressors to the destruction caused by the spirit and practice of racial injustice, Christ set us free: Christ, have mercy.
From the racism that will not recognize the work of your Spirit in other cultures: Lord set us free: Lord, have mercy.
You can find a few other prayers and helpful resources on their website by clicking here.