Growing up during the 1980s, I recognized the advantages I had from being an American citizen — freedom of religion, freedom of speech, etc. The living conditions of the average human on the planet, as well as the restrictions placed on citizens behind the Iron Curtain, made me extremely thankful for “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. But, I was largely unaware of the challenges many children in my own city faced. It never occurred to me that I had many advantages simply because I grew up in a two parent home in the suburbs. As a white male, I’ve never feared that a traffic cop would single me out for my race. I was never worried that my neighbors would be suspicious of me because of my color. I never noticed that band-aids always matched my skin. As Peggy McIntosh wrote, “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.”
My perspective started to change when I became a member of a minority group as an adoptive parent. Adoptive parents don’t have a history of slavery or being viewed as sub-human, but the naive assumptions of the majority culture were still quite aggravating for me. My kids’ bad behavior was excused by well intentioned friends, “Do you think they’re not sharing their toys because of insecurities related to adoption?” (Maybe they’re behaving like all kids sometimes do. Take yours for instance.) “Who is the real father?” (I think you mean birth father?) “How could any parent abandon their child?” (You mean choose life and sacrificially place their child in a loving family.) For the first time in my life I carried a pain invisible to most — the cost of widespread misinformation, bias and misrepresentation of a whole segment of society (adoptive families).
Recently our campus ministry, DiscipleMakers, invited Dr. Scott Hancock from Gettysburg College to teach at our winter staff conference about African-American history and the challenges of doing cross cultural ministry well. At breakfast I asked Dr. Hancock several questions:
“What’s your opinion on reparations?” (A state sanctioned recompense to descendants of American slaves).
“Why do you ask?” Scott asked. “If you want to write a check, I can tell you where to send it.”
“Uh, well.” I stammered. “I have mixed feelings about reparations. I don’t think you can unscramble scrambled eggs. I believe we are morally obligated to give sacrificially and generously but how do we justify penalizing the innocent descendants of abusers. Besides, it seems politically impossible to implement a program of reparations at this late stage. However, the gracious giving to those in need, whether through government welfare programs or charity seems doable.”
“Well, I wouldn’t characterize the welfare system as gracious giving and you should know that the majority of people on welfare are white.” Scott replied. “But concerning the issue of reparations, I think you have to settle the moral question first. As Christians we must first ask, ‘Does God demand we make reparations to those who have been victimized?’ If the answer is yes, we must work to find a way to fulfill that moral duty.”
“But in this case it seems undoable.” I said.
“Well, Americans take pride in their ability to solve problems previously thought impossible.” He retorted.
“What scripture verses would you use to argue that reparations are a moral duty once the generations that grievously sinned have passed away?” I asked. “The Year of Jubilee commanded reparations and required Israel to address the problem before that generation passed away. But, we are several generations removed from slavery in America.”
“In the Old Testament, God held people responsible for the sins of their forefathers, meaning several generations and not just their immediate parents.” Dr. Hancock replied. “And in Old Testament law, repentance of sin always entailed making recompense to the victim. Repentance was never limited to admitting wrong but included doing whatever you could to right the wrong.”
I had more questions, but my comments left me feeling embarrassed and possibly misunderstood. At each point Dr. Hancock offered clarifying comments that felt similar to the rebukes I usually give to those unschooled about adoption issues. I kept thinking to myself, “But, I have bi-racial children. Some of my best friends throughout my life have been people of color. Please don’t think me a racist.”
Before my breakfast conversation with Dr. Hancock, I merely assumed that white people, like me, deserved more credit than we’ve been given. As I finished the remains of my sausage and eggs, I realized I was guilty of racial bias in ways I had not previously acknowledged. Who knew whites were the largest recipients of welfare? I didn’t. But was my naivety the same as racism? If I admit racial bias but not racism am I telling myself a white lie? (Pun not intended initially.)
The DiscipleMakers winter staff conference forced me to think more carefully about the advantages I have received as a white man — though unavoidable and unearned — and how they have created self-righteous blind spots in me that hurt my friends and acquaintances from various ethnic backgrounds. There are countless ways to take responsibility for healing the racial divide in our culture, but below is a first step that I identified with the help of my co-worker Jordan Eyster.
This semester, the staff working at Mason-Dixon area campuses will launch a new teaching series through the book of Exodus. As a white protestant, I’ve heard (and preached) many sermons about the Exodus that quickly equate the Israelite’s deliverance from Egypt to the Christian’s deliverance from bondage to Satan, sin and death. While this is a good application of the text, it happens to skip past painfully obvious issues that I doubt African-American preachers miss — the defiling enslavement of an entire people group; the lasting psychological damage from seeing people dehumanized for generations; and the just anger of a loving God committed to save, heal and vindicate the oppressed. Previously, I barely touched upon these critical points when preaching through Exodus. I shudder to think how such neglect has affected minority students who continue to feel the sting of oppression and racism that I simply don’t experience as a white man (and am therefore tempted to assume doesn’t still happen).
God, forgive me for my sins. Though often unintentional they dishonor you, My Lord, and grievously wound those made in your image. Help me (help us all) know how to take greater responsibility to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Conversation printed with the permission of Dr. Scott Hancock.