This is the fifth in a series of weekly reflections through the season of Lent, written by Bobby Gross, who contributed the reflections for this past Advent Season. The first appeared on Ash Wednesday. You can browse the second reflection here, third reflection here, and the fourth reflection here.
Racism has haunted my whole life. It is like a chronic disease acquired in early childhood, sometimes debilitating, sometimes only hobbling, always painful. Even with the latest in medical treatment, I can never fully clear the virus from my system. For stretches I can quell it, but it has a way of flaring up, to my dismay and shame. I am writing this as a White person.
Sadly, we can extend this metaphor to the whole of our society and to the entirety of our history.
I was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1955, the year in which Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her front-of-the-bus seat, thus setting off the Montgomery boycott that catapulted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into prominence. Like everyone I knew then, the consciousness of race was ingrained in my psyche and the perverse everyday given of segregation was the warp and woof of my young existence. Inevitably, I grew up racist. And this racism distorted my sense of identity—as a person, as a Southerner, as an American, as a Christian.
Had I been born a Black person in Columbus at that time, almost all the words above would be equally apt, but in reverse, like the negative of a photo. Only, had I been African American, I would not have grown up as a racist but as a victim of racism. I would have been differently—and more grievously—wounded.
My high school integrated in 1971, my junior year, with none of the feared catastrophe (nonetheless, a new private school was opened in short order). With integration and greater exposure to the civil rights movement through the news, my intuitive unease with the prevailing racial realities intensified, but it was not until college that my eyes were opened, my heart awakened to the evil character and horrifying consequences of racism. This came through my academic coursework and my spiritual formation. With new lenses, I read books and I read the Bible. My knowledge grew and my faith deepened.
In my commitment to follow Christ as Leader for the whole of my life, whatever the costs—a living sacrifice, as Paul described it in Romans 12—I began to discern some of those costs. God made it clear that I accorded three idols dangerous sway over my thought and life: materialism, racism, and nationalism. There needed to be less conforming to my world and more renewing of my mind.
Thus began a life-long repentance from these named idolatries, these alluring ideologies that promised rewards in return for allegiance: financial success, ethnic superiority, and national pride. But every idol we worship forms us in its image, or better said, deforms us. Material greed consumes, racial prejudice dehumanizes, and national arrogance blinds. All three of these idols prevent us from loving God with all our whole being and keep us from loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, the two commandments at the heart of our faith and our humanity.
During Lent our susceptibility to such idols deserves scrutiny, which is why we grappled with greed two weeks ago in this blog and will look at nationalism next. But this week, I invite you to examine afresh your propensities toward prejudice and your complicity with the racism that still riddles our society.
Here are a few ways that I am practicing my ongoing repentance these days:
- I am engaging scriptures that confront my tendency to think of myself as better than others (see last weeks post on Guarding against Pride) such as John 4 where Jesus, violating the social code against Jews associating with Samaritans, sees and takes seriously a spiritually thirsty woman at a well on the edge of a Samaritan village, while his disciples in their barely hidden disdain cannot see or serve the spiritually hungry in the town where they are buying bread.
- I am reading books (I am always reading books!) that take me into the experiences and perspectives of those different from me, such as South to America: A Journey below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry, a take on her—and my—native South by a Black woman and professor of African American Studies. I am also reading her bracing and poignant Breathe: A Letter to My Sons.
- I am choosing experiences that stretch me, such as going to the High Museum of Art to spend an hour at the traveling exhibit of the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama commissioned for the National Portrait Gallery, where I especially contemplated with a strange mix of pride and residual shame that the portraitist for Ms. Obama, Amy Sherald, comes from my hometown of Columbus.
- I am paying attention to the news and to the cultural discourse in print about our contemporary society, trying to think carefully for myself about such raging controversies Critical Race Theory and what it means to be Awake to the realities of racial injustice that offend God’s holiness and how to think about our nation’s history and my complicity in it.
- Finally, I am trying to just be a thoughtful friend and a kind neighbor to the people of color who live feet away from me in the adjacent townhouses of our seven-unit HOA.
Racial turmoil has roiled the nation and the church in these last few years. Many have stepped up and spoken out with intensity, but others seem to be entrenching in a defensive posture of denial and resistance. Of course these matters are complex and contested, but we must not let the valid debates obscure the heart of the matter for us as Christ followers and God-imaging humans: there can be no room in our minds or mouths for racism, no room for elevating ourselves above ethnic “others,” no room for attitudes and actions, however unintended, that hurt or dehumanize, no room for apathy or inaction in the face of persistent injustices, no bowing down to the idol of race.
Lord of Lent, come and heal us.
About the author:
Bobby Gross has spent his career in campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He currently serves as Vice President for the Graduate & Faculty Ministries division. Originally from Columbus, GA, Bobby and his wife Charlene have lived in Gainesville (FL), Miami (FL), New York City, and now Atlanta. He graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with a B.A. in American Studies and English Literature and did additional studies in theology at Regent College in Vancouver. Bobby served on the national board of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) for six years. Bobby is the author of Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God. He has also contributed chapters to three other books, including Faith on the Edge (InterVarsity Press) and Signs of Hope in the City (Judson). Bobby has experience in preaching, teaching, and training on a range of subjects including leadership development, vocational stewardship, and spiritual formation. An admitted bibliophile, Bobby also writes poetry and collects contemporary art on religious themes.