Voices

Stop and listen

A humble prescription for a racially divided church

Issue: "Lebanon: Democracy now," Feb. 26, 2005

We regularly in WORLD try to fight the myths that secular liberals promulgate concerning evangelicals.

For example, they say evangelicals want to legislate morality, even though we know that sin cannot be stopped by law because it is within everyone, and we know that real change comes one by one from the inside out, not million by million from the top down. We just don't want law to support or stimulate sin.

They say we're opposed to the First Amendment's guarantee of religious liberty, but we favor the free expression of religious beliefs in all areas of life, including business offices, governmental halls, and classrooms. They say we're gullible followers of potential dictators, but we are less likely than others to bow down to leaders because we obey a higher authority and are taught not to put our trust in princes.

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But one attack-that evangelicals are racially divided-does have a factual basis, as we can all see on Sunday mornings. Evangelicals understand that all people are created in God's image, yet we still almost always have white churches or black churches, not churches that reflect the diversity of heaven.

It's common for white evangelicals to say that discrimination against minorities is a thing of the past, something to cover during Black History Month (each February) or Hispanic Heritage Month (in the fall)-or not to cover at all. After all, the African-American and Hispanic middle class has expanded enormously, we've had two black secretaries of state in a row, and minorities receive preferential treatment in many governmental programs.

That's not the way it looks from the other side, though. Southern Baptist Convention leader Richard Land mentioned to me earlier this month that most whites don't understand the daily exposure to racism, sometimes overt, usually subtle, that many African-Americans endure. He also spoke of the vast reservoir of good will toward blacks that exists among most American white evangelicals. He's right on both counts, and that means our goal should be to increase understanding so that the vast reservoir of good will is not a vast reservoir of cluelessness.

We should all start by asking and listening. We should ask about the comfort levels folks feel with members of different races; when there's discomfort, business deals are less likely. We should ask about the connections people use in gaining jobs or other opportunities.

I've been listening recently to my youngest son, age 14, who is black; my wife and I adopted him when he was 3 weeks old. We're living this year in an apartment complex in New Jersey where most of the kids his age are African-American, and they play a lot of basketball and sometimes walk together on streets. My son, who was not particularly race-conscious before, has good reason to believe that the local police treat him differently than they do white kids.

That experience has helped me to think about things I as a white person take for granted. I can go around in old clothes without having people attribute my lack of sartorial elegance to my race. I can arrive late somewhere without people believing that I'm lazy or have bad morals because of my race.

I still favor alternatives to governmental race-based preferences. For example, why not give all high-school students in the top 5 percent of their class (or with SATs in the top 5 percent of all test-takers) vouchers equivalent to state university tuition? The vouchers, usable at any public, private, or religious college, would help poor blacks and Hispanics without redlining poor whites, and would also encourage educational diversity.

Since governmental quotas expand bureaucratic power, provoke a backlash, and are unfair to individuals, we need to find a better way to increase minority opportunities. The best way will be for Christians not to claim colorblindness but to admit our lack of it and strive to compensate. When exploring cross-race business and hiring opportunities, for example, we should ask ourselves not, "Do I feel comfortable with this person?" but, "Why don't I feel comfortable with this person?"

As Voice of Calvary founder John Perkins and others have taught, we need to avoid both racism and bitterness about racism. The good news, as one of our Worldmagblog contributors put it, is that in Christ "we all are red-skinned, covered by the blood that cleanses and forgives."

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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