By Alexis Busetti
I feel completely unprepared to write about this topic. In fact, this is the second draft of this article because I completely trashed the first one (that I spent days re-working and then published only to un-publish again). But because it’s important, I’m going to try again. I want to talk about racism.
Like so many of us around the country, I was shaken by the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. I have two sons, one black and one white, and I can’t stand the fact that our conversations about their safety and well-being, even when walking around the neighborhood, have to look so drastically different just because of the color of their skin. They are each loved and valued by God and by us, but some of the people they’ll come into contact with won’t see at least one of them that way. Assumptions will be made about my boys based on what they look like before they even have the chance to open their mouths to speak. It’s heartbreaking and devastating and sinful.
We initiated discussions about race at our house when our kids were very little, even before their littlest brother came home from Africa. In kindergarten they started learning about the civil rights movement in America and we discussed leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks around the dinner table. We engaged them in age appropriate ways, but even so, it was easy for our children to recognize the actions and laws put in place by the majority race in our country as sin. We tried to answer questions about the reasoning behind segregation for example, but we came to the same conclusion as our then five year old: there is no good reason for laws like those. They’re just sin.
Fast forward to today and many people would argue that since some of the major laws have been changed in the last 50 to 60 years, the systemic problems have been fixed. Hopefully we can see how wrong and distorted that belief is. It is true, some practices that were once commonplace have been outlawed, but laws don’t change hearts. Never have.
God gave Israel the law because of their hard hearts. They were a tutor, as Paul put it, to show them what was right and what was wrong. While there were consequences for certain transgressions, the law was never intended to soften their hearts toward God or each other. Only the Holy Spirit can do that, and the Holy Spirit is who we still need to soften, heal, and change hearts today. Racist attitudes and actions will not disappear due to legislation. Yes, legislation is necessary and good, but it is not the cure for racism because racism is a sin. And since racism is a sin, the only answer, the only cure is repentance. Just like every other sin. But unlike every other sin, this repentance needs to take place on an individual level as well as a communal level.
Just this week, I was having what I began as a benign conversation with a woman I know casually. We were more than six feet away talking loudly to account for the distance and mask barrier about books and memoirs when the conversation turned to recent events of racist acts against Asian Americans in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic. I was the one who actually brought it up. She mentioned reading a book recounting the atrocities of the internment camps during World War II and I, thinking it was a natural progression in the conversation, mentioned the current racist response toward Asian Americans. Before I realized what had happened I was met with her opinion that while incidents like that in our history and current events are awful, she would not apologize for them. After all, she wasn’t and isn’t responsible she said. She also would not support any sort of movement toward reparations for other injustices like slavery, because she didn’t have anything to do with those either. Plus, it’s been too long. I’ve heard it before, I just don’t share the perspective. That opinion isn’t new, and it also isn’t helpful.
Because of the group nature of race relations, we often forget to see the issues as personal and at the same time refuse to see them as corporate.
Because of the group nature of race relations, we often forget to see the issues as personal and at the same time refuse to see them as corporate. What if we held tightly to that opinion when someone close to us was grieving the death of a loved one. That we are not personally responsible, so we won’t recognize the grief or loss. When we experience a personal tragedy, we take it for granted that people will expresses sympathy. A simple, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” is a way to show compassion and unity. We feel seen and loved when the people reach out in that way, even if we don’t have a close relationship. We absolutely don’t take their show of support or comfort as a sign that they held some sort of personal responsibility in our loss. Obviously, that would be absurd. They weren’t involved, but they express their condolences just the same. What if we refused to offer that simple act of courtesy toward one another, stopped offering it altogether, because we didn’t want to admit any guilt or carry any blame. I can’t even begin to comprehend how ludicrous that would be!
In a similar societal way, we cannot forget that behind each corporate and systemic act of racism, there were and are people who are suffering. Individuals on the receiving end experiencing loss, grieving by no fault of their own, at the hands of someone else or a group of someone elses who will most likely never apologize or admit that they were wrong. I can’t imagine how wrong and tiring that must feel. But I can try to empathize. And I can and say “I’m sorry.”
We shouldn’t be afraid to apologize for the sins of our parents, grandparents, forefathers and even neighbors. Doing so doesn’t mean we are to blame, but it does mean we are accountable to live with integrity in the midst of the natural consequences of these sins. In the Bible, men like Daniel and Ezra recognized the sins of their ancestors. They saw that their current situations were a direct result of how the people in their nation lived before them and paved the way for sin to enter in and easily rule in the hearts of so many. And even though Daniel and Ezra weren’t personally responsible for the collective and current state of their nation, they were repentant.
“‘My God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face toward You, my God, because our iniquities are higher than our heads and our guilt is as high as the heavens. Our guilt has been terrible from the days of our fathers until the present.’ I cannot comprehend the devastation brought by my ancestors to individuals and families, image-bearers, in the name of building a nation. Upon discovery and colonization, we deceived and sacrificed people indigenous to our land and labeled them as savages. We exploited African men, women, and children, treating them like draft animals, with no regard for their humanity, relationship to God, or relationship to each other. In wars with our enemies, we treated our own citizens with contempt by locking them up, classifying them as a threat to the well-being of the majority race. We also turned others away at our borders, even though we knew their plight, refusing them refuge. We have denied basic rights to people based on the color of their skin. We have turned a blind eye toward immigrants when their presence has benefitted us and imprisoned them when we felt threatened. And while this does not encapsulate each of our grave sins, I repent from these and other detestable acts, ask for forgiveness from God and those who have been hurt, and desire a better future than our past would naturally supply. God, please extend your grace, your mercy, and your healing. I understand this is only possible through Jesus. Amen.” (First quote taken from Ezra’s prayer in Ezra chapter 9 parts of verses 6 and 7, HCSB.)
I’m also taking this opportunity to intentionally ask God to show me areas in my personal life where any roots of racism still have a hold on my heart. We shouldn’t be afraid to do this part either because when He shines a light, it’s never to bring condemnation or shame, but for forgiveness, healing, and restoration. Repentance brings reconciliation.
So, here it is. It feels clunky and a bit awkward, but I believe engaging in this kind of dialogue is worth it. I’d love to hear your thoughts too, because walking together is key. Send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org or use the comment section.
Below are a few resources that have personally impacted me surrounding the topic of race in America:
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
Quick to Listen Podcast episode: What Ahmaud Arbery’s Death Recalls About Lynching and Church History with Malcolm Foley
In Their Own Voices: Transracial Adoptees Tell Their Stories by Rhonda Roorda and Rita Simmon