Whites in a Black History

February 5, 2015 at 3:00 am

     I am a middle-aged, white, evangelical protestant. I grew up in a middle-class family in New England and later attended a private Christian college and seminary. I work at a private Christian college today where there is not a single black faculty member. The number of black students on campus is less than 20…out of almost 800 students. The blacks that do work on our campus are relegated almost exclusively to minimum wage jobs located in the cafeteria. When the Black Student Union hosted a Black History Month celebration last year, inviting prominent black leaders from the surrounding community to our campus, just 3 faculty members showed up. February can be a tough month for me. Most days I simply feel guilty for the color of my skin.

     Some of this guilt is appropriate; a Godly sorrow that helps me reflect annually on the recent past of the country I call home; a country that legalized and promoted the kidnap, sale and abuse of fellow humans for the sake of profit. It does no good to hide behind the often-quoted cliché “I didn’t have slaves.” America’s history of racism is my history inasmuch as the history of slavery is the history of blacks in America. Indeed, this is our history; the history of our relating. The fact that I live in the same town as blacks today is a reminder that there was a time when their relatives were taken from their home by my relatives (whether literally or not). I empathize with those who urge our society to simply move on, move forward, and move past the stains on our relational record. Unfortunately, I typically only hear this from other whites.
    Last year I meet weekly with a group of black students on our campus, 6 of the 20 or so, to talk about race. Our conversations continue to shape me months later. The subjects we tackled ranged from music to food, but mostly it was a time for them to share with me about their struggles as a minority in an almost exclusively white world here in North Georgia. I learned much about their culture, their heroes, their stories, and I began to truly understand some of the deepest differences between blacks and whites. Differences that still manage, as Dr. King once said, to keep the hour we spend worshiping God each week more segregated than nearly any other hour in America. As followers of Christ we dreamed, together, about what it might mean to be the “beloved community” in very practical terms. 
     These conversations, and the quiet internal wrestling in a month dedicated to drudging up the past has forced me to reflect anew on some important theological truths that need some more air time. From the earliest Jewish prayer books, as early as the first millennium, we find the command for Jewish men to pray three blessings daily:
 
“thank you God that I am not a gentile, a woman, or a slave.”
  
     When Jesus arrives to usher in the Kingdom of God this prayer is turned on its head inspiring the Apostle Paul to later write:
 
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for  you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
 
     Paul did not mean that when we come to Christ we somehow lose our ethnicity, our gender or our profession. What he did mean, emphatically, is that our identity as a follower of Jesus Christ, trumps all other identities. Any other way that we would seek to identify ourselves, even as a male or female, is secondary to our identity as a follower of Christ. The old is gone, the new is come.
 
     Black History is important, but it is a deficient history unless it also tells the story of the greatest injustice the world has ever known. The story of the Creator of the world who allowed his only son to enter earth as a Jewish carpenter, and die the death of a common criminal so that, even after slave owners treated people like property, they could be forgiven…and even after people were treated like property, they could forgive.