In the early 1950’s my grandfather travelled across the United States, from northern Michigan to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Presumably, he drove Route 66, since I-40 wasn’t built until 1957. Grandpa was a nice man, as honest as they come. He was a mechanic who wouldn’t fudge the truth even slightly in order to make a few extra bucks. He was willing to lose his job over it, if need be. He stayed faithfully married to the same woman for 72 years until her death. He could hardly spank his own children for the tears it brought him. He was tender and loving. He was a good man. And he was white. My whole family is white. Really white. From either side of my family, you can trace us right back to Western Europe, either Holland or Germany. That, my friends, is pretty white. This is significant because in 1950 my grandfather could get in his car with his family and drive across America without much thought.
I’d known all my life that my grandparents had made this drive to move their family from Michigan to New Mexico for my grandfather’s health when my mother was about 9 years old. And I had thought nothing of it until I watched a documentary called Abandoned. While the documentary series was interesting, one episode “Route 66” caught my attention. I should say one aspect of the episode captured my thoughts and haunted me for a long time afterwards. The host comes across The Negro Motorist Green-Book while exploring the now mostly abandoned highway. I was floored by the very existence of the publication and sad that it had to exist. The purpose of this annual booklet was to aid African-Americans attempting to navigate the United States by car since many service stations and motels along the way would not serve them. It may have been more miles between two Black-friendly service stations than the car had gas mileage and they often needed to carry extra fuel. Perhaps, a Black man, not unlike my grandfather travelled Route 66 in order to get to Albuquerque or even L.A. in 1950. He may have been travelling with his family at the same time as my grandfather. But, unlike my grandfather, this man would need a manual to help navigate the dangers along the road. Passing through the Midwest, he would find himself and his wife and children driving through not only many miles without a Black-friendly service station but also through many “sundown towns”—so called because they openly warned “n**gers” not to be caught in their town after dusk. There were no such risks for my grandfather and his young family as they travelled across the U.S. He was free to get in his car and go because there wasn’t a single motel, gas station or restaurant that was not open to him . The Black man, on the other hand, had to map his route with great care, making sure to be in the right place when the sun set for the safety of his wife and children. Jim Crow laws and lynching were very real things in 1950 America. These policies and practices were not limited to the South.
Why is this important? 1950 was almost 70 years ago, after all. And most white people in the United States feel completely removed from these things. Many of us want to just move on and feel that we had nothing to do with that stuff that happened 70 years ago. But, an African American my age would have been born only seven years after the last of the Jim Crows laws officially went out of effect. That means that this person’s parents would have spent the entirety of their school years in Jim Crow America and that her grandparents would have spent a good deal of their adult lives under it as well. If this imaginary person were born on my exact birthday, the last known living slave would have died less than a year earlier. As a matter of fact, the grandchildren of former slaves could still be alive today. What is the point? The point is, slavery, segregation and Jim Crow are not as far in our past as we’d like them to be.
It is my contention that we must alter our expectations. Remember that those with African ancestry were systematically enslaved for roughly 350 years. Following that enslavement, it wasn’t as though America became a friendly place to be Black. As mentioned above, Jim Crow segregation ruled the land, as far west as Los Angeles. You cannot heal 400 years of in institutionalized injustice in 60 or 70 years. And many would argue that institutionalized injustice is still intact. Before you build your argument, beloved brothers and sisters, please, take a moment to lay down that right and die to yourself and listen. White Christians, those that are deeply patriotic and believe wholeheartedly in American Exceptionalism, boot-strap pullin’-up, ‘Merica loving folks, would do well to remember that your experience of America is not the same as others’ experience of America. We often look at the glorious history of the republic through rose-colored glasses. I would argue that America was founded on the most fundamentally free principals of any nation before it. And no matter your ethnicity, gender, class or religion it is the freest and most inclusive place to live in human history. Yet, there are deeply red, bloody stains on the history of America. The words from Lincoln’s second inaugural address written on his memorial in Washington D.C. highlight the ugliness of the sin of systematic, racial slavery. The legacy of white people in America is one of self-determination and freedom of movement. The same is not true of everyone. While everyone enjoys those freedoms now, we are not so far removed from when they didn’t and definitely not far from the wounds that long-term injustice inflicted on a people.
I will not be bringing up any statistics for a specific purpose. I listen to a lot of talk radio, political, social and faith-based and in all of them I hear statistics which are often either exaggerated or minimized to make a point. Statistics can be skewed in favor almost any point a person is trying to make. But I am not talking about statistics, I am talking about people.
And even more importantly, as a believer, I am talking about members of our family as the body of Christ. I am addressing the self-segregated church, which, by the way, was purposely segregated by whites during the early 20th century. And that is why I only have the ground to address the primarily white portion of the church. I want to make clear, I am not talking about white guilt, or white shaming, either. That is why I mentioned my grandfather, a white man and a good man. He never sought to harm anyone or knowingly participate in the systematic oppression of an entire people group. Like every person ever born, he did not decide to be born nor did he decide the circumstances of his birth. And I, a white woman, have not purposely segregated the Church, nor consciously and knowingly oppressed anyone. I have never attempted to “leverage” my whiteness on purpose. I didn’t choose anything about the circumstances of my birth. I’m just here, living my life as the person I was born.
Nonetheless, we are born into a set of circumstances with which we must contend. And that is a huge part of why God gave us the instruction in His Holy Word. So that, first we can know and relate to Him but also so that we can know and relate to one another. The number of verses which ought to guide us when it comes to relating to one another are many. Especially when it comes to brothers and sisters of a different cultural and political background. Christianity is not political conservatism. Neither is it political liberalism or progressivism. The Bible acknowledges the existence of government as an institution for the good of the people, there to enforce the law. Aside from that, it doesn’t say much, therefore, we may presume some level of personal choice. And before anyone gets on their high horse about what and who their political party does and does not support, just remember that nobody’s political hands are clean. No, not one. I’d love to say here that our hope, as Christians, is not in a particular leader or even a particular nation at any rate. We are citizens of that Far Country. We would do well to get that straight in our minds before we get too militant in defending a position.
We can certainly argue political ideologies, however, there is no political position I need to defend with such ferocity so as to alienate or dishonor my brothers and sisters of all political, cultural and ethnic backgrounds who are counted among the body of Christ. There are things that are worth fighting for, but is it more important to fight for a political or cultural position or to fight for the things God says are important? “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also love one another.” (John 13:34, ESV). “Love one another” is the command of Christ. That is what we need to fight for. Fight to love one another. Fight your sin, your need to be right, fight whatever you need to in order to love your brothers and sisters in Christ.
Brothers and sisters, this is a matter that God takes very, very seriously. Read these words form 1 John 3:14-18. “We know that awe have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers…Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
Now, ask yourself a question:
How do we know we have passed from death to life? Because we love the brothers. Notice it says, whoever does not love, abides in death.
I want to take a look at a couple of verses from 1 John in the Amplified version. Verse 11 says, “For this is the message which you [believers] have heard from the beginning [of your relationship with Christ], that we should [unselfishly] love and seek the best for one another. “ Following that, verse 15 says, “Everyone who hates (works against) his brother [in Christ] is [at heart] a murderer [by God’s standards]; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.
Everything you believe politically and culturally must be weighed against the above standard. That which does not meet the standard must be thrown out like so much garbage.
Another command we are given as believers is this: “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” (Romans 12:10). This means that we not only speak highly of one another but that we also listen to one another. “Know this my beloved brothers: let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” (James 1:19-20, ESV).
Hear me, please. Listening doesn’t mean you have to change your political affiliation. It doesn’t mean that at all. It means, before you assume you know the reasons for why someone votes republican or democrat or why they choose the activist causes they do, you need to see them as a whole person who deserves dignity. Listen. Understand to the best of your ability. Perhaps you will walk away unchanged in your political view, but I pray to God you will walk away utterly changed in your view of the person and their motives.
“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt 5:23-24, ESV).
Be reconciled. For the Sake of the Gospel of Christ. Lay down your rights. Lay down your strong opinions. Listen. Be reconciled.