Outrunning Racism in Borrowed Shoes

Americans have a mythology that has been an identity for a couple of centuries now. The mythology is that American was founded, and sustained, by self-made men who struggled against injustice to establish a land of equality where all would be able to pursue their goals. This is a nice, packaged ideal that has very little grounding in actual history.

America has been won and sustained not by self-made men, but by people who have, from the outset, been opposed to injustice and oppression, but who have often succumbed to the temptation to oppress others. And then that oppression has been fought against, triumphed over, only to be replaced by injustice in a subtler form. This is the American pattern, slowly, but surely, rooting out injustice and replacing it with a sense of equality, not in means or stature, but under the law.

And at the moment we are at a moment of decision. We have reached another boiling point where the felt injustice of one group is threatening the comfort of another. We’ve all heard the anecdotes about conviction rates, prison populations, attacks, shootings, etc. And I could go into the graphic, gritty details, but instead, I want to set a pair of shoes in front of you to try on.

This pair of shoes belong to a black parent. As you wear those shoes, begin to develop a conversation in your head to explain to your young son, who is also black, how life is going to be different for him. Explain to him how he will have to be above reproach in every aspect of his life. Explain to him how his behavior, speech patterns, and way of dress will all be taken into account more so than his white friends. Explain to him that he will need to keep his car in immaculate condition and check it regularly to make sure there is never a reason to be pulled over. Rehearse with him the words he must use when conversing with law enforcement should the need arise.

If you were as uncomfortable imagining that as I was writing it, then we can both admit that there’s a problem. The excuse “I have a black friend” or “I adopted a black child” does not excuse us from facing the reality that others live with daily. I wonder at all of the young black men who haven’t heard from their white parents how reality might be different from expectation.

Our story as people of God should be different than the traditional American story. Our story includes a people who lived in slavery in a strange land in order that they might have respect for the stranger in their own land. Our story includes a man who was excluded from his own people and sentenced to die so that we might identify with the excluded and sentenced to die. Our story is one that from its earliest days until now includes people who suffer and die on account of their belief, so that we will not look down on others who face the same. Our story is one of role-reversal in order to relate to the stranger, the Other, the different. We should be a people who wear other people’s shoes, who walk in them, walk beside them, and work to make a better world.

We are a people who are called to mourn with those who mourn, to love our neighbor, and care for the Other – because they, too, carry the image of God. Can you look into the eye of your black neighbor and tell them that everything is fine and racism doesn’t exist? Can you look into the eye of the Syrian refugee and tell them to go home, when home is a pile of rubble? Can you look into the eyes of your Muslim neighbor and tell them that it’s their individual responsibility that violence happens?

More importantly, can you look through the eyes of your black neighbor and feel the pain of hearing that your experience doesn’t matter? Can you look through the eyes of the Syrian refugee turned away from sanctuary? Can you look through the eyes of your Muslim neighbor and feel the fear at being told “your people” are the problem?

Jesus simply told us that whatever we do for the least of these, we have done for him. Whenever we recognize the suffering of another, we recognize his suffering. Whenever we relieve someone of their burden, we are caring for Jesus.

How have you responded to your children when they ask about the news? What conversations have you had with your children about racism, about strangers, about neighbors, and those different from you? How does your faith affect the way you talk about these things?

photo credit: Running Shoes,  Josiah Mackenzie via  http://www.flickr.com,

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