Jesus is the Answer for the World Today
In the early 1940s, a young white boy (my father) met an African-American woman on a street in West Seattle. “Hello, N-lady!” He said cheerfully. The woman became furious and chased him.
Dad likely picked up the term from his mother, who was from the South, and innocently thought it descriptive, not pejorative. That incident taught him otherwise. I don’t recall ever hearing him say anything contemptuous or hateful about anyone on account of their race. Our generation, and our children’s generation, rightly came to see such language and thoughts as anathema. Modern Americans work and play with, even love, people of other races — who make us laugh and cry, and for whose insights, hard work, and talents we have gained respect.
Grandma was a great cook, a Christian mystic, a feeder of birds and children, and some sort of “racist.” She never wished ill on anyone on account of their race so far as I know. But she talked disparagingly about “those people,” generally meaning Blacks or Native Americans.
Like almost all Americans until a few minutes ago, I felt relieved American society had turned away from its “racist” past. I put the word in quotes not because I fail to cringe in shame over our great historical sins — hundreds were lynched in the Deep South when Grandma was a girl, millions were slaves two generations earlier — but because the word now creates great confusion. And I believe it’s being used to manipulate and harm our nation.
Is a “racist” (a) Someone who naively uses the wrong word? (b) Someone who hates those of a different skin color? (c) Only Whites, or also some Blacks and Asians? (d) A black teenager who views a Latino interloper to his neighborhood as a possible threat? (e) A Chinese girl who picks “Asian” when she searches for possible dating partners? (f) A police officer who works in a dicey neighborhood of Philadelphia, and finds himself most often questioning young black males? (And is he also sexist and reverse-agist?) (h) University officials who admit Hispanics and African-Americans ahead of Whites or Asians with higher scores? (i) All white people in America, as Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, claims, because we benefit from a power structure allegedly monopolized by Whites which disadvantages everyone else?
Or does “racist” now mean “witch?” Is the word presently used mainly to demonize people you disagree with, much as words like “counter-revolutionary,” “Jew,” and the “N” word were used in the past?
‘Who Is My Neighbor?’
Muddled thinking is destroying the harmony that America strove for so long, through a bloody war and civil rights protests. Poorly-defined and simplistic concepts of “racism” are turning Americans into moral heretics, an old-fashioned term for “simple-minded dupes,” and tearing our country apart. We need a richer vocabulary and a fuller vision to bring us together again.
For that, turn to Jesus. Whether you believe him to be God or not, he is certainly wiser than the talking heads, sociologists, politicians and the mobs they pander to, who have come to control our national narrative.
Someone asked Jesus what was the most important moral law. Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.”
“But who is my neighbor?” The man asked.
Jesus then told the famous story of a man who, like Dad, was out for a stroll, and met someone of another race. This pedestrian was a Samaritan, to the Jews a disfavored tribe. Walking along a mountain road, he met a Jewish man who had been mugged. It was a dangerous neighborhood, with potential gang-bangers behind every rock. But this outcast got off his donkey, cleaned the man up, disinfected his wounds, took him to a nearby hotel, and paid for his care.
Jesus’ Moral Vision
Given American history, we need to keep the word “racism” in our moral vocabulary. But we must fit it into a broader vocabulary that takes our full humanity into account. How much richer and deeper is Jesus’ parable of the “Good Samaritan,” than terms like “systemic racism.” Like a tourniquet, the word “racism” may be necessary in an emergency, but is of little use for most daily activities. Note the advantages of the moral vision behind Jesus’ story:
- For Jesus, love begins with God, not man. Love is grounded not in feelings, which change, but in objective truth, a God who judges rightly.
- Love as Jesus describes it covers every relationship, because in every relationship we are tempted to dominate and abuse. To rework Bob Dylan’s song:
“You may be a state trooper, you might be a young Turk
You may be the head of some big TV network
You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame
You may be living in another country under another name
“But you’re gonna wanna use somebody, yes you are
You’re gonna wanna use somebody
Well, it may be Don Lemon or it may be Don Trump
But you’re gonna wanna use somebody.”
We are all guilty under God’s law, whether of “racism” or some other failure to love. Isn’t that one way to bring America together, as sinners? Recognizing our universal tendency to form in-groups and despise other tribes, whether of race, culture, sex, age, religion, class, region, NFL team, or a hundred different axis of good and evil, cuts the ground from all our excuses for scapegoating “the Other.”
- Jesus’ love is positive. Give a cup of water in the name of the Lord. Feed the hungry. Visit the sick and imprisoned. Pray for your enemies. Hire someone, give them training and a chance. Mind you, negative laws are needed, too: violations against the commandment forbidding sleeping around is destroying our cities. But pure religion is not primarily what you don’t do, petty violations of taboo you avoid. It is how you express love to God and others, maybe beginning when you say “I do,” then do.
- Jesus describes a love that is specific. Charles Dickens satirized philanthropic English ladies who tried to save Africa, but neglected their own children. Jesus says love those you meet on your daily walk, or maybe before you step out the door. Some walk further than others: my former pastor, for instance, builds wheelchairs for victims of polio in Nigeria. We are called to a worldwide ministry, but that ministry begins not with editorials or Facebook posts, but with the people before our eyes.
- Christ’s love expresses itself in action. Yes, Batman, it is what you do that defines you. Jesus said that before your girlfriend. But kudus to her for reminding you.
- The love Jesus spoke of, and modeled, has guts. It stands up to mobs, as Jesus did, and as with the traveling Samaritan, does not even follow leaders when they ignore those in need.
- That love crosses boundaries, recognizing the image of God in all its forms. Modern chatter about racism, sexism, cisgenderism, ableism, intersectionalism, is not so much wrong as broken, like body parts recomposed into a papier-mâché of Frankenstein’s monster. Jesus calls us to love those in power and on the margins: white cops, black CNN reporters, and all those folk Dylan sang about. But first, love those you meet for whom no one else is standing, especially those facing the mob. When Jesus faced a mob, everyone else ran away.
Jesus Is the Answer
The last thing we should do is resurrect the vile, ridiculous racial animosities of the past. But while rightly stigmatized, like every good that is deified and wretched from its context (every heresy), anger at “racism” has been retooled as a weapon of injustice and oppression itself, and is used to justify spitting, cursing, firing, “canceling,” burning, looting, and murder. Loose talk about “systemic racism” is justifying new witch-hunts, and the punishment and abasement of some for the sins of their ancestors. Heresies birth opposing heresies, and destroy civil society.
Jesus is the answer for our world today.
It is time we cast off the cant that breaks this world, and regain a deeper Christian vocabulary and perspective, which includes compassion for those unlike ourselves in every dimension, and the counter-cultural courage of the Good Samaritan.
David Marshall holds a B.A. in “the Russian and Chinese Languages and Marxism,” an M.A. in Chinese Religions, and a Ph.D. in Christian Thought and Chinese Tradition. His most recent book is Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels.