In the past few days, we have seen our country in an uproar calling people out for their “racist ideology.” Whether it was a yearbook photo, a string of personal emails, or a proposal to “build a wall” on our nation’s southern borders, those who were assumed to “think” a particular way on these issues was quickly labeled as “racists.” Noticed I mentioned those who “think” such things because racism is defined as the idea that one race is superior to another. One dictionary defined racism as "the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races." In this definition, the most important word is "belief." Racism is a product of our "thoughts" and "beliefs" about other ethnicities. In the definition, you'll also discover that the word racism is a noun, not a verb. Therefore “racism” is not an action, but rather a state of mental comprehension regarding a group of people different from one’s own.
All the hysteria these last few days has been about what people think, not about some discriminatory act that they did against someone else. The interesting thing about thoughts is that they are private until we articulate them to someone or they are manifested in some action. You see, racism or racists thoughts are not really a problem until evidenced through one’s behavior, like some act of discrimination. For example, the former owner of the LA Clippers, Donald Stirling, was outed by his mistress for articulating negative attitudes about Blacks. However, most people didn't know about his racist thoughts because he had hired a black coach (Doc Rivers) and had a number of black players on the team. Clearly, it was more critical for him to win basketball games and make money than to act on his thoughts about Blacks. If anything, his actions demonstrated discrimination against White players and coaches to create a winning team.
Furthermore, thoughts and beliefs are subject to change including ideas about race. Gov. George Wallace, a Democrat, who once pronounced in a 1963 speech “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”He changed his mind. Wallace had a conversion experience. In the late 1970s, Wallace had become a born-again Christian and began an apology tour throughout the state of Alabama. His new-found faith in Jesus Christ changed not only his perspective but also his attitudes on race. He was eventually re-elected as governor of Alabama in 1982 with 90% of the Black vote.
What does this tell us? People have the potential to change what they think or believe. Over time, we all are capable of changing our minds about anything. Unfortunately, our society has weaponized race and those who say they want tolerance are usually the first to throw people under the bus for having racist thoughts. The hypocrisy here is even more outlandish; if we are to be really honest, we have all had racist thoughts in the privacy of our own minds. This is part of the fall of mankind, the consequence of man’s depravity. It is part of the dreaded pride of life (1 John 2:16 NIV). Wars have been waged over the idea of superiority from the very first declaration of war, until now. You name them, the Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Turks, British, Malians, French, Germans, Japanese, and Americans—each engaged in wars believing in their minds that they were better or more superior than their neighbors.
These examples illustrate how racist thoughts have the potential for dire consequences if acted upon. We also call this racial discrimination. However, not every thought, good or bad, is acted upon—thank God. For this reason, we should stop trying to be the “thought” police. You know, judging and condemning people because of a thought, idea, or belief they hold. These thoughts can be changed, and many times are. Democrats become Republicans, and Republicans become Democrats. Atheist become believers, and some believers leave the faith. Liberals become conservatives and vice versa. Some race hatred is due to a bad experience with someone of that race. That bad experience is then projected on all people of that race. But, that perspective can certainly be challenged as you encounter other people of that race who aren’t trying to harm, manipulate, or oppress you. Dr. King once warned Black people not to project the discrimination of a few Whites upon every White person, because not every white person was pushing segregation and discrimination.
I said all this to say, the hysteria over Governor Northam, Joe Ricketts, and now the Attorney General of Virginia, Mark Herring, only makes it more difficult to talk about racism, how we understand it, and most importantly how we mitigate it in a civil society. For Northam and Herring, their offenses were decades ago when they were young and certainly immature. Should they be stripped of their office for youthful ignorance? In the case of Joe Ricketts, he communicates his concern for Islam and the radical element that worries all of us who have heard the threats to the United States & Israel, the assassination of Christians by Isis, and the attacks of 9/11. However, Moslems are not a race of people but followers of the religion of Islam. A religion with a history that has found itself at odds with Christianity and Judaism. His comments on off-color jokes were a response, not something he drafted and sent. If we’re honest, many of us have had people send us off-color jokes (and even laughed) knowing we would intend never to pass them on. Again, these were emails he believed to be private communications between him and a so-called “friend.” Are we not allowed to private conversations that we’d dare not have in public? Sometimes it’s venting frustration at the world. Sometimes it’s inappropriate sexism, racism or some other “.” But it’s in those private conversations with our loved ones or friends that we work through our prejudices. Or, it’s through these conversations we are encouraged to act on our racist ideology, or alternatively eventually reject it and fund the Islamic School Joe Ricketts supports in Africa; or join the Black Church where Gov. Northam attends.
What we do is more important than what we think in the long run. Because what we think can change at any given moment. Recall, George Wallace had an encounter with Jesus Christ that changed his life and way of thinking. My hope and prayer are, that with grace we give everyone that kind of chance. As we demonstrate an understanding that the human race is flawed and we all need grace, not tolerance; we can begin to move beyond our dysfunctional views and at times limiting ideologies, to progress to more spiritual enlightenment. You see, when we’re willing to offer grace, we recognize that "yet, by the grace of God there go I.” Tolerance, or the lack thereof, is self-righteousness masquerading as an offer of leniency but will throw you under the bus in a heartbeat.
We must stop the rush to judgment and condemnation, or we will never honestly have authentic discussions on race relations. And ironically, those of us who beat our chest with an air of self-righteousness are only exacerbating race relations in America.
Is there a cure for getting past our racist thoughts? As a Christian, the Bible tells me that human beings are all created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27). It doesn’t differentiate between ethnicities. And, it specifically includes both men and women. This one verse should crush racism and sexism. In addition, we’re told in Acts 17:26 that God made everyone from one set of parents. In other words, there is only one race—the human race. Hence, regardless of color, language, height, weight or any other physical differences you can name, we are all created in God’s image and likeness. So, spread the good news that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 ESV). May God help us to live like we believe this.
[Note from the publisher: Freedom’s Journal Institute is currently working on a six-part series “Racism in America and the Role of the Church.” See the promotional video here. Attend the fundraiser by clicking here]