A Peacemaking Series: Reflections, Confessions, and Confrontations
# 5 – “Well, I never!” Personal history, injustice, and things I never experienced (and a few I have)
“History is not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul.” Lord Acton
“We are the complex product of God’s mysterious providential design: heredity, history, cultural environments, personal experiences, and choices. Our future and our relationship with other complex human beings are shaped by how much we face these dynamics and allow grace, love, and forgiveness to overcome their hurt, disappointments, and injustices.”
Perhaps you have heard your grandmother exclaim “well, I never!” at some point of frustration or consternation. Well, here are a few things (and they only scratch the surface) I never experienced:
I have never been stopped for driving while black. My friend Barry has.
I have never had a cross burned in my front yard. I have never been stopped and questioned by the police because I was a black man coming out of my workplace after hours and after dark (we both worked at the same place). I have never owned the receipt which verified my great-great-grandmother’s sale as a slave. My friend Leroy has.
I have never had my father instruct me how to behave if and when I was stopped by white police officers. My friends Barry and Richard both got that talk.
I have never had my mother tell me about the common survival strategy when she was a young girl in the Deep South: Always walk in threes. That way, if you are assaulted and raped by white men, one of you can be a witness and one of you can run for help. My friend James heard it from his mother.
I have never been asked by an old white man during a church convention event if I was a “pea picker” (a derogatory term for migrant worker). My Chinese-American assistant, Christina, was.
I have never had my Hispanic son walking down the street with his Anglo fiancée and have an armed white man stop them and ask her if she was OK or needed help. My friend Bruno has.
I have never had my land taken from me and forced to walk a thousand miles on the “trail of tears” to land no one else wanted at the time. My Native American ancestors did.
Furthermore, I have never been refused a job, a promotion, or the opportunity to buy a house because of my color. I have never had to use the “colored” bathrooms, bus seats, or water fountains. I have never been told I was not smart enough or man enough because of my color. I have never been forced to live on undesirable government land where hopelessness and despair prevail. I have never been assumed to be illegal because of my Hispanic heritage, even though my ancestors were in the country before the days of American Independence. I have never had to live my life looking over my shoulder, wondering what the majority was thinking, or having to walk on eggshells with my words and actions. I have never been instructed to call all white people “sir” and “ma’am” while they called me “boy.” I have never had to keep my eyes respectively looking down while talking to someone decades younger than me. I have never had to live on the proper side of town. I have never been told to know my place or accept my God-given status. And I could go on and on. Some of you could add even more disturbing stories.
Now, a few comparatively small things that have happened to me:
As a seventh grader (Fort Worth, 1966) I was asked by the school vice-principal if I would “mind having a little colored boy as a locker mate.” When I said I would not, the vice-principle was visible relieved and quite thankful. She knew the missionary kid on furlough was probably a bit more tolerant than the others in school. She was not going to have a fight on her hands after all. As she walked away I thought, “That was strange. Why would she ask that kind of question?” I understood a bit later in life.
In college I worked building duplexes for a man who then rented them out. One day, a biracial couple drove up and asked me if there were any units for rent. I told them there was and pointed them to the owner. After a very brief conversation with him they drove away. This otherwise fine Christian man then told me, “Its better if we just don’t rent to people like that.”
When I first moved to Fort Worth in the early nineties I spent over two years as an interim pastor in a Hispanic church on the predominately Hispanic north side of town. More than once I was told I should be really careful going to that part of town. During that time, and the hundreds of other times I have since been on the north side, I never had reason to be afraid. Is there crime in the area? Sure, but there is crime in my own neighborhood also. Spanish speaking crime must be worse.
Once, while driving to that church on a Sunday morning, I encountered a police check point. I slowed down, ready to hand the officer my driver’s license. When he saw I was an Anglo, he waved me on.
However, prejudice rolls “downhill.” That is, all peoples look for someone else they can “be above.” A member of that same Hispanic church did tell me once they had problems with thieves breaking into cars parked on the street. They found out some “black kids” were doing it. “Of course,” he said, “all black kids are thieves.”
More times than I can count I have had other white people assume, because I am white, that I am perfectly comfortable hearing the use of racial epithets. Sometimes I confronted them . . . sometimes I did not.
“The more you know of your history, the more liberated you are.” Maya Angelou
Growing up as a minority North American and “Protestant” in Chile, a country I do love, I was at times called derogatory names, both for being an American and a Protestant/Evangelical. I often heard “Yankee, go home” and “Imperialist Yankees, get out of VietNam.” I also often heard my middle and upper class schoolmates belittle the poor (with whom missionaries did a great bit of work) and frequently insult indigenous people. Those experiences, while mild in comparison to what I listed above, did hurt, caused some defensiveness, and did contribute some to my cultural worldview and my attitudes toward peacemaking among cultures.
On top of that, I was simply raised by my parents to treat people with respect, to never talk down to anyone, and to certainly never use racist, derogatory, or demeaning language. And, they modeled what they taught. In fact, in his college days my father was somewhat of a pioneer in arguing for a change of racial attitudes. I have a copy of a speech he gave in college class in 1948 discussing and arguing against the racism he had observed. Predictably, it is hard to grow up in a missionary family, in another culture, and not come away with some kind of cultural and ethnic sensitivity, if not hyper-sensitivity.
What does all this talk about my own experiences have to do with peacemaking? What does it have to do with history and injustice? Three points:
1. My own history is somewhat complex, inconsistent, and often quite messy. Yours is, too, I am sure. My observation is that many people don’t realize or admit this. The point is that we have to take the time to reflect, analyze, evaluate, and Biblically judge our own personal history. My observation is that many people don’t want to do this. It is hard and it can be painful. We have to ask: How has our history shaped us? How have we interpreted what has happened to us and what we have seen happen to others? Ultimately, how have we responded? In my own case, and I hope in yours, I have to ask what my response should be as a follower of Jesus.
2. Honestly, my response over the years has been mixed. I have had multiple occasions to confront stereotypes, historical misunderstandings, racism, prejudices, and injustices and make a small contribution to racial, ethnic, and cultural peacemaking. Unfortunately, I have too often contributed to these sins through my own biases, stereotyping, historical misunderstandings, jumping to conclusions, generalizations, and, way too often, by my silence.
3. My history, however, is not over. I have an unknown number of years left and the opportunity to leave some kind of legacy. What will I be known for? What do I want to be known for? I want to leave a legacy in several ways, but at least one thing I want to be known for is as a person who examined and understood his own history and culture, who listened to and tried to understand the history and culture of others, who studied and evaluated the history and culture of America, judged all of these Biblically and theologically, and made a small contribution to racial, ethnic, and cultural peacemaking. You see, it is my responsibility, privilege, and honor to work hard at reaching across racial, ethnic, and cultural divides and do what I can do make peace.
“But hang on a minute,” some may say. “That is all history. It is in the past. It is what others did, not me. It is not my responsibility or my debt.” Next time I will address some ways we can come to terms with our common history, with “revisionist” history, and with debts of injustice.
“Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.” C. Wright Mills