This post comes to encourage all of us, especially me, to be more gracious to one another as Christians, and to also be more gracious to people who are not Christians.
As you may guess from the title of this post, this post touches somewhat on issues of race and ethnicity that I have experienced among other Christians. In short, where I’ve essentially had a zero-tolerance policy for the slightest whiff of racially-insensitive behaviour, I feel that God recently told me that I have to be more gracious. And then there is the fact that I myself recently said something cringe-worthily insensitive – which is very uncharacteristic – and that really hit the point home (more on that later!) This was actually a few months ago now, but I can’t help remembering it!
However, this goes beyond issues of race. Grace is really not one of my strong points and reflecting generally on the subject, it is really hitting home that I need to develop this. Thankfully, I am also growing in awareness of just how to cultivate grace in my heart and demonstrate it to other people.
I think I can say quite forcefully that issues of race are big issues in the Church, at least in my experience. When I say “Church”, I mean that part of the church to which I have been exposed – mainly the Evangelical church in the UK, in the various cities in which I have lived. To be candid, it has not been such an issue for me in churches where ethnically I am similar to everyone else. Black churches in my experience tend to be more ethnically homogenous anyway than majority-White churches, so one big reason why this would not have been such an issue in Black churches, if nothing else, is because there were no (or few) other ethnicities there, period.
I am not going to talk about whatever I may have witnessed or experienced personally – that really is not the point of this post. Rather it is about examining my own heart in the light of this issue, where I have always been quite sure (naturally) that I am 100% – even one thousand percent right.
Let’s talk first about the silly thing that I said! I would quickly like to point out that it was not outright racist, rather it was “merely” racially insensitive. Furthermore it was directed at someone who also identifies as being Black – if that helps?! (I of course know that it does not help at all.) I am not going to tell you what I said, because it is simply too embarrassing. It was one of those stupid things that just pops out of your mouth, and you just want the earth to swallow you up. Perhaps I should also point out that that same day to that same person I made some other racially-flavoured statements – generalisations, naughty me – but based on my own experiences – which were a lot more blunt and which have since caused me no regret whatsoever – except in the light of this post. (I concede that this last sentence might sound a little damning against me, however, I cannot go into what I said to exonerate myself without opening up a BIG can of worms, which is precisely what I don’t want to do in this post!)
The reason why I have felt embarrassed about that one statement which I then thought insensitive, (in retrospect, actually, all those statements were insensitive) is because I consider myself to be hugely sophisticated about issues of race and ethnicity.
Actually, I was thinking about it, that this whole thing has been such an issue for me precisely because of this combination of things: because I consider myself to be so sophisticated about race and ethnicity…and I also happen to be Black myself, so I’m the one who tends to be “different” in White-majority churches. And then I happened to grow up in London, which is surely one of the most truly cosmopolitan places on earth (along with Paris, say, and New York). Edinburgh is usually cited as being cosmopolitan, and perhaps it is, but only relative to smaller towns; it is definitely not cosmopolitan relative to my upbringing.
The point about growing up in London is that Londoners on the whole are used to dealing with people of other ethnicities and treating them as people, not as novelties, but as people, not just as their cultural identities but as discrete individuals! (Actually a few months ago I was reading an article about race relations in London, which did not paint a very positive light. However I am used to thinking of London as a place of sophistication about races and ethnicities…) Actually, I probably should not be writing this, but it is essentially only within the Church that I have experienced issues. Seriously. I bet if I were to go back to a church in London with the same demographics as some of these churches here, I would encounter exactly the same issues….but I digress. Actually, let me digress a little further – thinking about it, I can confirm this for a certainty, because I’ve actually been to some of these churches, and sure enough…
If for instance, I was not so sophisticated about race and ethnicity, I might not have such high standards against which to measure people, and I might not notice issues the way I do; alternatively, if I had grown up in a less ethnically (and culturally) diverse environment, then I myself might be more accustomed to dealing with people who’ve never truly interacted with other ethnicities before. I might already know what to expect, I might already have learnt to be more gracious.
So then understanding all these issues together, I have very high standards about ethnic interaction, and how I expect to be treated as a Black person – that is, simply as a person – and I measure people against these high standards, and so many times, people just fail, to be blunt. This is most likely because I am interacting with people who are not used to interacting with different ethnicities, and who did not grow up surrounded by all ethnicities under the sun – especially not those ethnicities which (like mine) were more directly under the sun – ha ha ha!
I must admit that my attitude towards people who have “failed” has not been positive in the slightest. Thus far, I am ashamed to admit that I have refused to allow the slightest ray of grace to shine into my heart about these people. “They should know!” I always think to myself, mentally slamming them down. “It’s simply not good enough – and they call themselves Christians! If they had the Spirit of God…..!”
If it were not for my own recent mistake, I would probably have allowed myself to carry on thinking this way until the Second Coming of Christ. (In case something “small” like this might be considered unacceptable in the Kingdom of Light, I’d always planned to throw a big AuntyNaija style Nigerian strop outside the gates of Heaven if God for any reason had refused to allow me entry into Heaven – to cross my arms, glower, and refuse to budge an inch, threaten to cause a commotion. (I know that this really is not a post in which to make further racial generalisations, and obviously not all Nigerians behave like this – ha ha – only a small but very visible minority! Obviously too I know that staging a sit-out outside Heaven would not be in the least bit possible when dealing with the almighty power of an Almighty God, but I always find the idea so humorous!))
And yet, when thinking about it, a few things occurred to me:
I am so full of my London upbringing, about the cosmopolitan environment. However all the sophistication that I consider myself to possess did not come about automatically. I was not born with all the understanding I have now. Rather it has come about through many, many years of interacting with other people. I myself have made many silly mistakes. The advantage that I have is that most of my own mistakes were made in childhood, so they were covered by that extra grace that covers general childhood silliness. I’ll give you an example of something that I myself said. Thinking about it now just makes me shake my head in shame. Yes, I was a child, but actually at that age I should have known better – seriously! My secondary school had a very high population of girls from a Jewish background. So when I first entered the school (so I was already 11 years old, definitely old enough to know to act with cultural sensitivity!) I insisted to some of these Jewish girls that no, they could not possibly be Jewish …because they had blonde hair and blue eyes. Because of the second World War Holocaust against Jewish people where people would be considered “Aryan” and therefore spared because of their blond hair and blue eyes, I had wrongly inferred from that that Jewish people can’t have blond hair and blue eyes! Actually, I have recently found out that even people with skin colour as dark as mine can have naturally blond hair and/or blue eyes (not sure about both at the same time though – not impossible, I’m sure!) – so how much more the girls in question, who had much lighter skin colour?!
Along with this I’ve made a few other silly mistakes over the past. However, most of these mistakes would count not as malicious racism, but rather racial ignorance. That is, not being mean to people because of their skin/ethnicity/culture, just not understanding. As a person, I’ve simply never understood malicious racism itself, the idea of looking down on someone because of the colour of their skin or their cultural or ethnic background. It is totally alien to my background and upbringing. Religious intolerance I am definitely familiar with. But skin colour?!!!! However, in spite of that, there have certainly been at least two times in my life when I have been racist outright – once again, within childhood. (Even as a child though, I still knew that what I was doing was wicked and wrong, of course. And before anyone goes jumping to conclusions about whichever ethnicity or ethnicities I might have been racist towards, could I please remind you that because of the cultural diversity in London it could have been any one of the ethnicities present there…) And then there have been the times when I have allowed myself to sit around concocting generalisations. These are a little more problematic because they are to a certain extent based on consistent observations. It probably comes as little consolation to say that it is usually only just the one ethnicity that bears the brunt of these angry thoughts – and not just the one ethnicity, but specifically Christians within that one ethnicity, on the whole. If I am to be perfectly candid, as a full-grown adult, I have allowed myself to meditate on these thoughts far more than just twice in my life. In fact it probably runs into the millions of times. And yet as I write this, it dawns on me that this is why this thing is so dangerous – that this is where “malicious racism” or racial hatred springs from. Perhaps it tends to start from a nugget or a seed of truth, and then you think about it endlessly, until the point comes where you cannot see these people again except in that light. You can tie everything that they do to these negative characteristics. That is, every time someone says or does something, you are mentally thinking: “Wait for it!” And I know Christian people within that ethnicity who definitely do not correspond to these “prejudices”. But then how easy it is to allow myself to fall into thinking that these people are the exception.
So is this you, as it has been me for so long? I am quite glad that I have written this post now, as I just did not realise how bad the issue was in my own heart until now, the process of actually writing this out. I thought that this post would be more about my having to show grace to other people. But once again, I find that it is the darkness within my own heart that is being exposed.
So the question then is how to deal with this? There were a few things that occurred to me: firstly, remembering that all the sophistication which I attribute to myself has come as a result of many years of interacting with people. When I first arrived in London, I found it perfectly natural to relate with people not as individuals, but rather according to their ethnicities (and my assumptions of and prejudices about their ethnicities, and cultures), which is the very thing I complain about today. If it took me years to get to this point of understanding, then the least I can do is to also extend grace to other people while they are not quite “there” yet.
Secondly, some thoughts occurred to me about forgiving people even for deliberate acts. My attitude towards the mistakes that people make is based on how deliberate the acts are – this is quite standard and normal and human, of course. If someone steps on my feet, and I know that it was totally accidental, then of course I will instantly forgive them. However, if someone deliberately goes out of their way to stand on my foot, and to inflict as much pain as they possibly can, for instance grinding in that stiletto heel, then naturally speaking I have always considered myself perfectly entitled to harbour resentment, and I have struggled to attain Biblical standards of forgiveness in these situations. But then it occurred to me that there is a place for extending grace and forgiveness, even where these acts are deliberate – they might still stem from a root of ignorance. So someone might go out of their way to step on my foot because they think that all Black people are evil. The act itself might be deliberate, but all the same it might stem from a root of ignorance. Actually, Jesus tells us to forgive everyone even where we have deliberate acts that do not even have the excuse of ignorance. Matthew 5v44. What is definitely inexcusable is the idea of meditating over and over on thoughts of anger, whether those thoughts are racially-inspired or not, whatever the root of such thoughts might be.
This is in some way related to the post that I shared a few weeks ago, about the Word of God helping me to break the various cycles of destructive thinking that have held me in thrall for so long, despite my commitment to faith, holiness and prayer. These are some of the thoughts that I have been struggling with, that will fill my mind over and over. Furthermore, I believe that it is due to my new commitment to meditating upon the Word of God that the Spirit of God was able to get through to my heart at all, to direct me towards grace. While yes, meditating upon the Word of God has changed my mindset drastically, these thoughts are in some ways so deeply entrenched that they stubbornly continue to occur. No matter, it just shows to me that I must continue getting deeper and deeper into the Bible, and letting the Bible get deeper and deeper into me, letting it permeate my entire being and my thinking, letting myself become transformed by the renewal of my mind. (Romans 12v2)
This post has focused on issues of race, and these are huge issues. However, this goes beyond race of course. As Christians, we need to learn to systematically extend grace to one another and to other people – to become “gracists”, as it were – conscious and deliberate and determined and relentless in showing love and forgiveness, even where people act towards us with deliberately malicious intent, even where the people concerned are fellow Christians, and should honestly know better! 😉
13 bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.
32 And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.
Photo of Wild Flower by Peter Dargatz on Pixabay