Lily of the Valley-Healing Racial Polarization

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11257247_10153328147990993_6497036371958961952_nI stayed up late November 4th, 2008 to watch the presidential election with my son. I held his chubby three-year-old hand like a vise, stone-faced, too nervous to eat the bag of popcorn we made.

A few days prior an African American woman at a Christian event told me, while Joshua was there pulling a juice box out of my purse, that I was contributing to modern day slavery by adopting him. I remember few details of our conversation, but I do remember thinking, “Thank God Joshua is too young to know what ‘slavery’ means.”

Before that there was the white woman in Walmart who touched Joshua’s hair because “I always wondered what it felt like, but I couldn’t just touch anyone’s head.” Other than he having a white mother, I’m not sure what made my son’s head so accessible to her.

And then before the adoption, the whispers, “Aren’t you afraid he won’t be very smart? Black people aren’t as smart as white people.”

I learned to tilt gently Joshua’s face away from some people, cover his ears from others. Black people know the hearts of white people, and white people know how best to save black people.

We’re full of foolish wisdom.

Once, on a road trip, I told him he’d have to wait for juice because ‘that gas station is closed’ when really it was because we were in a small town in Mississippi, and the store windows were covered in Confederate Flags. An unsettling fear crept over me, and I stepped a little harder on the gas pedal.

“I’m paranoid,” I told myself. “Not all small town people from Mississippi waving Confederate Flags are racist. Right?”

The more true and perceived racism I saw come his way, the more determined I became to shelter Joshua from it. “If I never bring it up…” I thought, “ If I pretend slavery never was, that the Klan is simply cousin to the Boogey Man, and surround him with enough African American doctors and teachers and plumbers and firefighters, maybe he’ll never catch on that racism lives.”

There was only one hurdle to reaching my goal of post-racial illusion. I had to be able to say honestly,“Joshua, you can be anything God made you to be.”

So, everything rode on that night in November. I felt connected, gripping his hand and an uneaten bag of popcorn in the other, at least in some small way, to African American mothers all around the country praying up the same prayer, “Dear God, for the sake of my child, let him win.”

Many question the righteousness of voting for a candidate, a pro-choice one, a spend-money-we-don’t-have one, a not–quite-Christian-enough one, based on race. If we are honest, there were some who voted for the too-old one, stay-in-war-forever one, let’s-just-pray-he-doesn’t-die-and-leave-Sarah-in-control one because of race too. Isn’t the grand irony here that it is indeed racist to cast a vote based on race for either side? Probably. But sometimes a mom’s drive to deliver hope and a future to her child trumps everything else. It can even pull her to the street to give her full-grown son a very public whooping. Planting hope in young African American hearts first requires casting out a lot of rocks from the soil.

I will never forget the moment CNN announced that Obama had won Virginia. Hope lurched. And then the screen went blue. I sighed a weight so heavy I fell to the floor with it. Popcorn spilled. Immediately, I grabbed my son’s face and looked into his eyes. I looked past the lady at Walmart, Jim Crow, and the cotton fields. I peered past the North Star glimmering in him, omnisciently created on the fourth day so that God’s children could find their way to Canada millennia later in 1851, and saw all the way to the dew on the lily of the valley of his soul. I found that place of purposed being, and I said as firmly as I could, “Son, you can be anything God calls you to be.”

Just like that, America was post-racial. My plan to shelter him from the monster of discrimination was working; he would be able to arrive into adulthood never knowing there was a time when people considered him ‘less than’ because of his skin.

But, he went to preschool.

One day in the parking lot after I picked him up he said, “Those girls are mean to me. See them?” He pointed to the slide swarming with yellow ponytails. “They won’t play with me. They say I’m ugly because I’m brown.” I was mortified. How dare they undercut my election victory!

There was Vacation Bible School the summer after his 1st-grade year. “I don’t want to go back,” he said. “The boys in my group were laughing at the way I was dancing and said I’m supposed to dance different because I’m black. I don’t know how to dance black.” (They were Caucasian and Filipino.)

Then there was the time Joshua and a little girl were writing letters in the dirt with rocks at baseball practice. Upon spotting her, her dad leaped off of the top bleacher, and ran to swoop her up-blonde hair flying, blue-eyes startled. He scowled at Joshua, and said to his daughter as they marched back to the bleachers, “You don’t need to play with him.”

Finally, at the ripe old age of eight, there was the incident that irreparably broke me, that convinced me my master plan to raise my son believing that racism was a distant fiction was fiction itself. We were at the park, and he said, “I don’t want to get out, Mom. Whenever I get out of the car I never know if white people are going to be nice to me or mean to me. You and Dad are the only white people I can trust.” He hung his head and sobbed. “Can we just go home?”

I died a little then. Really. Part of my heart that pumps for that son of mine, it broke.

Racism, that beast I so wanted to have died on Nov. 4th, 2008 was not only alive, but had found its way into my son’s soul to such a degree that he never wanted to leave home again. I thought I had done everything right. Though I grew up in St. Louis, we lived in North Carolina, attended a multi-racial church, had an African American pediatrician, neighbors, and school vice-principal. A truly multi-racial community. Yet, even here, racism, real or perceived, had changed my child.

I know we think we’re smarter than it. I know the dad at baseball may have been carrying off his daughter for some reason other than race. I know we all perceive things that sometimes aren’t there, like monsters under the bed. But whether or not the monster under the bed is real does not change the very real fear in the child. And fear reacts.

But other times I’ve peered under the bed with my son in the dark of night and seen the yellow eyes glow. This monster, Racism, is still alive and well. I’ve unmistakably stared him down in the mall, at the grocery store, and in the church. The deep presuppositions we don’t want to admit about the young, black male walking down the street after dark in a hoodie are real. The presuppositions about white people with Confederate Flags flying high are real.

Today, racism lurks, snips at heels, and sometimes hunts and chokes.

Our placating wisdom isn’t fooling anyone.

Even so, sitting in the car forever, afraid of the playground, is not an option. For the sake of his soul, I must hear Joshua’s words as his true experience. Beyond the playground, into the streets of Baltimore and Fergusson, the way forward is the same. We must love someone enough, consider ourselves a part of the other’s faith journey enough, trust each other enough, to hear each other’s truth as legitimate.

Fear’s reactionary friction creates heightened distance, like opposing walls of the Grand Canyon. Polarizing fear has created a nation with only two primary political parties. Republican or Democrat. Driven by fear, we divide churches down dual-ing doctrines. Progressive or Conservative. We are a people who still refer to race in terms of black and white-the same words we use to denote right and wrong. Innocent or guilty.

Peering through our binoculars we shout wise solutions and judgment to those standing on the south rim of the canyon while they analyze us through periscopes and shout back what’s really going on in our lives that we’re too naïve to see. So much foolish wisdom without any relationship.

It’s an ancient story. It’s the disciples looking at the mountain south of them, Zion, and proclaiming, “That is where God is!” while the Samaritans point north and counter, “No, God is there!” all the while ‘God with us’ stands in the sacred valley between the two offering Living Water to a woman who is willing to move beyond polarization.

Paul has to address polarization in the church in 1 Corinthians 1.

My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? (vs. 11-13)

Everyone chose a side.

By our experience, our perch high on the canyon ridge, our blog base, and ‘this one friend I know’, we mark the truth of the matter. Quotes from the past two years surrounding Fergusson and Baltimore show this encampment well. All one needs to do is peruse news report comments for hundreds of examples.

Paul’s solution is simple – admit we are all sinners, and lay down our wisdom as foolishness.

19 For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?. . . 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength . . . 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God–that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.’”

God pleads across the polarized picket line, Unite in me. Your human insight derived apart from love for each other is foolishness.

A strange phenomenon happens when we boast only in the Lord. We’re leveled. The privilege of our perch is kicked away. We are humbled there together, one foolish heap of saved souls in the valley of the Cross, able to work through our mutual sin together.

The exhausting part of this journey is that we have even managed to polarize sin. Personal sin destroys on one side – lying, insulting, stealing, hitting, boasting and judgment. Social sin corrupts on the other-apartheid, racial profiling, judicial corruption, unequal pay, communities ignoring orphans and widows. We’ve bought the devil’s foolishness that these sins aren’t morbidly addicted to each other. They do not excuse each other, but our righteous perch is a façade.

When society and churches fail to bring physical and spiritual food to a community, people will likely steal. That personal sin- stealing- precipitates resentment in the shop owners, which puts the poor on the defensive, and that inspires unjust laws. This injustice increases petty crime, which fuels racial profiling, which lights angry outbursts that give rise to blanket character judgments. This prejudice motivates violence that contributes to mass incarceration. . . .and before long, in America’s case within two hundred years, we find the Colorado river has cut so deep between us that we can no longer hear the shouting of the broken on the other side of the canyon.

No one’s sin is excused by another’s behavior. The lack of funding in inner city schools does not excuse theft. Late night drug deals do not excuse violations of dignity in arrests. It is all sin. Yet, one action does excuse our wretchedness- Christ’s death.

The Cross is the great leveling ground – the Place of the Skull, the dark valley between the two mountains. And it’s in this place, full of fear and hurt, and arrogance and anger, desperation and panic, where we can sit together with Christ, and drink a cup of water.

There’s peace in the valley.

In his book, Churches That Make a Difference, Ronald Sider explains how mutual depravity can mend polarization.[1] Many of us fixate on personal sin, and this person, he says, “will point to another’s lack of respect for the law, his unwillingness to accept a traditional job, and his disregard for moral authority.” In contrast, the person fixated on social sin “will point to the persistent racism that limits African Americans’ vocational opportunities and crushes self esteem, failing urban schools that graduate students who cannot read, and the lack of transportation in cities.”

He offers the solution, “A holistic view of persons in community [that] understands that individual responsibility and social justice are not an either-or. God holds individuals responsible for their own sinful choices, even when the social context for those choices is oppressive and unfair. God also holds each member of society accountable to help create just, wholesome communities, regardless of whether people are personally responsible for the injustice. Holistic ministers thus reach out to individuals with compassion while working to correct unjust structures” (emphasis mine).

Before we judge an entire race of people innocent or guilty, let us come together as compassionate ministers of reconciliation. Let’s adopt each other into our holy families; let’s listen to each other’s truth in community.

Let’s share a chunk of bread and water in broken silence with Christ, our wisdom, before we offer foolishness outside of covenanted relationship.

After all, Jesus’ wisdom has been solving big social impasses for eternity. The Jews and Samaritans, judging each other by upon which mountain they prayed, were so distrusting of each other that they didn’t cross territory unless necessary. The Samaritans scoffed, “They don’t like us. They don’t consider us full Jews. They won’t listen to our story, and they think they’re better than us.” The Jews countered, “Their temple is in the wrong place. Their blood isn’t pure, and they’re looking for the wrong savior.”

A Jewish ruler from the first century said, “The daughters of the Samaritans are menstruants from the cradle.”[2]

It got ugly.

Both sides forgot how complicated the story was. After all, the Samaritans believed they were in the right-the true Israel-from the moment the sacred center of God’s people was moved from Gerizim to Shiloh in the eleventh century B.C.. Adding to the complexity, the Jews and Samaritans had grown apart culturally, for the Samaritans adopted much more Hellenization than the Jews considered appropriate. They dressed differently. Worshiped differently.

Then there’s the whole thing about there being more than one sect of Jews and not all Samaritans being alike. It doesn’t take much imagination to see us in their story.

Thankfully, the solution is as old as time too. One woman and one man decided to meet between two polarizing mountains and have a conversation. The One who knows the layers of all of our stories entered into one woman’s truth. He chose to be transparent with her and reveal to her his true identity, and she allowed herself to be laid bare before him, standing there with her bucket full of secrets, poured out.

He, the only one who is right to do so, reminded her of her sin, then gave her validity and a purpose in spite of it. He was willing to drink from her vessel. She drank from His.

As a result, a community was transformed.

Wisdom in Christ. Purpose from humility. Commonality in the family of God.

Research out of Italy in 2011 shows that white people and black people assume black people feel less pain than white people.[3] How did we get here, to this place where racial misconceptions are ruling even our sub-conscience? Take a moment to consider how just that one subconscious thought-black people feel less pain than white people– contributes to our racial polarization. What snaps in a tense protest when everyone on the street assumes the African Americans must be hurt harder than white people to feel pain? What prowls in our medical system when we believe black people have a higher pain tolerance? The crippling tendrils of the Fall dig deep. Yet we proudly point and accuse others of inventing prejudice, crying, “Monster!” when none are there, and offer community planning solutions without communing with the broken, taking on their truth as our own.

The cleansing blood of Christ must be allowed to flow and seep deep into us, to places we don’t even recognize are in reed of restoration until they are gently exposed through honest dialog with our family at the foot of the Cross. We need vulnerable conversation in our churches that goes deeper than the location of our buildings and stereotypes about our diverse nature. We must come down from our assuming mountaintops to commune with Jesus in the valley of Wisdom. There is a healing hope there, bright as the morning star.


[1] Sider, Ronald J., Philip N. Olson, and Heidi Rolland. Unruh. Churches That Make a Difference: Reaching Your Community with Good News and Good Works. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002. Print.

[2] b. Nid. 31b as quoted in Williamson, H. “Samaritans.” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Ed. Joel B. Green. 2nd ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2013. 832-36. Print.

[3] “Racism and the Empathy for Pain on Our Skin” (Frontiers in Psychology) Forgiarini, Matteo, Marcello Gallucci, and Angelo Maravita.

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