The news cycle is loud, but we need to hear those who can’t shout
When I was a young teen, my mother tried to strangle me on a Hawaiian beach where we were homeless and living in tents. I had spent much of my childhood in the islands. I was in the minority, a “haole” (white) girl growing up in a liberal (if violent and dysfunctional) family and raised to appreciate the diversity of races amid the predominantly Asian and Pacific Islander culture. When I ran away to escape my mother, my grandmother took me in. She lived in Alabama.
I landed in the Heart of Dixie in March 1977 at the age of 14, and the culture shock was mind-blowing. I was accustomed to a vibrant blend of races, but in this new town there were, quite literally, opposite sides of the tracks. Blacks lived in rundown homes on one side of the railroad tracks, many in actual shotgun shacks. Whites lived wherever they wished. The first time I heard someone call a black kid the derogatory word we all know, I actually became nauseous. I couldn’t imagine a more vicious and demeaning word. When I was a senior in high school, a pair of Iranian brothers moved to town and began attending my school. A small group of us befriended Mohammed and Hussein. Much of the rest of the school called them names.
My experiences with racism and homelessness prepared me to write Same Kind of Different as Me, a book about a homeless Southern black man who grew up in slave conditions in the 20th century. When I first undertook that project, I knew little about institutional racism. But studying Jim Crow and the sharecropper era gave me a new perspective on the whole “slavery ended 150 years ago, get over it” mentality.
It is easy for white Americans to dismiss the fallout of slavery since the Civil War ended it so long ago. But during the Jim Crow era, Southern Democrats cruelly and systematically subverted the gains black Americans could have and should have made after the war. Blacks suffered for decades, a separate class, an un-people. Even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, racism permeated much of America, especially the South.
So, yes, slavery ended 150 years ago. Street-level and institutional racism did not.
And still we are grappling with it. Police officer Derek Chauvin, a member of what should be a trusted American institution, killed George Floyd. I hope he will pay for his crime. But as America burns today, I suspect that most Americans, police officers or otherwise, are not racists. I therefore grieve for the victims of the current violence. Innocent people are being beaten and killed, paying for sins not their own. Business owners of all colors are losing their livelihoods and life savings. I do not endorse this violence.
And yet, it is completely understandable that we have arrived at this moment—and not just because of racial unrest.
Instead, America is on fire because we have systematically rejected our shared moral underpinnings. We have rejected the transracial bond of humanity the abolitionists fought for. We have rejected civility and the common good. In recent years, we have rejected the nature of creation itself, spurning science and common sense. Finally, we have rejected the gospel of peace in favor of a savage Lord of the Flies counterfeit that separates human beings into two classes: the cultural elites and their foot soldiers ... and everyone else.
These elites, having made a name for themselves, are the loudest voices that divide us. They sit astride their 21st-century Towers of Babel—Twitter, Facebook, the airwaves—and look down on God and the common people. They bear false witness for profit. Their tongues are fires, as James the brother of Jesus wrote. They have set our streets aflame. Now, with their own power and privilege unthreatened, they sip lattes and provide color commentary as Americans die and cities burn, mere collateral damage on the road to utopia.
They imagine themselves “progressive,” but the chaos raging on our television screens is a rerun of an ancient story:
“Why are the nations in an uproar and the peoples devising a vain thing?” King David wrote 3,000 years ago. “The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and his Anointed, saying, ‘Let us tear their fetters apart and cast their cords away!’”
Cultural elites (and their followers) have for millennia rejected God’s precepts for civil society, including moral restraint. And God’s response has always been the same: “He who sits in the heavens laughs.”
Not at those who are suffering, but at the futile thinking of those who believe that they, and not Christ, are the ones who can save us.
God judges individual souls, but he also judges nations. This nation has sown to the wind and is reaping the whirlwind: hatred, plague, war, and death.
This is what judgment looks like.