There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.–Galatians 3:28
Casual, unscripted remarks may be the bane of a politician’s existence, but they also are a window into a human being’s soul. Sen. Trent Lott’s impromptu birthday party speech set off a firestorm late last year. Seeking to praise Sen. Strom Thurmond on his 100th birthday, Lott affirmed Thurmond’s 1948 Dixiecrat Party quest for the U.S. presidency. Waxing nostalgic, Lott declared America would have been better off if Thurmond’s party–whose platform endorsed extreme segregation–had won the White House.
Lott attempted to duck the barrage of criticism, noting his remarks were light-hearted and unplanned. But Americans intuitively knew what Lott didn’t want to concede. Whether or not such words were planned and prepared, they reflected deep-seated feelings. And while this is a free country and people are entitled to express any notion they can think up, people who think that way are not entitled to lead the government.
President Bush quickly refuted Lott’s statement, unequivocally asserting he does not agree. Soon, Democrats and Republicans alike condemned the speech. Eventually, even Lott’s ideological allies turned on him, realizing the pain and anger he generated would tarnish any cause or agenda he advanced as Senate majority leader. And so he resigned, undone by careless words and national revulsion at them.
Lott’s speech and the response present us with good news and bad news.
Good news: America responded with indignation to such racial slander. Lott didn’t get away with race-baiting, whether it was intended or not. Decades ago, Thurmond ran for president on such pernicious garbage. He didn’t win, but he was rewarded with two lifetimes in the U.S. Senate. Lott lost one of the most powerful offices in the land.
Bad news: This sad episode reminds us racism still covers this nation like a shadow. We seem incapable of leaving it. It clings to our feet and dogs our steps. It adheres to our backs and follows us wherever we go.
Lott lost his office, but how many have pondered equally malignant racial thoughts? How many people–of all races–still consider themselves and their “kind” to be superior? How many wish folks of other skin colors would just go away? Who still flinches at the thought of “another” moving into the house next door, taking a job in the next cubicle? We don’t want to know the answer.
Next week, we honor the cause of racial justice by commemorating the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. This summer, we will mark the 40th anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech, one of the most beautiful visions of America ever articulated. And yet the shadow cast by a young Thurmond and magnified by a powerful Lott still hovers over us.
Will Campbell, a civil rights leader and modern-day prophet, spoke wisely of racism: We cannot completely escape the stain of racism, but we can avoid the blot of bigotry. Like Lincoln and King, Campbell is “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Yet he realizes each of us sees through a filter of race. No one can comprehend what being a different race or ethnicity is like. But we can overcome the corrosive core of bigotry–the notion that one race or tongue is superior, that value derives from the color of one’s skin, that origin counts more than destination.
The Apostle Paul got it right: In God’s eyes, “there is neither Jew nor Greek,” nor black, white, brown, olive or anything in-between.
Unfortunately, that theological ideal is easier to grasp with the mind than to live in the flesh. Our challenge, every day, is to live in the light of God’s grace, which bestows love on all God’s children, no matter their skin tones.
Lott’s mouth opened a window to the soul, and the world was horrified. May God grant us wisdom to see inside our own souls and the obedient grace to purge the blight of bigotry from our own lives, our families, our churches, our state, our nation.
Marv Knox is editor of the Baptist Standard. Used by permission.
Coordinator of Fellowship Southwest, an intentionally ecumenical, multicultural, multiracial Cooperative Baptist Fellowship network, and a member of Good Faith Media’s strategic advisory board for news and opinion.