My younger daughter, Jessica, was watching TV in the family room of our third-floor apartment more than 30 years ago. At one point she yelled, “Daddy, Daddy, Mrs. Brown is on the show.”
I looked carefully at the female characters on the TV, some white and some black. Jessica was pointing to an African-American woman on the screen. I rummaged my brain for all the possible Mrs. Browns whom we knew. I drew a blank.
“I’m sorry, honey, but I don’t see who you are referring to,” I said.
She showed her irritation and moved even closer to the screen. “There, Daddy, there.”
Only then did I look carefully at the woman’s facial features and began to realize that Jessica was right. The woman looked a great deal like the Mrs. Brown, the white wife of a friend I taught with. The eyes, the nose, the mouth, the frame, the posture, all strikingly similar.
That’s when I became ashamed of myself and envious of my daughter. Jessica could see the physical similarities between our white friend and the black actress without the lens of race.
I realized right then, just as I have realized repeatedly since, that I had been given a racial lens – not so much for vision but for valuation – at a crucial stage of my childhood development that caused me to distort reality.
And I began to realize that because of the distorted lens inserted into my consciousness and unconsciousness, I would always have to be intentional about compensating for my weakness, for my prejudice, for my racism. I needed, as it were, a corrective lens to re-form, reshape and re-envision my consciousness and maybe even my unconsciousness.
It will be a challenge and a task until the day I die.
My prayer has been that my lens of racial distortion will not be visited upon the generations of my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I’m confident that this has been the prayer of many others in my own generation.
So it was natural, I suppose, that many of us thought that with the election of a mixed-race president, our nation, our society and our culture had realized a major step, with God’s grace, in making good on our prayer.
But it appears that such an assessment came far too soon. Already we are experiencing a slightly veiled – and in a few instances a blatantly explicit – redistribution of racially distorted lenses.
We see it in attacks on the president himself. They question his birthplace, his religious and civic faith, his political motives, integrity and honesty. And we see it in ad hominem attacks on many of his proposals.
Beyond the president we can now recognize those lenses have been used all along in our criminal justice system, our public educational system, our social welfare system and our economic system. And now there’s renewed energy to resist the promise of reform in these realms.
I’m not in any way suggesting that this racism accounts for all the opposition against the president and the reform proposals coming from his administration and elsewhere. Other sociological and cultural dynamics are involved, and principled reasons exist to challenge major changes in public policy. But to fail to see the racial lenses operating requires either an admitted blindness or a deliberate decision to close one’s eyes to what is happening on the matter of race.
Somehow we’ve got to find those corrective lenses that will allow us to overcome the racist distortion of reality.
Maybe, for Christians at least, a clue comes from Scripture, in that story from the Gospels about parents and grandparents bringing their children to Jesus for a blessing.
We typically read this text (Mark 10:13-16, Matthew 19:13-15 and Luke 18:15-17) as Jesus being nice to the children, patting them on their heads, blessing them in a gentle and loving way.
More likely the parents and grandparents are bringing their kids because they fear some evil or disease could harm them. They want Jesus, whom they recognized as having special powers, to protect their children.
The disciples must have had some idea of why these kids were brought to Jesus. Yet, with their own distorted lens, the disciples are the ones who see the children as disqualified for treatment by Jesus.
These vulnerable kids didn’t count or qualify for Jesus’ attention and the administration of Jesus’ gracious ministry of protection against evil. For the disciples, that grace was reserved for others, not kids.
But Jesus doesn’t rebuke the children and their parents and grandparents; he rebukes the disciples.
Jesus issues a new set of corrective lenses to the disciples to help them see and understand reality. These corrective lenses allow the disciples of Jesus to see that more people than these vulnerable kids are in need of God’s grace (protection against evil and empowerment for a flourishing life). Everyone, including the disciples, must become vulnerable (like the kids) if they are to be able to receive God’s grace and live fully in God’s realm.
With those corrective lenses, anyone can be vulnerable and open to God’s love, to receiving love from others and to loving God with a full heart, soul, mind and strength and sharing that love with others.
Today we need to continue to bring our vulnerable children to Jesus so that, with the blessing of God’s love and grace, they will be protected against the evils of our society, including a resurgent racism that can kill our children and handicap them for life.
And Jesus offers his corrective lenses to anyone else, who has already been infected by racism in our nation and needs to enter the gracious realm of God with vulnerability.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.