I suspect most of us who are white have been in a conversation that shares deep concern about the brokenness of our society’s social and moral landscape.
And I’m sure we have heard a friend or family member be quick on the defense: “I am not a racist.”
Given what the person understands racism to be, that is probably a true statement.
Mention will be made of friendly relationships with co-workers, as well as respect and appreciation for the talents and spirit of members of “that other” race, all of which are probably genuine expressions of affection.
In my youth, when anti-Semitism was prevalent in our city, it was not uncommon to hear a well-meaning person say, “Some of my best friends are Jews.” In their minds, this acquitted them of the charge of anti-Semitism.
My wife remembers from her childhood a lady who lived in a small, rundown house nearby and who helped her mother with housework.
She was a good neighbor, very helpful, well liked by the family and welcome to share lunch at midday.
Yet, her dishes were kept under the sink and she ate her lunch on the back steps while others sat at the table. This was the “normal” way of doing in that era in that place.
These examples reveal that following blatant expressions of racism and the confrontations they produce, a “calming of the waters” typically comes and life returns to “normal.”
The tendency is to lay full accountability on whomever or whatever it was that caused the disturbance.
Name it, identify it and fix it so that it will never do it again, and then assume that the problem is solved.
The problem with that “solution” of blaming the one who stirred the waters and then waiting for it to settle is that it will appear clear until the next occasion of agitation when the problem that has been there all along makes another obvious appearance.
A society that fails to “fish out the cistern” of its toxic residue leaves a poison in its water system.
The only way truly to repair such a well in that condition is to clean out the residue that has accumulated over years of neglect.
This seems to be where the U.S. is in our cultural struggle with racism.
Of course, there will probably always be the proponents of the kind of racism seen in white supremacy organizations and their sympathizers as well as occasions of blatant racial discrimination and abuse.
We will have to continue to deal with them the way we always have to deal with aberrant people.
Many communities of faith have provided a powerful prophetic voice in response to the acts that have currently brought racism to the center stage of our nation.
These will continue to be needed as the nation begins to mobilize its energy toward choosing leaders and policies that that will help address rather than foment discord.
Beyond the prophetic voice, however, is another function of communities of faith – the educational one.
This function has the major job of cleaning out the residue of racism that contaminates the well of our common life.
It is a sad consequence of the individualizing of the concept of salvation that generations of well-meaning and sincere disciples can separate faith from a passion and commitment to facilitate the kind of community envisioned by our calling.
The challenge for the educational dimension of the church’s life in this area is to find age- (and stage-) appropriate ways to nurture an understanding of faith as participation in and responsibility for the whole of the human family.
This work must include a willingness to see and respond to the kind of deep-seated residues in our culture, which are inconsistent with the values of the faith we have embraced.
For members of the biblical faith community, it is not enough to say, “I am not a racist.”
As sincere and truthful as that may be on a personal level, there is more to dealing with the problem of racism than being nice to people.
The late Walter Rauschenbusch emphasized that sin is not only an individual matter of abandoning a covenant commitment but can also be a corporate/societal embrace of ways of thinking that create an atmosphere of abandonment of covenant values.
His “social gospel” proclaimed liberation from the bondage of that kind of sin as well with a calling to address and repair its damage to the human family.
Helping people grow beyond thinking that “I am not a racist” is the answer to racism. That’s a daunting task but a necessary one.
Thankfully, voices are reminding us of possibilities beyond the visible horizon that await a human family that will trust the promise of God to “be with us” as we embrace the partnership of our calling to participate in the creative and redemptive work that is God’s enduring agenda.
Let’s hope we listen and respond.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).