• Seeing Race Relations through Christ-Colored Glasses

    Posted on July 21st, 2009 bob.kellemen No comments

    Seeing Race Relations through Christ-Colored Glasses


    The incident involving the arrest of African American Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., seems like an all-too-familiar case of “he said/she said” complicated by the still contentious issues of race in American society. And the responses seem equally predictable: people choosing sides left and right (see http://tinyurl.com/nejvyy for a summary article—and be sure to read the scores of one-sided comments from readers).


    Reviewing the Situation


    Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is African American. He also is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. (For his academic bio, go here:  http://tinyurl.com/ceah7r.)


    Professor Gates arrived home after a week in China to find his front door jammed shut. He and his African American driver attempted to force the door open. A White neighbor called police to report a possible break-in by two African American males wearing backpacks.


    Two Sides to Any Story


    This is where the details get dicey. If you want the extended version of the story (stories), go here: http://tinyurl.com/nejvyy).


    Of course, there are always two sides to any story. And we always view our side through our grid—our background, our perspective, our history, and, yes, our ethnicity.


    Professor Gates maintains that he cooperated with the police, showed his ID, and asked for the officer’s ID—likely because he was beginning to sense that, from his perspective, racial issues were at least a part of the issue. When the officer refused to show his ID, Professor Gates apparently began to verbalize his concerns about potential racism.


    Looking at Life through Professor Gates’ Eyes


    Before anyone judges Professor Gates as a “liberal, whining, race-baiting, African American” (as many have done on various web sites), perhaps it would be helpful to walk a mile in his shoes.


    I travel. It’s exhausting. A week-long business trip to China would be especially draining. After such a grueling trip, I’d want to place my key in my door, enter, plop down, and chill for the night. The last think I would want would be to have to break into my own house. And certainly the last thing I would want would be to have someone accuse me of being a criminal.


    Now, that’s as a “White guy” who has not experienced racism and prejudice. Professor Gates has lived it. He has researched it. He was witnessed it. So, yes, is it possible that he sees life at times with “race colored glasses”—seeing racism where it may not exist? Perhaps.


    It is also possible that he sees and senses the subtle and frustrating signs of racism where others miss those signs. Perhaps he sees in this very personal situation a small taste of what his entire life’s work has highlighted. Maybe it felt to him like one more maddening example of racial profiling.


    Police officers are trained to assess situations. They are trained to look for verbal and non-verbal clues. Did this older, distinguished looking gentleman really look the part of a thief? How many times have African Americans been stopped by White officers in majority White neighborhoods for no other obvious reason than the color of their skin?


    Could the White officers have defused the situation? Explained better their procedure? Empathized more with a weary traveler? Walked away when they felt verbally attacked, rather than handcuffing and arresting Professor Gates?


    Looking at Life through the Police Officer’s Eyes


    Before anyone judges the arresting officer as a “racist, rude, prejudicial, arrogant, aggressive cop,” (as many have done on various web sites), perhaps it would be helpful to walk a mile in his police shoes. The police officer has his own side of the story—and he has his own lenses through which he observes life.


    Surely it all began innocently. He was responding to a 911 call of a possible breaking and entering. Following procedures, he reached the home to see a man trying to force his way into the house. Suspicions arouse, tensions mount.


    He properly asks for identification. Now the situation begins to escalate. Perhaps Professor Gates is raising his voice. He’s making accusations of racism. At the end of a long shift, perhaps this police officer is not only weary, but now he is shocked and feels defensive. No, with many officers present, his physical safety was not endangered. But maybe this officer is thinking, “I’m just trying to do my job. I’m here to protect your home. Let’s not make this something it isn’t. I am not a racist! Let’s just drop this and move on, okay?”


    As sad as the incident is, what is even sadder is the predictable public response. People choosing sides. No one trying to look at both sides. Isn’t that the very reason we still have racial tension in America today?


    Be honest. As you’re reading right now, you are “yes butting” me. If you tend toward Professor Gates’ view, then you have a myriad of thoughts about how, “this White guy Kellemen just doesn’t get it!”


    If you tend toward supporting the police officer, then you have a millions sentences going through your mind like, “Kellemen is a liberal White guy pandering to African Americans!”


    Looking at Life through Christ’s Eyes


    Well, then, forget my eyes. Let’s look at this through Christ’s eyes.


    Consider four basic principles of cultivating Christlike intercultural relational competency. I called them a Christ-centered TEAM approach.


    *T: Taking another person’s earthly perspective through empathy and culturally-informed listening.

    *E: Engaging in bridge-building spiritual conversations through focusing on God’s eternal perspective.

    *A: Abolishing barriers through forgiveness and reconciliation.

    *M: Making intercultural peace through spiritual renewal.


    The T in Team


    It’s easy for us to say that Gates or the officer should have taken each other’s perspective, that they should have empathized with each other’s background, or that they should have seen life from each other’s lenses.


    But what about us? Rather than quickly picking sides, could we step back and try to see things from both perspectives? Could Black brothers and sisters try for a minute to see this situation from the White officer’s perspective? Could White brothers and sisters try for a minute to see this situation from the Black professor’s perspective?


    This does not mean that we close a blind eye to racism. It does not mean that we accept every charge of racism as valid. It simply means that we start with empathy—T—taking another person’s perspective.


    The E in tEam


    Now, I hardly expect that in the heat of the night, the Professor and the Officer would have sat down for coffee to build bridges of understanding! But now that the heat has had time to subside, don’t you think they, and don’t you think we, could start a little bridge-building?


    I mean, just take a look at those comments on the link above! Perhaps 1% constitute a bridge-building comment. What’s up with that? Are we sill so racially divided in America that no one can say, “Let’s focus on God’s eternal perspective”?


    According to Revelation 7:9, we will spend eternity fellowshipping and worshipping in racial and ethnic diversity. Maybe we should start practicing now. Maybe we could have some candid, honest, frank bridge-building spiritual conversations that look at situations like this through Christ’s eyes.


    The A in teAm


    Building bridges is a start. Once built, we can reach out hands that work together to abolish barriers through forgiveness and reconciliation. My guess, and I’m sure I’ll make everyone mad with this, is that there is plenty of confession and forgiveness to go around in the Professor/Officer incident.


    And there’s plenty to go around for all of us as we react in knee-jerk ways like…well, jerks! Ripping Professor Gates and ripping the so-far unnamed Officer is a far cry from Jesus’ cry on the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”


    Of course, true forgiveness includes, leads to, and offers reconciliation. God can create something beautiful out of the mess that is this Professor/Officer situation. He could help you and me, brothers and sisters of different hues, to reconcile with one another.


    The M in teaM


    Peace is more than the absence of hostility. Biblical peace, scriptural shalom, is the presence of unity in diversity.


    That’s not natural; that is supernatural. It requires spiritual renewal.


    I find it fascinating that when the Apostle Paul speaks of the peace of Christ ruling in our hearts and of singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs together, that the context is intercultural harmony! Ninety-nine percent of the time we miss that context. We think Colossians 3:1-17 is about whether we worship with traditional hymns or with contemporary praise songs or with Gospel spirituals.


    But Paul precedes his comments on worship with the comment that in Christ “there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarians, Scythians, slave, or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11).


    And Paul even precedes those comments by insisting that all who have been raised with Christ must set their hearts and minds where Christ is seated at the right hand of God (Colossians 3:1).


    That means that we must set our eyes, our lenses, our perspectives on God’s heavenly, eternal perspective. Now we’ve come full circle because we already know that heaven is an eternal multicultural worship and fellowship service!


    So let’s get it right now. Peace comes from spiritual renewal. And spiritual renewal comes from Christ. And as new creations in Christ we wear Christ’s eyeglasses not our own.  




    Life is not, “He said/she said.”


    Life is “Thus saith the Lord!”


    And the Lord of all says live at peace with everyone for we are all one in Christ.