Visions of Color

Even if you’ve never read the Bible you’re probably familiar with a few stories in it like the Garden of Eden or the one where that guy Daniel got thrown to the lions. Well in the Book of Daniel there is another story about three of Daniel’s friends. The story goes that one day the king of the Babylonian empire had a massive gold statue constructed. This statue was to show off the wealth and glory of Babylon. The Emperor had a big ceremony to present it, and gathered all of the officials throughout the empire to come to its dedication. It was proclaimed that the king was going to have horns, flutes, pipes, harps, zithers and other strange sounding ancient instruments play a tune, and when that tune was played, all the officials and leaders had to fall down and worship the statue.

There was a problem though. Three of these officials were Jewish, and believing there only to be one God, and therefore only one Being worthy of worship, refused to kneel before this statue when the music played. The emperor found out and became furious. These officials were on his payroll and represented his government. By not kneeling they disrespected the glory of Babylon, and made the Emperor look weak. He gave them one more chance to bow before the statue, but all three outright refused. The king threw them into a blazing furnace, where it turns out God protected them, and they came out without a scratch. After witnessing this miracle, the emperor glorified their God, promoted them, and everyone lived happily ever after.

A more modern tale: On Sunday, September 24, 2017 American football fans faced political drama which attracted national attention. Before every game a banner was unfurled, and music played on horns, flutes, zithers, etc. and it was expected all the players would stand giving their attention and devotion to the flag. What happened instead was that a number of individuals, and entire teams in some cases, knelt or were not present for the anthem when it was played. They were following the example of ex-49’ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who had knelt during the anthem ceremony the previous football season to protest police violence against the black community. The actions of these players who refused to stand came even after the President had made recommendations that any player who kneels during the ceremony should be fired.

The lessons from sacred scriptures help us to read and learn about our own times. In both incidents there were forced ceremonies of nation worship, and both also had very powerful threats from the leaders of the respective nations (though fortunately, Donald Trump’s version of getting FIRED is much less life threatening than Emperor Nebuchadnezzer’s). I share this because I am dismayed and ashamed at the reaction the NFL protest has gotten from white Americans, especially from those who claim to be members of faith.

So what to make of this? How can Christians who claim to have respect and love for the faith heroes of old, not stand against idolatry in our current age and stand for justice for the persecuted and least of these? To be honest, I am actually not surprised most don’t. The majority of American Christians see the world through a very one sided, black and white lens.  I know, because I used to see the same way.

I once had a very monochrome vision when it came to race relations in the United States. This lack of perception in viewing the world was encouraged by my teachers and parents through the taught value of color-blindness. The best way to avoid racial issues was to act like race wasn’t a factor at all. We learned in school about how a long time ago, America once enslaved black people, and would not let them sit on the bus with white people. But then Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream and was shot for standing up to the racists. As MLK took his dying breath, racism died with him or so we were told. Now we lived in a post-racial world where only people in the KKK were still racists.  When you lived in a central Pennsylvanian town whose demographic is 97% white people, it is easy to believe this sort of myth. I believed that the problem in America wasn’t racism, it was people trying to talk about racism when they should just let it die.

And so with this ignorant mentality I took my color-blind, monochrome vision with me to college in the Suburban Philadelphia region. Flecks of color began to infiltrate my vision. I started to see and hear experiences from people of color. My friends from home told me that my black roommate from college looked scary. I was surprised to hear that because he was one of the nicest and most sensitive people I have ever met. Another college friend of mine was being followed in the city one night so he called the police who arrested him for looking shady. I saw incidents like these but still could not fully comprehend them. My vision was firmly established to see only black and white. Wasn’t the America I grew up in past racism? Weren’t my Irish ancestors also slaves and we had gotten past that? How come there wasn’t a White Entertainment Televison?

It was when I took a class my senior year of college that I really began to understand the diversity in the world around me. The course was called Black Thought & Philosophy, I came into the class, the summer after Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson. My whiteness had given me the opportunity to be completely ignorant about that event since to be frank, I did not care about it. In this class, which was half black and half white, we had the opportunity to study black American authors from the past three centuries. We talked about current events in class. What I had to confront was the horrible history that black men and women have endured in this country, and that the solution whites have offered was to do what I had done about Ferguson. Ignore it, and pretend that it never happened. When I heard stories from peers my own age, who had faced prejudice, who had uncles pulled over and arrested because they looked like someone else, who had hearts hungry for justice from a government they believed was out to get them rather than serve them my lens of the world began changing. I saw so much more.

There was one last important step in me gaining my full prism vision of race relations, and that was through a spring break missions trip to Washington, DC. I anticipated seeing the monuments and giving back to those in need in the city. What happened instead was that I had a conversion experience. I was not converted to being a Christian (as I already believed in Jesus). Instead, I was converted to living like a Christian. I learned that indifference could not be a Christian response to racial inequality and injustice. How can it when God Himself commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves? If I am indifferent when my black brothers and sisters call out in pain and lament how can I claim I am a representative of the God of love? No. The words I read in the Bible, and the Holy Spirit convicted and moved me to go like Jesus into areas where wrongs have still not been redressed, and with compassion and love serve and fight until there is justice and equality for all, as God intended it.

Which brings me back to how Holy Scripture  helps us comprehend the NFL protests. The Daniel story is a clear example of how God is never in favor of patriotic idolatry, but supports and protects those who go against the crowd when doing so for a righteous cause. So why then do white Americans, and especially white Christians, stand opposed to the right for NFL players to protest the national anthem? Their worldviews have not had a chance to be refracted and expanded yet. For two main reasons that I know of.

The first is that the power dynamic has been held by white Americans since the foundation of this country, and has hardly been given to or shared with groups of color. Slavery, segregation and lynching were influenced to end by public disturbances of people of color, but were ultimately ended by white presidents, judges and congress. Therefore white Americans get the final say over if something is “officially” racist or not. The KKK can be agreed upon as racist. People who want to protect Confederate monuments and parade the Confederate flag, maybe not so much. Because the ability to decide racism is made in white circles of influence, Black Lives Matter and the NFL protests are therefore deemed race baiting, or unpatriotic rather than a legitimate form of protest.

Second, most white Americans have no significant relationships with people of color.  A 2013 study from the Public Religion Research Institute concluded that 75% of white Americans don’t have close black friends. Isn’t that something? Segregation is over almost half a century but you wouldn’t know it based on the way relationship circles form. The things that are important to the people we love are important to us. It’s no wonder we see this outrage over players kneeling for the anthem but not for black men and women being unjustly killed by police. The issues facing the black community are largely the issues of strangers. Hence the outrage and lack of compassion when sports players kneel rather than salute their flag.

The good news is that when God saves, He gives His followers the ability to see with His eyes. Looking at life through my monochrome lens I believed the world to be a better place than it was. When I listened to people’s stories and spent time in contexts that were different than my own, however, I learned that justice and peace do not exist in the ways that I had thought they did. Seeing the world in a prism of color means I see all of life more vibrantly. It means that I realize there is some darkness and bad in our country’s current racial relations, but that there is hope that it will not always remain that way and that things will change. It means you see the world as God sees. -IT

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