Insects buzzed lazily along, seemingly burdened by the same humidity that attracted them. The long shadows of late afternoon inked their graceful forms across water polished to a mirror, only to have their intricate beauty rippled to shreds by the plop of a lure. Occasional nearby swirls beneath the surface buoyed anticipation and hope, emotions as gentle as a cork bobbing among the skeletal sunken trees. There are few things more blissful to a child of the Deep South. I’m not sure, but I really hope God lets us fish in that crystal sea mentioned in so many descriptions of heaven. If there is bliss to be found on that far shore, maybe it involves standing on it with a rod in my hand.
Yesterday, on the bank of a backwater inlet on Lake Waco, I had found a place on this shore where the line between here and there got a little thin and blurry. But as I stood there, feet in the chilly waters of this world and soul striding into the primordial but yet-to-come joy of the next, I encountered something I know in my heart will be completely absent in the reign of Jesus of Nazareth.
An African-American man, rod and bucket in hand, staked out a spot a few yards from me. Likely in his fifties, his slow movements showed not the pains of age but the deliberateness of someone who’d finally realized life wasn’t a race. He asked me how the bite was that day (it wasn’t, to be honest). We talked a bit about the glories and failures of that spot, a few others I had tried, and other locations I’d yet to discover but were old friends to him.
The conversation had gently faded into the subtle sounds of twilight, and about a half hour of silence ensued. Like ripples slowly growing into treacherous waves, the voices of two teens, a boy and a girl, drifted across the water. From hundreds of yards away, their voices were just loud enough to differentiate, but not quite near enough to understand. It was apparent, however, that the male was becoming increasingly angry.
“YOU CAN GO F*** A N***** AT WACO HIGH FOR ALL I CARE! I’m not going to prom with you anyway, so why does it matter?”
As the echo of the water and trees cried back the epithet in horror, I saw the man stiffen, then relax. The image of God beside me, in his eyes and drooping shrug, showed resignation built by decades I can’t imagine. Out there in the idyllic woods, an entire group of human beings had just been used as a prop in a moment of callousness that may have had nothing to do with race. As if this wasn’t enough to rend my heart, this is Waco, Texas; there’s a strong chance this teen at least casually attends a local church.
Racism [still] matters to the church because it matters to God. Because it spits in His face. Because it is bigger and more insidious than lynching trees, Jim Crow, and lunch counters. And because it still exists. Jesus told us that whatever we do for the least, we do for Him, and whatever we don’t do for the least, we don’t do for Him. This tells me that personal righteousness extends beyond our selves to the hopes, needs, and even skin tones of others. Not murdering or cussing doesn’t cut it. If it grieves our hearts when people speak poorly of Christ, it should grieve our hearts when someone speaks ill of a human, made in God’s image, because of their skin. If it isn’t enough to simply not be one of the soldiers who hung Christ on a cross, it isn’t enough to simply not hang our brothers and sisters from God’s trees. If we want to preach love and service to Christ, we must in our pulpits, Bible studies, and dinner tables preach love and service to those He loves.* And that means speaking up when someone who explicitly or implicitly claims to be under Christ fails to treat any of us as they should treat Christ. Whatever we would do for Christ, if He stood before us treated as we treat our brothers and sisters who aren’t like us, go and do likewise through Him for them.
*For a great discussion on combating subtle racism, as well as the connection between Christ’s redemptive work and the end of racism, check out John Piper’s Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian, available from booksellers or as a free PDF from his ministry.