Pastor's Pastor: The racist within me

Pastor's Pastor: The racist within me

The hatred that welled up within me was shocking. I could not believe that I could despise total strangers with such vehemence.

James A. Cress is the Ministerial Secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

The hatred that welled up within me was shocking. I could not believe that I could despise total strangers with such vehemence.

As I stood in the grocery check out line behind parents and their two rambunctious children, anger sprang to my mind, not for anything that they were doing wrong, but instead, for who they were.

I found myself hating this family for their ethnic similarity to someone from another culture who had unfairly lodged a lawsuit against us a few years before. Even though the facts and judgment were in our favor, I relived the pain of those events as I happened upon this family whose only crime was being different than me—and like my antagonist.

Almost as quickly as I felt this hatred, I questioned my own mind and asked heaven's forgiveness. I even managed to express greetings to this family before we each went our way. But, I've pondered these things for many months.

Coming to age in the segregated southern United States, I was taught by my pastoral parents that racism is wrong. They taught this principle by attitude, deed, and at least once, by discipline when I repeated a word that I had heard on the street. My Mom literally washed out my mouth with vile soap. In my limited world of those days, however, racism was an issue of only black and white. I thought I had learned to reject racism and its accompanying slogans, slights, slurs, and segregation.

Years later I learned a wider reality that racism exists in nearly every culture and continues well beyond earlier eras in which Americans hated and impounded Japanese; Germans were suspect; Irish were refused jobs; Jews were gassed; Korean women were enslaved for the convenience of their captors; Eastern Europeans were controlled by force because of their geographic or ethnic proximity to stronger powers; Black women were required to stand at the back of the bus; and a fellow theology major at my college was informed he would not receive a call to ministry if he pursued his romance with a Hawaiian girl.

And even as we transition into the new millennium, such conflicts multiply. These tragedies can be as overt as the ethnic cleansing and bloody retaliation between disparate groups all over the world, or as disguised as the reality of racial profiling which means that while driving down the street, my colleague, Walter Pearson, is much more likely to face police apprehension than I am.

Racism and its siblings of social, religious, and gender discrimination are reality. But my encounter with my own soul's prejudice seems different. I had nothing against that family in the grocery store and even their physical similarities to the individual who had mistreated us was no excuse for my poisonous attitude.

I have realized that I did not abhor that family for who they were, but rather for who they were not. They were not "me." They were "other than me and mine." Making that unfair distinction, I took a short leap from "other" to "like others who had wronged me" to denigration of their very existence in my mind, much less their presence in "my" grocery market.

The more I consider the evil that flamed in my own mind and observe its interaction between others who confront culture differences, the more I realize that the ultimate poison of racism is rooted deep in each of us. Like untended weeds in a garden, if we emphasize our differences and maintain cultural barriers that separate us, evil will eventually control and consume us.

We may never escape all cultural or ethnic preferences until Jesus restores all things. But believers must struggle against the evil stereotyping of people based on their race, nationality, ethnic experience, or even their gender or social standing. Furthermore, my personal struggle against racism in any of its ugly manifestations must be matched by the corporate struggle of my denomination and my congregation where, too often, we give lip service to fellowship without behavior that matches the convictions we express. Remember, whether Saturday or Sunday, the eleven-o'clock worship service remains one of the most segregated hours of the week.

We may explain this away on the basis of cultural preference, worship style, neighborhood churches ministering to those who live within their precincts, or any of several other mental gymnastics that can never land on a solid footing. Sharon and I have observed ourselves and our ethnically diverse Adventist neighbors depart the same street on which we all live and drive miles in different directions, past many different churches, to find the one where we worship with those who are just like us. This is wrong.

God's word permits neither racial, social, nor gender bias "in Christ." We are all one if we are in Christ. Scripture forbids categorizing "others" based on ethnicity, social status, or gender. When Jesus declared that "all would know His disciples by their love for one another," he meant just that—"one" loving the "other."

Wow! That is radical! It is easy to love one alike. It is difficult to love one "an other." Rather than excusing our present reality, we should strive to uplift and experience the ideal rather than wallow in prejudice. Rather than excluding one another, we should seek ways of including one another. This calls for proactive seeking rather than reactive or defensive response. And this does not happen by merely declaring, "some of my best friends are _______."

Pretense in any area is a sham. Pretense in racism is a shame—a shame for me, a shame for you, a shame for God's church. My personal experience leads me to several observations:

Sin infects us all. While none of us may completely eradicate the cultural effects of the sinful world we inhabit, we must never excuse racism based on the world's condition. God calls the church to a different standard.

Racism is Satan's potent tool. Our enemy delights when, entrapped by our own shallow preferences, we boast of inclusiveness, yet remain in comfort able exclusivity. Discrimination of any stripe gives opportunity for evil to flourish.

Vigilance is necessary. It is easy to believe we have progressed, only to discover Satan's moving target. While I prided myself in what I assumed was my absence or low level of prejudice against African-Americans, I gave way to prejudice against strangers from another ethnicity.

Friendliness does not equal friendship. I have pastored churches who believed they were a "friendly congregation" but discovered that, despite superficial cordiality, we lacked genuine fellowship beyond the barriers of "our own."

Wider experiences bring great benefit. Think about expanding rather than constraining your cultural horizons. Rather than defend the status-quo, seek deeper fellowship and experience with others. I applaud the recent Summit on Racial Relations conducted at General Conference headquarters by the North American Division. Open conversation, repentance for sinful discrimination, and real desire for progress promote genuine unity as we move forward together.

Pastors lead by example. What if every pastoral family would seek for themselves to experience the richness of other cultural heritages? What if we structured our churches for real, in-depth, experiential, cross-cultural encounters.

Truth liberates. Falsehoods enslave. Our church must acknowledge our failures and confront what we have "glossed over." For example, would it destroy confidence in the gift of prophecy to discover that Ellen G. White was born to interracial parents? Charles Dudley, the retired dean of regional conference presidents, has published credible and carefully researched evidence that Ellen White's mother, Eunice Gould Harmon, was a mulatto whose Gould family roots can be traced through the Caribbean back to African slaves who were brought to the Dutch West Indies.

Champion the cause of others. Racism can be a two-way street. There is always a temptation to focus on the injustice I have experienced more than the pain of others. If I'm White, let me contend for those who are Black. If Black, let me take on the trials of my Hispanic brothers; if Hispanic, the struggles of my Asian sisters. Of all people, Adventists ought to affirm the rights of others more than asserting our own rights.

Jesus is racism's antidote. Poisonous prejudice, so blind that it refuses to acknowledge the obvious, much less what is right, will paralyze the church's progress as we strain out gnats and swallow camels. All discrimination is sinful; the only escape is a deeper experience of the Saviour's presence. Inviting Christ to control ongoing discussions and efforts is the only hope of dealing with real issues and seeking real answers. I pledge to be part of that process and encourage you to join me.


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James A. Cress is the Ministerial Secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

February 2000

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