The media world has been abuzz for the last couple weeks about that villain of the world, Donald Sterling. A media outlet that lacks any filter (TMZ) released the recording of a phone call between the octogenarian Sterling and his 20-something girlfriend in which he made racist comments. He was quickly banned by the National Basketball Association for life, fined $2.5M, and threatened that he must sell his team, the L.A. Clippers.
I have no desire to defend Sterling, a businessman of less-than sterling reputation in Los Angeles. The whispers of his racially insensitive talk and actions have fueled the Los Angeles media for years, so while the legality of making this private conversation public is questionable, the verdict on Sterling as a racist is deserved.
The whole Sterling circus has reopened the discussion of racism in America, and I am deeply troubled by the reality that pokes through when this debate resurfaces from time to time. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said yesterday that “more whites believe in ghosts than they do in racism.” His implication is that people like me think that racism in America is long-gone, a battle done. I wish that were true. How many other Donald Sterlings are out there? By this I mean white people who do not act as racists publicly, but talk that way in private conversations.
Kathleen Parker recently addressed this in a column that did some soul-searching about the Republican party. Parker noted that it is no secret some political rallies display overt symbols of racism proudly. Parker warns, “The GOP is not a party of racists, but it is a party with racists.”
I wonder if this could be said of the American church? Perhaps we are not a church of racists, but a church with many racist members who are tolerated. I don’t want to generalize, but I have too often been around white Christian church leaders who think nothing of dropping a mildly racist comment or telling a quasi-racist joke. Recently, in Nepal of all places, I heard a white evangelical minister from Texas tell a “joke” that denigrated President Obama and his ethnic background. (BTW: I heard in the 2012 election an estimate that 25% of white Americans would never vote for Obama simply because he was a black man.) So if we believe racism in America is a problem solved, I assure you it is not.
The ancient church was challenged by a different kind of racism. It was made up of Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles). Jews were a substantial minority of the Roman empire’s population, maybe 10% by some estimates. They were influential in the Roman world, yet they were despised by the Romans. This led to a strange mix of persecution complex combined with proud ethnic elitism for the Jews. It was very difficult for them to accept non-Jews into the church at first. Such folks were both their tormentors and their inferiors, the Jews believed. But Paul would have none of this. He taught there was no distinction between Jew or Gentile in the church, all were one in Christ (Galatians 3:28).
Can we recover this in the church today? If we truly believed we were all one in Christ, racism would have no toehold on which to stand. If we refused to allow ethnic distinctions to influence our thinking, racism would die a lonely and deserved death. The church of all places should neither be racist nor a place with racists as leaders.
Nebraska Christian College