COVID-19; we get that. But COVID-1619? It’s the other virus prevalent, the virus of racism dating back to 1619 when the first African slaves landed in the U.S.
From that date on, slavery expanded, becoming in the words of Edward Baptist “… one of the engines of colonial economic growth ...” In fact, Baptist notes, “… the expansion of slavery in many ways shaped the story of everything in the pre-Civil War United States…”
It’s the everything we have yet to reckon with. For slavery quickened racism, saturating the entire fabric of American life with prejudicial instincts. The result: an inherent bias in the entire U.S. structural system (everything) over-against persons of color, especially African Americans. It’s that reality that exploded in the recent rash of violence over-against African Americans. But it didn’t first erupt in 2020; it’s been crying out since 1619, and we’ve been hitting the snooze button ever since.
We must no longer snooze, for any bias over-against any people group is not of God. Peter says it best in Acts 10: “Now I know for certain that God doesn’t show favoritism [toward] people but treats everyone on the same basis. It makes no difference what race of people one belongs to. If they show deep reverence for God and are committed to doing what’s right, they are acceptable before him.” (Acts 10:34-35, TPT).
Sadly, our bias has not been in this direction. Instead, it’s been on a 400-year prejudicial trajectory, resulting in horrific injury to African American people. That reality is hard and heavy. Though we personally didn’t inflict every instance of black pain, we’re nevertheless, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, responsible. “... Morally speaking,” Heschel notes, “there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings ...” Thus, we strive to redeem our sordid racial legacy.
Redemption Step #1 — Anticipate New Creation, Not A “Guilt Trip”
As persons encounter America’s racist narrative, there are multiple reactions. Some have stopped reading this article, livid at any notion there’s anything less than honor in our history. Others are relieved we’re finally acknowledging our injustice toward African Americans. But most are struggling with mixed emotions, including shame and guilt. Certainly, remorse is needed, but not the extreme of self-flagellation. Facing racism is not an exercise in “beating up” on white people to elevate black people, but an exercise in humility as we confess and repent.
As we do, we anticipate the dream of new creation in Revelation 7: “… I [John] saw a huge crowd, too huge to count. Everyone was there — all nations and tribes, all races and languages. And they were standing, dressed in white robes and waving palm branches, standing before the Throne and the Lamb and heartily singing: Salvation to our God … to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10, MSG). As Juan Francisco Martinez notes, “… this is … the time to live into this dream … [that] ... calls for believers to be evangelists of the message of Jesus Christ, interpreters of the complexities, bridges between peoples and groups, defenders and protectors of those who are marginalized, spokespeople for the causes of intercultural justice — people who will walk alongside, who will break down boundaries while defending those who are weaker and who will speak truth to those in power.”
Redemption Step #2 — “Work” Your Circle of Influence
Yes, be an evangelist of Jesus’ reconciling message: be an interpreter, bridge-builder, companion, defender, spokesperson for new creation. But not just generically, but intimately within your circle of family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. Because no matter your life position, you have influence, and people are watching you during this season of racial unrest. Are you mocking those “taking to the streets,” or encouraging folks to consider their point of view? Are you huddling just with “your own kind” griping, or, seeking out persons of color and voicing a desire to learn? Are you still denying racism is in “everything,” or saying systemic change is required to “level the playing field’”for all? Don’t underestimate your influence. All it takes is one person in a family or business system to break the cycle of denial concerning the necessity of enlarged equity for persons of color, in particular, for African Americans.
Redemption Step #3 — Let God’s Word Have The Last Word
We assume God’s narrative is shaping us, but often the voice of dominant culture seduces us, wooing us into its opinion. Culture’s narrative is multi-themed: “people of color are obsessed with race,” “civil rights are a crutch for those who lack merit or drive,” “racism will always be with us, so it’s a waste of time to talk about it.”
But if we’re listening, God’s narrative, God’s Word, challenges the word of the world. A sampling follows: “Do you know what I [God] want? I want justice — oceans of it. I want fairness — rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want. (Amos 5:24, MSG) “Open your mouths on behalf of those unable to speak, for the legal right of all the dying. Open your mouth, judge in righteousness, and plead the cause of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8-9, NET). “Every item of your new way of life is custom-made by the Creator, with his label on it. All the old fashions are now obsolete. Words like Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and irreligious, insider and outsider, uncivilized and uncouth, slave and free, mean nothing. From now on, everyone is defined by Christ, everyone is included in Christ.” (Colossians 3:11, MSG). Keep rehearsing such truth, God’s Truth. Let holy words have the last word. For the best way to eradicate COVID-1619 is to erode it with a counter-narrative of redemption, advancing Jesus’ dream of freedom for those downtrodden, bruised, crushed by tragedy. Jesus’ dream of equal footing for all nations and tribes, all races and languages.
Both COVID-19 and COVID-1619 are a matter of life or death, threatening the very health of our society. Thus, we dare not fall prey to the cultural narrative of excuse-making and despair but seek first the Jesus narrative of truth-telling and renewal, anticipating New Creation, influencing those around us, prioritizing God’s Word. What an opportunity to be an evangelist for Jesus, declaring: everyone is defined by Christ — everyone is included in Christ! (Colossians 3:11, MSG).
Paul Mundey is a minister, consultant, and writer. Currently, he is serving as Moderator of the Church of the Brethren, the highest elective office in the denomination. For 20 years, he served as Senior Pastor of the Frederick Church of the Brethren, Frederick.