I’d like to think of myself as a pretty good person. After all, I’m a preacher, and a pretty good one at that. I do what I am supposed to do. Pay my taxes. Give to the poor. Help little old ladies across the street.
But there are limits, you know?
Imagine someone asking you to put your neck on the line for a bunch of people who are the utter definition of evil. This is not just some guy that poked you with a stick, or called you an off-color name. This is an entire people, an entire race, who do not even know what it means to be human. They are so utterly depraved, so wicked, so disgusting, that any normal, thinking person would be forced to conclude that they were simply born…broken.
Now, imagine someone asking you to put your neck on the line to walk into their wicked, depraved city, and preach to them about grace. Imagine – every fiber in your being wants them to burn in the fires of judgment. Every time you see one of them, ugly, gaping at you while you walk down the street, you just want to throw a rock at them.
But God made it clear. Crystal clear. Belly of a fish clear. That I was supposed to go and tell these rejects that God’s judgment was coming. Believe me, the last thing I wanted to do was to give them a heads up. Let ‘em burn, as far as I care. But God seemed pretty clear on this point. And after I tried to take a nice Spanish holiday, a storm, a fish, and a pool of vomit later, I found myself on the way to Ninevah, against my will and against my better judgment.
This time, I told God, “if I go down there and tell them to repent, they are going to do it, and then what? Then we’ll have a bunch of living Ninevites instead of a bunch of dead Ninevites.” And let me tell you, the only good Ninevite is a dead Ninevite. I told him, “they are going to repent, and none of us really want that, do we?” And yet God was clear. Crystal clear. Belly of a fish clear. So down to Ninevah I went.
But, I’ll tell you what. God could make me say it, but he couldn’t make me like it. So, instead of really making the argument for them, really convincing them to change, I offered the shortest oracle in history: “Forty more days and your city will be toast.” That’s it. That’s all I said. Then I took off to watch the fireworks. I was ready. Ready to watch them all burn.
But then, things got even worse.
It was bad enough when I had to go to Ninevah.
It was worse than bad when I had to go covered in fish vomit.
It was even worse than worse when I had to try and save this wicked and despicable people.
But, after all of that, then God went and changed his mind and saved the people, and in the process, made me look like an idiot!
This horrible race of people actually repented of their sins, and so God went and saved their sorry butts. This wicked people. This broken and unworthy and literally un-savable people. And God goes and saves them. I was inconsolable. I stormed out of the city, and instead of watching it burn with glee like I should have, I sat miserable in the hot sun. And when I thought my misery was at an all time high, the one little plant that gave me just a trifle of shade, withered and died. I flew into a rage.
And once more, the voice of God boomed through my weary eardrums. “You care about this bush? A meaningless, single bush? Meanwhile, I have just saved from the fires of judgment a land where a hundred and twenty thousand people – and, yes, they are people – a hundred and twenty thousand people of my own creating live today. Today, they laugh and love and listen to one another because of your words and my grace. And all you can think about is this bush! Think instead about the children who run after each other. The old woman who sits on a bench and makes baskets to sell at the market. The mother who lives long enough to see her first child born. They live, and breathe and eat and sleep. They are human beings, created in my image, just like you were. Sure, they are different than you. They look different and sound different and speak with a different accent. But they are my people. I made them. I love them. Enough to save them. Just like I saved you.”
I’d like to think of myself as a pretty good person. After all, I’m a preacher. I do what I am supposed to do. Pay my taxes. Give to the poor. Help little old ladies across the street.
But here is a realization that I face more each day: I am a racist.
In the wake of the shootings in Charleston, and the rash of church arsons since then, that is a hard sentence for me to say out loud. And yet, I must.
I am a racist. And that is not okay.
Part of the legacy of racism in our country comes from the fact that it is easy for many of us to say “I’m not that bad….”. “I’m a pretty good person.” But that ignores the less violent, less obvious racism in many of our hearts. As I consider my own history, it becomes clear.
When I was in elementary school, I listened to my granddaddy talk about African-Americans and the Japanese soldiers that he fought in the war. I listened to the names that he called people of color, and even though my parents corrected him, I knew what racism sounded like.
When I was in middle school, I saw a little African American boy stealing flowers out of my parents flowerbed. I had no idea why he was taking them. But I assumed it was because he was black.
When I was in high school, we moved from a community that had a 98% white people to a city in the south that I actually had a minority population to speak of. I went to school and even church with people of different races, but I could not help but think that they were somehow just, well, not quite as good.
When I was in college, I remember looking at the migrant farmers who worked in the tobacco fields. When they came into the store where I was shopping, I took my wallet for my back pocket and put it in my front, just to be safe.
When I was in seminary – seminary – I looked at fellow students who were people of color with an air of superiority.
And even now, I catch myself more often than not presuming that the reason that African Americans get pulled over in overwhelmingly disparate numbers, compared to whites, deep down I think that they aren’t getting anything they don’t deserve. The facts simply do not support this presumption, but then, racism does not tend to take into account the facts.
No, I don’t think I could ever kill someone just because they were black. Or Latino. Or Asian. Or any race other than my own. I don’t think I could ever conceive a plan where I walk into a Bible study, sit and listen for an hour, pray beside those who had welcomed me, and then open fire. I would not ever. Could not ever.
But yet, I am a racist. And that is not okay.
The prophet Jonah had no conception of what it would look like for God to love the Ninevites. They simply were not lovable. However, the most important lesson that was learned in the book of Jonah was not by the Ninevites who chose to repent instead of receiving God’s judgment. But instead, the most important lesson learned – or at least offered – was for God’s anointed, God’s prophet, the one who was supposed to be God’s voice on earth – was the first one who needed to learn what grace really meant.
Even in the story of Jonah, even in God’s anointed was a susceptible to the evils of racism. Who are we to say that we cannot be susceptible as well? Today, I would suggest that we do not have to be KKK members to have racist attitudes. I know that I am guilty. And pray for forgiveness.
And instead of pointing fingers at others, and suggesting, or even praying: “thank God I am not like that family that flies a Confederate flag, or thank God I am not like that skinhead who wears a swastika on his chest, thank God I am not like that man who murdered in cold blood….” Instead of pointing fingers like the Pharisee and saying, “God I’m so thankful I’m not like that sinner,” I am trying hard to pray like the publican; “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Perhaps you would join me in that prayer, today.