“THE PROBLEM of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line…”
(W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903).
If you were to become a neonatologist, you would observe a strange phenomenon. As you would deliver babies, you would notice increasingly that babies of African American women would, on average, be born twice as likely premature or with a lower birth weight than those of white women (yes, this is a statistically significant study). Even if you were to control for socioeconomic status, you would find an even more harrowing statistic: African American women of higher socioeconomic status (those who have obtained bachelors and masters degrees, respectively) were three times as likely to have a baby born premature or with lower birth weight than their white counterparts. Further, this same group of African American women would still have a higher premature and lower birth weight rate than white women who have dropped out or never complete high school education. In a study by Collins and David, they point to racism and the stress it produces in African American women as the main factor that increases the rates of premature birth. But this would be hard to explain to many in our country, of which around 70% of white Americans believe racism to be a product of the past. It would even be more of a surprise to explain to the Charlottesville community, where our own University was one of the centers of the highly racialized eugenics movement in the early 1900s.
I came to the University of Virginia in 2014 from a relatively homogenous area in Virginia Beach. I remember reading “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr. my junior year and feeling the searing conviction of his words addressed to the “white moderates”. “When you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’,” King writes, “—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait”. I remember sitting by my fireplace and feeling the burn upon my back of the relevancy of King’s words to our country, still. It wasn’t long before my veil was further torn away when one of our classmates, Martese Johnson, was unjustly aprehended at the Corner in Charlottesville, a block away from the edge of our campus. The boulder began to roll faster and faster as Theological Horizons brought John Perkins to U.Va. to speak, the shootings of the black men by police in the summer of 2015 (and on), and finally culminated with the election of Donald Trump where I found one of my black brothers crying in my room, and I held one of my black sisters as she wept in fear and pain. Tears, pain, heaviness – everywhere. And if that wasn’t enough of a burden to handle, the slave-built grounds churned as the white supremecists marched through the epicenter of the Rotunda. Everyday, I felt the weight of America upon my shoulders, and the sins of our country were still reverberating… loudly.
I was reminded of the story of Jesus. When Jesus had told his disciples he was going to suffer and die on the cross, Peter rebuked him saying he couldn’t possibly do that – we all know what Jesus said to Peter next: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 6:23, NIV). Why did Peter say this, and why did Jesus respond that way? Peter thought Jesus was going to be a political messiah; he thought Jesus was coming to overcome the Romans and become the new political leader. In reality, Jesus came to suffer and die because the Kingdom he was coming to build was not only physical, but it was spiritual, it was in our hearts – it was a war in the heavens. Jesus came to renew our country, yes, but not at the expense of renewing our hearts, minds and souls. Suffering was neccesary for the atonement.
But Jesus was clear, that the Kingdom he has brought to Earth is a spiritual reality. I began to stray away from prayer and devotion to God and replace it with my works. I began to tire myself out. Paul wrote it succinctly, which seems to be a thorn in the enlightened side of America:
For we do not wrestly against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12, NIV).
How are we supposed to fight this force of racism, then, that has such real and dark physical manifestations? How do we fight a phenomenon that has plagued our country for years? We need to be renewed, and we need to cling to the cross. We need to humble ourselves and collectively repent. We desperately need to seek the face of God and not fall wayward to the dirty rags of works. Our turning from our sin and our selves towards the cross is what should inform our work.
In my time as a Perkins Fellow, I learned this. That if I am to do the work of the Kingdom, I need to have my heart right before God. And that is something I want to encourage you all in. It is obvious that our country has sins of racism still so evident, and we can see tangible manifestations of that nearly everyday. One response would be to just go out and start working to solve it. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but you will become tired and you will hit a wall. If you are working for God, stop. You are already justified before him, and I would encourage you to repent and get your heart before him. To others, they may interpret salvation as a reason to not do work in the community. Brothers and sisters, our eschatology has not yet been realized. The Kingdom of God is a dynamic and ever-present reality that needs to be brought about by us, the church. So to those who see the racial division in our country but fail to act, please get before God as well and ask Him what your role is in the beautiful, ever-unfolding picture. The reality of Jesus and his salvific power at the cross should always be what informs our lived theologies. As my dear friend Ross Byrd once told me, “Theology doesn’t neccessarily make good obedience, rather obedience makes for good theology”. I would encourage you to take a deep look at our country and ask God how it is he wants to use you to bring shalom to our country. Following Jesus is wildly fascinating, but it should also be restful. We need to rest before the cross. I will leave you with one verse to meditate upon. Our country is hurting, and we desperately need Jesus now more than ever.
If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land (2 Chronicles 7:14, NIV).