Pastor Bruce and I preached together. It is only the second time that we have shared the message this way; the first was during a special service for graduates this past summer. It was all his idea but I certainly saw the bigger picture yesterday. We became one voice, one preacher. Guided by Galatians 3.26-28, we shared one message that began this way:
When I was a child, some persons in our neighborhood called my dad “dirty white boy.” It was not said to be mean but was stated as a matter of fact. In my father’s ignorance, he accepted it as a nickname. He did not know his father and perhaps in search of a community in which to belong, this seemed like a small price to pay for admission.
No one shared with him the words of Howard Thurman who said, “Inherent in life is meaning.” Yes, we come with meaning and we are our definition that we are looking for. But, if we do not define life, life will define us. Perhaps, this is why Eugene Peterson warned, “We cannot be too careful about the words we use; we start out using them and they end up using us.”
Nevertheless, being a member of both cultures allowed him to represent the privilege of whiteness while accepting the camaraderie through oppression offered in blackness. He was “the Man” and yet, one of us, blessed but cursed a little, not black but maybe off white. His mother, Mary, was African American and socially color black, which rendered him socially impure, unclean, mixed.
He was a dirty white, a dingy white, a stained white and thus, not quite right. People in our community did not know how to handle him so they addressed one side of him but never both at the same time. They did not know what to make of what he represented. The product of two opposing sides, my dad was both in and out. So, they both fought against and stood with him—all at the same time.
He never talked about his father and consequently, never talked about his whiteness. He started drinking at fifteen years old and never stopped. Perhaps, the words that were attempting to find a voice were too much for him and the alcohol was too much for them. They could not swim and with blurry vision, they wouldn’t have made it far had they survived the daily attempted drowning.
Recently, when I asked him about his dad and my grandfather, he still had no desire to know him— not even his name. Maybe he would have felt a pull if he acknowledged this side of him. Perhaps, he feared it would tear him apart since he was not completely one or the other. To date, he has never met his father and in my observation, has never seen himself as anyone other than the dirty white boy.
Like my dad’s nickname, responses to race are a mixture. Some are made public, chanted in the streets, a chorus of discontent while others are shared in polite company and through inappropriate jokes. Race is talked about at the kitchen table, while sitting on the couch, in the car, in a barber or salon chair. It is also hushed, the reality hidden and ignored all together.
We don’t want to talk about race because race has never been the right word for us. Instead, race is a misinterpretation of our humanity. It is also never the right time or place because race is too personal, too painful, too much to talk about at one time.
This is all true; race is the elephant that struts into the room and sits on our chests. It has a reservation with us. It’s always on the menu, an American special and most days, we have no appetite for it.
Race has been with America since its inception. They grew up and played together. In fact, race is more American—though less appetizing— than apple pie. We bring it out on holidays like this one but it is the painful familiar. It hurts but it’s all we know.
So, we talk about King’s dream rather than begin the daring task of counting raised hands and assigning work to would- be ministers of reconciliation. We do community service projects but never leave our community. But, Thomas Merton said, “A faith that is afraid of other people is no faith at all.” Still, whether due to fear, ignorance or pain, we believe that it is easier to live according to society’s color- codes. We would rather be beige/ black/ brown/ red/ yellow/ white. Unsure of what it really means to belong, this seems like a small price to pay for admission.
While the Galatians were guilty of observing days and times,[i] we are guilty of observing people. We look for certain kinds of people. They have to be our people, one of us and not them, in order to be the right people.
And this scrutiny is not limited to the social invention of race but I hear it in conversations involving age, experience and gender: “You’re too young or too old. We were here first. Or, we’ve been here longer. We need the right man for the job.” All of it lines us up, orders us around and positions us as first and last. So, the separation is inevitable and even makes us comfortable— young versus old, present versus future, man versus woman.
We have yet to learn the lesson that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sought to teach us, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” He concluded about our shared destiny, “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”
Though Paul is writing to the Galatians who had fallen into mixing faith and works, he finds an audience with us as we mix faith and the works of our skin, our culture and country. We believe in social sanctification, in racial regeneration. We believe that our race will determine our righteousness. It is an assumption that we can and must add to Christ’s cross, that something is lacking in his sacrifice— and that the color of our skin satisfies it. It is a mixed religion as it were.
Consequently, we hold that spiritual maturity is a matter of appearance, that the markers of our perfection are found in the texture of our hair, the shape of our eyes and the size of our lips. We have faith in our flesh— not Christ. Whether we look at our hands or his determines if we are seeking God’s approval or human approval.[ii]
If we are seeking human approval, then it is the good news of our bodies— not Christ’s. It is righteousness through our appearance in the earth not God’s appearance in Christ. But, like Paul, we must say, “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.”[iii] Consequently, our belief in the sanctification of skin is “another gospel.”[iv] To put faith in our epidermis or any one else’s is idolatry.
No, these meanings, our prejudices and stereotypes should have been drowned in the waters of baptism. We are no longer clothed in skin but with Christ. We wear him. We exhibit. We show him to the world.
This is how we are one. We are not one human race but one blessed, broken and shared Body, which is Christ’s— no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female or dirty white boy. But, we are one in Christ Jesus and have always belonged with God, an admission promised and for which we could never pay for.
[i] Because there is only the Lord’s Day and all of time belongs to the Eternal God.
[ii] Galatians 1.10
[iii] Galatians 2.20, NRSV
[iv] Galatians 1.7