After watching the George Floyd video and seeing the ensuing destruction to our city, the four walls of the house began to feel suffocating. I needed to go for a walk. I buckled my daughter in her stroller, and off my wife and I went. We discussed what we saw and pled with God on behalf of the Floyd family and our nation. On our way back, we turned the corner and happened upon an elderly white woman walking toward us on the sidewalk. As soon as she appeared to have seen us, we heard what we thought was a grunt of disgust, and she immediately crossed the street.
What happened there? What transpired between that woman and my family? How we answer this question, as well as many others like it, I believe, indicates how successful the course of current conversations surrounding racial reconciliation will be.
I could assume, as my flesh and the culture around me pressure me to assume, that she crossed because she saw my family’s skin color. This coincides, of course, with the popular belief that racism is the most urgent problem facing men like me today. We live in a society deeply infected with racism, and thus, I should expect to experience racism even on a walk lamenting racial tensions in America. My experience was, in this view, just a mild form of what men like me face every day.
Continuing with this interpretation, if I posted on Twitter how I couldn’t even walk around the block without being racially profiled, avoided, and snarled at — while on a prayer walk with my family — I know people would grieve with me, denounce the racism of America, and retweet and comment about their standing with us. My testimony would serve as another combustible log for an already blazing cultural fire.
But as real as my initial frustration was, and as pure as sympathizers’ comments and reshares might be, we would have conspired in an injustice against that little old lady. Further, it would have deepened in me (and others) a mindset that I am convinced enslaves those who hold to it. Let me explain, first, why we would have committed an injustice against her, and second (and more to my point), why I care to mention it at all.
First, to assume, and then to articulate, that she was acting out of a racist attitude is itself an injustice. Could she be racist? Absolutely. Is she racist? We — my wife and I, and now you — do not know, and it is against justice on our part to assume that she is.
Why should we suspend judgment? Because people cross streets for many reasons. She could have been robbed recently by a white man and wanted to protect herself against any young man. She could have wanted to avoid contact with anyone because of COVID. She could have abruptly realized she was traveling the wrong way. She could have become flustered at the thought of squeezing past us on the sidewalk (as we took up most of it with our stroller). She might not have even seen us before she crossed.
She could have walked by and greeted one hundred black men before this moment, but I — a six-foot-five male — could have made her uncomfortable. Heightism may have explained it. She could, if we knew anything about her, be married to a black man, have adopted African children, and have been a missionary in Ethiopia. All alternative possibilities. I could have misread the situation.
My point is that I don’t know why she crossed the street. Her motives were not transparent. If she crosses with racial slander on her lips, making plain vile motives, the situation changes. But as it stood, I held only a vague suspicion — nothing more — that she did what she did because I looked a certain way. My impulse was to believe I could peer into her heart. Covert racism, thus, while still existing — and existing as something that God hates — is often difficult to prove. Those who claim to have experienced it often cannot validate their assumptions without an act of overt racism.
And to be clear, I am not here addressing overt racism, which should be hated by all good men, women, and children. Heinous crimes have been committed from this sin, crimes that should be protested and opposed. We take it seriously because God takes it seriously.
Innocent Until Accused?
As I have wished, and at times desperately wished, that “the other” wouldn’t assume things of me, I ought not assume things of that elderly woman. This innocent-until-proven-guilty procedure, especially concerning a sin so hard to prove as racism, applies in all contexts. Whether stopped by the police for apparently no reason or not promoted for a job in favor of a white colleague, I am called by my Lord to assume the best until evidence — not my sense of the situation — tells me otherwise.
I admit, this is easier said than done. My mind involuntarily jumped to conclusions when seeing that woman walking across the street from me. It felt all too easy in that moment to be jaded with what felt like a century-old indignance. It felt almost reflexive to harbor resentment toward her as an invisible blush of humiliation warmed my cheek. But God gave me grace to restrain my lips from slandering her both in the chambers of my heart and in the public square of social media.
Even if that elderly white woman did grunt because “one of them” was polluting her sidewalk, if she did mumble racial slurs to herself, God has not allowed me to see her heart or lament her racism based on assumptions. And it is not your lot — whatever your ethnicity — to weep with me in any presumption that I knew her heart.
As a Christian, I knew One who searches the hearts of men and women, and I was not he. My inheritance was not to bow to suspicion and assign motives to her, but to entrust myself “to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:19) — a Creator who sees every flicker of partiality and hates it with a complete hatred. While I trusted him to judge motives, I was free to pray for the one who may (or may not) be my enemy.
Sin of Slander
In saying this, I hasten to qualify my point in two ways. First, when minorities are wrongly treated, we can refuse to assume it is racially motivated while still denouncing a genuine wrong. Crossing a street in front of me is not an injustice. But when a black man is murdered, it is an injustice, racism or no racism. Murder is still murder. Brutality is still brutality. Theft, abuse, rape, harassment are still horrors no matter the race of the victim or perpetrator.
Second, we do not have to be so naive as to think — and this is crucial — that, because we can’t prove racism, therefore ethnicity never has anything to do with our harmful experiences. Unproven sins and crimes are no less sins or crimes. If the tree of racism falls in the woods of one’s heart, and no one hears it, God still does.
But still, our assumptions and accusations, even when truly felt, can be wholly untrue and unjust. Misrepresentation is a serious sin that God calls slander. He did not speak in vain: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). Nor, when he set up the government in Israel, did he allow grounds for his people to engage in spurious charges. Accusers were held accountable for false accusations; cross-examination and “diligent inquiries” were made of both parties involved, and charges were not even considered without corroborating evidence of two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15–20). Not to mention a more radical call: “Bless those who curse you” (Luke 6:28).
All of this is intended to show how seriously God takes the carelessness — if not the maliciousness — of accusations that daily occur on social media. Brothers and sisters (including Christian leaders!), we are called to something higher. God has empowered us for better things. Don’t let injustices against us breed injustices in us.
Seeing the World in Black and White
So, as cities reel and racism is decried from all sectors, why do I feel burdened to warn against the seemingly rampant assumptions of racism and the unchristian impugning of our neighbors’ motives? If I were reading this, I might be tempted to ask, “Greg, why do you care more about defending possible racists over helping your minority brothers and sisters?” But that’s not what I’ve intended. Not in the least.
Why, then, have I written this?
First, because God cares about it. I too feel the temptation to slander those I think first slandered me, and I know that I am not alone. I’ve never been more tempted to do so than in our current day. It is a respectable sin. An applaudable sin, even. But God, no respecter of sins or persons, calls all men everywhere to put away all slander (Colossians 3:8). Bless those who curse you. Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor. Pray for your (perceived) enemies. Be conformed to the image of him who, “when he was [clearly] reviled, . . . did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten” (1 Peter 2.23). This reason could stand alone.
But beyond this, presuming to know others’ dark motives is an oppression of one’s own mind and soul. This mindset of suspicion torments its host and sabotages his relationships. It beckons us to distrust even those we most love. How many friendships has it devoured? How many churches has it divided? How many marriages has it destroyed? Too often we assume that we “know” the real motives behind our spouse’s, our friend’s, or our fellow Christian’s actions, only to feel justified in ruining relationships we once held dear.
When the suspicious lens filters everything into black and white, we interpret bad interactions with white people as racism. The habit of explaining many of our interpersonal problems, setbacks, or disparities with other ethnicities through the simplistic answer of assumed racism harms us the most. When skin color becomes the go-to explanation, you begin to live a life of seeing ghosts, often when they aren’t there. Defective motives lurk behind every interaction. Suspicion feeds suspicion; the web tightens the more you roll around in it.
Soon, you become suspicious of even your previously positive relationships with others. You are tempted to grow angry or tired with those who can’t see what you see to the degree to which you see it. You may become divisive to fellow believers and absurd on social media. This becomes to you the all-important issue. The more you assume, the more racism you will believe you’ve found, and the smaller and darker your world becomes.
Your Christianity, should you get lost in such an all-consuming racialized worldview, will become increasingly earthly. What really matters becomes the immediate: the next injustice, the next protest, the next confirmation of how you see things — and how others simply refuse to see it (and this not throwing shade on peacefully protesting injustice). You start to overcompensate and fellowship only with those who confirm your assumptions. The soul becomes embittered, angry, and suspicious of those you once called friends and brothers and pastors.
I know all of these temptations. They have threatened my life. And I have friends who never escaped them. It imprisoned them in bitterness. It ruined their lives.
So, I plead, don’t do this to yourself. Don’t do this to others. Don’t do this to the church’s witness. Don’t do this to your relationship with the Lord.
Seeing Color Again
But the lens of Scripture, the lens of the gospel, the lens of love gives the benefit of the doubt to others; it sets free. It does not naively live in a world where no racism occurs and no brokenness exists, but it also does not live under the bondage of seeing racism everywhere it might be, but judges with right judgment.
From a heart seeking the best for our neighbors, for our country, for our churches, and in submission to Christ, we choose love, which refreshes the soul by hoping all things. Jesus was able to discern motives without erring. We are not. That is why we venture cautiously where Jesus was certain. We hope the best of the lady who walks across the street, or the cop who pulls us over (and this, of course, within a world where racist cops and bigoted old ladies do exist).
When we leave behind seeing everything in terms of black and white, color emerges. The grass becomes green again. Friendships become sweet again. Reconciliation becomes possible. We can appreciate the flowers again instead of being fixated on the (potentially) ugly and trashy unspoken motives of others.
Racism is evil. Let all God’s people say, “Amen.” And as his people, we must not forsake love when we feel unloved; we must not commit injustice in response to injustice. When we refuse to assume the worst of each other (both with regards to racism and suspicions of racism), we encourage relationships rather than destroy them. We seek justice instead of dismissing it. And above all, we work to see Christ preeminent in all things.