Last week, on the first day of my first visit to Northern California, I visited one of the famed redwood forests. It is difficult to describe the experience other than to list a few words that left a lasting imprint on my soul. Majesty. Peace. Stillness. Holiness. It was akin to approaching the throne room of God. It was one of those experiences you just have to soak in while you’re there and process it all later. But the very next day, the news from Charlottesville broke, and with it, the hearts of all of us who despise racism, hatred, and injustice.
Of course, the news only got worse from there. And here I am, on holiday, enjoying peace, rest, and incredible beauty. I received a powerful word from the Lord about the interconnectedness between his presence and the world around me. Yet, racism has surpassed the boiling point and the ugliness of sin is ever increasing in that same world. How are we to reconcile the two? Do we focus on one to the neglect of the other? These are some of the questions I’ve been wrestling with this week, and the following are thoughts I’ve had on racism and Christian community, based upon a few things I have learned from the redwoods.
First of all, I can’t begin to tell you how massive these trees are. You look up to try to make out the tops of them and your mouth naturally falls open. They inspire wonder, and as you begin to form the question, “how…on…earth?” the only plausible answer you can find doesn’t originate in the earth. They point to God. They declare his glory and his very existence just by being what they were created to be.
Surprisingly, their roots are not especially deep, but they are incredibly broad and far-reaching, and actually intertwine (sometimes even fuse) with the roots of other redwoods. This connectedness allows each tree to support one another and become many times stronger than they would be without it. This strength enables the entire grove to withstand high winds, raging floods, and even fire. The grove I visited had withstood a massive fire years ago, evidenced by the black soot that extended twenty feet or more up the trunks. Battered and burned, they endured nevertheless.
The obvious parallel here is that we need each other.
Like those redwoods, we have not been created to be individual, towering monoliths that can boast in our own strength. But in American society, the independent spirit has become a primary virtue and an ‘inalienable right.’ Nationalistic pride has often been lifted up as a higher and more noble value than that of a human life. It’s a clever trap.
In his 1959 essay, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” C.S. Lewis’ character–a higher level demon–is sermonizing the up-and-coming devils at a banquet, advising them as follows:
…the delusion which you must carefully foster in the minds of your human victims [is that] the fate of nations is in itself more important than that of individual souls. The overthrow of free peoples and the multiplication of slave-states are for us a means (besides, of course, being fun); but the real end is the destruction of individuals. For only individuals can be saved or damned…
Unhealthy Roots of Racism
To be sure, it wasn’t nationalism at play in Charlottesville—that was most certainly racism. But they both have the same roots: a deep-seated insecurity in identity that hides behind an aggressive, bold assertion that “I am better than you.” In addition, it stems from a powerful (and valid) need to belong held by people who really have no idea who they are.
That is not to profess tender-hearted compassion about those who lash out with reprehensible hatred, but if we don’t recognize the cause, it is impossible to administer the cure.
Racism has been simmering on the burner for decades, and dramatic shifts in our culture have given rise to radical beliefs, behaviors, and politics that have only served to turn up the heat. Now once again, racism has been given permission and a voice. A veritable green light.
So what are we as the church to do?
For starters, we have to focus less on fighting culture and more on healing hearts. We can only do that by loving people. Shifts in culture are moving faster than we can counteract them, and how we choose to respond to that fact (and those changes) matters. Do we, as Christians, really want to be known more for what we oppose than for what we believe? Or do we want to be known by the love that we profess to know and experience firsthand?
I think most would say the latter, but as a body, we have not done our job in communicating that message. There are better ways to love people than what we have shown. And if it is to have any real and lasting impact, it is going to have to be a whole lot more steadfast and sacrificial than what we are comfortable with. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
This is where Christian community comes in.
First, we need to get our own house in order on this one. As the Body of Christ, we have not done terribly well loving one another sacrificially and with steadfastness. We tend to bail on each other when the going gets tough. We don’t tolerate differences all that well within the church, never mind outside our four walls. When will we get it that the same spirit motivates backbiting gossip and racism? Judging and prejudice? ‘Fear of man’ and the fear of other men? If we don’t know how to really love one another like Jesus in our own community, how in Heaven’s name are we to truly love others in the community at large?
And if we want to impact people, to reach them with Jesus’ love outside our four walls, it is going to take more than setting up camp in a diverse community. Don’t get me wrong–serving others is good. Planting churches in inner cities is good. But when we go home to our families, who do we do life with? Is it only people who look like us and like what we like?
Do we avoid hanging out with people of other lifestyles, religions, or skin colors because it’s uncomfortable and even intimidating at times? Do we make little jokes about those groups when we’re with people like us–with a wink and a nudge, a “you know what I mean, right?” When we do that, that is racism. Bigotry. Prejudice.
It’s wrong. And we would do well to admit that we ALL do the above–some of us occasionally, some of us regularly. Friends, this is why we need Jesus. We can’t love like he loves without his help.
A Healthy Root System
As a church, we have so much to repent of, to be on our faces and knees for. For the lost. For countless disturbing ‘situations’. For our nation. But more than anything….for ourselves. We all have some bad roots that need to get pulled out. And we know the source from which our healthy roots draw life. Through living and loving in community, we can show others where to find that living water, too.
What if we, like those mighty redwoods, joined our roots together for strength and support? As a church community. A Christian community. As a human community. We need to hold on to one another and refuse to let go. The fires and floods and winds are upon us. We either stand together as one community, indivisible, under God, or risk toppling under the weight our collective individuality.