Breaking Bread and Breaking Down Barriers

Last week, while traveling for a speaking engagement in Brentwood, Tennessee, I had a remarkable experience that I would like to share. My flight from Tampa was very early, so when I arrived in Nashville I was ready for breakfast. A short distance from the Nashville airport there is a fantastic place to eat called Monnell’s  at the Manor. It is one of several Monnell’s locations in town. Monnell’s offers classic southern cooking served family-style. That means that when you walk in, there are large tables that seat 12-16 people, and you may share your meal with several complete strangers. The food is brought out by the bowl and platter, and you just start passing everything around  (to the left!) until everyone is served. The staff keeps bringing the food out as long as you want to keep eating. Needless to say, it’s one of my favorite places to eat!

By the time I got there, it was right at 9 am. Most of the morning breakfast customers had already finished and left, so I was taken to a table and seated by myself. But after a few minutes, a large group of black customers walked in and were seated at the table with me. Over the course of the meal, I learned that my breakfast companions were a father, wife, daughter, sister-in-law, and older family friend. They had come down from Clarksville to Nashville and knew where the food was good!

On paper, we did not have a lot in common at first glance. But when they began to eat, one of the ladies gave thanks. So at that point, I knew that we shared certain beliefs, and we could “speak the same language.” As we passed around the biscuits, peach preserves, fried chicken (a breakfast delicacy!), eggs, grits, country ham, and – well, I could keep going! – we began to learn more about each other.

Food is a great leveler. Although our backgrounds were very different in many ways, it was clear that we all grew up eating the same kind of cooking. What one culture may call “soul food,” I call “Granny’s cooking.” That’s why we were all at the same place, enjoying the same meal.

Fellowship around a table is significant in our culture, but in Jesus’ day, it was taken even more seriously. That’s why his deliberate choice to share meals with the outcasts of his society triggered such strong condemnation from the Pharisees:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2)

And when Peter shared the gospel with Cornelius and his family, what really upset the traditionalists was that Peter “went to uncircumcised men and ate with them” (Acts 11:3).

As we talked, one of my breakfast companions asked if I was from Nashville. I explained that I used to live in Nashville, but that I currently lived in the Tampa area and was in town for work. They asked me what I did, and I explained that I was a preacher. This immediately led to a series of questions about the Bible, usually prefaced by, “Hey, Preacher…” We had a blast!

At one point, the older gentleman asked me why race relations seemed to be getting worse rather than better. It is a testimony to the comfort level we all felt at that table that he would ask me for my thoughts about that topic. I prefaced my response by acknowledging to him that he had experienced things in his life that I would never really fully understand. After all, a few years before I was born, he would not have been permitted to eat in a public restaurant in Nashville.

But he asked, and I answered. I explained my views (that had recently been part of a sermon I preached here at home) that Christianity brought together people from many racial, ethnic, and social strata,  and that as Christianity declines in our culture, people will default back to those superficial but powerful bonds of identity. I also suggested that some politicians in both parties have decided that it is to their advantage to keep people from these different demographics at odds with each other. and that many people have more in common than they think. I described what life was like for my grandparents, hillbillies from eastern Kentucky (and in case you don’t know, I use the term “hillbilly” with pride, not derision!) who lived at the edge of where the “white part” of town ended and the “black part” of town started. We joked that the color that matters most is green – money – and lots of people from my background and theirs didn’t have very much a generation ago.

As we were taking, it occurred to me that another ironic aspect of this conversation was that for many generations, black and white Christians did not worship together in the south. There were “black churches” and “white churches.” In some places, this is still the case. And while it is easy for me to criticize people who lived in a different time than my own, it is very difficult for me to understand how this kind of racial segregation is consistent with the gospel.

You have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:9-11)

Where would race relations in the country be – especially in the south – if people who had so much in common had chosen to defy the prejudices of the world and share time together around the Lord’s table, where “we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17)?

As we were finishing up our meal together, we came to two conclusions. First, the gospel is the only real solution to the problem of race relations. Second, America would be a nicer place if everyone had to eat at Monnell’s!

On the way out, one of the ladies at the table grabbed my ticket and paid for my meal. She just said for me to pass it on to someone else. And then, as we walked out together, she grabbed the older gentleman and insisted that we get a picture together. Here it is:

Thank you, Moody family from Clarksville, Tennessee, for one of the best meals of my life.


The Insidious Sin of Racism

In view of Martin Luther King Jr Day, I want to talk about the insidious sin of racism. By racism, I am referring to prejudice or hatred directed against a person on the basis of his race. By sin, I am referring to the affront against God that such hatred of human beings made in his image perpetrates. And by insidious, I am referring to how subtle and deceptive the sin of racism is.

Of course, there is a sense in which all sin is insidious. It is very easy to rationalize away convictions, to invent excuses for doing what we know is against the will of God. Even more pernicious is the tendency toward self-righteousness, the eager impulse to condemn others while ignoring our own glaring sins. The sin of racism is particularly prone to this sort of superficial sanctimony.

For instance, racism is not just a white problem. To be sure, it is indeed the case that many white people have hated or discriminated against others merely because their skin color was different. And since caucasians are the broad majority of people who have lived in the United States, it would be accurate to say that – in terms of sheer volume – many more white people have been guilty of racism than other races. Further, since white people have historically dominated the political and financial institutions of our nation, it is also true to say that whites have been far more guilty of manipulating the levers of power to impose racist policies.

But this is a different matter altogether from saying that racism itself is just a white problem. Human depravity is colorblind, and it is possible for anyone of any race to hate someone else for any number of superficial reasons, including skin color. A few years ago when I lived in Nashville, I was walking through the parking lot of the local Walmart to to head inside the store when I was met by three young black ladies on their way out of the store. I could tell that one of them was ticked off about something. As we passed each other, she looked directly at me, and then shouted out loud, “I hate white people!” I almost instinctively responded, “Hey, what did I ever do to you?!?” But I didn’t do anything – it was a pretty disorienting experience! I really regret now that I didn’t stop and try to share the gospel with her and her friends. My guess is that something happened in the store that made her angry, and that the person who made her angry was white. It may even be the case that someone treated her poorly simply because she was black. I don’t really know. All I do know is that – at least for that moment – she was gripped with hatred. Make no mistake – many more African-Americans have stories like this (and much worse) than I ever will. The point is that the sin of racism is not limited to race.

Indeed, as a white person, the form of racism that perplexes me the most is the racism that occurs among people of color that is directed toward people of color. There are “light-skinned” people of color who discriminate against “dark-skinned” people of color, for instance. This phenomenon – call shadism – most likely has its roots in the practice of chattel slavery, in which lighter-skinned African slaves were given the “house slave” tasks and those who were darker were made “field slaves.” It’s also the case that some people of color look down on others for not being “black enough.” This is so foreign to my experience as a white person, I would love to hear more from those of you who have experienced this particularly insidious form of racism.

But the point is that racism is a bigger issue than just a sin of white people. Let me stress – this is in no way an effort to mitigate or minimize the awful sin of racism among whites. If anything, the point I am making is that racism is a much bigger problem than we all like to admit.

Racism is not just a white problem, nor is it just a southern problem. It is inarguable that the American south has been the location of some of the worst instances of racism. The South’s history of slavery, segregation, and suppression of civil rights is well documented. But my contention is that because the South’s record is on such clear display, it is easy to reduce racism to a regional issue and to ignore just how systemic a sin it actually is. Let me illustrate what I mean.

Last year I read an op-ed in a southern newspaper about the contemporary use of symbols associated with the Confederacy, like the battle flag. Apparently a school in east Tennessee used the flag in connection with their cheers as “Rebels”.

The president of the student council – a white girl – was scheduled to testify in support of the flag, but first, we would hear from the president of the senior class – a black boy. As the young man described what it felt like to attend a school where he was surrounded by a flag flown by those who had beaten, sold, enslaved and torn black families asunder, the students in the audience were visibly moved.

I don’t question that young man’s sincerity in the least. But here is the problem – if the disqualifying criteria for a symbol is whether it was used “by those who had beaten, sold, enslaved and torn black families asunder,” then the flag of the United States would be disqualified as well. At the time of the War Between the States, slavery still existed in many states that remained in the Union and were represented by that flag, including Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. This remained the case throughout the entire war, since the Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the states that seceded and specifically exempted the states (and portions of states) that remained in the Union. As Jim Webb has written:

The consequence of this reality was that in virtually every major battle of the Civil War, Confederate soldiers who did not own slaves were fighting against a proportion of Union Army soldiers who had not been asked to give up theirs. (Born Fighting, p. 223).

It was not until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment after the war that slavery was abolished in all states. So just like the Confederate flag, the Union flag was flown “by those who had beaten, sold, enslaved and torn black families asunder.” But it is all too easy to treat the issue as a purely regional matter and ignore this simple fact of history.

Moving from the narrow issue of slavery to the broader issue of racism, the notion that we are dealing with a southern problem is truly absurd. Anyone with a working knowledge of the prevailing racial attitudes among people in the North during the war understands that theories of racial superiority were commonplace. Outright hostility was often directed against African-Americans, such as when the federal government attempted to enforce the draft in 1863. Riots broke out in New York, during which African Americans were target and murdered (the movie Gangs of New York is roughly based on this event).

The simple fact is that it is impossible to find a region of American that is innocent of the sin of racism.  Chicago politics has a notorious history of race-baiting tactics (a fascinating book on Chicago political history is Rogues, Rebels, and Rubber Stamps).  Indiana was the KKK’s biggest stronghold in the 1920s. Boston has the reputation of America’s most racist sports town (full disclosure: I say this as a fan of the Lakers during the 1980s who despised the Celtics!). Detroit was the scene of violent riots in the aftermath of racially-motivated police brutality in the 60s (portrayed recently in the movie Detroit). Similar riots happened in Los Angeles in 1965 and 1992. Portland has a long history of entrenched racism despite its reputation as a progressive city.

From the South to the Northeast to the Midwest to the West to the Northwest, the sin of racism has proven itself to be ubiquitous. And yet, I can’t help but notice that it is often the South that is singled out. I’ve heard people say things like, “We shouldn’t sing songs about the ‘good ole days’ in the South since so many black people were treated unjustly in the old South.” It is undeniable that African-Americans were treated horribly in the South. But show me any region of the country where black people have always been treated wonderfully. It doesn’t exist. And since that is the case, when the South gets singled out, it is hard for me not to conclude that racial prejudice has simply been traded in for regional prejudice. And that is why racism is so insidious.

And things are bound to get worse. As we become a more secular nation, we are losing the sense of the transcendent, and without that there is nothing to hold us together. Dr. King could storm the will of the American conscience because of the widely shared conviction that we are all God’s children. As that common ground erodes beneath our feet, all that will be left are the “jangling discords” of identity politics. The far Left and the far Right are each in their own way in the grip of this fixation on racial identity. And the partisans of both extremes share one central conviction – it is impossible for those of different races to understand each other, to empathize with one another, and thus to care for each other.

My only hope is the gospel. This is not a wishful fantasy. It is a hope rooted in the power of Christ to bring people together into a new identity, a new family, a new citizenship, a new race. A race in which the only color that counts is the red blood of his atoning death. And I’ve seen the reconciling power of the gospel firsthand – I’ve known former militant black nationalists and KKK klansmen who now worship together in the embrace of God’s grace. That is amazing! That is the gospel. Do Christians always get it right? Of course not – remember, racism is truly insidious. But through the gospel we have the one certain answer to all sin, and by it we can work toward this day:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10)

Racism, Atheism, and Tribal Morality

Last summer in the aftermath of the tragic shooting of the silverback gorilla Harambe, I asked my agnostic and atheist friends on Facebook if the Cincinnati Zoo was morally justified in shooting a gorilla to save a small child. It was a very interesting Facebook thread.

Most of those friends did believe that a human life is more valuable than a gorilla’s (though not all did – and I told those people not to take offense if I declined a dinner invitation to their house – I prefer to eat with people who see a clear difference between me and what is served for dinner!). But what was interesting to me was the justification these nonbelievers offered for privileging human life over animal life. For most of them, this was simply a matter of choosing the human “tribe” over the gorilla “tribe.” As one friend said:

The only obligations that would seem to exist are within one’s own tribe.

This sentiment was shared by many participants on the thread. Another friend concluded: Continue reading