~ John 1:35-39 ~
There I am standing in the department store, apparently looking quite lost because, inevitably, a store clerk comes up to me and says, “Can I help you find anything.” To which I say, “My wife?” Of course, they can’t help me — find my wife. Although one clerk offered to make an announcement on the public address system. I said, that’s OK; I’ll find her.
The question, “Can I help you find anything?” is akin to the question, “What are you looking for?” It’s a good question. A question that doesn’t just apply to store clerks. It is a question we all might have asked at some point in our lives about the very nature of our lives. A question that assumes one is looking for something. Of course, whether one actually does find what he/she is looking for is not guaranteed. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that everyone is looking for something.
“What are you looking for?” These are the very first words Jesus speaks in the Gospel of John. They come in this odd sort of scenario—completely different from the other gospels. John the Baptist is standing there with two of his disciples. The day before John had identified Jesus as the Lamb of God. However, on this day Jesus walks by John and the others as if he doesn’t even know them. He just walks on by. John tells the other two: “See, there he is.” So the two disciples follow Jesus down the road.
Jesus senses they are following him and, turning around, asks, “What are you looking for?”
Their response, again a bit odd: “Teacher, where do you live?”
To which Jesus says, “Well, come and see.” So they go to the inn, or wherever, and spend the evening with him. Again, for some odd reason, the gospel writer notes that it was about four o’clock in the afternoon.
Now, for the writer of John everything in the story has a meaning. Everything is a symbol of something. Thus, Jesus’ question is a question for all people everywhere: What are you looking for? However, it isn’t so much about what we are looking for. It is about what Jesus has for us. Jesus says, “Come and see.” Notice that it is not “see and come.” The order of Jesus’ invitation is important. Disciples are first to follow and only then will they be able to see. It is also important to know that we go where Jesus lives because only there will the seeker find home. The four o’clock in the afternoon thing? John probably included that due to a then widely held belief that the 10th hour of the day, 4pm, is the hour of fulfillment.
And so the journey of discipleship begins. Will we find what we are looking for? Indeed, it is an open question. No guarantees. “Come and see,” Jesus says. In the coming days and years, you may see things you didn’t bargain for. If we take the invitation seriously, Jesus will take us to places we never imagined. If we had been able to see the road ahead before we began, we may have never embarked. Jesus still bids us, “Come and see.”
One man who responded to that invitation quite seriously was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whom our nation honors tomorrow. His quest—his journey of discipleship—took him to a place he never imagined or, for that matter, wanted. That place was the act of confronting the deep-seated structural evil of racism and injustice in our country. For Martin, following Jesus meant fighting for justice wherever he encountered injustice. It meant not accommodating to the status quo, but instead meant questioning and challenging the racist and structural assumptions of the culture, resisting the powers of the society that created and fostered injustice.
Racism is just one of many cultural characteristics of our society that enables injustice to flourish. It’s interesting to me that for many decades one of the most serious insults one could lay on another is that of being a racist. Politicians especially meet such a charge with vehement denials and outrage. Virtually no one wants to be known as a bigot. Most people in America, including Christians, believe they are not bigots and therefore not racists. However, this is a misunderstanding of the definition of racism. Bigotry is merely an overt form of individual racism. The more insidious, covert form of racism is structural racism. Racism is a system, not an event. Racism operates in the established and respected structures of society and thus is barely noticed. Racism is so much a part of our culture it is the very air we breathe. It is just who we are.
Let me give you an example of how it works. It’s hard for me to realize that it’s been forty years since I wrote my master’s thesis in church history. The subject of my study was a prominent, historic Baptist church in Denver. In 1960, this church made the decision to move out of its neighborhood to another part of the city. My thesis, entitled “What, Lord, Would You Have Us Do,” was about that decision. The reason for this decision was clear to everyone: The church wanted/needed to move away from a neighborhood that was rapidly becoming a black neighborhood. They did not deny this.
The intriguing thing about it was they had just moved to this neighborhood in 1950 for the same reason. They moved from a “changing” neighborhood to an all-white neighborhood. In 1950, having landed in this new spot, they were looking ahead to many years of fruitful ministry. They built a big new sanctuary. Importantly, they knew this was a “safe” neighborhood, i.e. that it would remain a white neighborhood. Yet, ten years later, suddenly they were in the throes of having to move again for the same reason. What happened?
What happened was this. The reason the church thought this to be a safe neighborhood was due to the existence of racial-restrictive real estate covenants in the neighborhood. This made it illegal for a Caucasian to sell a house to a non-Caucasian. (An aside – this was true even of many neighborhoods here in San Francisco.) As long as the covenant was in force, the neighborhood would remain white and the church would be ‘safe’. In other words, the people of this church were relying on a racist public policy for their well-being. Now they did not see themselves as bigots or racists, although they did have a policy of not allowing Blacks to join the church. To them, it was just the natural way things are supposed to be.
In 1954, four years after their move to this ‘safe’ location, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial-restrictive real estate covenants were unconstitutional and therefore unenforceable. Within weeks middle-class African-American families began to buy houses in the neighborhood around the church. Soon white-flight was in full swing and the neighborhood was rapidly becoming a Black neighborhood. This church, which had, unwittingly or not, relied on the covert racist policy of the society, found itself, with its beautiful new sanctuary, needing to get out of there as soon as possible. Which they did.
To me, that was bad enough. But it was worse. In the context of this racialize culture, I discovered a prevalent deep-seated fear of African-Americans based on the flimsiest of excuses about who they were and what motivated them. Not knowing their true motives, they just guessed. They assumed, out of their shared prejudice, that ‘the Blacks’ (which was their term of choice) would try to come in and push them out. As one member said, “The moment we opened the door to ‘the Blacks’ the church would fill up with them. We could see that it wasn’t going to be long before we were flooded with people that wanted to become members of our church.” Of course, they also thought that the Whites should remain in control. And ‘the Blacks’ would want to take over, because that is there nature, they presumed. Or, as another said, “If they came to be a part of us, they would want to be on top of the pile.” To integrate would destroy the social order. Whites knew better. It was their responsibility to hold the line. But don’t call them bigots or racists, they would say.
Fear based on ignorance fosters racism and therefore injustice. This was what Martin Luther King, Jr’s journey of discipleship led him to confront. It eventually got him jailed and killed.
You might say we’ve come a long way since those days. But have we? I ask because even we who have tried, really tried, to not be a part of the racism problem, often still are. Rejecting the awful overt racial bigotry we witnessed in the civil rights battles of the sixties, we want to be allies for people of color and not the problem. As we see white racist nationalism raise its ugly head even in recent days, we are sickened by all that and want to help.
One of the things people who wanted to help did was to take something Martin Luther King, Jr. said and embrace it. In Martin’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech given in 1963 during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, he said: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.” These words were seen by whites, who wanted to distance themselves from the awful overt racist acts they had seen on TV, as a way to provide a simple and immediate solution to racial tensions: pretend that we don’t see race, and racism will end.
In other words, color blindness was now perceived as the solution for racism, white people insisting that they don’t see race, or if they do, that it doesn’t have any meaning for them. However, this idea is not really a solution. Indeed, it makes the situation more difficult. King’s ‘dream’ is, in fact, a dream, an ideal. But it is not reality, not in this thoroughly racialized culture. Reducing King’s work to this simplistic idea shows how the real work of dismantling structural racism can be co-opted and used against the very cause from which it originated. For instance, a common sentiment of color blindness is to accuse a person who says that race matters of being the real racist. In other words, it is racist to acknowledge race.
While the ideal of color blindness may have begun with good intentions as a way of addressing racism, in practice it only denies the reality of racism and, as a result, keeping it in place. Yes, we would like to believe that we are open-minded people who do, indeed, judge people by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. But our racial bias is so deeply unconscious that we don’t realize that we are always judging people racially even as we try to deny it. And, yes, it’s uncomfortable to be confronted with that aspect of ourselves, but we can’t change what we refuse to see.
Martin Luther King, Jr. discovered that to follow Jesus means to pursue “the goal of justice.” He found that it takes vigilance and determination of will. He found, for himself, that the journey could be quite scary. He found that it could end in a premature death even as it did for the one he followed. In that journey, Martin found himself where Jesus lived and he dwelt with him there.
We, too, are called to follow Jesus with vigilance and determination of will. I would suggest that what that means for us is to not deny that we are an integral part of the system of racism. That means that we must set aside our self-identity as good, moral and racially unbiased people. A strategy that seeks to ignore the reality of race, a ‘color-blind’ strategy, in practice, only protects racism, because we can’t challenge our racial biases if we can’t consider the possibility that we have them.
Yet, we are still called to pursue the dream, with vigilance and determination of will. So come let us dream again with Martin of a finer land, a better people, a more noble civilization in the light of God’s truth. Amen.