Recently my wife and I went to see the movie, “The Butler.” It was an excellent film on many levels. One of the aspects of the move that I found most intriguing was the capturing of the moral complexity faced by those living in and trying to overcome the racist system under which they existed. The difficult and often painful interaction between the butler, Cecil Gaines, and his son, Louis, who became a civil rights activist involved in lunch counter sit-ins and the freedom bus rides is central to the movie. How they arrive at a sense of understanding and respect for each other is a story that I am glad was told as part of this movie. The importance of personal relationships as a dynamic part of the larger drama in the struggle for freedom could not have been displayed better.
The matter of race relations continues to be something with which our country struggles and it cannot be denied that one’s race plays a central role in how one experiences life in America. With this week marking the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. the relationship between the races has been at the forefront in much of the news. We are still on the long journey of making the beautiful dream of which Dr. King so eloquently spoke a reality.
Racism, along with prejudice and discrimination of all kinds, is part of not only the American experience, but the experience of humanity across time and space. The belief that “my group,” however my group might be defined, by skin color, geographical borders, gender, etc., is somehow better than “your group” has been a perpetual plague on humanity. The belief is often accompanied by a will-to-power, thinking that the only way for “my group” to survive and thrive is to dominate “your group.” This way of thinking, rooted in seeing how we are different from one another, has been the cause of much violence and war. Mother Theresa said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another.”
It is in the midst of this violent divisiveness that the church comes with the gospel of Christ in which we are taught to love ourselves, love our neighbors and to love our enemies. A gospel in which we are to show kindness to all and extend hospitality to the stranger. A gospel in which we recognize that all people are created in the divine image and worthy of the respect that a child of God deserves. In the midst of racism and prejudice, tribalism and hyper-nationalism, sexism and any other kind of “ism” you might think of, we come with the message that we are all a beautiful part of God’s beloved creation.
The story of Pastor Andre Trocme of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France has been a story that has helped me to understand just how important viewing the world through the lens of our common humanity truly is. During World War II, after France fell to the Nazis, Pastor Trocme led the people of his parish and community to develop hidden shelters and safe-houses in which Jewish people could find refuge. It is estimated that 3,500 lives were saved through the efforts of Pastor Trocme and the people he led. It is reported that one time he was brought before the occupying Nazi officials and it was demanded that he tell them where he was hiding the Jews. Trocme replied, “I know no Jew. I know only human beings.” The beautiful courage of that simple statement is profound.
Though race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, etc., are all a part of someone’s identity, before I notice anything else, I simply want to see the other’s humanity. Not Black or White, not Asian or Hispanic – a human being. Not an American, or Canadian, not a Mexican or a South African, - a human being. Not a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a Buddhist, not an atheist, - a human being. Not straight or gay or transgendered – a human being. Not an athlete, not a disabled person – a human being.
Sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah, recently died. He had gained much recognition for his book, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. In the most recent issue of The Christian Century there was an article devoted to Bellah’s influence on understanding the present religious landscape. The article stated:
The religious roots of a global ethic of human rights led Bellah to ask if the world’s religions can mobilize their deepest commitments to universal neighbor-love and mutual recognition to give genuine institutional force to human rights.*
To this question, the church must offer an emphatic, yes.
The ways we have highlighted our differences has been the cause of much pain in our world. The church, with its message of the universality of God’s love, needs to be an agent that helps us see our common humanity, that we are all part of one race, the human race. May we join hands with each other and work toward the fulfillment of the Dream. Such work is our hope.
*The Christian Century, September 14, 2013, p. 13