Racist Jokes, Eeyore, and My Wife
Racism is a national issue, an individual issue and an issue in the church, particularly among reformed, white believers. I’ve found that it’s easy to discuss the effects of racism in a more abstract, group-oriented way, but I’ve been forced by God in his providence to learn that it’s an issue for me personally as well. God has shown himself to be loving as well as firm, patient as well as bold, and my prayer is that more white, reformed brothers and sisters in Christ would know him in this way as I have.
When I was in college, I took a course about race in America and didn’t particularly like the class. It was supposed to make me more understanding and empathetic toward minorities, but I wasn’t particularly interested in empathy or any kind of understanding at the time. Instead, a couple other students and I opposed the teacher’s patient and thoughtful efforts, and laughed at jokes about black people after class.
Telling racist jokes may not be particularly shocking in light of our nation’s history, but my story has a strange twist. At the same time I was taking the class and telling racist jokes, I had become smitten with a girl whose dad was black. On top of that, I even wrote a paper about how Jesus’ mixed-race lineage brings hope to a world of racial conflict. I was living hypocritically, but didn’t know it. I never imagined that I had done something sinful, and never had a second thought about the whole thing, partly because of stupidity but more because I was subconsciously working to avoid any charge of guilt. I had just enough shame to make me avoid even asking the question of whether I was wrong to tell those jokes.
Eeyore, Peter, and Paul
We typically imagine someone dealing with guilt and shame to be a person living in depression, perpetually talking like Eeyore, always aware of their own failures. It might sound strange, but my hypocrisy shows that depression isn’t the only manifestation of guilt and shame. In fact, someone can live with guilt and shame and be the polar opposite of a depressed Eeyore. Their struggle motivates them to prop up their pride and arrogance so that they seem to have it all together, like Rabbit, or so that they appear to be full of life and energy, like Tigger. The shame is hidden by pretending to be cool enough with other ethnicities to tell jokes about them. Or it’s covered by talking tough about politically-correct professors who don’t live in the “real world”.
I think this kind of shame is functioning in the hearts of many of us who are white, American Christians. It comes from a subtle, hidden belief of ethnic superiority that is almost impossible to notice unless someone shows it to you clearly.
Talking about shame in the context of race is very uncomfortable for some people, perhaps even for those who see themselves as gospel-centered white allies, but I don’t think it would be so uncomfortable if we could see the struggles of the apostle Peter in the context of race.
Consider Peter’s story after Jesus’ ascension: he preached to thousands on the day of Pentecost, a clear sign that God was overturning the most ethnically divisive event in history, the division of languages at the Tower of Babel. Later, Peter received a vision declaring in no uncertain terms that the God of the Jews was the God of the Gentiles also. And yet when he visits the church at Antioch he does something which is clearly functionally racist: he openly segregated himself from the Gentile Christians, an act of hypocrisy serious enough for the apostle Paul to publicly oppose Peter to his face. Peter was living like a hypocrite, despite knowing and preaching the truth about God’s love for people that weren’t like him (Gal. 2:11-14). He needed someone to be clear to him about his racism.
About a year after my class on race, I was complaining to my roommate at the time about the Puerto Rican students I taught as a student teacher. In God’s providence, my roommate was a thoughtful and caring person, as well as the son of a Puerto Rican woman. So when I started to say, “Puerto Ricans are so…”, he finished my sentence with “…freaking awesome!” I wasn’t sure whether the grin on his face was from laughter at my stupidity or a cover for anger at my hypocrisy. Either way, there was an edge in his voice that told me I was doing something far more serious than complaining about difficult students.
It started a process where I was able to see my racist tendencies more clearly. I was able to make sense of moments of shame that I would have otherwise seen as merely awkward. I was able to acknowledge what God thinks of my hypocrisy and racist jokes: laughing at a racist joke means laughing at God’s creation, a creation that God calls good. If anything could possibly be more insulting than direct opposition to God, it could only be laughter at something He made, especially when that something is an image of him. I wasn’t just stupid to laugh at and tell racist jokes, I was a God-hater.
Genealogy and Shame
Thankfully, God has mercy for people that hate his image and don’t realize it. I married that girl with a mixed background. She’s a reminder of Someone with a mixed background whose blood paid for my sins. In the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1, the only women mentioned other than Mary are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, all of whom were Gentiles (or in Bathsheba’s case, originally married to a Gentile). None of them are women that we would expect to be more important for recounting Jesus’ background than Sarah or Rebekah, unless we know that God has a way of undermining subtle tendencies to elevate one ethnic group over another.
Shame is inextricably tied to the experience of white Christians as we slowly learn how to apply the doctrine of Imago Dei. But I’m thankful for brothers and sisters in Christ that don’t look like me, who imitate our Father by standing for truth in a loving and firm way. I’m thankful for a God who is patient and bold; his rebukes of sin are only because he has mercy for sinners, even a sinner like me.