Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: prejudice

The Church of God is not racist

But members sometimes do and say inappropriate things

Several weeks ago the French news magazine Le Point carried an interview with a man who had come to France in his youth from Togo. The title of the article was France is not racist, a point of view staunchly upheld by the man being interviewed, although he did talk of incidents when the colour of his skin had caused difficulties.

This man had come to France to attend university, then stayed and made himself at home. He applied for citizenship and in due time received a brown envelope in the mail with a paper inside that told him, “You are now a Frenchman.” He wondered about the  impersonal nature of that notice. Many years later he became Minister of Citizenship in the government of François Mitterand and used the opportunity to establish a public ceremony for welcoming new citizens.

Being born in France, or born elsewhere to French parents, is not the only way to become French. France has always welcomed people from all parts of the world, believing that anyone can become French. But that means that you must become French, become at home with the language, the culture and the French values of liberty, equality and brotherhood.

Within this framework there is room for a great deal of diversity. One example is that education has been compulsory in France for 140 years, but the law has never made school attendance compulsory. Home schooling is legal, as long as it includes the essential subjects, which includes achieving fluency in French and one other language.

In the same way, the Church of God is not racist, even if there are sometimes misunderstandings between people of different ethnic backgrounds. Membership is never by birth, but only by choice, in choosing to answer the call of God to salvation and sanctification. Anyone can become a member, on those conditions.

We can be united in faith, yet not think and act in identical ways. That is perfectly all right, we can all learn from the ways that people of a different ethnic background see things.

However, when most members of a congregation are of the same ethnic background it is easy to assume that we do things in a certain way because that is the way that a Christian should do things. Some of those things are deeply rooted ethnic traditions. They are not wrong, but we cannot expect that people of other ethnic backgrounds will conform to those things that are passed on through our culture.

Problems arise when ethnic traditions harden into a belief that there is only one right way to think or act. This is being carnally minded, not spiritually minded. Another way to describe such an attitude is ethnocentrism. Such an attitude hinders us from seeing the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of people with different cultural values. It may hinder Christians of other backgrounds from feeling at home among us.

That is not racism. There is nothing deliberate about ethnocentrism, it is learned in childhood and one is unaware of even having such an attitude. I believe the time has come for us to name it as a problem. That does not mean we need to change our culture, such a thing is pretty much impossible. All we need to do is learn to value and love people of other cultures just the way they are.

Point of View, Paradigms and Prejudice

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Years ago I was stopped at a red light on Weber Street in Kitchener, Ontario. I was in the right lane, beside me in the left lane was a police cruiser. There were no other vehicles in sight. Then I glanced in the rear view mirror and saw an old black car coming around the curve and I knew he was coming too fast to stop. I yelled a warning to my wife and daughter just before the crunch. I glanced to my left in time to see the police officer roll his eyes. He turned on his flashing light and got out of his car.

The other driver was charged and decided to plead not guilty. I was called to appear in court as a witness. The driver’s defence? He had been trying so hard to avoid hitting the police car that he didn’t even see my car. The judge found him guilty.

We all make decisions based on what we see, and we are sure that we see things exactly as they really are. Or we catch a glimpse of something out of the corner of our eye and were sure we know what is happening. That is point of view. Sometimes reality intervenes to inform us that we missed seeing something that was there, or saw something that wasn’t there. An old adage says “Don’t believe anything you hear, and only half of what you see.”

The way we understand things that others do is influenced by the experiences of our life. A young lady grew up in a middle eastern culture where it was considered rude to immediately accept if someone offered you a coffee. You said no the first three times and then it was fine to accept the coffee, sit down and  visit. She moved to North America and got an office job. Her co-workers asked her a couple of times if she wanted to come with them for lunch and she said no, to be polite. They accepted the no and quit asking. She thought they didn’t want her company, they thought she didn’t want their company.

We develop mental patterns of what normal behaviour looks like and they help us to instantly understand the meaning of what the people around us are doing and saying. Those patterns can be called paradigms and they help us cope smoothly with social life–as long as we are with people who have the same paradigms, people of our own culture.
When we mix with people of other cultural backgrounds we are apt to feel disoriented, frustrated, or perhaps frightened. If we understand why this is happening, we can begin to learn and adapt and get to know these other people, who really are not a whole lot different from us.

If we are unaware that our misunderstanding is due to a difference in cultural paradigms, we are apt to judge other people as unfriendly, ill-mannered and untrustworthy. Now we have slipped into prejudice. We judge people’s conduct without understanding how they think. We decide that they are ignorant, uncaring, probably dishonest and even immoral.

Some of us do our best to avoid contact with such people and go through life in a protective bubble where we only have to do with people who think just like we do. That confirms and hardens our prejudices. I don’t believe those prejudices can be educated out of us. We might learn to say the right words, but our inner feelings will be the same. The only solution is to step our of the bubble and get to know people who are different from us.

What happened to the dream?

“I have a dream!” As Reverend Martin Luther King, Junior spoke those words in 1963, millions around the world dared to dream with him of a better day; a day when outward differences would lose their power to divide us; a day when we could all join hands to work together, to pray together.

That dream frightened some people; on April 4, 1968, an assassin’s bullet ended Reverend King’s life. That assassination happened in Memphis, Tennessee, the hometown of Elvis Presley. Two months later, Elvis used his prodigious talent to rekindle the dream, recording the song “If I can dream,” echoing Martin Luther King’s dream of a better land where there was peace and understanding.

What happened to that dream? Why is there still so much prejudice, so much fear? Why is it still possible to say that the most segregated place in America is a church on Sunday morning? I am a Canadian; we like to say we do not have the race problem that exists south of our border. When I lived in Montreal in the 90’s maybe 5% of the city’s population was black and it looked like every one of them was heading to a church on Sunday morning. And it looked like about 5% of the white population were also on their way to church. But they went to different churches, sometimes the same denominations, but different churches.

The dream is essentially a Christian dream. If it will come true anywhere, it has to happen first among Christian people. What is our problem?

I could blame the Church Growth Movement. One feature of their mission strategy was to use the marketing methods of the world to divide people into natural affinity groups and tailor the gospel message to appeal to each group. I thought the gospel was supposed to unite people, not divide them.

But the real problem is our fear of getting to know people different from us. Ignorance breeds mistrust. We have been taught what was right, and it is so plain that there is something evil about a person who does things differently. If we step out of our comfort zone and meet some of those other people, we risk the pain of having to re-examine our preconceived ideas.

It is worth the risk, and the pain. Most likely, we will find that our ideas are not quite the same as God’s ideas; our traditions have bent, not only the way we perceive other people, but the way we perceive what God is telling us in His Word.

We will not change the entire world. All God asks of us is to see our little corner of the world in a new light, the way He sees it. That is enough. It will make a difference.

Poverty + Prejudice ≠ Hopelessness

Some years ago I read an article in Ebony magazine written by a man who had grown up in one of the worst black tenement ghettos in Chicago.Drug dealing, crime and violence were the everyday reality and the police felt the area was too dangerous to send in individual officers to patrol.

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Like almost all the other children in this ghetto, this man and his two siblings grew up in a single parent home without much money. Their mother wanted her children to escape the ghetto and the first step was not to give in to hopelessness. She introduced them to the library and to museums and did everything that she could think of that was educational and free. When they went to the store to buy something she let the children pay and then count the change to see that it was right.

All three of those children finished school, went on to university and established professional careers. And they moved their mother out of the ghetto.

The man who wrote the article was now a lawyer. He wrote about going back to visit his old neighbourhood and trying to look up the boys he had grown up with. Some were dead, others were in jail, all the rest had criminal records. None had escaped the hopelessness of the ghetto.

There are a multitude of government programs to help children escape the effects of prejudice and poverty. Billions of dollars are being spent. What are the results? A lot of well paid government jobs to administer the programs. Besides that – not much.

One mother with hope and determination made a difference. No government program can create a mother like that.

An abundance of geese

Greater Snow Geese (Anser caerulescens atlanticus), blue morphs in foreground, Alexandria, Ontario, D. Gordon E. Robertson, 2 April 2010

I asked my wife this morning if we should take today to go to the city for the things we needed, or if another day would be better. Then we got a message that the electricity would be turned off in our area from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. That was our answer. School was cancelled for the day too. When we got home in the afternoon we heard the electricity never had been shut off.

On our way to the city we saw huge flocks of geese overhead. Occasionally there would be a field beside the highway that was covered with birds, thousands of them, the majority white but many a darker colour. Snow geese: we are located on their flyway and this is the time of the year they drop in to glean in the harvested fields. Snow geese are abundant, definitely not an endangered species. It is estimated that the breeding population is increasing by 5% each year.

At one time it was believed that the dark coloured geese that flock together with snow geese were a different species. Further observation has shown that they always flock together and that they interbreed. Nowadays they are all called snow geese, with two morphs of plumage colour: white and grey-blue. Not everybody has caught on to that yet, many casual observers still think they are two different species.

Sadly, many people have also not caught on to the fact that there is only one race of humanity, homo sapiens, with a great variety in colour and size. The Bible says we are all of one origin; the apostle Paul reiterated that on Mars Hill, saying all people are of one blood.

Evolutionary biologists used to dispute that, saying that there were different races of humanity. Genetic science has caught up with them, confirming Paul’s statement. Can we all just accept that?

Black Threads in Our Tapestry

This is Black History Month, so I decided to tell about some little-known aspects of Saskatchewan’s history.

The first people in Saskatchewan were those we now refer to as Indigenous: The Dené, Cree, Saulteaux (pronounced So-toe), Dakota, Lakota and Nakota. Then came the French and Scottish fur traders and explorers. Some of them stayed, took wives of the people who were already here, and their descendants are known as Métis.

Then the land was opened up for homesteading and landless people from Eastern Canada, the USA and Europe were invited to come and settle this “new” land. Well, it was new to most white people anyway, and it was white people who were wanted as settlers.

The homesteaders came from many countries, languages and cultures and of necessity learned to live and work together to survive and prosper. They faced challenges of breaking the land, learning what crops to grow, getting those crops to market, surviving harsh winters and summer insect plagues. A few gave up and left, most couldn’t afford to leave so they stuck it out through all the hardships of the early years and eventually prospered.

The first black person to arrive in Saskatchewan was Alfred Shadd, from a prominent family in the Buxton settlement south of Chatham, Ontario. This was a settlement of people who had escaped slavery and travelled north on the underground railway to Canada. Alfred Shadd saw an ad for a teacher at Kinistino, Saskatchewan and came out in 1896 to fill that position. After a year he returned to Ontario to complete his studies to be a doctor, then came back and settled in Melfort as a doctor. Eventually he also operated a drug store, a newspaper and a farm where he raised Shorthorn cattle. He served on the town council and came very close to being elected to the provincial legislature. He died suddenly of appendicitis in 1915.

Lewis and Lillie LaFayette of Oskaloosa, Iowa arrived in Saskatchewan in 1906. Lewis first worked on a farm near Regina. At times during their first winter the temperature dropped to 60° below zero (Fahrenheit). In 1909 Lewis took up a homestead at Fiske, west of Rosetown and there he raised a family of ten. He farmed with horses at first, then purchased a Waterloo steam engine in 1913. Two of his brothers joined him at Fiske and for a number of years they ran an all-black threshing crew of 22 men, bringing workers from the USA and helping their neighbours throughout the district get their grain in the bin.

Lewis helped organize the first country school in his area, named Oskaloosa school. He helped organize the first telephone service and served on the telephone board. He was also involved in establishing a co-operative grain elevator. Descendants of Lewis and Lillie are now scattered over Saskatchewan and Alberta.

After the Civil War thousands of former slaves fled to the Oklahoma Territory where they could vote, go to school and live in relative freedom. Oklahoma became a state in 1907 and quickly introduced segregation and denied blacks the right to vote. Dozens of families decided to head north, lured by the promise of obtaining land by homesteading. Twelve families took up homesteads north of Maidstone, Saskatchewan, the others continued on to Amber Valley, Alberta.

About this time the Canadian government panicked at the idea of the Canadian West filling up with black settlers, and instructed immigration officials to refuse entry to blacks on health grounds, claiming the climate of the country was much too harsh for them to survive.

In 1912 the families north of Maidstone built the Shiloh Baptist Church. Joseph and Mattie Mayes were the best known members of the community; Mattie served as a midwife for many in the surrounding area. The descendants of the original settlers have all moved on by now, but the church and cemetery are maintained as heritage properties, a memorial to this group of black homesteaders.

A grandson of Joseph and Mattie Mayes relocated to North Battleford with his wife and raised a family of seven. They were the only black family in the city and experienced no prejudice. One daughter is now a nurse in Saskatoon, another is a veterinarian and their brother Reuben played pro football in the NFL from 1986 to 1993.

These were the pioneers, the first black threads in Saskatchewan’s tapestry. Many more have followed, at first mostly from Eastern Canada and the USA but in more recent years many have come from the Caribbean and Africa.

About fifteen years ago it was said that most of the workers at the broiler processing plant in Wynyard were people who had come here from Sudan as refugees. For a few years, our family doctor was a man who received his education in Kinshasa, D. R. Congo. He speaks French, English and five African languages. Now he is the main doctor at a walk-in clinic in Saskatoon. I have met two people of African origin who have written and published Christian books after settling in Saskatoon, one is from Zambia and the other from Nigeria.

The tapestry of our province is still being enriched by the addition of these black threads.

Migrations

The Dene (pronounced Denay) people speak a language which has 39 consonants and 116 vowel sounds. That is a total of 155 phonemes. For the sake of comparison, English and French run from 40-45 phonemes (total consonant and vowel sounds).  These people are indigenous to the northern regions of the four western provinces of Canada, plus Yukon and Northwest Territories.

About 600 years ago (the timeline is sketchy), large numbers of these people migrated to the southwest part of what is now the USA. There they are known as Navajo and Apache and their languages are just as complex. It is said that Dene and Navajo people can still understand each other.

The Iroquoian people of Eastern North America, Cherokee in the south and Six Nations in the Great Lakes area, developed permanent settlements sustained by the cultivation of corn. The cultivation of corn originated in southern Mexico and spread south and north from there. It appears that the Six Nations people originated in the south and moved northward.

From where did all these people originate? The most likely explanation is that they came from Asia and travelled to North America over a land bridge that once existed in the area of the Bering Sea. Some indigenous people reject this explanation, because some whites use it as an excuse to claim that the indigenous people are also immigrants.

That is not very valid. The indigenous people have obviously been here thousands of years, spreading throughout the Americas and differentiating into a multitude of linguistic and cultural groups. White immigration to the Americas goes back just over 400 years. We are obviously the newcomers. My family came to North America 380 years ago, but the indigenous people were here long, long before that.

Many of the early European settlers hoped that the indigenous peoples would fade away and disappear. That hasn’t happened. North Americans of European, African and Asian origin are not going to disappear either. What will it take for us all to live together in mutual respect and appreciation?

A first step might be to admit that Charles Darwin was wrong, the white race is not a more highly favoured race destined to supplant all other peoples. DNA testing confirms what the Apostle Paul told the Athenians: God “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.” There is no white race, or black race, or red race, we are all part of one human race.

WASPs and other Canadians

When I was young, WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), considered themselves to naturally be the epitome of all that was right and good. It was the privilege of the WASPs to grant each other entrance to the best schools, the best jobs and the best clubs. The Orange Lodge bears a large share of the responsibility for inculcating this attitude. To an Orangeman, anyone nonwhite, non-Anglo-Saxon, or non-Protestant was a threat to the good order of society.

In most of the historical novels I read as a boy, WASPs were portrayed as brave, honest, trustworthy and heroic. Everyone else was shifty-eyed, cowardly and obviously not to be trusted. Years later, after I learned to read French, I found exactly the same attitudes in French-language historical fiction for young people. Except that the roles were reversed: the French were honest, heroic and good and the WASPs were the ones who were shifty-eyed, cowardly and untrustworthy. I suspect the same self-congratulatory attitudes would be found in the literature of all peoples.

In the span of my lifetime attitudes have shifted radically. A large segment of our society wants to blame all the sins of the past on the WASPs, including many of the WASPs themselves. The WASP label is not much used anymore, the current term is White Privilege. All kinds of people are seeking reparation, thinking that punishing the representatives of White Privilege will somehow make life better for themselves.

I suppose that this might make some sense if there was any sign the other groups would then get along with each other. There doesn’t seem to be much chance of that. Blaming others, demeaning others, seeking retribution, are not ways to build a peaceful society.

Many of the abuses of the past were done in the name of Christianity. That makes the task of reconciliation difficult. Rejecting the Bible, rejecting the fundamental tenets of Christianity, leaves people with no landmarks, no shared sense of direction. Many believe they see a way forward, yet their goal constantly shifts and seems to get farther away. If nothing changes, current trends will lead to anarchy and chaos.

I did not choose the colour of my skin, my ethnic heritage or the religious affiliation of my parents. Neither did anyone else. It is not our job as Christians to defend the sins of the past, or to apologize for events in which we had no part. But it is our job as Christians to point out that reconciliation between people doesn’t work well when people are not reconciled to God. As Christians, we must believe and proclaim the whole counsel of God.

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:17-20.)

Black day in July

Sunday, July 23, 1967. Detroit police officers raided an unlicensed bar in the offices of the United Community League for Civic Action. They found 82 black people celebrating the return of two soldiers from Vietnam and decided to arrest all 82. A crowd of people gathered on the street, largely outnumbering the police officers. The officers left, fearing for their safety, and people began looting a nearby clothing store. The looting spread through the neighbourhood and into other neighbourhoods.

State police were called in to assist and eventually Governor George Romney sent in the National Guard. The rioting went on for five days and only ended when President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in the army. Forty-three people died and 2,000 buildings burned.

The best-known song about the riot was Black Day in July by Canada’s Gordon Lighhtfoot. It contains lines such as:

Black day in July
Motor City’s burning and the flames are running wild

And you say how did it happen and you say how did it start
Why can’t we all be brothers, why can’t we live in peace

Why indeed? It helps to know a little of Detroit’s history. Huge auto assembly plants made Detroit into a booming city, drawing people from all over, many from the US South, both black and white. Anti-black feelings ran high. In 1943 the Packard Motor Company placed three black workers on its assembly line and all 25,000 white workers walked out. Three weeks later race riots broke out that lasted three days and left 43 dead.

White residential neighbourhoods made it known that they intended to remain white. If a black family moved in, they faced intimidation, threats, pickets, smashed windows and attempts to burn their house. In 1956 the mayor of Dearborn, a Detroit suburb, boasted that his city was more segregated than Alabama. Schools were completely segregated.

By 1967 black people made up 30% of the population of Detroit, but the police force was 93% white. Many police officers had strong anti-black feelings. A survey showed that the black population of Detroit felt that police brutality was their number one problem.

The Michigan National Guard was almost entirely made up of young white men from rural areas. They were sent into an urban centre that was unlike anything in their experience, to face a mob of black people that was terrifying to them. They were armed with lethal weapons. Nothing good could come from that combination. The army units that were sent in were integrated, disciplined and able to communicate with the rioters. They were the ones who brought the riot under control.

The riots accelerated the movement of white people to the suburbs. The population of the city, once 1,850,000, shrank to 700,000. Some auto assembly plants closed due to mergers and loss of market share to imports. Downtown stores closed. There are thousands of empty houses, plus empty apartment buildings and at least two huge auto assembly plants that have been empty for years. In 2013 the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy.

Detroit city is now over 80% black, the suburbs probably close to 80% white. Prejudice and segregation are less blatant but have not altogether disappeared. There are hopeful signs that Detroit may be reviving, but it is not likely it will ever be the city it once was.

Beware. Prejudice is like a boomerang, it can come back at you and destroy everything you thought you were trying to protect.

Prejudice + Poverty ≠ Hopelessness

Some years ago I read an article in Ebony magazine written by a man who had grown up in one of the worst black tenement ghettos in Chicago.Drug dealing, crime and violence were the everyday reality and the police felt the area was too dangerous to send in individual officers to patrol.

Like almost all the other children in this ghetto, this man and his two siblings grew up in a single parent home without much money. Their mother wanted her children to escape the ghetto and the first step was not to give in to hopelessness. She introduced them to the library and to museums and did everything that she could think of that was educational and free. When they went to the store to buy something she let the children pay and then count the change to see that it was right.

All three of those children finished school, went on to university and established professional careers. And they moved their mother out of the ghetto.

The man who wrote the article was now a lawyer. He wrote about going back to visit his old neighbourhood and trying to look up the boys he had grown up with. Some were dead, others were in jail, all the rest had criminal records. None had escaped the hopelessness of the ghetto.

There are a multitude of government programs to help children escape the effects of prejudice and poverty. Billions of dollars are being spent. What are the results? A lot of well paid government jobs to administer the programs. Besides that – not much.

One mother with hope and determination made a difference. No government program can create a mother like that.

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