To My White Christian Friends (Let's Talk About Race)

‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent.

-Mark 10:47b-48a

Over the past couple months, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about the story of Jesus and Blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52). This is the story about our friend Bart sitting blind by the side of the road. He hears Jesus coming and says, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

The crowds between Bart and Jesus tell Bart to be quiet. What is a blind, stationary beggar to the respected, mobile crowds?

*                      *                      *

I just finished my first year and seventh class at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Of those seven classes, I was assigned thirty-seven books to read. Thirty-two of them are written or edited by white authors, two are written by Black authors, and three are written by Asian-American authors. Of the five assigned books written by people of color, four of those were in a course focused on racial reconciliation. If we set that class aside, one out of thirty-three assigned books is written by a person of color. That is 3% of my reading total.

One out of thirty-three. Three out of one hundred.  

*                      *                      *

“But he cried out all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ And Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him.’”

-Mark 10:48b-49a

When I first started reading this section, I began to wonder why Jesus made Bart come to him rather than him going to Bart. Jesus was a fully-functioning human with working eyes, and here was Bartimaeus, sitting blind by the side of the road. If you asked me, I would say Jesus should be the one to move.

Instead, Jesus tells the crowd around him to get Bartimaeus.

“Call him.”

I wonder if Jesus wanted the crowd to see who he was talking to. Perhaps healing Bart was never supposed to be a secret because Jesus wanted the crowd to know who was truly important in God’s Kingdom. It wasn’t the ones making the rules or trying to regulate the queue line to Christ.

It was the one left out of the line.

The hurt one.

The last one.

Christ speaks to that one.

*                      *                      *

            I’ve heard it said that Gordon-Conwell is diverse in other ways. We’re diverse in gender, we have a number of international students, and we have a broad range of denominational backgrounds. To limit diversity to just ethnicity or race is to narrow the diversity of our campus as a whole, right?

But that just doesn’t seem to work. It’s only a justification to keep us white people from guilt.

It doesn’t get at the root: our diversity is only of white perspectives and ideas. White professors are assigning white authors and disseminating white theology as truth.

I think we totally have something to offer, and books by white authors are valuable in their own right (I hope so, I’m a white male who wants to write books after all…); however, white people (specifically white men) as a demographic will never be blind Bart on the side of the road.

We cannot know what it is like to be cast aside by society, we cannot know what it is like to be foreigners in a strange land, and we cannot know what it is like to live in clear view of society and be forced into silence.

Historically, we’ve never been blind Bartimaeus. We’ve been the crowd.

We shut down a way of life in 1619 when we took people from their homes and brought them to America.

We refused equality when we signed a Declaration of Independence that didn’t include people of color.

We failed logically when we wrote history books celebrating the Revolutionary War while also condemning John Brown and Nat Turner.

We gave up fairness when we allowed Andrew Jackson to commit genocide in forcibly removing Native peoples from their homes. We gave up that fairness again in 1890 by opening up that fraction of the fraction of the fraction of the land Native peoples once had for white settlers.

We defrauded our alleged fairness with the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment camps during World War II.

We gave away our façade of progress by actively trying to undermine the ministry and political involvement of Martin Luther King Jr.

We didn’t make good on promises when we fled urban centers to create inner cities without resources or avenues for success.

And we continue to show our attempts at silencing people of color by treating opioid dependency as a disease but crack as a crime, supporting presidents who equate Mexican-Americans with rapists and inner-cities as war zones, and refusing to recognize racial profiling as a serious issue within law enforcement.

As a people group, we have always been the crowd, we’ve always been the silencers. We have never been Bartimaeus.

And when we only read white theologians and learn from white teachers, we are perpetuating the same silencing history begs us to pay attention to.

We are theological actors in black face—masquerading as understanding disenfranchisement when all we’ve known is privilege.

But Jesus tells us to “Call him.”

*                      *                      *

“And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.’”

-Mark 10:49

            That had to have been an awkward moment. One second they’re telling him to shut up and the next they’re telling him he’s lucky. The man sent to the back and left for dead is now ushered up to the front.     

*                      *                      *

“Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.”

I firmly believe that the white church will say the same thing to people of color someday.

This isn’t because we are the gate-keepers or because people of color need our permission to find Christ or because Christ needs our permission to find people of color. In fact, it’s the opposite: even though we have historically tried to stand in the way of people of color, Christ has continually been found with them. Dietrich Bonhoeffer—the imminent German theologian killed for standing against Hitler—spent a year in America and said he found true worship in an African-American church. Unbeknownst to white society, I believe God has been there all along.

We will be humbled at some point and will be faced with the realization that our whiteness does not provide truth any more than my age provides maturity. After spending years of us telling people of color to be quiet, God is telling us to call people of color to him—in front of us and our privilege.

We will be humiliated, but I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.

*                      *                      *

“And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. And Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ And the blind man said to him, ‘Rabbi, let me recover my sight.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Go your way; your faith has made you well.’ And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way.”

-Mark 10:50-52

I love how Bartimaeus “sprang up” and ran to Christ.

I love how Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus could've just healed him, but instead he had a conversation with Bart, not seeing him as an object lesson for the crowd but as a real, breathing human being.

I love that Jesus gives ownership to Bartimaeus by telling him his faith has made him well. There was no question who had the power, but Jesus gave Bartimaeus dignity and autonomy.

And I love that Bartimaeus followed Jesus afterwards. Once you encounter Christ, can you really do anything else?

*                      *                      *

Just as Christ healed and brought justice to Bartimaeus, so too will he bring justice to the disinherited in our society.

What a celebration that will be! Just like the parable about the buffet, anyone and everyone will be invited, and those forgotten and left out will be seen and included.

I just hope to have a seat at the table to witness the beauty of healing and dignity of following. I believe the world is waiting to spring up at the call of Christ, and those of us in the crowd—the ones who aren’t foreigners or forgotten or ignored—get the opportunity to spend our lives loosening bonds of injustice and celebrating opportunities given to people who historically haven’t had them.

I just want to be able to repent and say, "Take heart! He is calling you!"

Gordon-Conwell recently began The Institute for the Study of the Black Christian Experience, aiming to bring the gifts and talents of the Black Christian Community onto our campus. New classes are being offered, and this next semester I'll be taking a class on the prophetic voices of the Civil Rights Movement. This is a huge and exciting step for us, and, although there is still a ways to go, I hope to leave next year with books representing more than one people group.

After all, accurate theology comes out of humility, and our theology will only be as full as our racial diversity; our buffet table will only be as nutritious and colorful as the faces around it.

 

For further reading (aka books that have helped me!):

-Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? by Martin Luther King Jr. (1967)

-Why We Can't Wait by Martin Luther King Jr. (1964)

-Understanding and Dismantling Racism: The Twenty-First Century Challenge to White America by Joseph Barndt (2007)

-The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone (2011)

-Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman (1949)