Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. —Amos 5:23-24 (ESV)
In 1989 my family and I stepped foot in Los Angeles, California and my encounter with racism began quite abruptly. Granted L.A. was already highly concentrated with Koreans who had immigrated over the last 2 decades, I was very aware that I looked different than the average American at that time, mostly that I wasn’t white. That first year in this country didn’t prepare me well for the racial antagonism I experienced in the years to come, especially in upstate New York. Ever since, I’ve been overly conscious of my Asian appearance and it has affected my interactions with others in public places.
Racism is not an issue of the past. In fact, as I continue to live in New York City, arguably the most ethnically diverse city in the world, I see how racism has remained and actually edged itself into the undercurrents of life, so inherent and yet not easily noticeable unless one digs beyond the surface. Even in a city like ours where we come into contact with someone of a different skin color than us on a daily basis, it takes conscious effort to realize how institutionalized racism has become.
I’m not trying to overdramatize things but merely trying to shed a bit of light, because I need to preach this to myself. I don’t deal with racism daily, but it has been significant enough that it has influenced the way I present myself to people and institutions. I’ve also recognized racism in my own heart that subconsciously influences the way I approach others (even my own race). This is the main lesson I have learned over the years: Racial reconciliation doesn’t happen passively. It happens with intentionality, initiative and hard work. The kind of reconciliation that unites people isn’t generally considered very cool and it is certainly humbling. Since we tend to think of the civil rights movement as something of the past, race issues are oftentimes perceived as already resolved. But as long as human beings in all of our cultures, ethnicities and skin colors exist, racism will remain. I’ve heard some people say that the word ‘race’ isn’t even a legitimate term and was only conceived to bring division among people groups. Whether or not that is true, racism exists and it’s alive and real in this modern day. And as Americans we face it to a greater degree because this country is a melting pot and we are almost forced to deal with it. The question is, do we?
I guess I’m thinking a lot about this because today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. But I’ve actually been wrestling with it for quite a while. Most recently, I’ve been reading a book called, “Let Justice Roll Down“, by John Perkins, and it’s breaking my heart. And it’s also giving me hope. There have been great strides made since the civil rights movement of the ’60s but we have not arrived by any means. People point to tangible evidences of justice and reconciliation. I also know of more and more diversity present in churches, businesses, marriages and groups of friends. I’m starting to realize, however, that the presence of diversity doesn’t necessarily mean there has been reconciliation. I imagine if I ever married someone of a different race than me, that we’d have a whole lot of reconciling to do to get to the deeper level of love and connection.
In about 2 weeks I am going on a journey called “Sankofa”, hosted by the Evangelical Covenant Church. Sankofa is a west African term that means “looking backward to move forward”. This trip will encompass a four day trip through the deep south as we visit significant civil rights landmarks and interact with companions who are ethnically different than ourselves. It’ll be a learning experience and an opportunity for growth, compassion and connection. I want to commit to taking active steps toward racial reconciliation. It’s not just a personal conviction. I believe God has called us to this.
A few more thoughts. I’ve been thinking lately that justice and reconciliation cannot begin and end with pity. In other words, we cannot respond to the need out of a sense of pity. Pity comes from superiority, not equality. Pity results in a handout and a cycle of dependency. Justice induces compassion and compels equality. This is an important distinction and I need to constantly search my heart to check my motivation for such urges toward justice and reconciliation.
Also, reacting to the need for an absolution of guilt is selfish. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the other person and has so much more to do with my need to feel better about myself. I find it much more meaningful to pursue justice to uphold the inherent value of another person, as a human being and as one created in the image of God.
I just tried to tackle many, many different issues in one blog post. I’m not satisfied that I did any of these issues justice. But I do know this for sure — Racism isn’t just a social justice issue. It’s a spiritual one. As we honor MLK today, let us continue on the personal journey toward racial reconciliation.