America’s problem is not racial tension — It’s racism

Sandra Sterling, aunt of Alton Sterling, mourns as she attends the funeral of Alton Sterling, in Baton Rouge
Sandra Sterling, aunt of Alton Sterling, mourns as she attends the funeral of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., on July 15, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

(RNS) America does not have a problem with racial tension. Racial tension is simply the fever indicating the disease. America has a problem with racism.

After the shooting by police officers of Alton Sterling — whose funeral was Friday (July 15) — I left Washington, D.C., to return to my hometown of Baton Rouge, La., where it happened.

While there, I attended two church services. One was at University Baptist, a predominantly white church, and the other was at New Life Missionary Baptist, a predominantly African-American church.

There are a lot of things that can and have been said about the differences between black communities and white communities in Baton Rouge. What struck me the most that morning was one thing that they shared in common — both services featured a baby dedication.

While University Baptist and New Life Missionary Baptist are located at opposite ends of the city, with their own distinct histories, it was clear to me that two questions seemed to hover over each congregation as we committed ourselves as people of faith to those infants:

“What sort of world are we inviting our children into?” and “What sort of faith will we be supporting them in?”

I don’t think there was a single person present at either of those services who wouldn’t want both of those children to grow up in a more peaceful and just world.

As a minister in the Baptist tradition, I’ve had the privilege of holding young lives in my arms and introducing them to a congregation. The dedication involves a commitment of support from the congregation where each person present affirms their intentions to love, to care for, to teach Jesus’ values to these children, and to lead them in the way of peacemaking.

However, if we want a peaceful community for these children to live in, then there must be peacemakers. We cannot simply shout “peace, peace” from the sidelines when there is no peace. We must run into the pain and chaos when others run away. Retreating from those places of tension might mean you avoid conflict but it doesn’t mean you are building peace.

When injustice has been present, tension is inevitable as truth comes to light. There is an old saying that “the truth might set you free, but first it will make you miserable.” The truth about race in America might make some people feel miserable but that is where we must start.

Alongside hundreds of others, I visited the site where Sterling was killed while being held on the ground by police, to pay homage and to mourn. Calling for peace, I joined thousands of others in the streets to demand the truth, to demand that justice be pursued.

As I talked to old friends, organizers and pastors, I realized that none of us were marching only because a 37-year-old African-American was killed. We were marching because when we saw that video of his life ending in the hands of police, we knew that it could have been us and confirmed things we hoped were not true.

It is a mistake to assume that thousands have poured into the streets because of one incident with the police. Thousands have poured into the streets because that video brought to the surface what people had experienced for so long, that their lives didn’t count the way other lives did. They have felt held on the ground by the institutions and people they have been told were there to help. The shooting catalyzed what was already there.

This video, and so many others that have appeared over the past few years, confirmed the fear that while the Constitution no longer reads that a black life only counts as three-fifths of a human, more than 150 years later, our culture hasn’t yet fully accepted that.

I’m a black Baptist minister who grew up in Baton Rouge in mostly black neighborhoods with mostly black friends but it was the mostly white University Baptist Church that my family called our spiritual home. I have no desire to take my white brothers and sisters on a “guilt trip” that ends only in shame. Instead, I would like them to receive Jesus’ blessings and invitation to be peacemakers and join in on the work of justice and dignity so that black lives can matter in our city, nation and world.

This is why I work with the New Baptist Covenant to build relationships between diverse churches that do the long, slow and hard work of addressing the disease of racism, not just its symptoms. Our work started long before the eye of the nation was focused on this fever. And to live up to the commitment I just made to support those two children, it will continue for years to come.

(The Rev. Elijah R. Zehyoue is an ordained Baptist minister and director of programs and communication at the New Baptist Covenant)

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  • “We must run into the pain and chaos when others run away.”

    And that’s what the Dallas police officers did, no?

  • Have you not noticed that your media is the most racist? Think about it. Every survey your television news media conducts breaks their categories into Black/White/Hispanic. Your television media is what is causing a lot of the problem to begin with.

  • I do not disagree with the broad analysis of the Rev. Zehyoue, still I think much of what on the surface appears as racism, is not racism as such. It is fear, and suspicion springing from that fear. The unsettled nature of our society, is also a function of the lack of personal accountability; in corporate finance, business administration, national and local government, and in the streets and neighborhoods of our communities. It is the failure to Love our Neighbor as Ourself. I think most of us could stand a good close look in the mirror, at least on occasion.

  • Of course anyone who is different from you can be a scapegoat when things go wrong as they have in this country. We need to be able to provide everyone with a good job. It’s not just a lack of personal responsibility in finance and business. It’s the fact that they can get away with it and usually walk away with a huge bonus.

    Also, we don’t know each other. I know a lot of Black people, but I really don’t have any Black friends.

    Floyd Lee, 99.9% of Black people were not involved in the Dallas shooting. The man who did it was involved with New Black Panther Party, which has nothing to do with the old Black Panther party. It is a racist and antisemitic party. They had nothing to do with Black Lives Matter.

    As a Jew, I should add that both Black and White Baptists agree that Jews are going to Hell.

  • Rather than painting all white Christians with the broad brush of racism, Rev. Zehyoue’s energies would be better spent promoting the spiritual welfare of his people, namely in rejecting crime to rather, get a good education and job. It’s too easy to join the others, who have so much invested in the racism-whine, that they can’t afford to see the issue solved.

    It’s instructive that he saw two dedications of babies (baptisms by another name) The white child is more likely to grow up in a 2-parent family, get a good education, have friends of both races, and end up with a good job. The black child is much more likely to grow up with a single mother, drop out of school, choose to belong to a gang and indulge in dangerous criminal activity leading to an early death, likely at the hands of another young black criminal with an illegal weapon. Judging these two very different outcomes and calling it racism is the height of intellectual–if not spiritual dishonesty. Which community needs the more work, prayer and hope from the church and clergy? Rev. Zshyoue, you have your work cut out for you.

  • Edward, you have a good point. However, I think white people’s fear is manifested as racism. Fear of the black-skinned Other turns into racism via cultural, social and government institutions so that white people, who have power, can keep the Other away.

    I don’t have hard evidence of this, but my instincts say a large majority fear the Other having power. They feel they’d be in danger.

    Fear and racism are different sides of the same coin, in my opinion.

  • A question for you Edward. You said, “It is the failure to Love our Neighbor as Ourself.”

    No argument, but how is that failure addressed in the context of racial violence? Individual action is the most effective way, but this is a nationwide problem that requires quick action or more deaths will occur. How is that put into motion?

  • I think it would require a complete re-ordering of both our thinking and societal proprieties. When I grew up people tending to hang out in their front yards, on their stoops, down at the corner. Today in most suburban communities, it seems people draw the shades, drive into their garage and close the door, doing the majority of their socializing with only their closest friends in their backyards. Very little sense of community. I’m fifty seven, I grew up in Portland, OR., not a huge metropolis, but we had an inner city, and my neighborhood was racially mixed. I knew some of my black neighbors very well, they were solid citizens, at least as solid as their white neighbors. As youngsters we sometimes didn’t get along, but the culture was nothing like it is today, if the media is any guide (and that’s doubtful). The return to real neighborhood communities might be a step in the right direction.

  • I’m not sure that’s true. I was raised to fear the Soviets (via the media, mostly), yet when emigres’ (sic) from Ukraine and Georgia came to America and entered our society, I found them to be as warm and congenial as one could desire. It caused me to consider that the Soviet Union had been as fearful of us, as we of them. There’s no reason to suppose that the same can’t be said about blacks and whites. I do see your point about fear turning to racism, but I don’t see it as a default mechanism.

  • In no wish to contribute to your sense of alienation, Jews are not singled out by Black/White Baptists in that regard. Both generally tend to be in agreement that Anyone who does not accept Y’shua (Jesus) as Lord and Savior will meet that end, regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, color or culture.

  • The Southern Baptists have a group devoted solely to converting Jews and no one else. So at least some Baptists single out Jews. The Pope has said that Catholics should no longer try to convert Jews. You ignore the great range of opinions in Christianity. Many Christians have criticized the Pope for this new position on Jews. Therefore they are also singling out Jews.

  • By your own description, that is a Group within a Group, a mere sub-committee if you will, functioning by direction. And they are attempting to minister to a particular demographic, not so very unusual. I hardly ignore the great range of opinions, we were discussing Baptists in particular. Pope Francis is entitled to direct the Catholics as he wills, it is my personal opinion that he is in error on this point. On the other hand, what of ethnic Jews who have embraced Christianity? You may declare them non-Jews as a matter of spirituality, but can you declare them non-Jews as a matter of ethnicity? They, I think, would roundly disagree. Surely you have heard of “Jews For Jesus,” many of their converts retain their cultural Jewish identity, even to the point of their religious practices, they have merely recognized in Y’shua their long awaited Messiah. God’s Peace to You.

  • The Jews for Jesus are deluded and wrong. They are ignorant of real Judaism. In the Philadelphia area where I live, the now deceased founder of a Messianic Jewish group was a Christian who changed his name to a Jewish sounding name. They are really not Jews or Christians. You cannot be Jewish and recognize Jesus as your “long awaited Messiah.” Jesus did not fulfill what the Messiah should have fulfilled. Jews never believed in a personal savior who would get you into heaven. That was never the Messiah’s role.
    I don’t know how much Jewish history you know, but Christians have forcibly converted Jews in the past or exiled Jews who did not convert. Anyone who tries to convert Jews is trying to reduce the number of Jews. If these people succeeded there would be no Jews on the planet. I call that an attempt at spiritual genocide.
    It is up to Jews to define Judaism for ourselves. You cannot come in as a Christian and tell me what a Jew is.

  • How does one define real Judaism? Even among Jews, there are the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed. My knowledge of Jewish history is probably better than average for a Gentile. I would posit that real Judaism is practiced by a strict adherence to the Pentateuch, and the worship of Y’H’W’H’ . Forcible conversions, as you well know, have no spiritual force, no matter how much one might conform outwardly to avoid oppression, the inner soul knows what it truly believes. We will have to disagree on whether Jesus met or meets the requirement of the Messiah. By and large the members of Jews for Jesus were and are life long practicing or secular Jews before the embraced Jesus. You cannot define them out of existence.

  • Well, Orthodox Jews would say that real Judaism is strict adherence to the Pentateuch as interpreted by Midrash, Torah commentaries, Talmud, and law codes that appeared later such as the Maimonides Code, and the Shulchan Aruch. Orthodox Jews spend most of their time studying Talmud. They study in pairs each taking an opposite side and arguing passionately with each other.

    Yes, I can because they are not Jewish and they are not Christian. Even being a secular Jew requires some knowledge of Jewish history and culture. I can’t imagine that a life long practicing Jew would become a Jew for Jesus. Mostly they target Jews who don’t know much about Judaism or Russian Jews who were not allowed to practice Judaism growing up. Jews generally don’t focus on going to Heaven or Hell. The Messiah’s purpose was never to get an individual into Heaven. Jews usually talk about “Olam Habah.” which means the world to come.

    I do agree that forced conversions are not valid, but they were to the Church. You could have been tortured and burned at the stake as a heretic by the Inquisition. As late as 1858, a Jewish boy was baptized by a family servant who thought he was dying. He was forcibly taken from his family and raised by the the Church and the Pope himself. Spielberg is making a movie about it.

  • According to your understanding of the Messiah, will He reign over Israel only, or the whole earth? Is “Olam Habah” limited in its geographical context, or does it entail the globe? In any event, it would have to be an improvement on this present world. Shalom (if you will allow me.)

  • The Messiah will reign over Israel. I have to admit that I’m not sure that the Messiah will reign over the world. There will be universal peace, love and understanding and God will ultimately reign over the entire world and Israel.

  • I am not a recist but why don’t we all clean up our own race first? there are so many problems on both sides. You diffenately have white racist and black racist. We need to try to understand both sides. NO one is exempt. both need to stop and think about the other. Black blame whites and whites blame black we need to just STOP POINTING THE FINGER AT THE OTHER SIDE. NO ONE IS INNOCENT. OR PERFECT.

  • A scenario not that far removed from my own understanding, thank you for your elucidation.

  • I wen to Sabbath service today. In more than one place in the service we said to God, “we have no savior but you. That includes Jesus and the Messiah. We have no savior but God.

  • I understand your perspective, I’m simply afraid we will have to, amicably I hope, agree to disagree.

  • Racism is an issue of power. Blacks demanding that whites be held accountable for systemic abuses of power, both personal and institutional, over a period of centuries, is entirely appropriate. If you can’t see the distinction between that and “blaming whites”, then I’m sorry to say you are part of the problem. Your attitude supports continued racism.