Columns Opinion Richard Mouw: Civil Evangelicalism

How to change hearts on race

Separate customer doors for "White,” left, and “Colored” at a cafe during tobacco auction season in Durham, N.C., in November 1939. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott/Library of Congress via Creative Commons

(RNS) — A pastor from a small Midwestern town once asked me for advice.

“I serve a congregation in an all-white town. The nearest city is an hour’s drive away,” he said. “How do I get my people to actually feel for people of other races?”

Before I tell you what I answered him, let me share an experience that got me thinking seriously about racial justice when I was in my late teens.

I accompanied my father to a church denominational gathering in Pennsylvania, where delegates were debating whether to adopt a motion condemning racial discrimination. Several of the speeches warned against the church’s getting into matters of legislation.  We need “love and not laws,” was one theme. Another was: “Only changed hearts will change society.”

Toward the end of the debate, an African-American delegate rose to speak.  He told how he and his wife had just driven across the country from California to attend the meeting. At one point, he said, they traveled a whole day without finding a restaurant that would serve them food. One waitress had simply ignored their request to be seated, even though there were many empty tables.  His comment was memorable: “It would be wonderful if that waitress loved us. But right then we were not asking for love — we wanted cheeseburgers!”

Hearing that speech motivated me to get more active in working for “systemic” change. And progress was certainly made over the next decades on legislative reform. Nowadays the waitress at that restaurant would be required by law to seat that couple and serve them their cheeseburgers.

There is no guarantee, though, that a present-day waitress at that same restaurant would greet a similar African-American couple with a more loving heart. Nor do the chances of her being more loving necessarily increase if she happens to be a member of a local church.

“We Cater to White Trade Only” sign on a restaurant window in Lancaster, Ohio, in 1938. Photo by Ben Shahn/Library of Congress via Creative Commons

She could well have been taught the Sunday school song that Jesus loves all the children of the world, “red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” And surely she will have heard sermons about the good Samaritan and the obligation to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

But songs and sermons are not enough unless they are intentionally grounded in what we have come to label “spiritual formation.” Despite a half-century of legislative advances we still see the horrible themes of racial superiority  at work in our culture.

Ultimately, doctrines of racial superiority have to be destroyed in the deep places of our souls. Religious leaders need to give sustained attention these days to the deep places in the human soul where those doctrines seem to take root so easily.

The late Ronald Thiemann of Harvard Divinity School urged in his writings that local congregations should function as “‘schools of public virtue,’ communities that seek to form the kind of character necessary for public life.”

How we, in our local places of worship, engage in that “schooling” is of vital importance right now, where we see the real possibilities that what we have gained in implementing legal change can easily be ignored, or even reversed. Love without laws is not enough, but for the benefits of our laws to be sustained, loving hearts are a necessity.

When the Midwestern pastor asked me for advice, I observed that the technology for addressing his concern was easily accessible. He could have young members from his church go to the big city and record five-minute video conversations on their smart phones with members of an inner-city congregation, asking what concerns in their daily lives the folks back home could pray about on Sundays. Then they could play the videos at their church services. And, equally important, they could record similar segments by their fellow church members for the folks in the city.

One impact that the personal story told by the black delegate to the church convention had on my teenage self was empathy. I began to care about whether folks like that couple got served in restaurants. It made perfect sense to me that I would soon be hearing reports about public efforts to integrate lunch counters in the South — access to cheeseburgers was important to the beginnings of the civil rights movement. Spiritual formation for caring about justice requires stories that create empathy. It requires seeing the faces of our fellow citizens and hearing their voices.

Making five-minute smartphone recordings is not a very radical plan. But it is a step toward putting faces on very real human concerns. To be sure: only a small step. But even a change of a few “hearts” here and there can take us in new directions as a nation. “Changed hearts” alone are not sufficient for a just society. But justice cannot be sustained for very long without them.

About the author

Richard Mouw

Richard Mouw is Professor of Faith and Public Life at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he also served as president for twenty years. He is the author of twenty books, including Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. He earned his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Chicago.


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  • Changing hearts is the only real way society is going to move beyond racism. The current harpies who call anything and everything racist are doing more damage than helping the situation and are pushing any real progress. Gently, lovingly, respectfully engaging people is the only true and long lasting method. Most do not want to do the work that is needed, and think they have contributed to a better equal society with their tongue lashings and accusations. In fact, it is these same people that should self reflect on their own behavior and how it is preventing things from moving forward.

  • How to change hearts on race.

    “Making five-minute smartphone recordings is not a very radical plan.”

    My understanding of smartphones is that they have more technology in them than any of the Apollo spacecraft did. You would think changing hearts on race would be easier than rocket science.

    “To be sure: only a small step. But even a change of a few “hearts” here and there can take us in new directions as a nation.”

    That quote sounds a lot like another famous quote.

  • Racism dominates because people rationalize it. They see their interests as opposed to those of minorities.
    Earl Long, the less-celebrated brother of Huey who followed his more famous (and more bold) brother as Louisiana’s Governor, once pleaded with right-wing state legislators who wanted to cut funding for “Negro” hospitals thusly: “You got to understand that n*****s is people!”
    The hard-heartedness is predicated on a concept of self-interest – us against them.. It’s exploited by cynical political manipulators who harvest votes using it as scythe.
    It’s the same dynamic of white cops gunning down black youths, white flight to the exurbs, and voting for Trump.
    Mouw’s religious right colleagues are master debaters on the topic. They hire a few token Blacks at Weird Nut Daily, promote Uncle Toms like Alan Keyes and Alan West, and reap in the money and call it a day.
    They ain’t about to change their hearts. They money’s too good.

  • Some other examples. About 30 years ago, I ran across the work of an American teacher/activist who came up with an exercise called Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes.for her class the day after MLK Jr. was assassinated. Rather than telling stories it created the experience of being marginalized. Many people found it transformative.

    In Canada, a Blanket exercise has been developed though Kairos to make participants aware of the history of Indigenous people as part of the Reconciliation process by engaging them both emotionally and factually. .

  • Sentence 2 sums it up. However, I also think there is a reflexive, non-thinking inter-generational and tribal identity element for many people unfortunately.

  • People don’t change their mind on bigotry as long as they can get away with expressing and acting on it with impunity. Less so if there is some advantage to be gained by it.

    The oldest prejudice in this country besides racism was anti Catholic sentiments. That didn’t go away because people’s hearts changed. That went away because they became ubiquitous and much harder to discriminate against them.

  • I have none.

    I just do not like when some of his followers feel the need to attack others in his name. There is far too much spinelessness and dishonesty involved in it.

    Religion was always a great way to give social acceptability to bigotry, still is.

  • Sociologist talk about norms and social sanctions. It is no longer “normal” in society (in most places) to use the “N” word. Children who use it get a tongue lashing from parents. Adults who use it find their social standing diminished. Both are social sanctions. Society seldom has published rules about norms; we all “just know” what they are.
    Over time, norms change as the balance of competing biases shift. The civil rights movement tipped the social norm about social mixing of the races in the direction of open lunch counters. Today society punishes the restaurant that doesn’t comply by making it a place that “normal” people don’t frequent. So today you can get a hamburger, but the waitress still doesn’t love you.
    Then something happened. Social mixing brought us together and empathy began to grow in more people; they heard each other’s stories and could imagine themselves in one another’s place. The norm was solidified.
    Unfortunately, we are in a time when a battle is being waged to tip the social norms in a different direction. Existing norms are being challenged right and left, mostly by the GOP, but also by progressive forces. And I think empathy (as a factor in social interaction) has stopped growing.

  • And the real problem underlying all of this i.e. segregation and going back even further, slavery.

    And why not throw the white Christian and Jewish leadership into the mix as being another underlying cause? But then their “holy” book, the Bible, gives credence to slavery so should one expect any real leadership from them?

    Then there is Islam whose slave trade resulted in 19 million deaths between the 7th and 19th centuries CE. And from its “holy” book, the Koran that supports having slaves.

    And let us not forget the slavery of Islamic polygamy.

    And should we put ruthless drug dealers, drug addicts, white real estate agencies and “white flight” in the blame game scenario? Of course.

    And some solutions:

    1. Christian, Jewish and Islamic leaders must admit that their holy books are not divinely inspired, updating said books eliminating all references to any hint that their god approved of slavery.

    2. Equal education in integrated schools.

    3. Intermarriage of the races without prejudice.

    4. Integrated neighborhoods with laws requiring it.

  • “Religious leaders need to give sustained attention these days to the deep places in the human soul where those doctrines seem to take root so easily”

    Unfortunately, many Christian religious leaders (certainly most of the very prominent ones) today are more interested in gaining power and money than in eradicating racism. Very sad and says so much about the institution of religion.

  • Several years ago I had to renew my DL just south of Atlanta Georgia. The waiting area was divided into three sections. The first section, mostly blacks sat waiting. In the center section, mostly Mexicans sat waiting. And in the third section….mostly whites. People naturally want to be with other people of their same race.
    WHO CARES. Why does the world INSIST we have to be together. Cultural Marxism!!! Just let people be with who they want to be with. Using Bayonets will never solve anything.

  • Schools of public virtue – wow, do we need those! Imagine if the populace began demanding virtue in our elected leaders and religious leaders!

  • It ‘may’ exist in a very small population of people. But so what. You’ve got nutz in every sector of America.

  • Kelly — quick google definition for Racism: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.
    What part of the Country do you reside? Can you honestly tell me that you see the above definition in your social sphere???
    I don’t.
    On this article I made the following observation — a few years ago I had to renew my DL just outside of Atlanta Georgia. This is not an exaggeration. People naturally divided themselves in the waiting room. Blacks sat in one section; Mexicans sat in their own section; and mostly white people sat in the last section. Is this due to racism?
    So where is this Racism that allegedly STILL exists.

  • No, I don’t think what you are describing is due to racism or is racism.
    I live in NC. While slavery and Jim Crow laws are thankfully no longer in effect, the effects are long lasting and it is naive to think otherwise. I see examples of racism quite often, both in the news and personally.
    Have you ever heard of the following groups:
    League of the South
    Loyal White Knights of the KKK
    Alternative Right
    Charles Martel Society
    Blood and Honor Club
    Club 38
    Confederate Hammerskins
    National Socialist Movement
    Aryan Nations
    International Keystone Knights of the KKK
    United Northern and Southern Knights of the KKK
    Southern National Congress
    These are all white supremecy groups (who definitely believe their race to be superior to other races – part of their charter statements, in fact) in the state of Georgia alone!
    Racism is certainly more subtle – children thankfully aren’t turned away from a public swimming pool anymore – but make no mistake it definitely still exists. From where you are standing you might not see it (as part of the majority race you certainly wouldn’t be on the receiving end of it), but I guarantee if you ask a black person what their (even recent) experiences have been you would be surprised. Maybe ask one?

  • Do some research into “CoIntelPro”. Still exists today. Those groups you mention are either just anomalies or they are an FBI operation.
    Research Frank Collins aka Frank Cohen of Skokie Ill fame. Hal Turner; Alex Jones ….. the list goes on and on.
    I might suggest you consider those ‘history books’ that you claim I did not study…………….worthy of serious scrutiny.
    Napoleon famously said — History is written by the Victors.
    Not sure if you are a white person, but from my vantage point, you have many of the hallmarks of classic ‘white guilt’.
    There is always two sides to every story. There is no loss in looking at things from the ‘other’ perspective.
    Peace to you Kelly.

  • BTW, I like your name – reminds me of Robert Redford character from The Natural – great movie.
    You made the claim that racism did not exist. I never said these groups were mainstream. I just pointed out that they exist. Quite a few of them, and again that’s only in GA.
    I highly doubt my perception of racism is due to white guilt. That sounds like a convenient way to dismiss people who display empathy. Empathy is what keeps someone from being a sociopath (please know I am NOT calling you a sociopath).
    Webster definition: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this
    I have empathy for Jews, gypsy’s, etc. from what they endured during the Holocaust, but I’m not German and this wouldn’t be attributed to “German guilt”, and I have empathy for women in middle eastern countries who are not allowed basic liberties and are by law a possession of their father or husband, but this wouldn’t be attributed to “Man guilt”, as I am not a man either.
    I have no doubt that history is viewed thru the lens of the victor. But I highly doubt you mean to say that slavery, oppression of black people, did not happen and was made up by the “victors”?
    I will read up on the items you mentioned…..I do enjoy looking at issues from all different perspectives.

  • Great book for you on your next vacation or long weekend — “The Hidden Hand of History” by Ralph Epperson.
    Started my journey on the road to being “Red Pilled”. Peace to you.

  • That seems ironic, but, to what end? Are you saying whites are justified to see their interests as different?

  • Are you saying whites are justified to see their interests as different?
    “First”. They are justified to see their interests “first” before others.
    NAACP — Good, Natural and Acceptable
    AIPAC — Good, Natural and Acceptable
    LaRaza — Good, Natural and Acceptable
    A White Student Union — Racist, Bigots, Unnatural, and not acceptable

  • Try reading some of Kevin McDonald’s articles on “White Altruism”. A simple google will get you there — ‘kevin McDonald white altruism’
    I noticed you didn’t include ‘black lives matter’ on your list of racist groups of people. Ironic the only groups you listed are all white.

  • Naw, but I worked for two Jews once. And I shook Kinky Friedman’s hand twice.

    My turn. What’s it like having sex with David Duke?

  • He wrote a paper while a professor at CSLB saying that Jewish people are more intelligent than other groups / races? And runs a neo-nazi website? Is this what you mean? I couldn’t find much under “white altruism” by itself.
    You said that racism “didn’t exist”, then I provided a list of racist groups, but you say it’s not complete…that there are other racists groups out there that I didn’t include…so doesn’t that mean that you DO think racism exists? Of course I didn’t write up a list of every single racist group that has ever existed. Are you saying that if the list of racist groups in incomplete then that supports your original statement that racism “doesn’t exist”? Are you still taking the stance that racism doesn’t exist? It seems like your more recent comments are actually supporting the claim that racism does exist?
    I had not heard of the term “red pill” before, but understand what that means now. Good luck on your journey, just remember to vet everything with your own god-given common sense, and when someone wants you to believe a dogma, ask yourself what is the benefit to that person if you subscribe to those beliefs – be a good skeptic!

  • White Altruism is simply a more academic word for “White Guilt”. Which is a very real concept. I know…..I suffered from white guilt most of my adult life. I was listening last night in fact to a study on “slavery”. Point of fact — the Arab Slave Trade was something like 5 times larger than slavery to the North American Continent; but yet all we hear about in the media is how evil White men are. Not to mention the Jews played a huge role in the Slave trade but when was the last time you watched a Tv show or a movie about that single fact. Let alone even hear of such a thing.
    Do I believe Racism exists by definition? Certainly not in any majority. Sure…there are white people who are racist; just as there are black people who are racist and just as there are Jews who are racist.
    The ‘point’ I was trying to make was simply pointing out the double standard/hypocrisy of the media; politics and our educational system.
    If you are a white person, you might want to pick this book up for your next vacation or long weekend — “White World Awake” by Jurgen Graff.
    White Genocide is real. I commend your “Empathy” for people not your own; but I hope you will also have empathy for your own just as equally.
    Not everything is what it seems.

  • I have empathy for all people who have suffered or been oppressed, no matter whether they are of my ancestry or not makes absolutely no difference to me. If they have suffered then I suffer. That is what Jesus taught – for what you do unto my brother, you do also to me. I think it was perhaps his greatest lesson to mankind. I hope you can say the same as well, and have genuine empathy for those you may not be “your own”.
    Take Care

  • I have empathy for all people who have suffered or been oppressed, no matter whether they are of my ancestry or not makes absolutely no difference to me.

    I believe you. The problem might be in how information comes to us in the first place.

    Take the Holodomor as a perfect example. Ask 100 people what the Holodomor is and you’ll get 95 blank stares.

    Whites take all the blame for Slavery; but yet whites were slaves too. Hardly anyone speaks of the Arab slave trade. And you never hear about the Jew’s role in slavery either.
    Napoleon famously said — The Victors write the History.

  • In the history of the US, of which was the basis of this news article, white men enslaved black people – they did not enslave Arabs, or Jews, and they were not slaves themselves. Also, what does the Holodomor have to do with US history of black people being enslaved at the hands of white people? Nothing. It seems like you are using alot of misdirection to avoid the accountability of what the white settlers of the US did to black people, and the lasting effect that has had on the our country, our history, and on black generations to this day. Because some other culture as some point in time also enslaved people has no bearing at all and no justification at all on what went on in this country to the ancestors of people all around you. It is a very immature argument to try to excuse what one group did because another group did it too. It seems like that is what you are selling?

  • My apologies for the somewhat abrupt tone of the last message. I wrote it quickly at work and could have taken more time to massage it. Thank for sharing your various points of view. Just because I don’t agree does not mean I don’t appreciate you sharing it.

  • Just because I don’t agree does not mean I don’t appreciate you sharing it.
    Why? Or are you just trying to be PC. You know….love one another mumbo jumbo.

  • I care nothing about PC, but everything about respect and love for others, so you definitely have half of it correct. Do you not like “love one another” attitudes? Are you more comfortable with hate and anger? Why?

  • But I do know disrespect when I see it.

    “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” Proverbs 27:6