I was raised in a largely white culture. I even thought I was white until a classmate directly informed me that I am Chinese. The revelation was puzzling, given that I am Korean. More strangely, I am a Korean who can speak hardly a word of Korean. The only word I know is the one for "dummy," which my relatives often called me: bah-boh.
And now? My family and I live in a largely African American neighborhood where I serve as interim pastor of a multiethnic church in urban Washington, D.C. I'm not sure how to identify myself anymore. I'm a vaguely Asian person who grew up listening to Pearl Jam and trying to play hacky sack, but who sings Fred Hammond on Sunday morning. I think that makes me "post-racial."
I first heard the phrase in January 2009, during the inauguration of President Barack Obama. I remember watching the event with deep pride and rising hope. Commentators noted that the moment marked our transition to becoming a post-racial nation, where race no longer played the divisive role it has throughout our history. We were finally beyond the whole race thing, they said. Although I brimmed with excitement, I also knew that this analysis was hopelessly optimistic. The election of our first black president would not put the issue of race to rest.
Fast-forward four years, and without a doubt we are still very much a racial society. There is no clearer evidence of this than Trayvon Martin.
Seemingly clear at first, the facts of the shooting were quickly muddied by political pundits and media moguls on all sides of the spectrum. An unarmed black youth, carrying nothing more than Skittles and iced tea—or an imposing teenager who thuggishly assaulted a man? An overzealous and prejudiced vigilante who ignored calls to not follow Trayvon—or a responsible neighborhood watch captain who defended himself? Videos were doctored, e-mail accounts hacked, expert opinions thrown about with reckless and inexpert abandon. The blogosphere ignited and the Twitterverse raged, even more so this week, after a Florida court handed down a not-guilty verdict to George Zimmerman. The only thing now clear to me is how far we are from being a post-racial society.
Although I have strong opinions about the Zimmerman case, I am not writing to take sides. Although I pray for justice, I don't think that any greater purpose can be served by demonizing those who are involved. Instead, I want to point out the central role that fear played in these events.
Our Primal Fear
You see, Zimmerman's zealousness as a watch captain was motivated largely by fear—fear of crime and of unfamiliar people, stoked by ubiquitous news reports of violence that forever threatens all that we hold dear. Martin was surely afraid as well—of the man who ominously followed him, afraid that he was being singled out because of his skin color, a fear that countless young black men share. Of course there are other dynamics in this case: pride, hatred, and stupidity. But fear is the constant. Fear of the unfamiliar is the deepest root of prejudice in our country.
Fear is not a complex human emotion—it's a primal one. It originates from the most buried and hidden portions of our brains, geographically the farthest from its more complex and nuanced regions. It is tenacious, and is rarely changed through conscious thought. So you cannot tell a person not to be afraid, or that they are foolish to feel frightened. If they are truly afraid, it is for nearly subconscious reasons that they themselves may not discern.
And therein lies the problem. We assume that a good education and fair laws alone will erase the fear of the alien and foreigner that we all harbor deep within our amygdalas. These are of course worthy and necessary goals, but we must admit that there are emotions and thoughts that even the most enlightened degrees and well-planned laws cannot touch. We cannot legislate, educate, or insult the fear out of people, because that emotion is buried too deep. And so these tools are inadequate in truly preventing and uprooting prejudice.
I have unfortunately learned this firsthand. When I planted a church in Washington, D.C., I assumed that my liberal arts education and love for Christ had eradicated my prejudices. I was immune to the irrational and ignoble fear that drives narrow-mindedness. But in the four years that we have lived in D.C., our house has been burglarized twice. Our car has been broken into so many times that we no longer lock the doors, because there is nothing of value left to steal. The alley behind my house serves as a dumping ground for stolen and stripped cars, doused in gasoline and set on fire. Last month, a young man lost his life in a drive-by shooting half a block away. My children pass the spot weekly on their way to the library.
Despite my Yale education, theological training, and very best intentions, blind fear had found its foothold. At every sound in the night I would bolt awake and peer through the blinds of my bedroom, clutching a giant Maglite. I would stare at every person who passed by our car, assuming that they had returned for the gum they had left in the glove compartment. I was deeply afraid for the safety of my family, my possessions, and my home. I feared that, being the only Korean family living in an African American neighborhood, we were being singled out for crime. I was afraid of anyone who differed from me physically, culturally, and chronologically. I knew I shouldn't be, that such fear was irrational and unbiblical, but I could not help it. Despite my degrees and desires, I was George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin—I was afraid.
In order to truly eradicate fear, a more subtle and personal approached is needed. We need a context in which we can realize through firsthand experience that our fears of others are unnecessary and unfounded. We need a place where we can walk alongside a person who is outwardly different but to whom we are inwardly connected. It would have to be a place that is safe but stretches us at the same time, a place where both acceptance and challenge coexist. If we could find such places, then perhaps our prejudices could be teased out and loosened, and eventually removed. If only we could find such a place.
But one does exist: the church.
In the church, people who are incredibly different from one another can walk into a room and feel instantly connected, not by virtue of their ethnic or racial or cultural similarities, but by the fact that the name of Jesus brings a word of worship to their lips. It is a place where grace and acceptance are preached, alongside mission, calling, and commission. We may be invited to come as we are, but we won't remain mired as we have been. And church, at its best, is a place where we do not temporarily intersect with others; rather, we share life together, a natural way in which our fear of the unknown can be massaged into nonexistence. In these ways, the church presents us with an ideal environment for our fears and prejudices to be exposed, weakened, and nailed to the cross with eternal finality.
I should be perfectly clear that I am not critiquing mono-ethnic or monocultural churches. I have served many such churches and grow frustrated when people judge such ministries with the shallow assumption that diversity is something that can be photographed and shown off to friends. In truth, there are many levels of diversity, and there is definitely a place for churches that specialize in ministering to those in specific cultural, linguistic, and ethnic contexts.
Instead, I encourage the body of Christ to consider that our churches may be, by the nature Christ has endowed upon them, the ideal context for racial and ethnic reconciliation. For too long we have waited for a panacea to racial divides to arrive from without—the election of the perfect president, the creation of a perfect bill, the release of a perfect movie (something like The Blind Side, but better). We are forever leaving the task of reconciliation to the so-called experts, perhaps not realizing that there is no better place for reconciliation than a place that honors the great Reconciler.
This work is already taking place in congregations across this country. The church I work with, Peace Fellowship, is a perfect example. Founded by Dennis Edwards, it is located in an African American neighborhood of Washington D.C. But the congregation is filled with people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Before service, an eclectic mix of Ivy League professionals and black high-school students hold hands and prayerfully invite God's Spirit. We may sing "Lift Every Voice and Sing" before moving on to "How Great Is Our God," by Chris Tomlin. It is a wonderfully confusing place to worship, and has been featured in the Washington Post.
Fear had taught me to view with suspicion anyone not like me, but in the church I found brothers and sisters who could not have been any more dissimilar except for the fact that Jesus had given us all new life. Together, we prayed for my wife's cancer. We stood shoulder to shoulder, fighting for more education and less crime in a city notorious for little of the former and much of the latter. After I leave our service on Sunday, having worshiped hand in hand with people of all racial and economic backgrounds, I find it impossible to be apprehensive of those different from myself. It was the church that had accomplished what my education and good intentions could not—the dismantling of fear, the pernicious root of prejudice.
I don't share this as a boast: "Look how great my church is compared to yours." I believe that all churches have such potential, and it is now time that we courageously take up this calling. Of course, such an end will not come easily or automatically. The church has a long way to go to fulfill this role, and that road begins with repenting of our abject failures, past and present. It will require extreme humility, compassion, forgiveness, and hospitality, the extent of which might shock the world. But rather than focusing on how hard the road will be, we should instead focus on how glorious the goal: a truly post-racial society.
Peter Chin is the husband of a cancer survivor, father to four children, and pastor of an inner-city church in Washington, D.C. He has written for This Is Our City about his family's experience there. He writes at PeterWChin.com. Follow him on Twitter @peterwchin.