“Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.”
The last time I felt so sick to my stomach over racism was in a little town in South Carolina where my Memaw used to live. We’d driven down to visit her and on a whim decided to take a stroll through the quaint, brick buildings at the town center. If the place were once thriving, you’d never know- there were few people out, and you got the sense that the world around had moved on, or rather out of town.
There we stumbled upon the “Red Neck Store” which innocently advertised itself as a purveyor of southern souvenirs- a unique local gift shop maybe. We were so wrong. Though the store was tiny and much too warm, I felt more suffocated by the shocking contents that assaulted me. It took us longer to process the evil than it should have; oh, there was some light-hearted “red-neck” merchandise, alright… right alongside KKK outfits and other blatantly racist paraphernalia.
As our disgust caught up to our sheer shock, we shuffled uneasily towards the exit. As we turned to leave, the salesman motioned towards some t-shirts with a picture of Obama, who’d recently been elected for his first term. “They’re guaranteed to burn!” he called out, hatred glowing in his eyes. Nail in coffin- we got out of there fast and didn’t look back.
How could such overt racism exist in my modern world?
Fast forward to present. I don’t watch the news. Call me irresponsible, call me out on my self-imposed bubble, but my heart can’t usually bench press the weight the news throws at me.
So admittedly I found out about Charlottesville through Lina Abujamra, a blogger I subscribe to.
As her words scrolled through my brain, my heart quickened and I found my fingers typing a search for news that would take my soul and stomach back to the horror of that red neck store and my shattered picture of humanity. I watched a recap clip of the tragic events that was too short to convey the full story, yet somehow too long a moment to have to stare in the face of evil.
“Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.”
And I cried- not merely for the loss of life- not merely for those hurt and scarred- but because I’d naïvely allowed myself to believe that somehow we’d moved beyond such base actions. Yes darkness seemed to have a choke-hold on the world, but weren’t we slowly getting better as a people? As a nation? Hadn’t the hard fought war for freedom for all changed not just our legislation but at long last our collective hearts? At least a little?
We weren’t perfect in the “love your neighbor” department- no sir. And truthfully books like The New Jim Crow have opened my eyes to see that socially acceptable racism still exists even if overt racism is declining. And I lament along with many of my ongoing complicity in such racist structures and beliefs, though I don’t always know how to perpetuate change.
But my stomach feels especially sick at the real-time use of the phrase “white supremacist” because I thought that language was buried deep within the pages of my history book. Where has all this hatred been hiding? What is its origin?
I think back to the first recorded murder in the Bible, when Cain and his brother Abel walked with God. Genesis says God was pleased with Abel’s sacrifice, but not with Cain’s. Such a simple sentence, but it was the catalyst for Cain to draw an irrevocable line. Cain’s pride was assaulted. His sense of His worth and identity were thrown off and he was filled with anger.
“Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.” (Genesis 4:6-8)
Cain didn’t want to look at himself and his issues. He’d rather draw an imaginary line between himself and his brother and cast the blame on the other side. His frustrated desire for success? accolades? validation? swelled into lethal anger.
I picture myself for a moment as Eve, the boys’ mother. Death was still fresh and ghastly, something not yet normal. Did she crush under the fresh realization of what her disobedience in the Garden had cost her? Even as she wept over a boy lost to death, did she cry bitter tears over the broken depths of her living son? Did her own stomach churn at the horrible knowledge that creation from her womb had taken the life of creation…that brother could kill even brother?
Did she fall to the ground and ask God to forgive and to heal, to turn their hearts back to Him? Did she realize with sobering horror, as I did, that she herself had the capacity for equally grave selfishness?
This week I’ve struggled with fresh revelation of my own brokenness- my own capacity to diminish, overlook, and cause pain. How sobering to think that I’m simply not so different from the people on the other side of the line that I find myself drawing. The righteous and unrighteous. The sinner and the saint. The peacemaker and the racist. The moral and the killer. But my lines aren’t any more helpful than the lines others draw.
Because no matter what line we draw, don’t we always end up on the “right” side of it? Isn’t the line somehow about ourselves?
At its core, racism is about elevating ourselves. It’s the full-grown sin of seeking our own good and interests, of needing to validate ourselves at the expense of someone else. It’s the desire to define ourselves AGAINST others- to be on the “right side” of the line of perceived power or beauty or significance.
But no such line exists. Because God defines us and loves us not comparatively or based on who we are, but unconditionally based on who HE is.
There is no line.
So the powerful, so-called beautiful and self-imposed significant must create that line to maintain their self-worth. In our insatiable pursuit of our own happiness and meaning we’re willing to diminish, abuse, and even kill their fellow creations…our brothers and sisters.
God fleshes this internal struggle out in His exhortation to Cain: “If you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you but you must rule over it.”
James 1:14-15 puts it this way: “…but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”
Our temptations feed broken desires that incubate sin which, in its ghastly full grown state, produces death of all kinds. We have to address those desires and the broken places they come from. James 4:1-3 continues this thought:
“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
We’re so focused on ourselves. Our desires and motives are so skewed by our selfish lens. On our desires and pleasures. And I’m preaching to myself here, just so you know.
Yet God offers some powerful tools to subdue those very desires that try to destroy us. Some of the most practical daily advice is simply to talk less and listen more:
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1:19-20)
Our anger, even our justified anger, apart from God’s heart simply makes things worse. It leads to more human lines, more division, and less of the righteousness that God desires.
So what else do we do to find victory over those broken desires and places in our lives? Come to God with humility and acknowledge our broken deeds and desires.
James 4:7-10 says, “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”
I’m not the first to suggest that this is a time to repent: to acknowledge the broken places of our hearts before God and before our brothers and sisters. Time to turn inward and realize where our own selfish tendencies, unchecked, have left us to ignore and harm others. It’s a time to repent of generations of evil perpetuated against whole groups of people. It’s a time to listen to other people’s stories in such a way that our own hearts break over their struggle.
And it’s time to stop drawing lines that kill our brothers.
All Bible References from:
New International Version (NIV)
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.