Molly and I sat at the round laminate table that had been my great-grandmother’s in the eighties. I’d been home from my month-long trip to Kenya and South Africa for one day, and we were doing what we always did in that year post-college: eating our feelings in burritos. She was my best friend in the world.
I’d collected a thousand thoughts for her in my journal, prepared to explain each story, to tell her each wild idea of God I’d consumed in my graduate African Cultures and Religions class, and share the names of the people I’d met in South Africa whose faith had given them courage to fight for justice, to put an end to Apartheid.
But I was mostly silent. We stuck chips in guacamole.
She stared at me across the table. “You seem older,” she said. “Sadder.” And I knew it was true—forever. I could never go back.
That trip was the opening of my faith to a fresh, broader view of God in the world. It was the moment when what I’d understood of God—the one who was constantly at work on my behalf, helping me get into college, bringing me meaningful friendships, refining my character—came head to head with a kind of suffering and evil that shook me and woke me to more questions than answers. My perspective of God at work became far bigger than the personal lives of the Christians I knew. God’s work was springing forth in everything: in nature, in the poor, in the oppressed, in the African children I had played with who were HIV positive.
And if God was bigger than my own personal relationship with Jesus, then sin was bigger than just an individual’s morality code. I discovered this on a Greyhound bus in the middle of South Africa. I rode for six hours beside a black woman who was probably in her thirties. She worked for a white family that was moving to Johannesburg from Durban, and she was following them so she could continue to work, leaving her children and her husband behind. We sat together on that bus, chatting about life and looking out at her countryside. She told me she’d never been to the town where we were heading.
When I said good-bye to her, I tried to make sense of all she was losing as that bus carried her away from her children. And for what? She’d serve a white family their morning tea in bed. In my short two weeks in South Africa, every white family I encountered had a black maid. This was not necessarily a story of outward racism. The families I visited seemed to care for their maids and treat them fairly. It was actually a story of who had the means to hire a maid and who didn’t. Rich people had maids; poor people were the maids. The problem? Rich people were white and poor people were black.
I struggled with the injustice of my acquaintance’s reality: that she was so desperate for work that she would have to leave her family. Surely there was someone to blame. Was the fact that this white family had offered her a job in their home, invited her to come with them—was that sin on their part? What felt like sin to me was much bigger than hiring a maid. It was about a culture in which black people are poor and white people are rich. A cancerous growth lurked in the underbelly of how things worked, of who had been given education and jobs. And that injustice was its own kind of sin. It was a collective sin we all contributed to in some way, sin that lived in the opportunities given and owned, in the opportunities denied.
Apartheid came to an end in South Africa. Jim Crow laws were overturned in the United States. But racial injustice has long, hairy roots. Those roots push down into cities and jails and neighborhoods and schools. They grow in the cracks until we accept them as part of the landscape. Only those with eyes to see—the oppressed and those willing to engage the pain of the ones who suffer—can recognize the gnarled, twisted undergrowth that traps us or props us up before we’re even born.
I grew up in the Bible Belt of Texas, middle class. My great-great-grandparents found their way to Texas from the South because the land was cheap. Although my people were never wealthy enough to consider owning slaves, they were present in the shame of that collective sin. They were part of the society that benefited from slavery. I am from them.
I began to believe that what has been done and what has been left undone affects us from the very beginning. My ancestors may not have owned slaves, but my poor, sharecropping family and the families of my brothers and sisters of color entered the end of the nineteenth century with deeply unequal opportunities. And that inequality carried on.
My ancestors moved to Texas and bought land. They grew cotton and raised children who grew up to find good blue-collar jobs, and whose kids eventually went to college. Black families may have been freed from slavery by 1865, but laws were enacted to bar their progress. If the American Dream were a footrace, my ancestors were running with feet free, while people of color had their ankles bound together.
The ride from Durban to Johannesburg with a woman whose name I can no longer remember forced me to look hard at the tangled web of my ancestry, to recognize that racism wasn’t something sad that happened to other people. It had allowed me to live on the white side of town, where the schools were better and parents had the time and resources to be part of the PTA. It had allowed me to feel safe on my neighborhood streets, even when across the city from me there were children who lived in fear of violent crime. My privilege was there in the heart of how our education system worked, how and where we built our homes, who we went to church with. Well-meaning white folks who never intended to hurt anyone were capable of being complicit in this injustice, simply by not asking questions, by not noticing how easy it was to run that footrace, not noticing the people still at the starting line all tied up.
I didn’t know how to say that to Molly that day over the burritos. I came back from Africa with a sense that when Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he was speaking about something much more powerful than surface-level relational healing. He was talking about peacemaking deep in the gnarled roots. He was talking about peacemaking that demands that we all not only acknowledge the roots, but get to work cutting, scraping, pulling them up—then caring for the wounds of those who have been trapped by those roots all along.
It begins by white people asking questions of our black brothers and sisters. What is life like for them in this country? How do they experience racism on a daily basis? And if we who are white have no relationships with people of color, it begins by stepping outside our comfortable lives and getting to know someone whose life experience is different from our own. Until we do, we will be stuck inside our own knowledge of the world, and we may continue blind to the advantages in front of us.
That’s why this discussion is so hard. It asks every one of us to be uncomfortable, every one of us to hurt with those who hurt. It asks us to listen to the words of Jesus in the Beatitudes, embracing a peace that is so much more expansive that general kindness or individual morality.
I’m still learning what this means. But the more I know Jesus, the more I believe following him asks us to turn our perspectives upside down, learn to listen to the voices of those in the minority. I’m learning what it means to be a peacemaker and praying that Jesus will teach me to be brave enough to ask questions and listen when people who are different give answers that surprise me.
I’m praying I’ll learn to follow a God who always opens our eyes to the brokenness of this world and asks us to get to work.