Racism, Uncomplicated, Racists: Complicated (346)


Old man, take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you.
– Neil Young

I loved my grandfather. He taught me how to fire a rifle safely and accurately. He taught me how to mix mortar with just the right consistency, not too wet, but wet enough to make it sticky and hold together. He taught me how to “butter” a brick, put it in place, and use the heel of the trowel to tap the brick this way and that, so it would be plumb on the line. He was ever so patient. I never recall a time when he even raised his voice to me. Whenever I got into trouble with my parents and he was nearby, he’d look at me, wink and smile, and then I had the sense everything would be all right.

My grandfather also was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. When I was six years old, sitting on the back stoop of his house on Glenview Avenue in Cincinnati, Ohio, he gave me a Klan pamphlet, and he told me that since I now knew how to read, I should read something important and useful. It was his effort to teach me something else, something much less edifying than how to “butter” a brick; something evil, something repugnant to God and the world God so loved.

No person’s life, however, can be easily explained or neatly pigeon-holed. These days we’re so quick to judge others and label them in a way that allows us to place them simplistically into the “evil” category. Human beings are much more complicated and messy than such simplicity justifies. Although I know very little about him, James Fields the young man who drove his car into a crowd of my former neighbors in Charlottesville, killing one and wounding many more, apparently grew up being fed a diet of racism. That diet was nurtured and supplemented by certain twisted people in his life who took the place of his deceased father.

I’m not asking anyone to absolve James Fields for his heinous act or his abhorrent I lours to give. It comes from God alone. Neither am I excusing anyone’s racist behavior. No just and compassionate society can long tolerate such hate and prejudice. But I am suggesting that we all humbly take a step back from our self-righteousness. I’ve heard many white folk recently congratulate themselves on how they’ve overcome their racism (some actually claim they never even had any). They’re now completely free of it, they say. Their inability to reflect honestly on their lives is quite astonishing to me. No person I’ve ever known has achieved such moral purity as to make that claim honestly.

“Old man, take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you.” People who knew him tell me that I remind them of my grandfather. I guess they’re right, at least in terms of our physical likeness. Am I a lot like that old man? Truth be told, the answer is both yes and no. It’s complicated. Was my grandfather an evil man? No, not entirely. Did he hold evil views that were morally repugnant and broke God’s heart? Yes, he did. And he, just like the rest of us, will always stand in the need of the grace and mercy given us by Jesus Christ.



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