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Can Intelligence and Goodwill Replace Racism?

Let’s face it; racism in this country is a reality and a hideous evil.

There is a great line from John Merrick, the Elephant Man, in the movie by the same title. Physically distorted, emotionally tormented because of his glaring differences, he tries to justify the cruelty of others by saying to a physician, “People are frightened by what they don’t understand.”

Fear drives racism. It is a vicious fuel for all kinds of heartlessness. The simple truth is, far too many white people are terrified of black people. Terrified. And at the heart of that irrational fear is a gaping lack of understanding. There are too many of us who don’t want to understand others different from us. We’ve been white in this country so long we think the whole world is white, or should be. And we tremble with alarm that we just might someday no longer live in our dominating white world. We might then have to actually live along side of people who are a different color than us, have different cultural traditions, or religious views, or likes and dislikes than we have.

You would think I was talking about 1960 instead of 2014! But sadly, it is so the truth. We are still in this country frozen in some primitive fear and ignorance of black people.

Years ago when I was growing up in Oklahoma black people still lived in another part of town. We did have though in the church our family attended a wonderful old black man who was a member. He was the only one. Everyone called him Brother Bolton. He always sat on the last pew at the back of the church. He said he knew his place. Humble, intelligent, witty, and sweet, he was sometimes asked to say a prayer in the service. They were the most beautiful prayers I have ever heard. Brother Bolton taught me to love black people. And all people. I would hug him and sometimes sit beside him on the back row.

I was barely a teen then. One day I visited Brother Bolton in his small modest house. I took my little brother Jim with me who was maybe 5 years old then. He had seen Brother Bolton at church but had never really been around him. When we entered the house I hugged Brother Bolton and then bending down he put out his hand to Jim. Jim put his tiny hand in his large hand and then, I’ll never forget this, he looked at his hand to see if maybe it was black.  Brother Bolton just laughed.

It was a child’s curious response.

Unfortunately we have whites in this country who are just as childish in how they respond to blacks but without my brother’s innocence. There is instead a brazen ignorance, a galling lack of maturity in the way many whites see and treat our black brothers and sisters. We are all one family, you know. One human family. And in this day and time we should all know how to behave around one another.

There is no intelligence in racist thinking. No morality. No compassion. No real humanity. It’s just shallow, brutish, witless thinking.

Don’t call yourself a Christian if you hate black people. Jesus, you might remember, was not white. His love was colorless. And if you are a Christian yours should be as well.

You can give to the church. You can teach a Sunday school class. You can be a deacon or an elder or a priest or nun or a TV preacher. You can visit the sick and give money to the homeless. You can coach little league and donate to charities. But if you are racist in your thinking or actions you’re just a fraud. Plain and simple.

Intelligence and integrity involves the ability to challenge our fixed versions of reality. Intelligence keeps us from being cowards, and worse, cruel. The success of our society depends upon the judgments we as citizens make in our treatment of one another. If we remain ignorant and unwilling to understand our differences and instead live out of our fears and prejudices our future is bleak and violence will rule us.

Vaclav Havel, the gifted playwright and political dissident who became president of Czechoslovakia, helped topple Communism in his country. He fought heroically for the rights of the oppressed. He once famously said, “I feel that the dormant goodwill in people needs to be stirred. People need to hear that it makes sense to behave decently or to help others, to place common interests above their own, to respect the elementary rules of human coexistence.”  He found ways to do that with courage and intelligence.

How we need that today in our country. Racism like Communist tyranny is a scourge. Perhaps in America it too can be toppled if our leaders—political, religious, cultural—can appeal to our intelligence and stir the dormant goodwill in all of us.

© 2014 Timothy Moody

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