My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. …If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,”you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.
-James 2:1, 8-9
Over the past couple years, I have returned repeatedly to a portion in James that warns believers against showing favoritism. I have read it over and over, and for the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why the Lord kept bringing me back to it. “Favoritism” and “partiality,” as it is called in some translations, are not words that we use very often. I didn’t feel the immediate sting of conviction that I do with some other verses.
Then something happened. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I began to notice something that had been happening. I saw the news fill with stories of police brutality against innocent black Americans. In Dallas, just down the road from me, a protest against police brutality ended with the murder of five police officers. Last summer in Charlottesville, Virginia, in response to the removal of a Confederate statue, a horrific display of white nationalism at a protest became violent, culminating in the murder of a 32 year old counter-protestor.
In the midst of these devastating incidents, I watched my Facebook feed become a contentious platform for people’s anger and defensiveness. My mostly-white community of Facebook friends remained silent or defended the accused police officers and responded to “Black Lives Matter” with indignant exclamations of “All lives matter!” The outpouring of support for the Dallas police department as they grieved the loss of five officers suddenly became polarizing. As we had blue ribbons from our neighborhood association tied around the trees in our front yard in a show of support for the Dallas police department, I suddenly found myself wondering how the blue ribbons made people of color feel. Where were the ribbons around our trees after the unjust killings of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Edwards, and so many others? If we show our support for the police but not the victims of police brutality, what message are we sending to our brothers and sisters of color?
Shortly after the Charlottesville protest, a friend shared a Facebook post encouraging white people to elevate the voices of people of color (POC) instead of just adding our (white people’s) own opinions to the noise. The post included a list of people of color who post about issues of racial justice, and she suggested that we (white people) start following them. I had never heard any of the names before but began to follow each one. As I read posts and articles written by POC who graciously educate white people about what it’s like to be a person of color living in America, everything shifted for me. I watched them engage in uncomfortable discussions with white people who denied that racism is a problem or that we (white people) all benefit from a system that upholds white superiority. I began reading books and listening to podcasts by POC who shared painful experiences. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I began to wake up to the reality that my experience as a white American is vastly different than that of black and brown Americans.
So began my ongoing journey of awakening to the problem of systematic racism in our country. Undoubtedly, one of the most uncomfortable parts of the journey has been acknowledging the ways I benefit from a system that upholds white people as more valuable than POC. Because this message is in the very air we breathe in American culture, it can be subtle and hard to see without assistance. Even more difficult, I have begun to confront some of my own biases and prejudices that I would rather have left unacknowledged.
Favoritism? What favoritism? I used to ask myself when I read James 2. I pretty much love people, right?
Now I read it and think of the times I have made incorrect assumptions about someone based on her skin color. I think of my shelves full of books written by white authors, my Facebook feed full of white friends, my neighborhood full off white people, and all the people of authority in my life, the overwhelming majority of whom have been white. I think about how white my world has been from the time I was born, and suddenly, I know I need this admonishment to beware of favoritism.
Inevitably, this has led to a broader exploration of the experiences of other marginalized groups of people. I am learning that I can listen to people who have different perspectives and even different values than I do while still honoring the gift of their vulnerability in sharing their stories. I can set aside my judgment–and all the ways I have rationalized why my view is right and theirs is wrong–long enough to listen to their pain.
In one conversation with a sister of color who shared the ways she has been hurt by racism, she asked how I had become interested in learning about racial reconciliation. As I shared my journey with her, she was intrigued by why I would engage with matters of racial justice as a white person who benefits from the system.
The deeper I delve into this work, the more I realize that like all sins, the sin of favoritism in all its forms—racism, sexism, classism, and so on—harms us all. The denial of the biblical truth that all people are created in God’s image prevents us all from experiencing the richness of life that Christ died to give us. I am honored and grateful for the brothers and sisters of color who have entered into this work willingly, patiently, and with so much grace. God has used their willingness to engage in this messy work to slowly remove the blinders from my eyes in my ongoing process of awakening. Instead of bitterness, they choose hope. Instead of holding on to anger, they choose to educate the very ones who have hurt them.
As I am learning to submit intentionally to the leadership of people of color, my worldview is expanding and my view of God has exploded into something greater than I ever could have imagined. I find His image in all of these new friends and co-laborers in the work of racial reconciliation, and the stunning beauty of it takes my breath away.
While visiting my sister’s multiethnic church recently, I stood in the midst of a congregation of people with every skin color imaginable, and we all praised God together. In my mind’s eye, I saw myself entering a place with a huge banquet table filled with people of all races and ethnicities, with Jesus in the middle. I was overwhelmed by the beauty and richness of the scene before me and the feeling you get when you know you are being offered something infinitely greater than what you deserve. He looked at me with love and affection radiating from his eyes and said, “Welcome to the table.”