Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, which happened in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
Much is being written to recognize this event and the man who gave his life to help change America's prevailing racial culture.
Still, folks today often ask: Am I a racist just because I love "my own kind of people"?
Writer and scholar C.S. Lewis says there's a time when love for "our own" turns into hate for "others", and he suggests how to deal with this fact.
C.S. Lewis: The Root of Racism
In a private letter, C.S. Lewis once remarked that racism, like so many other sins, takes something that is good in itself and perverts it into something bad. The kernel of good that is there at the start, he said, is a feeling of love and affinity towards one’s own kinsmen (or family, or nation, or tribe, or whatever word you choose).
Prejudice or racism, Lewis said, elevates this natural love, which is good in itself, and puts it in opposition to other loves that should also be present in each person.
Love for one’s “own kind of people” is instinctual at a certain level, but it becomes sinful when it causes someone to feel no obligation to love—or, even worse, to feel obliged to hate people who are different—“outsiders”.
If someone is irrationally biased towards his or her own race, said Lewis, then the solution isn’t to love one's own people less as much as it is to love other people more. God wants us to love all people, and the love we have for our own group can never be used as a pretense to not love other groups.
The early Christian church wrestled with this. Some early leaders had a hard time coming around to loving and accepting Gentiles into the Christian faith, but they did.
They recognized that the Body of Christ includes all people groups. Prejudice, or limiting God’s love, to any one group contradicts the gospel.
Spotting Prejudice in the Heart
If love for one’s own kind of people is, to some extent, instinctual, then suspicion and/or discomfort towards people who are “different” comes natural to most of us as well—at least at first.
If you see someone whose looks, habits, culture, etc. are extremely different from yours, feeling uncomfortable is sin anymore than it’s a sin for a teenage boy to notice a very attractive girl.
Just like noticing the girl becomes sin when it evolves into lust and impurity, discomfort about those different than us becomes sin when we don't even try to counter that knee jerk reaction.
If we see prejudice in ourselves but turn a blind eye and let it fester, in time that slight discomfort, which seemed trivial at first, can morph into all-out racial hatred.
Such a discomfort, though often racially based, can also be based on income differences—we see someone dressed poorly and, without even deliberately intending to, we find ourselves subconsciously “looking down” on him or her. It can also be age-based. Some elderly people can be very uncharitable in their attitudes towards the attire of the younger generation.
Dealing with Personal Prejudice
The best and simplest way to disarm these knee jerk reactions against people who are “different” is to get to know them. This helps us believe the best about other people without jumping to the worst possible conclusions.
Though some people talk wistfully of America one day becoming a “color blind” society, Dr. King’s dream was for something better than this. He longed not for a society where differences are not ignored or suppressed, but where they are recognized and celebrated.
If God had intended us to be “color blind”, he wouldn’t have made humankind so colorful in the first place!
The hypothetical “color blind” society presupposes that noting racial differences is a bad thing. The goal, however, shouldn’t be to ignore our different colors or cultures, but rather to notice them, appreciate them, and be glad for them.
Wanting a "color blind" society almost presupposes that it would be impossible to really notice the differences among ourselves without being biased against each other. Christians are called to be able to notice, and delight in, the varied ways that God has made each of us look. The diversity of the human race gives him glory and we shouldn't be embarrassed about it.
A “color blind” society is, of course, better than a racist society.
Yet better than both of these would be a society where people’s differences are noticed and appreciated as part of the person’s God-given identity. Thanks to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. we are closer to being that kind of society.