Spiritual Practices to Eradicate Racism

Spiritual Practices to Eradicate Racism February 11, 2014

By Michael W. Waters
Author, Freestyle: Reflections on Faith, Family, Justice, and Pop Culture

Metaphors for American Diversity: Salads, Melting Pots, Tapestries, and Mosaics

On October 27, 1976, Georgia governor and then presidential candidate James Earl Carter Jr. offered one of his final campaign speeches in Pittsburgh. In this speech, Carter stated, “We [America] have become … a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.”

Over the course of American history, many metaphors have been employed to describe the diversity of our nation – for example, a salad, melting pot, or tapestry. Some people prefer the salad metaphor. However, this metaphor proves inadequate as a descriptor of authentic diversity because it lacks connectivity – individual parts of the salad can be easily separated from the whole.

Others have favored the melting pot, noting America as a place where all races and cultures assimilate into a cohesive whole. Cultural assimilation, however, commonly results in forced assimilation into the dominant culture, which moves far from the goals of authentic diversity. Thus, the melting pot metaphor proves inadequate too.

Lauded poet laureate Maya Angelou once stated that as Americans, “We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.” At first glance, the tapestry may appear a suitable metaphor for our nation’s diversity. Yet, a tapestry can often appear sturdier than its true condition. Until a tapestry is moved or handled, which in itself may cause damage, it is difficult to appreciate the full extent of degradation in the tapestry. A tapestry proves likewise an inadequate descriptor. It may give the illusion of strength and togetherness when in fact it is weak and brittle.

In search of an adequate descriptor, Carter’s mosaic emerges as an intriguing prospect. With a history reaching back to second-millennium BC Mesopotamia and extending to the present day, mosaic is “the art of creating images with an assemblage of small pieces of colored glass, stone, marble, shells, or other material wherein the small pieces of materials are placed together to create a unified whole.” Over this long history, many cultures and religious traditions have used mosaics everywhere from houses of worship to royal palaces and seats of government.

Unlike a salad or tapestry, with a mosaic, the whole is not easily separated, and there is no illusion of strength. Ancient mosaics have survived floods, earthquakes, and mudslides. In contrast to the melting pot, in a mosaic the individual pieces retain their identity and are clearly seen and identified within the whole. The mosaic emerges as a picture of strength and of unity amid diversity, and as such, proves itself a useful descriptor for our greatest hopes for America.

Diversity and Racism

Our nation’s diversity is of unmeasurable value to the whole. At the same time, our nation’s history is riddled with the glaring and stubborn stains of racism. Amid the horrid historically intricacies of this stain are newborns ripped from the arms of their mothers, broken treaties with native nations, concentration camps constructed on the western frontier, unequal pay for equal work, and an often unjust justice system that purports to be color-blind yet rules with color consciousness.

Racism is composed of three dimensions, influencing individual, communal, and institutional realities. Racism is fully corruptible, its impact far-reaching, touching generations yet unborn. Racism is a vice with a real body count. And given the history of racism in our nation, the ongoing work to eradicate its errors is essential.

Eradicating Racism: A Spiritual Practice

What is true for creating a mosaic is also true for eradicating racism; it is a tedious process. Racism’s eradication must first occur within the heart. No amount of legislation nor laws passed can ever change the heart. As a matter of the heart, the fight to eradicate racism is a deeply personal, even spiritual, undertaking. Given this reality, spiritual practice is required to eliminate racism and to form an authentic and beautiful mosaic of diversity and mutual respect in our nation.

First, as spiritual practice, eradicating racism requires repentance. This is because racism is a sin. The first Johannine epistle explicitly declares this truth in relationship to the Divine. The epistle writer penned, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). Confessing the sin of racism is good for the American soul! It is only after repentance that true healing in our nation can begin. Here the words of Hebrew Scripture ring true: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

Second, eradicating racism also requires forgiveness. Individuals and communities that have suffered under the scourge of racism must find strength from God to forgive their oppressors. Unforgiveness is like a cancer to the soul and can breed hate, causing people to become like those they hate. The inherent difficulties related to forgiving those who have mistreated you require a commitment to the spiritual practice of prayer. This practice is best exemplied by Jesus, who during his crucifixion prayed for his persecutors, saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Finally, but most important, eradicating racism requires great courage. Whenever and wherever we see the ugly stain of racism, we must be willing to speak out against it. We cannot remain silent! As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” Neither repentance nor forgiveness can be accomplished without those who are courageous enough to stand for truth and justice, pointing out the stain of racism, then challenging us all to work together toward its eradication.

Through repentance and forgiveness with great prayer, and with a commitment to remain courageous in the face of challenge, let’s commit ourselves to the spiritual odyssey of eradiating racism.

Let’s get to work! We have a beautiful mosaic to build.

For more articles on Race and the Church, visit the Patheos Black History Month page here. 

The Reverend Dr. Michael W. Waters is founding pastor of Joy Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas. As pastor, preacher, professor, author, motivational speaker, and community organizer, Dr. Waters’s words of hope and empowerment have inspired national and international audiences.

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147 responses to “Spiritual Practices to Eradicate Racism”

  1. Thank you for this beautiful work of what is really needed to “heal the land.”

    Why are we not following this prescription for making peace with each other?

    “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:15-18 RSV)

    The current process of forgiveness is what I call “Christianity Light.” We confess to our confessor or to “God” in private. “God” immediately “forgives” us and we go about committing the same sins against the same people. I believe this is because we have never had to humble ourselves to the person we harmed, and we have no witnesses to the promises we make to hold us to our agreements of restitution. Part of this is the cowardice of the people who call themselves the “body of Christ” in the church; they don’t want to “interfere” or get “involved.” It is easy to say, “I’m sorry.” It is healing (and perhaps harder) to say, “I’m sorry. Tell me what I should do to make peace with you,” and follow through on our commitments, with witnesses holding us to them.

  2. Protestantism gave up one Pope far away; why would anyone degrade himself by putting himself under thousands of popes close up?

  3. We desperately need to get past racism and we should be working at it. But I have to point out that black churches, perhaps especially, tend to be mired in a similar bigotry: opposing rights for homosexuals. I used to have extended arguments about this with a black church worker who denied the obvious parallels. And in North Carolina where I now live there were black pastors who urged their congregations to not vote for President Obama because he’d come out for gay rights. That is the ultimate form of cutting of your nose to spite your face, and I must admit I’ve wondered whether they were taking payments to do it.

    But anyway, while racism must be fought and beaten the black community also needs to combat a very similar bigotry within its ranks.

  4. We might be able to get past racism when do-gooders admit that all cultural social contracts are not created equal. Why is 90% of all “racial” commentary about (sometimes self-identified) black people? Never about Chinese, Korean Japanese . . . people? Because their ethnic social contract is more civilized and productive than WASP social contract?

  5. Thanks for a well considered and heartfelt article. From a perspective grounded in the Buddha Dharma rather than the Christ Dharma, I would frame the same process like this.

    First, as spiritual practice, eradicating racism requires repentance. This is because racism is ignorance and our deep seeded karma of grasping and attachment to ignorance for uncountable ages requires repentance to acknowledge the past wrongs and open the door for changed behavior going forward.

    Second, eradicating racism also requires forgiveness. Individuals and communities that have suffered under the scourge of racism must find strength in the true Suchness of Buddha Nature to forgive their oppressors, just as the oppressors must also forgive themselves for their past ignorance, because at the root we are all of one mind that contains both oppressor and oppressed and we are all equal in our manifesting the one mind of the true nature of reality.

    Finally, but most important, eradicating racism requires great courage. Whenever and wherever we see the ugly stain of racism, we must be willing to speak out against it. We cannot remain silent! We must not passively accept the continuation of ignorance that is embedded in the big lie that there is a “white race” or a “black race” and that people can be pigeon holed as “white” or “black” in any way that does not act as a continuation of the stain of racism. The words “white” and “black” when used to describe people are exactly the lingering stain of racism.