Our newsletter, "Cross Current" is published each Sunday. Along with an up-to-date rundown of congregational activities, each edition features an interesting and challenging cover story that connects faith to real life.
Written by Rick Gamble, these articles are published the following week in the Brantford Expositor where Rick is the Religion and Ethics columnist.
The Truth in Black and White
He put a whole new complexion on racism.
Like most privileged people who grew up in the American south in the 1930s and 40s, Texan John Howard Griffin thought Negroes were different. But his Christian parents taught him to treat the family's black servants with respect and kindness. Once, Griffin's grandfather slapped him for using a common racial slur. “They're people,” the older man said. “Don't you ever let me hear you call them [that] again.”
After smuggling Jewish children from France into England during World War Two, Griffin served in the Pacific where he was blinded by shrapnel. But his deepening faith saw him through and, years later, his sight was completely restored, for reasons doctors couldn't explain.
By then, Griffin's faith had convinced him racism was just plain wrong. “The only way I could see to bridge the gap between us was to become a Negro,” he wrote. So with the support of his wife, Elizabeth, Griffin worked with a dermatologist, spent hours under tanning lamps, and took a drug to darken his skin.
For six weeks in 1959, the writer traveled the segregated South to experience life on the other side of the colour divide, financed by Sepia magazine. During the odyssey, Griffin never hid his name or identity. When asked who he was and what he was doing, he told the truth. He also wrote a 188-page diary chronicling the profound loneliness and alienation of his “personal nightmare”. Daily, he was avoided or scorned by whites, called the same name for which he'd been slapped as a boy, and had to “zigzag” between two worlds. The worst part, he said, was “the hate stare” that made him “sick at heart”.
Though a few whites treated him decently, Griffin lived mostly with black families and endured the same inhumanity they suffered. He finally retreated to a monastery and wrote articles that would later become the book Black Like Me. He expected it to interest “a few sociologists” and was stunned when the novel sold millions in 14 languages, was made into a movie, and became part of American high school studies.
But that wasn't the end of the story. Racists subjected Griffin to “a dirty bath” of hatred, he was burned in effigy in Texas, and threatened with torture and death. Three years after his book, the Ku Klux Klan viciously beat him on a dark road and left him for dead. But he came back, befriending Martin Luther King and delivering a thousand civil rights speeches. He remained a champion of peace and harmony until heart failure killed him in 1980 at age 60. By then, real racial change was underway. His book is now a classic.
This same basic story is outlined in another classic Book. After all, the Nativity shows how Jesus left his place of privilege and came to this earth, knowing the only way He could bridge the gap between us and God was to become human. “Though he was God, He didn't think equality with God was something to cling to. Instead, He... took the position of a slave, and was born as a human being.” (Philippians 2:6,7).
The key difference is that Jesus didn't just look human, He was human, in every way. “He came to help [us] so it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us [so] He could offer a sacrifice that would take away [our] sins. Since He has gone through suffering and testing, He understands ours, for He faced all the same testings we do, yet didn't sin. So let's come boldly to the throne of our gracious God [and] we'll find grace to help us when we need it most.” (Hebrews 2:16-18; 4:15, 16)
From the time He lowered himself, Jesus never hid his name or true identity. He openly claimed to be the Son of God, the Messiah, the Sin Buster (John 10:24, 36). He told the truth about who He was and what He was doing, and passionately showed his belief in the value and equality of all human beings.
But as He experienced life on this side of the spiritual divide, He endured profound loneliness and alienation. His opponents avoided and scorned him, called him names, humiliated and brutally beat him, and left him for dead. But He came back, a risen champion of peace and harmony who showed us the ugly truth about ourselves and offered a way forward through confession and reconciliation.
Though great gains have been made, there's still much to be done. But by breaking into our world, Jesus made a way for us to break into his. Christmas is about smashing the chains of sin and spiritual oppression; about “festive praise instead of despair”; and about being “overwhelmed with joy... for He has dressed [us] with the clothing of salvation and draped [us] in a robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61).
Whatever we go through, we can be confident Jesus will empathize and understand and work in the situation, if we let him. He not only makes God relatable, He gives us what we need and changes hearts or circumstances.
Fully divine, He was nothing like I am. But He was also fully human. Human like me.
By Rick Gamble. Reprint at will in not-for-profit publications. Originally published in Cross Current, the weekly newsletter of Followers of Christ, an independent, nondenominational church in Brantford, Ontario, Canada. To get these free weekly articles by email, with no strings attached, send a note to Rick at email@example.com