Children, Race, and the Gospel

When events like those in Charleston, Ferguson, and New York City are brought to our awareness, we’re reminded that we’re still a country and a culture with deep divides along racial lines. These events make us uncomfortable, and push us to debate strategies and develop plans for reform. We call on government to legislate answers; we support organizations that form to champion the cause and fix the problem once and for all. Calls for “culture change” and a “new society” acknowledge the equality of all people, and actively work for it.

But after a few weeks, when media have moved on to another issue, we grow weary and feel helpless to change anything. And we quietly give up—until the next event, when we cycle through again.

Shifting Our Focus 

But what if we’ve been approaching race-related social change all wrong? First, the chief problem isn’t with government and civil leadership; it’s with sin. Our inability to truly embrace the differences of others—thereby diminishing or distancing ourselves from them—exposes the depth of the darkness in our hearts. When we look at another with an attitude of “less than,” we doubt the goodness and wisdom of God in creating them.

Above all we need the gospel, not legislation. We need a radical change in our hearts, not merely a change in the system.

When we think of cultural change, we often look to public leaders, scientists, and politicians, believing they have the power to change the problems of our culture. And in doing so, we miss that the true change-makers are literally right under our noses. They are in cribs, in strollers, on scooters, at our dinner table. Our kids can truly create cultural change, since they’re the ones who get a fresh start at seeing others without all the baggage we adults carry with us.

If we want real culture change, then, our focus ought to be on equipping our children. We must help them to see their need for Jesus, and to love and value every person God has created.

Talking About Race 

But how do we do this? We create a relational environment in which conversations about race are welcome and safe.

For several years I’ve taught a seminar on how to talk to your kids about sex. Most times the room is packed with eager parents anxious to learn the exact words to say when their kid asks about the s-word. So it’s always fun to watch their expectations crumble when I spend most of the time having them work through their own issues about sex. Until they can become open and comfortable ­­­­with their own issues, they won’t be able to communicate a clear, honest, and healthy message about sex to their children. Often children will ask simple questions, but parents will jump to conclusions about intent and launch into discussions that miss the mark. The same principle applies to conversations about race. A child’s simple remark or question can spark within us a sense of fear, inadequacy, anger, or even guilt. And we can respond in ways that suggest race isn’t a safe topic after all. But it is! It is vital, in fact, and we must get better at it.

God’s Word speaks openly about race. It’s not shy. It acknowledges that the differences in each of us are a profound part of the gospel story. The Samaritan woman points out racial difference when speaking to Jesus at the well: “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (John 4:9). The apostle John describes the diverse future for which we’re headed: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9). The author of Hebrews reminds us of our responsibility to “remember those who are mistreated, since you are also in the body” (Heb. 13:3).

If the Bible speaks openly and directly, then we need to as well.

How Do We Do This?   

Here are a few suggestions for how to move forward.

  • Create an environment in your home where curiosity about differences among people is safe and acceptable. Allow your child’s observations and questions to be freely expressed without judgment. When adults show embarrassment or evade a child’s question, we send a clear message that it’s not good to talk about that issue.
  • Speak of differences positively. When your child notices differences in someone’s hair or skin color, remark with wonder about God’s creativity in making so many different types of people. It makes the world such an interesting place when we all look different.
  • Expose your child early on to people of diverse skin colors. If this can’t be done in person, then at least use books and videos. Be mindful of the toys, books, and videos you have in your home. Make sure the people represented in these forms of media aren’t all the same race as your child. Also be mindful of how the media you and your kids watch portrays racial stereotypes.
  • Don’t overreact to your child’s comments about race. Find out what he or she is really saying and why. “That’s right,” you could say. “Isn’t it great how God made people different and interesting?”
  • Be mindful of your words in discussing and describing people in everyday conversations. Do you describe people primarily by their race?
  • In her book I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World, Marguerite Wright encourages us to aim for color-fairness, not color-blindness. Instead of pretending we don’t see racial differences in those around us or saying “we’re all the same,” we should openly acknowledge that we are different and that it’s inherently a beautiful thing.

Agents of Change 

There is real hope for change in our culture’s struggle with racism. The greatest potential doesn’t rest in the hands of politicians and activists, however, but in the hearts of our own children.

Equipped by an understanding of the gospel and its embrace of all people, our children can become redemptive agents of change in our culture. Let’s work to empower them to be just that.

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