(Note: This article was written by request for the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics and was published in July 2018. It was also posted on the Coram Deo blog and the 4Word Women blog. I invite you to read a related article I wrote on the value of diversity in the workplace in February 2019.)
On a Focus on the Family radio program last fall, I heard Benjamin Watson, an African-American pro football player and Christian speak intelligently, compassionately, and frankly about racial issues. His balanced and biblical perspective opened my eyes. Right away, I ordered his book, Under Our Skin: Getting Real About Race – And Getting Free From the Fears and Frustrations That Divide Us. I finally finished it a few months ago. This excellent book helped me to understand the challenges that my co-workers of another race face every day. I would like to offer a brief review.
Watson begins his introduction by taking us to the tragic events that took place in August 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, two hours from where I live. Three months later, in November, a grand jury concluded there was no probable cause to indict the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, a black teenager.
Initially, Watson articulated his gut reaction to this decision in a lengthy Facebook post. He shared that he was angry, fearful, embarrassed, sad, sympathetic, offended, confused, introspective, hopeless, hopeful, and encouraged. He rearranged and expanded on these feelings, which then became the framework for the chapters in his book.
Injustice should make us angry
In chapter 1 he recounts, “I’m angry because the stories of injustice that have been passed down for generations seem to be continuing before our very eyes.” This is disheartening to me. He continues. “I’m angry because white people don’t get it. I’m angry because black people don’t get it, either.” At least he has confronted us equally.
He indicates that it has been over 150 years since slavery was abolished. He painfully points out: “You’d think that after all this time we’d have reached real parity between the races, that there would be truly equal opportunity, and that we’d be seeing and experiencing fairness in society between blacks and whites.” Sadly, he reports, “A lot of white people believe that’s actually where we are. A lot of black people know we aren’t.” I have to agree with him here.
These thoughts may seem controversial. They may make us uncomfortable. For me, I was grateful to see these issues through Watson’s eyes and experiences. I cannot be part of the solution if I do not understand what the real problems are.
My own reflections on race
I was brought up by my parents to respect people of all races. In my early elementary school days in Long Island, New York, I thought that kids of various skin colors were no different from kids that wore a red, blue, or yellow shirt. It just did not matter. This background made for an easy transition to active duty military life, where we served and lived with many Soldiers of diverse races who all got along with each other due to our shared Army values and unity of purpose.
A spiritual dimension to this issue was introduced at a Promise Keepers conference in the mid-1990’s, where I was challenged to be active in racial reconciliation. This conviction influenced my thinking and shaped men’s ministry events I led over the next several years. This concept was reemphasized during the 2016 Faith@Work Summit, as one more than one speaker pointed out that the movement had become too male and too pale. Since then, I have been seeking more opportunities at work to bring racial harmony when I can by ensuring that I, and those who work for me, treat everyone with dignity and respect. This radio interview and book came at the right time, pushing me further towards what the Lord had laid on my heart a long time ago.
The gospel should bring us encouragement and hope
The passion and honesty that Watson expressed throughout the book was refreshing and on target. Every once in a while, Watson gently taught me something that I truly needed to hear. He writes, “The problem of racism is not in ‘that guy over there.’ It’s right here.” He confessed that racism is inside himself and suggests that it is inside all of us as well. He believes that the solution is for each of us to look inside ourselves, honestly confront the biases we have, and begin to change the evil that is in our hearts.
In the middle section of the book, I read with great interest his exposition of the fears that he and other men and women of color experience. My heart was deeply grieved to read statements like this: “Black people have little expectation of being treated fairly by police in any situation. We have a high expectation of being demeaned, abused, and possibly treated violently in any encounter with law enforcement. . . This is a reality that white people simply don’t know.” I only had a glimpse of how bad this problem really is, only because I have asked Soldiers of color that have worked for me in the past to help me to see what I have never experienced firsthand.
At the end, Watson expresses a sense of encouragement, despite the fact that “we still have race issues in America”. He asserts, “ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem.” He is encouraged “because God has provided a solution for sin through his son, Jesus, and with it a transformed heart and mind.” He concludes that the cure for these front-page racist tragedies is not education or exposure, but the gospel. The gospel, he reminds us, “gives mankind hope.”
I highly recommend this book if you want to better understand the complex issues of race in order to be agents of reconciliation. Isn’t that why we are here, to tell people that Jesus’ free offer of salvation is available to all? Ultimately, there will be a vast number of men and women “from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9).
Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.