Here we are between the holidays. As I write this, Christmas is behind us and Martin Luther King Day is before us. I celebrate my Savior on the one day and a childhood hero on the other.
My first brush with racial prejudice was at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. I was raised in a primarily white, suburban neighborhood in Illinois and therefore unacquainted with words of hate toward another race since there were none on my street to talk about. But when my mother took me shopping in town, I certainly was aware there were people who did not look like me. I was just never informed that I should mistrust them. But there at the museum, I stood in line with my older sister surrounded by girls of another color.
“Little white girl,” one slurred as she gave me a shove. My mind whirled wondering what I had done to this person to warrant her taunting behavior. Again she pushed me while condemning my color to the delight of her friends. Thankfully it didn’t escalate into violence beyond my hurt feelings, but it left me confused. This girl didn’t know me and yet she hated me. Why?
When we came back from Christmas break in 1973, my elementary school teacher took us into a lesson plan on Martin Luther King, Jr. Though the federal holiday that commemorates the civil rights leader would not be officially recognized for another 10 years, I was an eager student to hear the story that January.
I was SHOCKED to learn that my race had once enslaved Dr. King’s race. SHOCKED that only a few years before I was born, black people were expected to sit at the back of the bus and drink from separate water fountains. I became intensely interested in learning about the oppression of black people and realized what was behind that girl’s hatred of me, the “little white girl.”
We are between the holidays and Christmas songs are still in my CD player. I was enjoying my favorite “O Holy Night” and as I sang along, I not only thought about Jesus but all those who stand up in His place to be a beacon for righteousness like Martin Luther King. If we claim to be taught by Jesus, then what do our actions prove?
“Truly He taught us to love one another…”
Who is “one another?” Is it limited to our family, our race, our religion, or only those who agree with us?” Wishing to justify ourselves, we might venture to ask “who is my neighbor?” Knowing our inclination to do this, Jesus Himself provided a story on which to reason. Whether you are reading this as a Christian or an active member of the Watchtower Society, we both have been provided ample information on the life of Jesus and the lessons He taught.
As a parent raising my children to be Jehovah’s Witnesses, I read to them from the little pink book “Listening to the Great Teacher” which was published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society copyrighted in 1971. New to the Bible myself, I was learning these stories about Jesus right along with my children. The story of the Good Neighbor on page 35 intrigued me most. It is the lesson of the Good Samaritan taken from Luke 10:30-37. In the Watchtower publication, the lesson begins with a question, “Do you know anyone who has a skin color different from yours?” And I was happy to dive into the lesson with my little girls as this was a familiar topic of interest for me. The intention of the chapter was to present Jesus as our example and challenge us “to love people of all kinds” as noted in paragraph three. I have no issue with how the Watchtower went on to portray the lesson to young minds in the next three pages. Then the lesson concluded on page 38 with these words.
“Wasn’t that a fine story? It makes clear who our neighbors are. Our neighbors are not only our close friends. Our neighbors are not only persons of our own country, or persons who have the same skin color as we do. Our neighbors are people of all kinds.”
I couldn’t help but feel ashamed teaching my little children this beautiful lesson while at the same time being pressured to warn them not to make friends with children outside “Jehovah’s organization.” The publishers of this little pink book did a fine job of highlighting the wrong of judging anyone based on skin color, but neglected to point out that prejudice comes in all forms. How about the mistrust toward our neighbors who are not of our religion?
Jehovah’s Witnesses consider themselves as loving their neighbors when they go out and talk to people of various skin color and religion, but they are cautioned not to be friends with any of them unless they convert to the Watchtower. They also shun their own family members who do not agree with their religion. Like the priest and the Levite correctly portrayed in the story as “religious men,” Jehovah’s Witnesses likewise avoid those not of their own kind. Yes, I got the lesson of the story as I read it to my children, and it caused me to question the very religion to which I had recently converted. Their lesson backfired because in their indoctrination outside of that book, they weren’t filling me with compassion to be like “the good Samaritan,” but more like the religious men who left their broken neighbor for dead in the ditch — not based on skin color, of course, but on religious labels.
I know what it is to be harassed based on my skin color. I also know what it is to distrust someone else based on their religious label. Both of these prejudices are taught. Children left to themselves would not know such hate. Like Dr. King, I had a dream that my little children would one day live in a nation where they would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I still hold to that dream.
We are living in an era that makes it easier to spread hate. One “share” on social media and we can inform the world to join us in our mistrust of people of another race, religion, or political ideal. But we do have a choice to “share” hope instead of hate. The propaganda at the Kingdom Hall made me question how I could “love my neighbor as myself” when I was constantly bombarded with messages to hate them. If I was going to share any “gospel of peace” with them, I needed to see them as people and not just “worldly” targets for indoctrination into my religion, but the longer I remained in my protective bubble of “us vs. them,” I feared losing the valuable sensitivity to prejudice I had gained in paying attention to the heroes of my youth like Martin Luther King, Jr.
Then I found myself between the holidays paying attention to this beautiful stanza out of a Christmas song first played at a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in 1847. I learned that it’s author, Placide Cappeau, rarely attended Mass himself but was commissioned by a local parish priest who appreciated his poetry. Later the song was omitted from services and attacked by the French Catholic Church based on false allegations that it’s composer was Jewish. Christians sing the lyrics given by a man who is in the annals of history as one outspoken against slavery and social injustice, yet he didn’t appear to carry the label of “Christian” himself.
“Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His Gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His Name all oppression shall cease.”
Of course Jehovah’s Witnesses did not sing that song during the month of December, but millions in churches stood up to declare it’s verses in praise of the night recognized as Our Dear Savior’s birth. If still alive, the man who penned those words likely would not be standing up in church to sing them with the congregated throngs. Though also reported to be an atheist, sounds to me like Cappeau understood the role of those who claim to follow Christ. And I pause to ask myself, fellow Christians, and Jehovah’s Witnesses this question: when we put on the armor of God, do we remember that our feet are to be shod “with the preparation of the gospel of peace?” (Ephesians 6:15) Or are we so well armored we’re more eager to go into battle with “the other” by demonizing their creed?
“Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His Name all oppression shall cease.”
Who breaks the chains? And who makes oppression cease? Will we end oppression by gathering to ourselves more troops to hate with us? Is that the example of the One who laid down His own life? I find it curious that it was a lapsed Catholic turned atheist that lifted up Jesus in his own era and the church is still being stirred by his words today. Cappeau was not commissioned to convert us, but he did follow the course of lifting up Jesus so that He could draw men to Himself (John 12:32). Maybe that is all we’re called to do as well. Share HOPE, not HATE.
March peacefully in 2018.
If you are interested in reading more about how Martin Luther King, Jr influenced me while growing up, please see my article “The Author of Our Faith Stories”
Keep yourself in God’s love,