I knew something was wrong as soon as I stepped out of the truck. A man with murder in his eyes approached with a slight crouch in his shoulders, the kind of posture you only see in predators about to attack. He circled us and spewed surprisingly coherent threats, accusations, and curses. Then suddenly he walked away, only to return briskly with a posse of violent-looking young men. Then he declared his accusations again, this time to the gathering crowd. Soon we were pressed tightly into a mob. Though the deranged man spoke nothing but lies, we were clearly taken as public enemy number one. We literally watched the facial expressions of others morph into his same grimace as he pointed at us and whispered in their ears. The police swooped in to arrest us, which was actually a saving grace—unbeknownst to us the crowd was preparing to turn our truck over and stone us in the street.
When we arrived at the jail we were directed to sit down outside. Our accuser immediately whispered something to a couple of boys and they ran away. In a few moments they returned with the local religious leaders. The man also whispered something to them. The longer he spoke the more the gentleness in their faces drained away. They shook their heads at us. Though they actually knew nothing about us, they walked into the police station with the growling man and reported every kind of false accusation against us. We were never questioned. After a few hours we were found guilty of causing the trouble the man had fabricated. The authorities told us to never return to the area.
This story was just one of the ways I experienced injustice while serving overseas. On a regular basis my teammates and I were called names, charged different prices, made fun of, groped, harassed, stared at, excluded, accused, cheated, and questioned. We were a minority by far. And we absolutely hated the helpless feeling of racism and prejudice at every turn. We hated it so much that we unconsciously developed our own subculture of not getting taken (which I didn’t even recognize until I almost fought a taxi driver in an alley for overcharging me). We had an unspoken competition over who among us had stuck it to the man the most that week. Why did we hate the injustice so much?
Because we were all privileged.
All of us were white Americans. Or I could just say ‘Americans’ because
in this country Americans means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate (Wise, 72).
We had no concept of minority. I mean, we could all tell stories about being left out or treated unfairly, individual instances of being in the minority. But none of us could identify ourselves as meeting suspicion, accusation, and lowered expectations at every turn of our lives. In the US we had only known the ignorant bliss of waking up every morning without insecurities about our race. We had only been lulled gently to sleep as beneficiaries of systems set up in our favor. So no wonder we had such little understanding of racism. And no wonder we were filled with wrath when the tables were turned.
The soul-hardening daily grind of injustice is one of the most important experiences missionaries have. How else are we to become aware of the racism all around us? Historian Kenneth Scott Latourette paints a picture of the people of God, both in the Old and New Testament, as constantly resisting God’s leadership to cross cultural boundaries. Modern missiologists such as Nik Ripken have acknowledged the same dynamic at play among people groups today. I myself often marveled over strong believers’ deep-seated hatred—and at best, indifference—toward other peoples. Missionaries are typically exalted as heroes because of the amazing sacrifices they are willing to make. Perhaps more impressive is the mighty work of God in them that they actually care for peoples not their own. This stuff doesn’t come natural.
Yet an even greater impact from missionaries’ experience as minorities is the awareness it brings of their own racism. As God graciously allowed me a small taste of the injustice that American minorities experience on a regular basis, I began to realize just how racist I was. Now I didn’t use the ‘n’ word. And I even had friends of different races and ethnicities. But at the same time I would never acknowledge any such thing as white privilege. I wouldn’t recognize many of the critical remarks about our President as racially originated. I wouldn’t allow myself to feel any remorse or responsibility for minorities’ troubles. Slavery was a long time ago. We’ve come a long way. Get over it. Get a job. Stay out of prison. Learn English. Be a father. Pull up your pants. I saw nothing unjust in these thoughts. Yet only God could use my international taste of injustice to help me begin to own my racism. And repent.
Surely this is a necessary crucible for the missionary who represents the gospel in overlapping cultures. As racially troubled as our own nation is, we only have a hint of the injustice that permeates many nations such as Iraq. Missionaries cannot lead people where they themselves have not been led. And maybe that’s the other side of their sojourning as minorities. God is conforming them to the image of his Son, the definition of the unjustly accused, the viscously excluded, the mercilessly forsaken. He has designed it all, from the daily scams to the threat of stoning, for our good and the glory of his Son among the nations.
And included among those nations is our very own. May the recents events of Ferguson lead us all, missionary or not, to mourn the racism all around us, including that which lingers in our own hearts.