On Saturday a recording surfaced of a conversation between the owner of the NBA’s LA Clippers, Donald Sterling, and his girlfriend. This recording contained some very racist comments made my Sterling. It wasn’t that he was calling people names, but his distaste for African-Americans was clear. For instance, he told his girlfriend that he didn’t want her bringing her black friends to Clippers games.
On Tuesday the NBA commissioner announced that he was suspending Donald Sterling from the NBA for life, and fining him 2.5 million dollars. He also believed that the other owners would vote to force Sterling to sell the team. (This article contains a good summary of these events.)
This is not a sports blog. In this post I don’t intend to analyze whether or not this incident has been handled correctly. Here are 3 lessons I believe churches can learn from this mess.
1. Racism is a Big Deal.
Many churches across America ignore racial division in the church. The vast majority churches can be described as black, or white, or Asian, or Hispanic, etc. Remarkably few churches have a membership that matches the demographics of their community. Most churches are unwilling to take steps to change the racial and cultural mix of their congregation.
The lack of urgency regarding the racial mix of churches across America is jarring. Contrast this ambivalence with the urgency the NBA players showed in their response to Donald Sterling’s comments. They were willing to boycott playoff games if they believed the response of the league was inadequate.
Perhaps we get comfortable sitting in our familiar buildings looking at familiar faces. Perhaps we lose sight of attitude shifts in the broader society. But this incident and the immediate public and player backlash demonstrate that today racism is a big issue with very little tolerance for those spewing hate.
While I certainly don’t imagine any churches I know would issue statements like those Sterling made, the lesson to absorb is that we cannot overlook the messages we project regarding race relations because this is a big deal.
2. There are No Excuses.
When this story first broke on Saturday I heard a few comments along the lines of, “Sterling is 81. He’s an old man and his statements reflect the values of the society in which he was raised. We should just fine him and get on with the playoffs.” The ensuing public furor quickly made that approach indefensible.
Churches have many members that lived through the civil rights turmoil of the 1960’s. In predominantly white churches many of these members and their families were opposed to the reforms sought by the civil rights movement.
Today most of these same people love their multicultural neighbours just as God does. But many churches also harbour people who, like Sterling, continue to speak negatively of other races. They may not express these thoughts publicly, but they express them around the dinner table when they see another Mexican restaurant open in town.
I know that we have people in our churches who often passively project a message saying, “I don’t mind if you have black friends at school or work, but don’t bring them to my church.” Churches don’t place signs on the street saying “Minorities Unwelcome”, but neither do most churches communicate the message that minorities will be welcomed.
Some people will say that Sterling shouldn’t be punished for comments he made in the privacy of his own home.
When it comes to God we don’t have any privacy. We can’t make the excuse that although I think racist thoughts and don’t trust or welcome anyone representing a different culture, I’m not a racist because I don’t act badly toward them.
God’s standard is not whether we act badly toward those of other cultures. God’s standard asks us whether or not we love them! 1 John 4:20 won’t allow us to compartmentalise our lives between the way we view the Creator and his Creation, “If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?”
When it comes to racism, there are NO excuses!
3. Racism Contaminates Everyone It Touches.
Did you notice how quickly the NBA started the process for removing Sterling’s association with the league? Within four days of the recording becoming public he can no longer enter team premises or attend NBA games, even though he owns the team!
This can potentially be a tough lesson for churches to implement. Churches are filled with sinful people making a journey toward God. Christians bring many sinful habits and attitude to church with us. It is quite possible that someone who attends a wonderful church could make racially insensitive, or even hateful, comments. This will inevitably reflect upon the church. However, churches need to view instances of racism as severe sins and spiritual immaturity. We need to actively work to transform those attitudes into those closer to God’s heart.
For this reason churches must make clear statements about God’s view of race relations. We must articulate that God loves all races and cultures. We recognise and acknowledge the differences between us. We value the diversity of our society as a gift that gives us new eyes through which to see and experience God.
When churches establish a culture that respects ethnic diversity, our community will be much more likely to view isolated insensitivities and statements as not representative of the church and God. But if churches fail to make clear positive statements regarding the importance of racial harmony our community will clearly hear us making a negative statement.
If you have some additional ideas of ways churches can learn from these recent events, please continue the conversation by leaving a comment.