I am lying flat on my back, my left leg propped on pillows in pain, unable to reach full extension. Next Tuesday, I will have surgery to repair a torn meniscus, the third surgery on my left knee in four decades. Lying here is cause to remember the first injury in 1977 . . .
It was a rainy Saturday in the fall of my senior year at college. The football team of the small college that I attended was in Wisconsin to play a rival. Our warm-ups were over and just before we headed out of the locker room for the kick-off, our coach said, “I want all my defensive backs to put on one-inch cleats.” For those who may not know, forty years ago football shoes came with different size cleats that you could screw on and off for better traction, depending upon the turf of the field. Most fields back then were grass that, after a rain, became slick and slippery. Longer cleats gave the player a firmer grip on the surface. Standard cleats were onehalf inch long. You could replace these with three-quarter-inch cleats. One-inch cleats were illegal, banned from use by the NCAA because they were known to cause knee injuries. I knew the cleats were illegal. The coach knew the cleats were illegal. I was not going to change my cleats. But the coach was looking straight at me. Knowing my propensity to ignore his commands, the coach waited to see what I would do. I changed to one-inch cleats.
Midway into the first half, while covering a receiver downfield, I planted my left foot and turned quickly to the right. The full force of my body twisted and moved right. But the one-inch cleats on my left foot stuck firmly in the ground. I heard a pop, fell down, and buckled over in pain. I had torn my medial-collateral ligament and meniscus. My playing days were done. Four decades of knee problems had just begun. This happened because a football coach at a small Christian college wanted his players to wear illegal cleats.
I forgave the coach long ago, but my pain today reminds me of its genesis, and prompts reflection on a painful truth: forgiveness can heal the heart, but transformation comes through repentance. If you throw a stone into a pond, waves emanate out in concentric circles from where the stone enters the water. Larger stones produce greater size and distance of the waves. Sin has the same ripple effect. Even a small sin, like illegal cleats, can cause ripples that last for decades. Some sin is so big it causes a tsunami of devastation that lasts for centuries. Consider the sin of racism, for example.
Last Wednesday night, June 17, 2015, a young white man walked into the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He was welcomed into a Bible study group where he sat quietly for about an hour. Suddenly and without warning the young man stood up, pulled out a gun, and opened fire. He said he was there “to shoot black people.” Six women and three men were killed, including the church’s pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. The gunman reloaded his pistol five times, ignoring pleas of the Bible study group members to stop.
Two days later, after the gunman was captured, families of the nine who were killed faced the young man in court and told him about the lives he had taken and pain he had caused. The daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance spoke for her family. “I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul,” she said. “It hurts me, it hurts a lot of people, but God forgive you and I forgive you.” The sister of Rev. DePayne MiddletonDoctor, 49, spoke for her family, saying,“We have no room for hate. We have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.”
Nine defenseless people are shot in a Bible study because of racial hatred and their families offer immediate forgiveness because they are followers of Jesus. We may marvel at the spirit of mercy in these brothers and sisters, but we should not be surprised. We should not be surprised because forgiveness is what followers of Jesus do. We should not be surprised because African American Christians have been forgiving racism for more than two centuries. Racism’s complex and devastating effects continue in America for many reasons, far too many to suggest one cure. The ripples have too many ripples. Forgiveness is a powerful start— for all Christians, white and black. But examination and repentance is needed also, especially among those who worship in churches that are largely White.Let me suggest two issues that I believe require our examination and repentance:*
- White Christians extend the ripple effects of racism by listening to and repeating the condescending and racist characterizations of our President on cable news and in social media. There has always been political disagreement in America, but the subtle and not so subtle animus directed at President Obama during the past eight years has often been racist. You may vigorously disagree with his politics or policy. You may think he is taking the country in the wrong direction. You may even think that the President is undermining Christian values, but he is the democratically elected President of the United States. President Barack Obama serves at the pleasure of God and deserves the honor and respect of all who follow Jesus, as do all who serve. The ripple effect of racism multiplies when Christians use language of division and hate. Jesus says that what comes out of your mouth reveals what is in your heart. The same is true about what you post on Facebook.
- White Christians extend the ripple effect of racism by their love affair with guns. I know the mere mention of gun control raises hackles, but that is my point. Why do Christians, especially White Christians, affirm or remain silent about the overproduction and unfettered distribution of instruments that are designed for the sole purpose of killing people? I am not speaking about hunting or the recreational use of firearms. I am speaking about Christians believing and repeating the racist logic that “if guns are taken away from good people (read White people) than only bad people (read Black people) will have guns.”
Jesus inaugurates a new kingdom that places love as the central virtue. What if what Jesus started rippled through you and your church?
Jim Van Yperen
Footnote: *Repentance may be needed in the Black Church as well, but that is for African-American leaders to discern and address.