Thoughtful Pastor: How do I deal with my racist dad?

July 19th, 2016

Dear Thoughtful Pastor: I love my parents very, very much. But I wish my dad would quit being so racist in front of my nieces. How do I tell them that what he is saying is junk without making them lose respect for him?

It is not your job to ensure that your nieces maintain respect for your father. That respect, or lack of it, is between them and your father. However, it is your job to offer a different perspective on race relations than your father offers to them.

In order to do that, it helps to understand the roots of racial tensions. They always spring from one source: fear of the unknown. That fear is part of our human nature — without some sense of healthy fear, people would not have survived.

Pretend for a moment that you are part of a small band of hunter/gathering people, bonded together by ties of family and a long shared history and living thousands of years ago. You know and trust each other. You also live a tenuous existence, not knowing if outsiders can be trusted. In fact, hard experience suggests that those not part of any extended kinship bonds may hurt you.

In other words, if you come across a group of people who don’t look like you, be very afraid. Survival very well may mean defeating those strange-looking people before they get the chance to defeat you. 

That kind of “kill or be killed” coding is embedded with us, even though we live in such radically different circumstances. Instead of periodic exposures to the other, often separated by months or years, we face exposures daily. Many live on trigger alert all the time but don’t know why. It’s just a part of existence. Too many overreact to possible threats.

How do we get past this? We must. The stakes are too high. In many cases, our hunter/gatherer ancestors fought their battles ritually, with a few designated warriors and careful rules. Think of today’s professional sports teams. The tribe that saw defeat moved on.

Now, innocents are routinely killed. We can take out entire nations with the punch of a few buttons.

It is probably too late to see much lowering of your father’s fear. Probably that fear has been solidified over the years by unrelenting waves of self-reinforcing media blasts. It’s more firmly planted than a steel beam melted onto a deep concrete platform.

But you and I and anyone else who says, “we must do this differently” can directly address those fears. There is only one effective way to do this: We must get to know the other.

Return again to our hunter/gatherer ancestors. They meet another band of folks and decide to approach cautiously rather than choosing the attack-first method. In time perhaps one group invites the other to a shared meal. Then the magic happens.

Consider the power of a shared meal, prepared by the hosts and supplemented by the guests. Each participant eats unfamiliar foods. More, they are prepared by unknown hands. Mealtime becomes an exercise in mutual trust.

Early in human history, people developed the means of turning various foodstuffs into fermented beverages as a means of calorie storage. So, not only is there is the shared meal, there is the possibility of enhanced conviviality by shared drink.

As trust grows, barriers break down. In the best of cases, each begins to recognize and acknowledge the shared humanity of the other. People walk away with much of the fear dissipated, replaced instead by good memories and hope in a peaceful future.

This extension of table hospitality is embedded in religious thought. The Jews codified it in the Passover meal. The Hebrew Bible gives multiple examples of strangers being offered a meal and ultimately family connections.

One of the biggest criticisms leveled at Jesus came from his insistence on sharing meals with “sinners.” Everyone knew what that meant: By eating together, those “sinners” were made welcome within the household. Those very outsiders whose presence diluted purity were suddenly honored guests, essentially members of the family.

Many bemoan the trend away today from family meals prepared at home. We should regret leaving that tradition behind. When we eat, cook and clean up together, we share something profound. We lower our emotional barriers. We connect. We pass one another platters of food, we share the same tastes and textures. We talk and we listen.

This is how we change the world, one meal at a time. You cannot change your father, but you can continue to share meals with him. You can acknowledge his viewpoints while saying, “I will go in a different direction.”

You can also invite your nieces to meals with people very different from them. You can model for them how to turn barriers into bridges.

Email questions to A version of this column appeared in the Friday July 15, 2016 print and online editions of The Denton Record Chronicle. Christy blogs at Patheos

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