Willful Blindness and Race

Willful Blindness and Race

I have been thinking about willful blindness. Many years ago, in a lectureship in Canada, I met a Christian lady who was born and raised in Germany before and during World War II. After the war, she became a Christian, but during the war, she was part of Hitler’s youth workers and active in the Nazi movement. As she talked about her leadership role in the Nazi movement, she spoke of being enthusiastic about the successes of Nazism and how it gave young Nazi workers pride and enthusiasm for the economic and social achievements it generated.

As she spoke, she became subdued and said that when she and other young Germans heard that Jews were being put in concentration camps and killed just because they were Jews, they didn’t believe it. “We are too smart, too religious, too kind to ever allow such things to happen. That can not be true!” She then looked up at me with tears in her eyes and said, “But we were so terribly, horribly, awfully wrong.”

I have often heard people say that they can’t understand how the German people allowed the persecution of the Jews under Hitler. The reason is willful blindness! As we are seeing and hearing the cry of our black friends and neighbors now in 2020, we need to have the courage to ask if we, too, are willfully blind.

Willful blindness is common to humans. In Matthew 21:7-11, we see people welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem with a huge parade and with cries of love and support. In Matthew 27:22-25, we see these same people crying, “Crucify him!!” In Acts 7:54-60, we see people killing Stephen and even covering their ears to avoid hearing the truth about what they were doing.

I am an old man, and I have lived and worked among people of color all my life. Yet until the last few weeks, I never heard about the horrible destruction and murder of over three hundred innocent blacks living in Greenwood, Oklahoma, on May 31-June 1 of 1921. A prosperous town known as “Black Wall-street” was made up of black homes and businesses. It was attacked, and 1265 houses were burned, 150 businesses destroyed and looted, and 9,000 left homeless.

How did I never hear of this tragedy? I never thought about the impact of how we all got here. My ancestors came to America to escape persecution and to look for freedom. My black friends are here because their ancestors were ripped away from family and home, taken on a trip they didn’t want to take, and denied basic rights and freedom. How have I ignored that fact? The answer is “willful blindness.”

In this time of having our vision restored, perhaps we need to be reminded of the words of a powerful song from the musical South Pacific and reflect on how they apply to us:

“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear. You’ve got to be taught from year to year. It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You’ve got to be carefully taught. You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin is a different shade. You’ve got to be carefully taught. You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late. Before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all of the people your relatives hate. You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

Let us all work at getting rid of our own willful blindness and ask God to help us have the total spiritual sight that Paul talked about in Galatians 3:26-28.

— John N. Clayton © 2020