Last week, accompanied by my long-time friend and colleague Curtis May, I visited the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky. Curtis is director of the Office of Reconciliation Ministries (ORM - atimetoreconcile.org), dedicated to bringing healing and reconciliation to people divided by racism and prejudice.
The Center is a fascinating tribute to a remarkable man. Like Curtis, Ali grew up in a segregated America, and the Center has some poignant reminders of what some parts of this country were like before the Civil Rights Act. On one floor there is a display set up as a typical 1950s diner. But as you go to sit down at the counter, an angry voice calls out “Hey, you! What do you think you’re doing? We don’t want your kind in here.”
Curtis suddenly stopped, and for a moment a look of—yes, it was fear—crossed his face. He quickly recovered, realizing this was all part of the display. But that moment of fear was real.
Later we discussed it. “That announcement really rang your bell, didn’t it?” I asked.
“You noticed that?” Curtis replied. He admitted that for a moment that voice had resurrected memories of his early years in segregated Alabama, in a time when announcements like that were part of daily life. Although those days, thank God, are long gone in most places, the memories linger on, and the old wounds can be easily reopened.
Perhaps you have never been the victim of that kind of prejudice. But we all have had things done to us, or that we have done to others, that we wish we could put behind us. We think they are, to use religious language, “overcome.” Then a sudden temptation, a random encounter, or some stray words trigger the old response. The bell, that you hoped had been disconnected, is still wired in and can make you revert to a person you no longer want to be.
For a moment, my friend, an educated, mature and experienced pastor, was once again a hapless victim of prejudice. His response was fear. What is yours when that bell suddenly rings? Is it anger? Or greed? Lust, maybe? Do old resentments you thought were long buried bubble to the surface? Do you discover that lurking inside you there is still a racist, a thief, a drunkard, a bully or a liar? Or perhaps a personality stunted by an inferiority complex?
It is moments like this that we can really identify with Paul’s admission of weakness. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15). Paul, the great apostle and relentless evangelist, realized that his old sins could, at times, still take him captive (v. 23).
This world is a brutal and unforgiving place. We will carry some of its scars and wounds with us until we die. And from time to time, when we least expect it, those wounds can be reopened and elicit a less than God-honoring response.
Is there no way out? Thankfully, yes. Paul put it well when he went on to conclude: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” And I am certainly looking forward to that day when what Christ has done for me is perfectly worked out in me by his Holy Spirit.
P.S. - This is my last editorial as editor of Christian Odyssey. I have enjoyed sitting in the editor’s chair for the last seven years, but the time has come to move over. I still plan to write, but Christian Odyssey is now an online magazine, and I think it needs an editor who is more familiar with that environment, and who can guide us safely to where we need to go next.