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The Fish Tank

by | Jun 1, 2020

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.   

Galatians 3:28

If you read my devotional from last Monday, Memorial Day, you will remember that I told you about my great-great-grandfather who was a slave owner and Major in the Confederate Army. (If you missed it, you can find it here.) I told you about the shame I felt because of how members of my family actively fought against the ideals of a free and fair society we so highly value in America. My family made direct contributions to the systems of racism and prejudice that have so adversely affected people of color in this country.

The same day my devotional went out, George Floyd died on the streets of Minneapolis while in police custody. I, like many of you, was horrified by the video. The ensuing protests and riots are reminiscent of the LA riots in 1992 and the Watts riots of 1965. George Floyd’s death alone was not the cause of the riots, but rather was a tipping point. His tragic death became a symbol for the victimization that minorities in the United States experience because of the color of their skin.

 I can trace a direct line between my great-great-grandfather and George Floyd’s death. The two are very much linked together. As I explained, following the Civil War, my grandfather traveled around the United States, making speeches about the superiority of the white race and how white people must do whatever it takes to maintain dominance. He was one of many white leaders making these types of speeches. What’s more, the majority of people in the South and many people in the North believed that what he was saying was true.

 I think many white people like to imagine that when Lincoln emancipated the slaves in 1865, their lives were instantly improved. Yes, black slaves were free, but they were still living in a highly toxic environment. The majority of white citizens in America did not regard black people as human beings worthy of dignity and respect. Let me provide you with a helpful analogy of what the situation was like for freed slaves directly following the Civil War.

 I want you to imagine a fish tank with two kinds of fish, white fish and black fish. The tank was originally designed for the white fish. The water in the tank is regulated in such a way that the gills of the white fish can absorb the oxygen in the water more efficiently than the black fish. As a result, the white fish can more easily move through the water. They can get to the food faster. They control more space in the fish tank. On top of this, the white fish outnumber the black fish 8 to 1. Everything about the tank tells you that the black fish are going to have a lot of trouble surviving in that environment. 

If you were the owner of that fish tank, you would likely make some drastic changes to the environment so that the black fish could thrive. You’d remove some of the white fish, change the composition of the water, or make sure there was enough food for everyone. The problem with this analogy is there is no owner of the fish tank. The fish have to regulate themselves and the white fish don’t understand how lopsided it is for the black fish. They don’t understand how toxic the environment is for the black fish.

 Because the tank is designed for the white fish to thrive, it’s hard for them to comprehend why the black fish are struggling so much. The white fish say to the black fish, “We seem to be doing fine. Clearly, you’re doing something wrong.” The black fish attempt to make their case, but the white fish seem somewhat oblivious to their plight. As time goes by, the black fish keep doing their best to survive in the tank, but the white fish keep making changes that cause the environment to become even more toxic.

The white fish segregate the black fish out. They do not give them access to the same resources of education, jobs, and property. When the black fish unite and, against all odds, change the rules of the tank by enacting civil rights legislation, the white fish respond by incarcerating the black fish.

 Beginning in the 1970s, after Jim Crow laws were made illegal, the rate of incarceration among African Americans skyrocketed. This is not a coincidence. Today, African Americans make up 6.5% of the American population, but they represent 40% of the prison populace. To put this another way, if you are a white male, you have a 5% chance of ending up behind bars. Whereas if you are a black male, you have a 33% chance of ending up in prison.

This is what the tank looks like today and this is why every time a black person is treated with malice by the criminal justice system, the reaction is so severe. The odds have been, and continue to be, stacked against minority citizens in this country. The only way this will change is if we transform the culture of the tank and, in my opinion, one of the best ways to do this is to infuse ourselves with the fundamental precepts of the Christian faith.

Our faith is built upon the premise that all humans are of equal value. It doesn’t matter your race, ethnicity or class, in God’s eyes, no one person is better than another. This is the idea we read in Paul’s letter to the Galatians when he says: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28)

 However, the Christian faith is also steeped in the idea that the playing field is not fair. The whole point behind the creation of God’s kingdom is that human society is lopsided and needs to be fixed. This is the point of our faith. God has tasked us with the responsibility of creating that free and fair society that doesn’t currently exist. It doesn’t just happen on its own. We have to bring it about. And, the first step in making God’s kingdom a reality is understanding that the tank we’re living in disproportionately favors some people over others.

As I reflect on George Floyd’s death, I am reminded how important it is that we do not shirk our Christian responsibility. We all need to do our part to create God’s kingdom. We all need to do our part to level the playing field. We all need to do our part to create an environment in this country where everyone who occupies the fish tank has the opportunity to thrive.

Pastor Alex

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