Did you know that research has found that people in interracial marriages report that marriage is more difficult than they anticipated and are slightly more likely to divorce? As someone in an interracial marriage, I can tell you why that is. Our normals are different. And that causes problems.
By normals, what I mean is what we each assume is right, good and normal. All couples deal with this. You think it’s normal to walk around the house in your undies and your beloved wouldn’t dream of walking out of the bedroom with out his shoes on. He thinks spaghetti is served with velveeta melted on top and you’re not a lunatic, so you recognize crazy when you see it.
Most of the time we are able to adjust, compromise and accept that each of us thinks the other person is certifiable in some way. But people who marry people from other races tend to face much deeper differences in what they think of as normal. African American’s relationship with authority is much different, more complicated and often more rigid than a white American’s. (Oddly enough, attitudes towards authority just don’t come up much while dating.) A woman I know married a man from Peru and was shocked to discover that he expected her not to speak with men she didn’t know when he wasn’t present. He was shocked that she would even consider doing such a thing. Another woman I know married a man from East Asia and learned that they had very different ideas about secrets – he felt perfectly comfortable telling their children lies about some important things to protect them from hard realities. Authority, gender, secrets – when people from different cultures get married, they often discover that they are in conflict about some very deep things.
What makes interracial relationships so difficult, I think, isn’t just the conflicts that come out of these differing ideas of what’s normal. It’s that you are constantly being forced to examine and question the underlying assumptions you have regarding really deep things. And we’re not good at that. We can barely admit when we’ve taken a wrong turn and gotten ourselves lost. Considering if maybe your entire concept of the role of fairness in relationships and society is off is painful and confusing. Add in the fact that there isn’t necessarily a “right” answer to questions you always used to know the right answer to and . . . . arrrrgh!
Sometimes you just want to tell the other person to leave you alone – life was just fine before you came along with your crazy ideas and made me question the existential meaning of housekeeping! (And yes, I do know that in my case, some of this is driven by the fact that my husband and I are very intense people who completely over-think everything. But really, that just means we can define what we are arguing about in greater detail than most people!)
I happen to think that as hard as it is, couples in interracial relationships are doing hard, but good, important work. The sort of work the heroes of the bible did, in fact. Wait . . . what? Interracial couples challenging each other’s ideas about normal is just like the bible heroes? How’s that for a complete non sequitur! Allow I to explain.
Anyone who’s actually read the Old Testament has been confused. There’s a lot of sketchy stuff and questionable behaviors going on in there. Even from those we’ve been taught to think of as heroes. I can only scratch the surface, but there’s Abraham lying about his relationship with Sarah and leaving her vulnerable to the sexual demands of a king, Sarah throwing Hagrid and Ismael into the wilderness to die, Lot offering up his virgin daughters to a mob for rape, Jacob and Rebecca using trickery to steal Esau’s rightful inheritance, Samson’s violence, David who was, for all practical purposes, a murderer and rapist. I could go on and on, but literally, almost every character of note in the bible engaged in morally problematic behavior.
Christians tend respond to this issue in one of two ways. The first is that they come up with explanations for why the behavior wasn’t actually wrong. They try to explain it away. We may not understand, but since these were upstanding people of faith, then they know better than you and I and we should just accept that their behavior was right. The second way Christians respond is to say that these stories show that God is so gracious that he can and will use the broken and the sinful to do his work. That way his power shines through since such broken, sinful people could never of their own power accomplish anything for God.
Of these two options, I fall into the latter camp. I don’t think it makes any sense to try to pretend that offering your daughters up for rape or throwing a child into the desert to die can be justified. So clearly, God will use the broken and the sinful to do his work. But the world is filled with nothing other than the broken and the sinful. Was there something in particular about these people which made them suitable for the work God was doing?
I think there was and it goes back to same thing that makes interracial relationships particularly challenging and important – changing your idea of what is good and normal is really, really hard for us human beings. Not every person is able or willing to consider, much less adopt, radically different ways of doing things, but each of our bible heroes did just that. They broke from family and established religious traditions, stood against their communities, broke rules which would have resulted in problematic outcomes. In short, to the extent they were able, each of our bible heroes moved out of or beyond what was considered normal in the world they lived in.
This may seem like a nice enough, but not exactly heroic thing to us today. But that’s because we live in a world where things change all the time. I parent differently than my parents. My husband does different work than his mother or step-father. I use technology every day that didn’t exist when my grandmother was raising her own kids. My oldest son wears his hair in a style that would have gotten him kicked out of reputable establishments 50 years ago.
But go back in time and this sort of change is practically unthinkable. Life was the same for millenia at a time. A person’s work was determined by their father’s work as his work had been determined by his father’s work going back across many generations. When archaeologists look at pottery shards, they can figure out what time period they came from because styles changed . . . over the course of centuries. As opposed to us who change styles on a seasonal basis. Change was not normal. At all. Everyone knew what normal was and that was just all there was to it.
There’s a line I love from Hosea where God says, “When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert.” I believe that it was this willingness to change, to challenge what was normal and to oppose long-standing cultural standards which made Israel “like grapes in the desert”.
To see why this was so important, we need to understand the problem that God was facing after the fall. When God made mankind, he had us name the animals which I believe symbolized that this creation was our responsibility. He told us that we had dominion – responsibility – for this creation. And he gave us two simple tasks: to tend to the land for our sustenance and to be fruitful and multiply. That was it. We were still in the process of learning these simple tasks when everything went awry. After the fall, we suddenly felt the urgent need to do other things – cover ourselves, for example. And we had no idea how to accomplish them. And we didn’t even understand enough about ourselves or God to go about figuring them out in a reasonable way. And we were too immature to get even the basics right. We were driven by shame over ourselves and fear of God. Rather than looking for solutions or help, our instinct was to pass blame and judgment on each other. And we were passing on and magnifying the trauma of it all across each successive generation. And somehow, it was God’s task in the middle of all this to help us learn how to do life without causing ourselves and our world harm.
There are a whole host of challenges involved in this state of affairs, but I want to focus on the over-arching issue. Shame, fear and blame are all from the enemy’s kingdom. As long as humanity is in the grip of shame, fear and blame, the rules are set by the ways of the enemy. The norms and standards are based on the ways of the enemy. The solutions which seem right to us follow the rules and norms of the evil one. While ruled by shame, fear and blame, we are actively bringing the kingdom of Satan to life here on the earth God gave us to care for. Want to know what that looks like? Read a history book. That’s where we were starting from.
So God’s job is to get us to cooperate with the destruction of the enemy’s kingdom and its replacement with the Kingdom of God. What God had to do went much deeper than giving us a different set of standards, values and solutions. He couldn’t just come down and command us to do what he said. He had to somehow convince us to willingly embrace his ways – that free will thing. And of course, we are unlikely to embrace his ways as they are completely and utterly counter-intuitive to people in the grip of shame, fear and blame. Finding people who were up to the task was going to be hard. And it was going to take time because the ability of any given human being to change their fundamental ideas about how life ought to be done is limited. Today, despite being well acculturated to constant change, those of us in interracial relationships can testify to just how hard even relatively minor changes to our concepts of what is normal and right are. Imagine how difficult it would have been thousands of years ago in cultures where change rarely, if ever occurred.
In this light, perhaps its not so surprising that the people who God chose to work with often did such awful things. As the demon in C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters points out: “The great sinners are made out of the very same material as those horrible phenomena, the great Saints.” When following God’s leading, breaking the rules is good, although it might get us in trouble. And then again, it might also lead you to do awful things that people will look back thousands of years later and shake their heads at.
Too many Christians today spend their time looking backwards, trying to figure out the best ways to follow the rules and principles God provided in the past. But the Christian life is described by Paul as a race – which means moving forward. Pressing on. Keeping our eyes on what is ahead. Certainly, how we run the race needs to be informed the learned experiences of those went before. And the boundaries set forth in the ancient creeds of the church help keep us on the racetrack. Jesus didn’t show up and say, “I’m tossing all the old boundaries and understanding y’all have”, after all. He wasn’t even the first to identify “love your neighbor as yourself” as the point of the Law. He was well grounded in Hebrew thought and belief.
What Jesus did do was refine those boundaries to reflect what actually matters to God. He provided understanding of what the path we need to follow actually looks like – one paved by love, humility, self-sacrifice, service and mercy rather than rules and rituals. As always, God can’t simply come down, give his commands and have it be so. Human beings always struggle to let go of what they have always known to embrace a new way of doing life. If you look at the church over the last 1500 years, the stories of the saints have been the stories of people who were persecuted and reviled by the church for breaking the rules.
I think that we’ve learned enough and gained enough understanding that there are more and more people of God who are able to break the rules to follow God’s ways. To the extent that we still have Christians trying to depend on rules, hierarchies and judgment to pave the way, we can see just how hard it is to get people to let go of the way that seems right to men – even when God commands it. I know from corresponding with some of you, that you have been rejected and hurt by the sort of rule keepers who believe that they have an iron grip on what is good, normal and acceptable. But don’t forget Abraham and Sarah, Rebecca and Jacob, David, Deborah, Lot and the rest. As the bible says, there’s nothing new under the sun. We still need people who are willing to have what they view as normal challenged and changed. We still need people following in the footsteps of those old bible heroes who will break all the rules to help us move away from a world shaped by the enemy’s kingdom and into one where God’s Kingdom reigns.
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