I walked into the bedroom as my mum was cleaning out my grandmother’s wardrobe and spotted a strange white bathrobe lying on the bed.
“What’s this?” I asked, picking up the unfamiliar garment and impulsively pulling it over my shoulders and slipping my arms in the sleeves.
My mum’s eyes widened a little as she turned around and saw me wearing it.
“Don’t you know what that is?” She had an odd look on her face. “That’s your great-grandfather’s KKK robe.”
A chill went through me as I stared at her in disbelief. She was serious! I looked down at the robe, then touched it gingerly.
An unfamiliar insignia was sewn on the breast of the robe. A stiff cone-shaped piece of the same cloth lay nearby on the bed, with odd flaps extending from the back. As the astonishment wore off, I picked it up and turned it around slowly, recognising the hat shape from a TV program I’d seen years before.
It is hard to describe the sensation of looking at a symbol of cold bigotry and knowing it belongs in your family. Anger? Shame? Grief? What exactly is a person supposed to feel when they see hard evidence that someone whose blood runs in their veins embraced something so evil? It’s almost like finding out that your ancestor was a serial killer.
And yet, I felt a numb curiosity—an urge to connect with this man I never knew, to plug into his mind and comprehend the mystery of what drove him to think in unfathomable ways. On impulse, I went into the bathroom to look in the mirror. There was a long, strange cape sewn on the back of the neck of the robe, with two small holes cut in it. Eye-holes? Apparently the cape was supposed to go over my head. I hesitated, then unfastened the neck and pulled the cloth over my head, positioning my eyes so they could see through the slits. My neck is longer than his was, I thought absently, a little grateful to know there was at least one tangible physical difference between us. I tucked the cape into the neck under my chin, then buttoned the neck again and fitted the cone-shaped hat over my head with the flaps going down the back behind my neck.
On impulse, I turned out the light and then lifted my eyes to look in the mirror.
I gasped and shuddered in involuntary shock at the image looking back from the glass. There was no trace of me in the mirror anymore. Instead, an ancient Klansman glowered back at me.
This was my heritage—a legacy of cowardice, of hiding beneath a cloak, of threatening others from a vantage point of supposed security and conscious supremacy. The flesh inside the robe now was related to the flesh that used to flaunt this garment with pride. There’s not that much difference between him and me—only years. Years and mindsets.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
I recall my grandmother speaking reluctantly, softly, once or twice about her childhood memories of going to KKK picnics. They were not unlike any typical Sunday School picnic, with her gleefully scampering around playing with other children for hours. But in the evening, she remembered soberly watching a burning cross silhouetted against the black sky.
As she grew up, Grandma rejected the philosophy that her father had embraced so passionately, refusing even to bury him in his KKK robe as he’d requested. She came to believe that every person was of equal value in God’s sight, without regard to race, ethnic background or religion. Thankfully, that’s the heritage she passed to me.
Had I been raised as was she, perhaps I would’ve shown less courage than did Grandma. I’ll never know. However, I am thankful that I can stand on her shoulders, and that my children can stand on mine. I married a man who not only believes as passionately as I do in racial reconciliation, but even did his doctorate on the topic, and fought tirelessly to bring the races together in South Africa and Zimbabwe, long before I met him. Together we work, in our own small circle, to spread the gospel truth that every human being—no matter their size, shape or colour—is priceless in the eyes of God.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t struggle with the same urges that drove my great-grandfather, though. On the contrary, they’re written into my DNA as a sinner. How often have I felt like I am somehow higher than someone else? Does a weight problem, an intellectual limitation, fashion choice or any of a million other factors tempt me to look down on others because they are not like me? I can even easily congratulate myself on the fact that I’m not a racist like he was—thus giving in to the same self-exalting impulse.
Sinners love bigotry. It is the core of sin—the carnal craving to exalt self above others. Everything in us rebels against trusting what God says—that we are created in His image and redeemed by His blood, and this is the measure of how valued and loved we are. For some reason, we turn away from the one Fountain that would quench our insecurity. Incomprehensibly, we don’t want to believe that we are priceless—just like everyone else.
So instead of quietly building a secure identity in quality time with God every day, we huddle in mini-tribes with others like ourselves, scoffing at the lesser beings and congratulating ourselves on whatever makes us like each other and unlike those lesser persons. We trample on one another, vainly clambering on the rotting ladder of human rank and respect. We exalt leaders who build their very campaigns on disparaging people groups with whom we do not personally identify. We even want to make God over in our image, a neatly ordered Deity whose community is dependent on everyone keeping their place in the holy hierarchy, instead of seeking the lowest place even with one another. We ignore the very law of God that governs the universe: love. Love—the character of a God who came down to earth and, from the manger to the cross, voluntarily took the lowest place, in order to lift us up. We forget so easily that, because of Jesus, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galations 3:28).
This week, as I’ve been contemplating what I would write, I’ve been distressed to see stark evidences online that racism is alive and well in my neighborhood. Perhaps there is no more shameful way to demonstrate our disgraceful sense of superiority than to cloak ourselves in anonymity and scorn others without risking exposure or opposition. Instead of a white cloth with eyeholes, modern cowards may hide behind the anonymity of a veil of the internet, confident they can spew disrespect without risking a loss of respect to themselves.
There will come a day when the scraps of cloth with eye-holes will be stripped away. Someday those who considered themselves above others—because of body shape, skin colour, facial features, intellectual abilities or any of a million other human measures of worth—will be rebuked by the One who declared all equally priceless in the light of Creation and redemption.
The blistering contempt of other fallible humans is nothing to fear compared to the dreadful words that some will hear on the judgement day: “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who work iniquity.”