This is a picture of my high school ring. I haven’t worn it in years. In fact, I’ve hardly worn it at all. Apparently the whole point of having a high school ring is to give it to a girl. Soon after I got mine, I gave it to this girl I was dating. This somehow proved that she was “mine”. Looking back, the whole thing was pretty ridiculous. Anyway, I got it back from that girl and soon afterward I gave it to Sunny. She’s had it ever since.
I started thinking about my high school ring the other day. I was behind this truck going down the road and the truck’s bumper sticker caught my eye. The bumper sticker had a confederate flag on it and underneath the flag were these words: “I don’t need your permission to honor my ancestors.” Oddly enough, the same vehicle also bore an ichthus or a “Jesus fish”. I found all of this pretty repulsive. On the one hand, the owner of the vehicle was comfortable adorning his truck with an icon of Christian faith for all his fellow motorists to see. But on the other end of his tailgate, he proudly (even defiantly) bore a symbol of an ugly chapter of slavery, oppression and bigotry in our nation’s history. It’s as if the ichthus has nothing to do with one’s feeling about the confederate flag and all it represents. It’s as if one’s faith in Christ has no bearing on how we value others or their sensitivity toward issues like this. It’s as if our primary identity is “Southerner” rather than “Christian”.
I’ll tell you why all of this reminded me of my class ring. As a headstrong teenager, the message of the confederate flag bumper sticker resonated deeply with me. I was proud of my heritage as a Southerner and, as a result, I adopted a healthy prejudice toward people of color. I remember as a child asking someone about Martin Luther King Jr. and why he was so important. I was told, “He was nothing more than a trouble maker.” I went to elementary school with children from the local housing project, many of whom happened to be black. The white kids would tell jokes about the black kids and I learned to laugh at these jokes, for the laughing garnered me insider status. “They” were different. “We” weren’t like “them.” Let “them” stay over there and “we’ll” stay over here. And this was the way it ought to be.
By the time I reached high school, my prejudices were deeply ingrained. An African-American boy enrolled in our class my sophomore or junior year. His name was Gary. Gary and his family attended the same church we did. On Gary’s first day of school, I called him the n-word. To his face. In front of some of my classmates. They laughed so hard they started crying. He just lowered his eyes and walked away. Welcome to our Christian school, Gary.
When I went to pick out the design for my high school ring, I chose to have two confederate flags cast under the stone. If you look closely at the picture, you can see them. The bumper sticker I saw this week was an embarrassing reminder of the person I used to be. To me, the confederate flag was a symbol of my racial supremacy. It was legitimization for my bigotry. It was a defiant gesture, a slap in the face to political correctness. I still remember my mother shaking her head in disbelief when I showed her my ring. Why would you put those confederate flags on your ring? she asked. It’s my ring and I’ll do whatever I want. In essence, I was saying I don’t need your permission to be a bigot.
Thankfully, my allegiance to Christ eventually won out and my heart was softened. I’m pretty ashamed to admit some of these things here. But I share this story because it illuminates the redemptive power of the cross. My ichthus experience caused me to repent of my bigotry. You can’t take up your cross if you’re clinging to your prejudices. I began to see that Jesus made certain demands of me and how I view and value others. I’m just thankful He got to me before it was too late.
I hoped to see Gary at our 10-year reunion last summer. Sadly, he wasn’t there. I really don’t blame him for not showing up. I never gave him a reason to come. Why would you want to spend time around someone who treated you the way I treated him? But I hoped he would be there so I could apologize to him.
Gary, I doubt you’ll ever read this, but if by some miracle you do, I want you to know how eternally sorry I am for not treating you with the decency and respect you deserved as an image bearer of God. I guess I was just afraid. Afraid of what might happen if I laid down my prejudices. Afraid of not being an insider. I was too afraid to treat you the way Jesus wanted me to treat you. I pray you can forgive me for that fear. Everytime I look at my class ring, I’ll think of you and the person I used to be and I’ll be sorry. But I’ll also be grateful, because I’ve seen the better Way. I’ve heard His call and I’ll spend the rest of my life acting not out of fear but out of love. That’s the best way I know to apologize to you.