On the Corner


I read about this guy Ignaz Semmelweiss the other day. He’s the Viennese physician who, in 1847, posed an interesting question to himself. Why is it, he asked, that so many more babies live when they are delivered at home than when delivered in a hospital? He began an immediate investigation and discovered that the fatal infection in the hospital was delivered by the obstetricians hands. From this discovery he earned the sobriquet of ‘savior of mothers.’

Nineteenth century medical practice was considerably more primitive than what we see today–so this little story isn’t recited to raise alarm in regard to current hospitalizations. It does, however, make one powerful point. People with the best of intentions can be dangerous and in the process deliver irreparable harm.

In our country–and in our Army we must be continually on guard against the “fatal infection” of racism. It will poison us and deplete our strength. Its contagion will re-infect a following generation. It will deny us the very salvation we seek and separate us from God. Its danger comes in its subversiveness. Like any fatal cancer on our souls, it hides. Sometimes fatal wounds are delivered to victims with such grace and positive intent that they seem unaware the knife has inflicted a mortal wound.

What is this thing we call “racism”?

Psychologist Charles Ridley defines it as “…any pattern of behavior that tends to systematically deny access to opportunities or privileges to members of one racial group while perpetuating access to opportunities and privileges to members of another racial group.” It is, therefore, comprised of a variety of non-random behaviors, some systematic, involving preferential treatment and inequitable outcomes. It’s much more complicated than racial prejudice. Prejudice is the assumption of difference as a result of a “preconceived judgment or opinion without justification or sufficient knowledge,” according to Axelson. Prejudice can be either positive or negative. Racism always involves harmful behavior, while racial prejudice only involves negative attitudes, beliefs or intentions.

We are not a group of people bent on racist behavior. Rarely is our racism blatant. For the most part, we are not comprised of bigots. By and large, we seek to be an open system available to any and all. We must remember that germs on surgeon’s hands aren’t visible either. Overt racism is easy to deal with. Where we must work diligently is to increase our awareness of our unintended racism, ageism, sexism, ethnocentrism–and then teach all of us how to change our behavior.

Often, unintended racism occurs when we fail to confront our stereotypes. These misconceptions which assign to an entire group of people characteristics which might only accurately describe a few members of the group have lingered with us as thoughts, attitudes, feelings or beliefs for considerable time. They have worked their way into our belief systems so deeply that our impulses seem to guide us to acceptance of them as truth. Sometimes, our personal experiences with one or two members of the group allow us to create exceptions, but our stereotypes will not change until we become completely aware of how profoundly they are imbedded within us and work to change them.

I am drawn to the notion of reconciliation. I notice that the first week in January will be “reconciliation week.” I like the idea so much, I wish I had thought of it. I didn’t. It came from the creative mind of our Territorial Secretary for Cross Cultural Ministry, Geir Engøy.

Reconciliation must begin with awareness–then move to confession–then to forgiveness and reconciliation. It is first a spiritual journey–then an exercise in attitude discovery and change–then direct and conscious modification of behavior.

All of us–of every race–need to engage in this journey and find each other as mutual family members–each a child of God.

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