When I was little, one of my favorite parts of the day was bedtime, when I would lay in my big four-poster bed with my mom and sometimes my dad. We’d read together, and then my mom would sing to me. Not just one lullaby, but five or six before I’d let her turn the lights out. The night was extra special when she held up my Lammy as a puppet and had Lammy sing to me. There was a whole songbook in our hearts of favorite lullabies. One of the less frequent, but still cherished, songs on the setlist was “Jesus Loves the Little Children.”
Though I had never seen anyone who was red, yellow, black, or white, I was old enough to know that “white” meant people who looked like me, and “black” meant people who looked like many of my friends in kindergarten. The meaning of “red” I learned later, reading Little House on the Prairie, and the meaning of “yellow” as a teenager studying American history. The message of “Jesus Loves the Little Children” is an important one, and Jesus’ love for all people as unique reflections of His image is central to the anti-racist work that brings the church closer to true embodiment of the Holy Spirit.
However, every time we reference “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” saying or singing, “red and yellow, black and white, they’re all precious in His sight,” we are employing racial epithets. Clare Herbert Woolston, a Baptist minister, wrote the song to the tune of a Civil War battle march in the late 1800s.1 For some historical context, this is the same time period as the beginning of Chinese immigration to the West Coast of the United States and the racist, reactionary politics to limit opportunities for Asian immigrants, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which excluded Chinese immigrants from legal immigration and naturalization on the basis of race.2 Native Americans were being massacred at the hands of the U.S. military as American settlers pushed westward and were denied citizenship and any related rights in the lands they had inhabited for centuries.3
The terms “red” to describe Native Americans and “yellow” to describe people of East Asian descent, when used today, reflect a history of the dehumanization of groups of people on the basis of race. “Yellow Peril” is the idea that the Chinese are a barbarian people intent on destroying Christendom.4 The term “redskin” was and remains a term laden with the stereotype of the “violent native.”5
It might be easy to dismiss a critique of “Jesus Loves the Little Children” as an exercise in political correctness. But is it not an exercise in love? To white people like me, who have never experienced systemic discrimination based on the color of our skin, maybe it does seem an unnecessary critique. But how can all the nations under heaven worship together while one of our worship songs uses derogatory terms to describe some of those nations? Giving up a cherished tradition like a song is uncomfortable. Maybe it feels like giving up another part of the Church you grew up with in a world where nothing seems the same as it used to be. But the Church was never supposed to be comfortable; it is supposed to be embodied Love.
I have seen so many church members come out in support of the Black Lives Matter and anti-police brutality movement over the last couple of weeks. This essay addresses some of the issues two groups of people of color have faced in American history; other groups, and especially Black Americans, have faced (and continue to face) similar and yet unique biases, prejudices, and discriminatory practices. We’re all learning, changing, and growing during this time. I’ve made a couple mistakes. I’ve seen a couple of other people make mistakes. We’re not going to get it right every time. Otherwise, why would we need grace?
Don’t be afraid to learn, grow, and change. Give grace. Receive grace.
The second verse of “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” as my mother sang it, went like this:
“Everything is beautiful, in its own way. Like a starry summer night, the world’s gonna find a way.”
Growth is hard. Change is hard. But we’re gonna find a way.
In every coming of age novel I’ve ever read
It seemed obvious which choice the main character should make
But here I am
Here we all are
In the middle of a Bildungsroman
And every choice is consequential
I used to get angry with characters who chose wrong
But now I understand
That you never really know which choice is the right one before you make it
And sometimes not even after.