All God's Jelly Beans

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken November 17, 1996

Now we know what goes on behind closed doors when some corporate executives get together to discuss racial integration. A former employee has joined a $500 million class-action suit charging Texaco with racial discrimination [Philadelphia Inquirer, November, 1996].

The evidence we have heard so far is extremely compelling, which is why Texaco stock has plummeted to the tune of $800 million, why some groups are advocating a boycott of Texaco products, and why the lawsuit was settled already this weekend. The reason the evidence is so convincing is that a former employee secretly taped a meeting at which members of management were discussing their hiring practices. Among other things, the Texaco board used familiar racial slurs, ridiculed ethnic holidays like Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and discussed the necessity of destroying self-incriminating documents.

The quotation from the meeting that especially caught my attention went like this: “You know how black jelly beans agree. All those black jelly beans seem to be glued to the bottom of the bag.” Obviously, a comparison is being drawn between black employees and black jelly beans. The comment is degrading. Among other things, it suggests that there was a racial motivation behind the denial of African-American promotions at Texaco.

The irony is that the jelly bean idea came from one of America's “leading experts on workforce diversity.” R. Roosevelt Thomas gave an executive briefing to two dozen Texaco managers back in 1992. The purpose of the briefing was to help managers become more sensitive at handling racial conflict. In his presentation Thomas compared Texaco to a jar of red, green and purple jelly beans. His point was that a company cannot turn all of its employees into the same color. Beauty comes from diversity [Philadelphia Inquirer, 11/12/96, D1].

Apparently, the managers were listening. Although black jelly beans were never mentioned at the briefing, the Texaco executives were quick to provide their own color scheme and turn the idea into a slur.

The Texaco fiasco again raises the question of the extent of racism in America. Until recently, many Americans would have agreed that we are making progress towards racial harmony. Our America seems very different from Abraham Lincoln's, or even from Martin Luther King's. We seemed to be heading in the right direction.

Now we are not so sure. Among other events, the Rodney King riots and the O.J. Simpson verdicts have taught us not to be surprised by racism. Indeed, Carl Rowan has just published a book called The Coming Race War in America: A Wake-up Call [New York: Little, Brown, 1996]. Critics charge that Rowan is an alarmist. On the other hand, there is something alarming about listening in on the bigots in our boardrooms.

What we hear from the Texaco boardroom warns us to watch how we speak about those who differ from us. Raleigh Washington and Glen Kehrein write helpfully about this issue in their book, Breaking Down Walls: A Model for Reconciliation in an Age of Racial Strife [Chicago: Moody, 1993]. One of their concerns is the way that black and white Christians speak about one another when they are among members of their own race. “Whites know how to talk to whites about blacks,” they say, and “Blacks know how to talk to blacks about whites.” Even in the church.

Washington and Kehrein point out that such conversations reinforce racist stereotypes. When whites are “talking among themselves about blacks and blacks [are] talking among themselves about whites,” they create “a common body of ‘knowledge’ (stereotypes) about the other race that fortifies the feeling of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. That's racism” [p. 146].

That is racism and that is exactly what happened at Texaco. A group of white executives was talking among themselves about blacks. Their privacy created an opportunity for bigotry. No doubt they have been embarrassed to have their private conversation shared with the whole nation. But God is always listening, and we are accountable to him for what we say, whether open or secret.

Washington and Kehrein suggest that the biblical remedy for racist language is “to avoid making assumptions and to talk directly to each other across racial lines about the problems or different perceptions between us” [p. 148]. This idea is partly based on Matthew 18:15, where the Lord instructs us to deal with our conflicts in the church directly, face-to-face. Racial differences are best discussed in a multi-racial setting. The church ought to be a safe place where such discussions can take place. Because we are united in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:28), what unites us is stronger than what divides us.

Jelly beans are actually an excellent metaphor for the church. God's grand purpose is to gather people from every tribe and language and people and nation into one people for himself (Rev. 5:9). We have been brought together like so many jelly beans in the jelly bean jar of redemption. All God's people are in the same jar. We do not clump together by color, but we are thoroughly mixed. For the people of God, it is always ”we” and never “they,” always “us” and never “them.”

The South African Bishop, Desmond Tutu, has written a book called The Rainbow People of God [New York: Doubleday, 1994]. I cannot endorse Tutu's theology because he believes that you can get into God's jelly bean jar without trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation. But at least Tutu is right about God's color scheme. God's plan for the salvation of the nations satisfies his love for the beauty of the variety of humanity. Red and yellow, black and white, all the colors in God's sight —we are all God's jelly beans.

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