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The only way to be antiracist is to believe victims of racism
Lions and lambs laying down together
"Power is the force that separates difference from enmity." – Melissa Florer-Bixler, How To Have An Enemy
In my talk for the At-Home Sunday meeting this week (and also from the in-person Sunday meeting at the urban farm a few weeks ago), I narrow in on above quote from Melissa Florer-Bixler’s excellent book, How To Have An Enemy. Melissa believes that the differences between us can be tolerated if they are mutual, but when power enters the equation the differences turn to enmity. For me, it brought to mind the image of the lion and the lamb, that heavenly image that showcases the possibility of the peaceful way of Jesus to transform us. The lion no longer has a desire to eat the lamb, and thus the lion can lay next to the lamb. This Messianic image is seen as represented by Christ; Augustine said that the lion stands for the resurrected Christ, and the lamb Christ’s sacrifice. "He endured death as a lamb; he devoured it as a lion." But there’s an image of peace that accompanies this unusual pairing. See in Isaiah:
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.—Isaiah 65:25
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.—Isaiah 11:6-7
Isaiah is saying that the predator’s very nature changes in order to lie down next to the lamb. The lion, the leopard, the wolf, the bear, all can graze alongside of animals that they would have otherwise eaten. That sort of transformation is what Jesus does to us, and it speaks to how we can hold our mutual differences as we undergo transformation.
These animals are simply operating in the way they know how to in the world; they are animals, after all. But Jesus transforms the order, even the so-called “natural” order of things, to show us a new way. These predators can now commune with the animals that were formerly their prey because they’ve undergone a transformation. They are defanged, without their former desire.
Until then, though, it is essential for the safety of the sheep to keep out wolves; for the safety of the hens to keep the foxes out. And on this side of heaven, when it comes those animals, they’ll have to await their transformation.
Bringing God’s kingdom to the earth means addressing the power that turns difference into enmity
Thankfully, we can bring God’s kingdom to earth now and demonstrate it. What does it look like for us to demonstrate this vision of heaven, where enmity is no longer present, where mutual love triumphs? It means changing the predatory systems that oppress the least of these among us. It means defanging the lions, the leopards, and the bears. And until we can do that, creating communities of safety for the vulnerable, it means addressing racism, patriarchy, and homophobia in our churches. Our churches won’t be safe for the vulnerable without this transformative Kingdom work.
The issue we face though is that unlike the animals above, we often don’t know that the differences between us create enmity because of the power we hold. It is hard to become self-aware of the power we hold, for the one who turns difference into enmity, when on their own or simply with people of similar experiences. And it is also hard for the oppressed to come to that knowledge. As a minority, awakening to the pain of the racism I’ve experienced through my life in predominantly white institutions has been incredibly painful. What’s even scarier is sharing that feeling and hoping to be listened to, when my experience has been to be minimized, gaslit, or dismissed as trying to grab power. It takes courage and conviction for the oppressed to open themselves up to sharing their experience with themselves and with others.
For the oppressor though there is work to be done, and it’s not small task. It also takes courage and conviction to reach out to others and listen to how our power may be affecting them. And within our enclaves, family systems, and friend groups, our biases are too often confirmed.
When the forces that shape us are greater than the ones that transform us
This happened to me a week ago when I was leading a discussion about Dear White Peacemakers by Osheta Moore. Moore writes a very (overly?) delicate book to try to get her white friends committed to peace to see and experience the pain of Black folks, pain that they are complicit in. And without listening to her argument, one of the participants in the workshop I was leading, retorted with typical talking points about “virtue signaling,” how police lives also matter, about violence from antiracist protests, and the Marxist roots of Black Lives Matter. I felt like I was talking to a talk show host. My friend was being informed and influenced by powers far greater than my own, and he was actively being taught not to listen to the stories of others who may contradict what he was getting on cable news, or Facebook, or wherever his source of information was. Moore did her best to break through the echo chamber that has trapped so many people, and still was met with hostility and partisanship.
Moore even tries to break through the perception of partisanship on her side, explicitly not aligning herself with Robin DiAngelo and Ibram Kendi—two targets of right-wing racist resisters. I laud her effort, and it will certainly plant seeds with those who have ears to hear, but showed me that not everyone is ready for the transformation of Jesus, and that’s OK.
Speaking to those with ears to hear
I think Jesus understands that, which is why speaking of seeds he speaks in parables. C.H. Dodd describes parables this way
“At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt to its precise application to tease the mind into active thought.”
Jesus says he speaks to parables because they are like seeds to him. He’s looking for ears to hear them, soil that can receive them. He is broadcasting, because you never know what good soil you’ll hit, but he is speaking to people with ears to hear him. I think that in order for people to understand the power they hold which leads to enmity, and ultimately oppression, they need to have ears to listen. Some will come ready to hear, and others will need to be softened.
For those who are ready to hear, I think they will embrace the lived experience of racial and sexual minorities and work on changing how they’ve conformed to the patterns of our world. For those who are unsure, if they are committed to loving and listening to the vulnerable among us, I think they will be well on their way to helping to bring the Kingdom of God to earth.
Loving and believing the oppressed is the only way
But if they are committed to holding on their worldly power, trying to soften hearts may be an exercise in futility. In fact, in listening to the experiences of the oppressed, they may see it merely as a power grab or a fabrication of oppression or even just a matter of someone’s mental health. They may see the lamb as just trying to become like the lion. Or they may invalidate their lived experience as something manufactured. Or perhaps something that some good old therapy and pastoral care might solve. Of course, I think that response is rooted in the dominators’ ignorance of their position in society. If you are used to being in charge all of the time, but you don’t have the consciousness of it, it will always feel like a power grab when someone is simply trying to be seen, trying to inaugurate a new way of doing things. In fact, if the status quo is good for you, changing it will feel like oppression.
And while there are some activists, conceivably, who don’t want peace and mutuality, and want to seize the power that oppressed them to oppress others, in my experience, most of us are committed to mutuality, sharing, and harmony. But that sort of work is impossible without addressing the power that the dominant have. But that doesn’t mean the dominated want the power back, we just don’t want to fear for our lives. For the dominators, though, when their power has been what has protected them, it’s easy to feel under attack when they are asked or demanded to divest of it. But the only way through that is through humility, listening, and love. The dominators must believe the experience of the dominated in order to move into transformation. They must lead with love, just as those who they oppress are. Truthfully, it is an act of love for the oppressed to invite the oppressors into transformation, to share their experience, to willingly offer to be known.