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The only way we’ll get out of this mess is together
Almost everyone wants to be anti-racist
I was so encouraged when I was reading over the discernment material gathered by our cells. When we asked them how we as a church should address racism within our church and also outside of it, all of our leaders were unabashedly committed to anti-racism, even if we had different ideas about how to approach it. And I appreciated that. People are committed to the cause in one way or the other.
And I want to say that I don’t think this makes our church exceptional, but I think it speaks to the fact that most people, honest to God, want to do the right thing. People want the world to be better. People want to defeat racism, almost all of them it would seem. I think that’s why it is so hard to name “racism” in our friends and family, because no one wants to be racist. And I think that our work toward an anti-racist church and society can be founded upon this common good that so many of us hold.
I think that appealing to the common good is crucial in building coalitions and doing challenging work together. Another example was Jonathan’s prayer the other night at the end of the Sunday meeting on the anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising; he offered an inclusive prayer that everyone could get into. We prayed against violence toward LBGT people, specifically with Dominique "Rem'mie" Fells in mind, who was murdered in Philadelphia. After which, I tried to offer a uniting statement that would help everyone get on board with ending violence toward LBGT folks.
Most people are trying to do the right thing, contrary to what sells
I think most people want to do the right thing. And yes, my positive anthropology is different than much of the negative anthropology that has been popular in the church. I don’t think you are trash. I think you are redeemed, and beloved. And I think the only way we can imagine who will be next is if we are secure in God’s love. Intentions alone aren’t all that matter—results do too—but starting with the idea that we have good intentions is important because condemnation doesn’t help anyone. That’s why Jesus has freed us from it.
Not only does the church make it hard to believe that we are not condemned, I think the news media does us a disservice (as well as the President) because it tries to polarize us because zero-sum thinking sells. That’s why we see the worst examples of humanity displayed in front of us. Killer cops and white supremacists. When we see the President retweeting one of his supporters yelling “white power,” or we see a couple in their St. Louis mansion pointing firearms at protesters, I think our faith in humanity, and in turn God, falls.
I don’t think these images help us love our enemies or love our neighbors. I think they lead us to draw lines in the sand and force people to pass purity tests to move through them. I think that the anger that results in that kind of thing is warranted in many cases. It’s its own form of racism to expect people that have experienced oppression to demonstrate the empathy that those who oppressed them haven’t. It seems to me like calls for dignity and politeness come up when people’s power is threatened, but it’s curious that they don’t come up in the first place when we are talking about people’s lives. As you can see, I’m sympathetic to people who have been oppressed needing to gain the trust of others, who are suspicious of my claim that we all want the same things.
I think empathy is crucial to being on a common ground. If you start from a morally superior position, I think we’re bound to fail. I also think we’re bound to fail if we don’t work together. I know this sounds like a “pie in the sky” idealism, but I don’t think there is another way.
There’s no justice if the oppressed simply become the oppressors
The alternative to coming to a common ground and moving forward to build a better church and society is domination. And once again, I offer sympathy and empathy to those who want to dominate their oppressors, but I don’t think that’s the way of Jesus, the suffering servant who was crucified for our sake. Moreover, I don’t think it’s really possible either or likely. The powers that be have amassed so much power that a war against them seems to be futile. And to my favorite, and loudest activist friends: as much as we agree with each other, we don't have the numbers. We need another way besides yelling our perspectives. We need an alternative. We can’t fight fire with fire. We need love to rule.
Furthermore, the oppressed become the oppressors, we are back to where we started. That isn’t to say that people won’t experience discomfort as we move to a New Humanity and move to complete submission to the Lordship of Jesus, or that it will be easy. Certainly some people will cry out about their oppression as they are convicted and moved to unlearn their violent ways. But I don’t think our end goal is domination and coercion. I don’t think our end goal is simply legal enforcement of our rights and legislative solutions to our problems (but they are an OK starting point). We need to come together to make a better world.
I think we should be speaking in an assertive, but inclusive way. I don’t think biting sarcasm or mockery helps, although it can be cathartic. I’m not asking you to lose your humanity. We need to laugh at one another too. But I want to assume that the people we are speaking to want to change and want to do the right thing—most of the time they do. Speak the truth in love.
Sometimes, I admit, there are bad faith actors that you must shake the dust of your feet and leave their house. But most of the time, you don’t need to be turning over tables. There is scriptural precedent for that, but it’s an exception, I believe, and not the rule. Let’s not lean into our worst possible instincts about each other.
I think that rather than categorizing one another as strictly oppressed or an oppressor, we can consider how we benefit from the systems of sinful power and are hurt by it. No one is really off-the-hook here, even if some are more culpable than others. For example, I have brown skin but I’m also a straight, cis, man, who happens to be well-educated with a stable family life and no real financial concerns. That makes me pretty powerful, even if my skin color is held against me. Lots of poor white folks come from a whole different perspective, even if they have the skin color that shields them in a way mine doesn’t. I think we need to listen to one another’s experiences before jumping to conclusions. Most of us are both an oppressor and oppressed. And the grace that we see ourselves and others in is paramount to our progress and our mutuality. It doesn’t blind us from injustice, but it helps us approach it with less defensiveness.
And of course, we need to pay special attention and give special honor to those of us among us who are the least powerful, in order to elevate them to where they can feel more powerful, more dignified, more honored. Jesus says he is closest to the least powerful in our society, which makes sense, since he divested of his own power to relate to them. We can’t assume we all start on the same playing field.
The journey won’t be easy, so grace needs to abound
While we call each other in, I think it’s important to note that the process of moving into the New Humanity won’t be easy for us. And for some people, they will need to walk away—like the rich young ruler does when Jesus asks him to divest of all his wealth. We probably won’t be able to retain everyone, even as we try our best to do it together. We need each other, but some people will decide that the cost is too high for them. The call to be truthful may be too much for some, and the call to be loving might be too much for others. Jesus, indeed, said, he came to bring not peace, but a sword, so this work is not easy, to say the least.
But I hope we can operate as we move toward a new world together on the basis that most people want it to get better. We need to do it together. The plight that we are in is not a matter of individual choices alone, but systems of power. As nice as it can feel to cancel your aunt for saying “all lives matter,” doing that won’t end police brutality. We probably need your aunt to help us fight police brutality, in fact. The greatest lie the powers tell us is that it is up to us to change the world, leaving them off the hook, even though they are the chief of the dominators. I want our vision for a New Humanity to be led by our Lord Jesus, and I think together we can follow him to change the world, as he changes us. May we empathize with one another’s anger and defensiveness in this difficult time, but call each other to move toward love and truth, the best tools to use to move toward transformation.