Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for others is learning to listen to them- Bonhoeffer
Last summer I started learning about racism from my friend Dimitri who is brave enough to have these tough conversations. I say brave, because he will likely lose friends, offend others, and be misunderstood. But he keeps taking these chances.
It is a conversation worth having because the consequences are grave if we try to go on with business as usual.
I have noticed an attitude that is prevalent in many circles today. Maybe you felt it. A blatant dismissal of other people’s pain.
It can sound like this:
“That was then, this is now.”
“Black people are cursed because they came from the line of a man that was cursed in the Bible.”
“The Chinese, Jews, and Irish were all enslaved, but they are successful today.”
“I know successful black people. Look at Ben Carson! Everyone has the same chance in America. The others are just lazy.”
I know that people say those things because not only have I heard them, but embarrassingly, I have said them myself. I remember thinking as a child that black and white people shouldn’t be married because they would be “Unequally yoked.” I remember hearing jokes about someone not being allowed in a nice neighborhood because they had gotten too much sun that summer…. and laughing. I remember seeing rich black people and wondering if they were rap stars or basketball players.
Does that mean I was a racist? Not consciously. If you would have ever asked me if I thought I was better than someone because of my skin color I would say, absolutely not! But truthfully, if you take the above statements out to their logical conclusion, superiority is exactly what is being implied. Please know that I am not sharing these thoughts flippantly. I am deeply grieved and embarrassed by them. But my hope is that through my vulnerability, someone will be challenged to think deeply about their own preconceived ideas or thoughts.
After having these race related conversations with Dimitri, I came across a podcast on Twitter with Brant Hansen and Sherry Lynn on this very topic. Brant confessed to wrong thinking in regard to race. He expressed the need for us to have conversations with friends and people that aren’t exactly like us to learn about the experiences of different races.
I did a lot of that last summer, almost as a research project. I wanted to write about the need for racial unity in the church, but I had no idea where to begin. Since this is such a sensitive issue, I thought it would be wise to first have as many conversations as possible and learn as much as I could about people’s feelings on the matter. As you could imagine this was quite awkward. There’s no easy way to lead into this. Going to my African-American friends, I risked offending them with an ignorant comment or misplaced word. We are in a very tense climate, and if you use the wrong word people are offended. If I use the word “black” someone is offended, but if I use the word “African-American” someone else is offended. Going to my white friends I risked angering them also. Some people see any empathy to one side as an affront to the other. Like if I am sad that a black man was shot to death by a police officer, I must not care about cops, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Needless to say, I was very nervous to start these conversations. But I did it anyway, as much as possible.
I was unnerved to learn several friends had been thrown to the ground outside of their car by law enforcement for literally doing nothing….more than once.
I was shocked to learn one of my friends had racial slurs hurled at him for holding his white girlfriend’s hand.
I was devastated to hear that my dear friend…. my age… played softball while people in the crowd yelled “Hey N*****, N******, N*****”
This is not THEN this is NOW.
One particular afternoon I was with a bunch of my homeschool mom friends and decided to try to bring it up. It went something like this:
“So how’s your summer…good, good…… Anyone want to talk about the church’s responsibility to promote racial unity?”
Talk about an awkward lead in. The conversation was…… ok. I felt heard by some, and not at all by others. At the end of the discussion, one of my friends sought answers I didn’t have.
“Ok,” she began, “I hear what you are saying. I’ve never thought of some of those issues either. But what do I do about it? What can I do?” So I thought about it for a minute and came up with this brilliant answer.
I don’t know.
I don’t know what you personally need to do. I like to write. So at the very least, I plan to write about it, even though at first thought, it felt like a cop out. What can writing do? But days after having that thought, providentially, I came across a blurb about Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Harriet Beecher Stowe was a mom with six kids that was burdened by slavery. One day as she spoke with her sister about feeling powerless to affect change, and her sister gave her some simple advice.
“You are a brilliant writer. Why don’t you write about it?”
And she did.
You see, we all have different gifts. We all have different passions. Maybe you’re a swim teacher, and when you hear that just under 70% of African-American children surveyed can’t swim, it breaks your heart. Maybe you realize it’s literally insane to think they can’t swim because they are “less buoyant” than white people. Maybe you google it and find out that it’s hard to learn to swim when one isn’t allowed in the community pool and several generations are consequently affected. So you donate your time to lower income families who never learned to swim.
Only you can know how you can help.
What I do know is that nothing is going to change unless we start talking to someone on the other side of this issue rather than people that simply echo your same beliefs and experiences.
Empathy is at the core of racial unity in the church.
I believe we need to start acknowledging other people’s experiences and pain and stop dismissing them. Stop saying, “That was then… this is now” which is essentially, “Get over it.” But instead, really engage in conversations with people and be willing to learn.
As I continued to listen to the podcast with Brant, he asked Sherri Lynn if she had anything to add. She agreed that he had covered the topic thoroughly, but wanted to address one thing.
“It is incredibly painful to be dismissed by someone that you love,” she explained.
And my heart broke, because I know that feeling.
She explained that in some instances when she had expressed her experiences to friends, she was completely brushed aside, and that cut deep.
Here’s the bottom line.
You don’t have to agree with somebody to have empathy for them. Stop talking about them, and start talking to them.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if we, as the body of Christ, could come together and show the world what true racial unity looks like. James 5:16 says, “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.”
What if we started doing that? What if we confessed some prejudicial thinking we didn’t realize we had? What if those that have experienced humiliation, rejection, and injustices due to their skin color were able to confess the bitterness that had grown as a result. The Bible tells us exactly what will happen. We will be healed.
We need healing.
Some would say racial tensions are worse then they have ever been. But others would argue that they aren’t worse. Rather, they have simply been uncovered. Maybe we had to get to this point to deal with some deep pain and complicated issues. We have all been part of situations where pain and anger got swept under the rug destroying families, destroying relationships, and destroying marriages. I would like to suggest that many problems have been swept under the rug, many problems have been dismissed and ignored, but they never went away.
This is our opportunity for true healing through confession and thoughtful, honest conversations with listening. So much listening.
We are in a definitively tumultuous time in our country right now. But I believe that God is getting the church ready for something big. I have written about some tough issues here. And yet I admit I am not an expert on any of them. I pray that you would have Grace with me if I’ve said something that offended you. Because my goal was simply to start a conversation so that we can grow together in unity as we answer the prayer of our Savior in John 17:20-21
“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.”
Our unity proclaims His Deity. It’s really that important.
So let us walk forward with grace as we confess our sins one to another, beginning to listen excessively with love and empathy.