I was at an incredible play recently set up as a way for citizens and police officers to come together, hear from each other and understand life from the other person's perspective. It was a powerful, eye opening performance that culminated with a Q and A involving the audience.
What was particularly poignant was the people of color in the audience having strong reactions to the portrayals of police interactions, as it vividly reminded them of their own experiences being brought painfully to the surface again. What was equally troubling though, was the response from many of the white officers. As the people shared their experiences, many of them repeatedly said things like “that's how things were then, but things are different now.” The difficulty though with that response was that without maybe meaning to, it was dismissing the real, painful moments these people were humbly bringing to light in a room full of strangers.
And here in lies the temptation for many of us white folks. We read the news and hear the stories of injustices and can find ourselves thinking these are far off cases. We live in a progressive, accommodating, “color-blind” neighborhood and city. These things don't happen here, but if they do, they are so rare. Sadly it is this thinking that blinds and deafens us to the struggles going on around us.
Have I ever asked my friends, colleagues, neighbors of color how many times they've been pulled over by the police, stop and frisked? [stop and questioned as it's referred to as now]. How many times someone has made a cultural insensitive or inappropriate remark to them or in their presence? How many times has someone discriminated against them or made an assumption about them based on the color of their skin?
And here’s the second temptation. We can think, "Well I've never done that." But when we think that, consider, have their been times it's happened around me, that a friend, a relative, a neighbor, a co-worker has said or done something and we thought...
- "it's no big deal"
- "I don't want to make matters worse"
- "Maybe I just heard or saw wrong"
Silence in these moments speaks volumes, because silence can make us complicit and effectively perpetuate both willful and unconscious ignorance of the resulting offenses.
I think about all the white Christians on the bus with Rosa Parks, watching her stand up and speak up for herself and others again and again and how tiring that must have been for her. I think about all the times and the years that I was ignorant and blind to the plight of the minorities and particularly the Native Americans around me. I'm humbled and convicted by what Martin Luther King Jr. said from his jail cell that rings true today,
From what historical figures and friends have told and taught me, it's incredibly tiring to both educate about the issues while simultaneously being regularly affected by them.
It is this seeing, hearing and knowing then, that ought to move me. Michelle Warren in her great book The Power of Proximity, talks about how privilege for the white person means stepping in to address an issue that doesn't have a direct impact on them, [what might also be called appropriate advocacy]
We hear and see and we need to say something, not in a way that makes us sound better than others but in a way that helps everyone understand the value of all human life and helps us talks to each other and about each other in ways that makes us all better for it. This goes for derogatory comments about women and perpetuating stereotypes about the LGBTQ community.
I would be remiss though if I didn't finish by encouraging my friends of color reading this. When you are tired of having to educate and advocate again and again in the midst of so much, at best ignorance and at its worst hate, remember Jesus. Jesus sympathizes with you in this weakness. He was constantly having to educate the religious leaders, his disciples and even His own family about the true kingdom of God and what it meant to love and follow God. He was constantly misunderstood, and attacked. People discriminated against Him because of where He lived and what He looked like (Isaiah 53) On top of this He continually advocated before His Father [and still does for us today] for their [and our] slowness to understand. But He didn't just come to educate and even just advocate, He came to redeem, and He promises to open blind eyes and change hard hearts and renew cursed tongues. With that in mind we can, should and do pray together powerfully and continually towards that end. He came and carried that weight of being attacked, while educating and advocating in a way only He could to provide redemption. And we trust the result is more people listening to and for the hurting and then speaking up for what is good and right and appropriate.
So in this season of lent, this is a call to give up passivity, ignorance and a blind eye. This season is an invitation to repent of our silence and blindness and do something about what we hear and see around us that defames and dishonors fellow image-bearers that Jesus loves so dearly.