THE HARD CONVERSATION
Truth-telling, Confessing, and Dismantling after Charlottesville
I remember the videos I watched in eighth grade history. I remember the black and white scenes of hooded klansmen, burning crosses on grainy VHS tapes. The flickering classroom projector did nothing to obscure the hate that was recorded, in the angry yelling of white supremacists, in the bomb that killed four black girls in church.
The discovery of how much hate some people could hold was sickening.
I’m glad I grew up with some awareness. The only wish that we didn’t stop in the sixties. Any notion that these movements ended then is completely false.
Even with that awareness, it was always a little too easy to dismiss them as a fringe of lunatics. I was certain there would be enough protections to stop a group like the KKK from ever regaining its former influence, enough people who would promptly reject outright racism.
Over the next few years, my friends of color and the way they were treated started to show me otherwise.
There aren’t enough people who reject racism when the KKK and Neo-Nazis can march into Charlottesville, killing three people, while many stay silent and others try to dismiss those who take a stand with accusations of “being divisive.” And for an even stronger indicator of how severe it is, I encourage people to watch the VICE documentary that’s been released. It’s not a pleasant watch, I can guarantee that
Ideas of racial superiority and inferiority have divided us from the start. And we will never stop being divided if we’re unwilling to come to terms with this reality and to stand against these ideas.
Eugene Cho puts it this way:
“Everyone loves the idea of reconciliation… until it involves truth-telling, confessing, repenting, dismantling, forgiving, and peacemaking.”
Well… it won’t be easy, but that’s what I hope to do.
After the Charlottesville incidents, I was pleased to see many of the spiritual leaders whom I’ve gotten to serve under speak up and condemn white supremacy. I was glad to see social media platforms and Sunday Morning sermons pay attention, and I was also really disappointed in the churches and spiritual leaders who failed to say anything.
It would be better to just admit that you’re less interested in being a part of God’s vision for transforming the world, and more interested in making people feel good about themselves.
It is absolutely the role of the Church to address an issue like racism. The belief that skin color makes some lives matter less than others goes beyond politics– it's simply sin. It's one of the oldest sins, one that remains persistently in the spotlight today, and one every spiritual leader must talk about.
Why? Because people aren't just talking about it. They’re forming their thoughts about God, humans, and the world based on what is being seen It's at the center of a lot of burning questions in many people's hearts. Conversations will happen with or without the Church, but when spiritual leaders stay silent, it sends the message that they have nothing to say about fundamental questions of how people should treat one another.
Let’s be real, though. If I’m going to rally against passivity, then it starts with me. I know I’ve been entirely too passive when it comes to standing with my friends, brothers, sisters who face oppression due to their skin color.
Martin Luther King once said that in the end, “we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
I know I often choose my words carefully, but to the point of often holding back what actually needs to be said. It’s a self-protection thing, if I’m being honest. I have a sense for what gets “pushback” and often stray from it to appear “above the fray.” That approach doesn’t serve others, just my own ego.
I realize that part of following Jesus likely merits a certain amount of “pushback.”
I’m extremely stingy when it comes to expressing anger. This usually serves me well. But while being slow to anger is a virtue, never being angry isn’t how we were designed to live.
After all, God gave us anger as an emotion, meaning it has its place. And there are plenty of examples of a good and righteous anger being used to stir change.
Anger only becomes a problem when it controls us. And most of the time it controls us by making us act out of anger, without reason. But it can also control us by making us so afraid of expressing anger, that we fail to show anger at the right things: evil. Racism. Hate.
We’re in the middle of a moment. The events in Charlottesville were in response to the social, political, and cultural moment that we’re in. That much can’t be overlooked. Both the supremacists and their counter-protesters went into the weekend fully aware that social conditions are way different than they were just two years ago.
When you support a candidate, a party, or a position, you’re far more likely to accept its sins along with its strengths. That’s why it’s so important to know where the line-in-the-sand is for you. What are you willing to tolerate just because somebody is wearing your “team colors?”
So here's a question we all need to ask ourselves... what's our line? I've seen people succeed politically despite bragging about violating women, inciting racism, and mocking disabilities. We allow people to succeed in spite of these things when team colors are the only thing necessary for our support.
If that reminds you of any incidents that you've seen, it means you recognize where your line should be drawn. Just remember, it's always way too easy to allow the ideas, candidates, or positions to cross the line. Our nature is to justify our past decisions at all costs. Don't let that cost be your integrity.
Forgiveness is one of my most core beliefs, and so I’m especially concerned that its power isn’t warped.
Forgiveness isn’t a tolerance for white supremacy, while trying to put those who resist it on an equal plane.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean responding to oppressors and victims in the same way, demanding that the vulnerable should be rushed to with mercy, while we should hope that their oppressors find freedom from the hate in their hearts.
Forgiveness isn’t allowing people of color to continue to bear the brunt of racism while we simply repeat an empty call to “make peace.”
In this context, what is forgiveness? It’s the reality we live in. It’s knowing that we’ve been freed from our own entrapment of hate. It’s believing that the same journey is possible for all people, even if it won’t be easy. But it requires an honest awareness of the harm one has done to others. Forgiveness can’t be accepted without real repentance.
Peacemaking is easily one of the most misunderstood words. We’ve somehow come to associate it with passivity and kumbaya moments. Real peacemaking is actually pretty gritty.
I like the way Stephen Bauman puts it in Break Open The Sky.
"The Greek word for peacemaker means more than someone who merely promotes or instills serenity. It means reconciler, ‘one who, having received the peace of God in her own heart, brings peace to others’… peacemaking is by no means passive. It involves taking risk. Peacemakers are not afraid to establish peace.”
When we think peacemaking is the same thing as conflict avoidance, we falsely assume that the world’s current status is a peaceful one… not a very difficult myth to bust. Peacemaking means we’re shaping the tensions of our current world into one of harmony between all people. That won’t happen without tough conversations, serious discomfort, and personal risk.
Most of what I had to write here was uncomfortable, because of things tolerated that shouldn’t have been excused, things unsaid that should have been voiced, and things dismissed that should’ve been addressed. It was probably an uncomfortable read, but I suppose we aren’t meant to always be comfortable.
There’s not much of a silver lining to racism. It exists. It will probably continue to exist beyond our lifetimes. If we’ve ever assumed it went away, it just went to hide in the shadows, harming people out of our sightlines.
There is no silver lining, but there is a way forward. There are next steps, changes to make, and new days. Today is a chance for us to take another try.