I’m not a racist!

“I’m not a racist.”

I’ve heard or read multiple variations of this phrase recently. One meme stood out to me; it read, “We have some racists, but 99% of the people you meet are color blind and don’t have a racist bone in their body.” Even in that one sentence, there is a lot to unpack, though that is not my purpose today. What has been stirring for me has been pondering the impact of saying, “I’m not racist.”

Before I get to my thoughts, I want to say I understand. None of us wants to admit that we have biases and presuppositions, some of which are based upon race and some of which are negative. Racism is an ugly word because racism is ugly. If you are like me, hearing the word racist conjures up grainy images from generations past and we think to ourselves, I am nothing like those people. I was raised to treat everyone the same. A person’s color does not affect how I see them or treat them. I believe all lives matter. Therefore, I am not a racist.

But here’s the thing: Insisting that you are not a racist communicates several things. First, it communicates an unwillingness to listen to others and hear their stories. In every generation, people of color have been trying to reveal their pain and tell us their stories. They are saying to us, “Please listen! Even though slavery was abolished in the 1860s and the civil rights movement reached its peak in the 1960s, racism still exists. Let us tell you our stories.” Friends, when we say, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” what we are communicating is that we don’t need to listen. “I’m just fine and I love everybody, thankyouverymuch.” Let me suggest that is much more loving to say, “Tell me your story. Tell me about your pain” than it is to retreat to clichéd phrases that shut down conversations leaving people unheard.

Second, it shuts down dialog. I believe one of the greatest tragedies during my lifetime has been the increased polarization between groups of people. Perhaps we have always been this polarized and it only seems to me that it has been worse. Civility has been replaced with name calling, listening with assuming, and unity with division. We talk about those who think differently than we do rather than talking with them. We start with the assumption that the problem is other people, which short circuits respectful, fruitful conversation from the start.

Third, it communicates an unwillingness to examine our own hearts. We Americans, and perhaps especially those of us who are Christians, are great pretenders. We assume that because we believe in God, no darkness remains within us. I have been in the church long enough to know that our public image rarely matches the state of our hearts. It is not just our nation that is divided, our hearts are divided as well. In Matthew 23, Jesus confronted the Pharisees telling them that they were experts in washing the outside of the cup, but that their insides were full of death. In other words, their external appearance did not match their inner life. One day, the divisions both within and between us will be reconciled (Rev. 5:9), but we aren’t there yet. We still have a lot of heart work to do.

Jesus’s brother James encouraged us to be “quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1:19). Friends, can we seek to listen? Are we willing to face the shadow that lurks within each of us? It is only in facing our shadow selves that we can begin to heal our divided hearts and the divisions between us.

Developing a “with” mindset

In 1980, Isaac Asimov wrote, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” Remarkably, he said this before the onset of social media. His quote is perhaps truer today than ever. Every day, outlets such as Facebook and Twitter are seemingly overrun with examples of misinformation and rampant, ungrounded opinions. If one has a feeling about the way something is, they are free to express their opinion freely and loudly. Indeed, with billions of interconnected voices on the planet, we can even provide support for our opinions by citing experts whose viewpoints reflect our own, even when the overwhelming majority of experts disagree.

Assuredly, the advent of the 24 hour news cycle, which coincidentally began in 1980 with CNN, has also fostered a culture wherein opinions are widespread and facts often get lost in the chaos. In a similar way to the availability of supposed expert opinions, we now have numerous options for getting our “news,” which has sadly become less about the reporting of facts than about propaganda.

In addition to the nearly complete penetrance of social media and the unrelenting cacophony of propaganda presented as news, some of the shifts in education have not served us well. The self-esteem movement, for all of the good it has done, has also gone wrong in many ways. It has moved beyond helping people to understand their unique value to overvaluing of one’s own opinions. I recall reading in D.A. Carson’s The Intolerance of Tolerance that this elevation of opinion was even finding its way into math classes where students were not corrected for making mistakes even in simple calculations.

These seeds take root. We learn from an early age that every person’s opinion is as valid as everyone else’s, but then we confuse opinion with fact. Social media then provides a platform for every person who wishes to share whatever they want and, because of the proliferation of the 24 hour news cycle and self-professed experts who conflate opinion and fact, anyone can provide evidences for their pet positions. This ends up providing fertile ground for animosity and division.

So what then is the answer? Let me suggest a few things. First, I think we as a nation would benefit from a large infusion of humility. Unfortunately, we don’t have many visible models for humility because our society does not value it and truly humble people are often in the background. Listen, it is perfectly okay to admit that we do not possess all of the answers on everything. Not only do we not need to be “experts” on everything, in humility, we are free to acknowledge that we actually are not experts. There are experts out there, but in most cases, it isn’t you or me. I have frequently encouraged people and myself foremost, to ask “Is it possible I am wrong?” Let’s not start from a position that asks is it possible if the other person is wrong, but begin with ourselves. Another unfortunate trend in the last several decades has been a lack of training in logic and critical thinking. We are unable to look at information critically and accurately, assessing strengths and weaknesses of the arguments that are presented. Too often, we accept as true the loudest opinions, not the ones that are the most well reasoned. Routinely, we overvalue our own perceived reasoning abilities, believing we are immune from manipulation. But here’s the thing: You are not immune to propaganda. Neither am I. The multi-billion dollar advertising industry counts on it.

Second, before you click “share” on something, ask yourself “is it true?” Many of the provocative memes and “news stories” that make the rounds on Facebook have no basis in truth, but again, with flashy words and tantalizing pictures, we believe them. If you feel compelled to share something, do a little leg work first. But let’s not stop with the question “is it true?” Let us also ask is it good and beautiful. Too many of the things we are exposed to every day and too many of the things we share add to the ugliness. Each of us has the opportunity to be light bringers. Let’s not spread darkness.

Third, develop humble curiosity. Become a listener. Seek to understand the viewpoints of others. Too often our interactions, and especially those that happen online, are characterized by an against mindset. We view those who hold alternative viewpoints as our enemies though we may not use that word. As a nation, it seems we are increasingly divided. We do not seek to understand; we look for people to blame, a perspective that has increasingly characterized our major influencers–news agencies, politicians, public figures, and even pastors. Sadly, these models give us implicit permission to be divisive. When we constantly hear accusatory messages, we come to believe that a) there is definitely someone to blame and, b) it isn’t us. What would change if there was a movement to develop a with mindset instead? From a with mindset, we do not view others as our enemies, but as fellow citizens of the planet. Larry Crabb wrote, “we are people of radical worth and largely unrevealed beauty.” Every one of us. Do our interactions, even with those with whom we disagree seek to reveal beauty and worth? Let’s stop looking for people to fight and instead look for people to love. Sometimes, I think that we forget that our battle isn’t against people, but against evil and divisiveness (see Ephesians 6:12). When there is continued misunderstanding, perhaps ongoing dialog is appropriate, but I think it would be beneficial to engage in “mutual inquiry” and not “debate,” a suggestion I heard from the late Dallas Willard. The difference in language may seem subtle, but I think it does change perspective. Admittedly, social media is rarely the place for such truth seeking, but sometimes, we can dialog together respectfully, patiently, and lovingly. Otherwise, it may be best to offer our peace and disengage with grace.

Let us seek to replace pride with humility, haste with patience, certainty with curiosity, divisiveness with peace, and hatred with love.

Wholeness or Harm?

Write 31 days, day 27
Writing Prompt: Whole

If you were to ask me what thoughts fill my head during the day’s mental pit stops, there would be just a few things I would mention. I think a lot about Jesus and I think a lot about the transcendentals–truth, goodness, and beauty. Wholeness is the other concept I give a lot of mental space. I also believe that these three topics are closely related. Jesus epitomizes truth, goodness, and beauty. Jesus is wholeness.

Yet when I look around at the world, I rarely see wholeness. I see brokenness.  I see division. I see hatred. I see dis-integration. I suspect you do too.  Just today, the news told us of another hate crime. This time, a gunman killed 10 people and wounded others at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh. Every time these attacks occur, we disintegrate further. But it’s not just these publicized attacks–it is every murder, every rape, every sexual assault, every physical assault, every action motivated by hate. Every hateful word, every time we use name calling during disagreement, we are contributing to this degradation.

It grieves me when I see my friends using name calling. I wish I could say that my Christian friends on social media rose above name calling and hateful invective, but from what I can tell, they don’t. In fact, some days it seems that those who profess Christ are more likely to engage in character attacks and name calling. Friends, it ought not be so. We are called to live lives of love…in everything (1 Corinthians 16:14).

Earlier I shared on Facebook:

Stand against hate in all its forms. Christians, we are called to testify to the truth and to do so lovingly. Every person…hear me…EVERY PERSON, bears the image of God. EVERY PERSON, regardless of creed, is to be loved, not hated. Yes, speak out against bombings of Jewish Synagogues, or black churches, or movie theaters, schools, and bars. But also speak out against the hateful words so often spoken against or about those who think differently.

Every day, we have an opportunity to use our words. Will we use them for wholeness or harm?

For reflection: What does your social media presence look like? How do you speak about those with whom you disagree? 

Zion’s Comfort

Write 31 days, Day 8
Writing Prompt: Comfort

Day after day
I awaken to the pain
of disintegration,
citizens
hell-bent upon
being right,
which necessitates
someone
being wrong,
and not just wrong
–gloriously wrong–
indeed subhuman.
Our tongues
are uncoiled whips
whose razored tips
rip apart
human dignity.
The shining city on a hill
stands enveloped
in a cloud of dust and ash
that rises from its
crumbling foundations
and society’s conflagration.

Where then is our comfort?
Where is our hope?
Not with earthly powers
that govern the shining city
with inequity,
but with the LORD
of Mt. Zion,
which radiates with
the beauty
and goodness
and glory of God.

For the LORD comforts Zion;
he comforts all her waste places
and makes her wilderness like Eden,
her desert like the garden of the LORD;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the voice of song.
(Isaiah 51:3 ESV)

For reflection: 
Reflect upon the goodness of God who is in the process of setting all things right. 

Jagged Rocks

The world is crumbling,
we all know it.
As we walk our daily paths
we feel the rocks press in to the soles of our feet.
The rubble reminds us
of culture’s dis-integration.

We pause…
peering down at the sharp-edged remnants
a thought enters our minds
“I can do something about this.”

We bend and choose a rock
a particularly jagged one,
take aim,
and throw it at our enemy.

Culture is not a territory to be won or lost but a resource we are called to steward with care. Culture is a garden to be cultivated.–Makoto Fujimura

At the Well

This morning, I was reflecting on the story of the woman at the well from the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel. Sometimes, I find it beneficial to slow down, savoring the story. I think we can learn a lot by stepping into the story and taking a look around, trying to imagine what people were sensing, imagining, feeling, and thinking. When we recognize that these stories are not just flat words upon a page, but real life and blood people, it can deepen our understanding. Today, I tried to envision the woman’s experience and wrote a story. I hope it is edifying. 

With the noonday sun cresting in the sky, she began her daily trip to the well. Working in the sun’s oppressive heat was a small price to pay to avoid judgmental stares and whispered accusations. She walked down the familiar path. Though she had walked this narrow trail a thousand times, she kept her eyes trained a few feet ahead, only glancing further along every few moments. A world-wise woman understands how important it is to be aware of her surroundings.

As she drew nearer to Jacob’s well, she looked up again, this time seeing someone sitting nearby. She debated whether to turn back, but she knew from experience that the man she was living with would be angry if she came back without a full jar. In her mind, she weighed the risk of encountering an unknown stranger against the guaranteed sting of a slap across her cheek. They needed the water. With any luck, she could avoid any interaction.  Continue reading “At the Well”