For Christians, Christmas is meant to be a time of potential. For Christians, Christ came to bring hope and justice to a broken world. Because of this, I am terribly upset by our response to the injustices that have been brought to our attention this Advent. Many of us became aware (as if for the first time) of the racial disparities in our nation. I recently heard that our reaction to change is a three-fold progression. We respond by saying: I don’t get it, I don’t like it, and I don’t like you. This seems to be how many people I know have reacted when confronted by this new information of institutional racism in our society. Sadly, many refuse to recognize that anything is wrong. Then, even if there is anything wrong or any pain that might exist, we manage to deflect accountability for biased policies and practices. And yet, as Christians we are called to listen for and respond with God’s love to the pain of this damaged world.
I’ve encountered several people in my life that don’t get it – they don’t see what the problem is, or why people are getting so upset. Also, to avoid admitting the breadth of the issue, there is a tendency to minimize the validity of claims of racism and defend on a case by case basis. In effect, here’s why it is just for there to have been no indictment in the Michael Brown case. Here’s why it’s okay that Eric Garner is dead. This attitude mistakes the impetus for the protests as the only reason for the protests. It conveniently ignores the broader trend that underlies the anger. It ignores the overwhelming statistics about biases in the criminal justice system – which includes police responses, racial profiling, inconsistent sentencing, the explosion in our prison population, etc. Sadder yet, it ignores the extensive and ubiquitous cry of pain and offense by a sizable portion of our brothers and sisters. We need to ask ourselves why our first line of defense is to deny that there are any disparities.
The second disturbing response is to deny collective accountability for the effects of any institutional biases that do exist. “I am not racist”, they’ll say. Or - “The problems in the black community are of their own making.” “Broken families and absentee fathers are the problem.” Yet, we have collectively decided to jail unprecedented numbers of black men, and then not allow them to rejoin their families in public housing or even vote when they get out. We act as if policies and practices that deliberately target those black men have nothing to do with the issues those communities face. We are good at suggesting what “they” should do while going to great lengths to avoid seeing what we could do. In this democracy that we take such pride in, we act as if we are not responsible for the root causes to which we contribute. We need to ask ourselves why our second line of defense is to deny any accountability for any injustices.
I am struggling mightily with the widespread adoption of these two responses by otherwise caring and intelligent people that I know. I am wondering what motivates the concerted effort to deny a mountain of factual and anecdotal evidence of a problem. I recognize that maintaining the status quo and denying any personal culpability is paramount for some, but I don’t know that we can afford a myopic perspective when it causes so much distress for others. It’s too late for that. Just as with global warming, the deliberate refusal of some to accept obvious truths is jeopardizing us all. How much do black lives matter to you if you refuse to recognize the blatant disrespect that your neighbors are pleading with you to take note of? I make my kids try something new to eat before they can conclude that they don’t like it. But, we let our grown-up friends hold onto their conclusions on this issue without even trying to see the other side. By doing so, I believe that we allow racism to continue unchallenged.
I struggle most with the Christian response to the unsettling events of the last few months. If someone you knew came to you in obvious pain and distress, you have two choices. You can recognize their suffering and offer the person comfort. Or, you can question their anguish, deny their hurt and ignore their pleas for help. We are clearly called to the former as Christians. And yet some are clearly taking the latter response towards their brothers and sisters. We need to ask ourselves why we are deliberately neglecting our Christian calling to love our neighbor.
I am struggling to reconcile this very un-Christian reaction from otherwise good (and often church-going) people. I believe that we ought to encourage each other towards becoming our very best selves. Loving our neighbor is an integral part of our best nature and can be accomplished on an individual or community level. I think that we ought to lovingly encourage and challenge our friends and family to recognize and own the institutional racial bias in our society. Ideally, our churches ought to challenge us to grow towards a world where every person is treated like a child of God.
Referring to apartheid in South Africa, Rev. Desmond Tutu said that - “Each person is not just to be respected but be revered as one created in God’s image. To treat one such as if they were less than this is not just evil, which it is, it is not just painful…no, it is veritably blasphemous, for it is to spit in the face of God.” Love and respect for all is where we are called to go – as individuals, as Christian communities and as a society. We have a golden opportunity coming out of this Christmas season to respond to the brokenness in our neighborhoods. We need to ask ourselves – isn’t it time we stopped spitting in the face of God?