WATCH YOUR MOUTH
I have been consciously in the struggle for racial justice since I was in high school. I believe strongly in and strive for racial reconciliation in the way I live my life. I am a white American male married to an African American woman. We both come from Newark, NJ and were teenagers at the time of the Newark riots in 1967. We both grew up watching the news of Civil Rights marches, Dr. King’s speeches, his murder, and riots in the streets. We have felt the intensity of racial hatred from Black Muslims in Newark and arbitrary white people in the south.
We have felt the smug equivocation concerning injustice from fellow Christians when it absolutely was not ambiguous. We have seen the retreat into denial and the determined avoidance of engagement from truth and justice by far too many Christian leaders. These are matters that demand engagement and require repentance, the risk of love and forgiveness, and determined change. Many simply want nothing to do with repentance if it deprives them of their self-righteousness or their anger.
My wife and I have both read and studied African American history and culture, we have helped to start and I have pastored an intentional cross-cultural church, pursued various reconciliation ministries and initiatives, and fostered a national movement of cross-cultural congregations. We have had to be apologists for justice within our own very conservative Presbyterian denomination. We have sometimes had to be apologists to an untrusting and incredulous black community concerning sincere white folk who wished strongly to see justice come and experience love and peace from people of color. We have had to answer countless questions about race and culture, explaining and teaching the value of diversity and difference while pursuing and living out unity.
Neither of us has a degree in racial reconciliation, cultural diversity, cross cultural communication, or racial justice. We do have experience. We have been in some tight spots and scary situations, sometimes fearing the possibilities for ourselves or our children. We have experienced some shunning, been falsely accused of nefarious agendas, assumed to have a confused racial identity, purposefully left out of certain opportunities, and when we have achieved had those dismissed as if things were simply handed to us. In short, to some degree, we believe we have paid our dues in the struggle.
All of this being said so the reader might understand why we find it a bit problematic when people who are also in the struggle chose to be needlessly provocative, insulting, and divisive as they claim to pursue social justice. My problem isn’t so much with the purpose and attitude of their hearts; obviously only God can accurately assess that, and I tend to give those that I know the benefit of the doubt that they mean well. My problem is more with the current language in the quest for racial and cultural justice.
I would imagine that there are those who have heard me speak on racial or justice issues that felt slightly beat up by the time I was through. It is difficult to honestly and humbly listen to the shameful racial history of our country, or of American Christianity, and to see the facts of current prejudice and disparities and not feel ashamed, disturbed, and even angry. I know those feelings because I have certainly felt them as I became more and more woke to the reality of our fallen world in regard to the issues of race and justice. I cannot read of slavery, Jim Crow laws and segregation, lynching, race riots, and a history of intentional economic discrimination that has helped to create poverty, humiliation, and injustice without deep emotional anguish; I have often been reduced to weeping. I know it is difficult for my wife to even watch a film or television documentary that will throw in her face one more time all that her people have suffered in this land.
Yet, we seek peace. We follow Jesus the Reconciler, the One who brought us the message of reconciliation from God the Father and accomplished reconciliation at the cross. We believe that we are called to be peacemakers; it is simply part of what it means to be a Christian. So how do you tell uncomfortable truths to people and make peace?
James answers that this way, “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.”(3:17-18) So, peace isn’t simply my goal or end, it is the very means by which I accomplish my end and achieve God’s goal. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated this many times, and he practiced it.
The consciousness of racial injustice and its attendant social, economic, psychic, emotional, and physical realities are like a punch in the gut. We have no alternative but to spell them out, to both the ignorant and the resistant. Yet, if we allowed hate to fill us, these truths could inflame our hearts and push us to be fiery-eyed zealots and avengers, we instead seek to speak the truth in love; as Ephesians 4:15 teaches us to do. This is not always easy to do, to speak hard truths in love. We cannot be flippant about what love means (claiming we love people but producing no demonstrable proof) in our communication, especially not in having read the James passage in how the “wisdom from above” is to be imparted. In other words people who hear hard truths from us must also hear and feel the love as far as it may depend on us.
It is way too easy to be self-righteous in this work, especially if any of us ever lose touch with our own sinfulness. Self-righteous zealots are both dangerous and boring. They create more division and give people an excuse to stop listening. I may have taken too long to get to my point, which is simply that we need to watch our mouths and our pens if we want to stay true to Jesus as we pursue the justice we believe is inherent in his own character and which he demands from all of us.
There is a lot of racial rhetoric (from various ideological perspectives) and the Christian has to navigate their way through words and phrases that are sometimes intemperate, out of proportion, historically inaccurate, blatantly false, almost totalitarian in their attempt to control the narrative, and just plain mean. We must never sacrifice our commitment to truth nor our commitment to love, and for that we will need a lot of help from the Holy Ghost.
Let me try to give some suggestions in the quest for peacemaking:
· Tell the truth while being humble, and with as much kindness as possible.
· Is the purpose of your communication positive change in others or an excuse for you to vent your anger? We should all be angry at injustice, but none of us should be sinfully angry.
· Watch out for gross generalizations and provocative slogans that are needlessly offensive. Do you simply want an “amen” from people who agree with you or understanding from those who are still in ignorance?
· Articulate racial concepts with explanation and alternative strategies and try to avoid leaving people in and with ambiguity.
· Watch out for simply spreading guilt, even to the guilty, without the Gospel alternative.
· Have some sense of balance concerning your reactions to things which are annoying or make you feel insulted as opposed to those threats and situations which are actual physical assaults on life and liberty.
· Choose your battles, for there will be times you will need real courage against dangerous foes. An insulting mouth will give you enemies you don’t need to make.
· Denouncing the mistakes and cultural obliviousness of the dominant majority culture can be helpful, but it won’t keep them from being the dominant culture, so how can these various cultures live with justice and love in their current reality?
· Lead us to some positive change, model it, and love your enemies, or else your articulate explanation of what is wrong and unjust might simply leave us all frustrated.
· Proportion your perspectives and passions: keep in balance the reality of living in a fallen world that will always have a limited ability for change, keep fervent your eschatological hope that a new heavens and new earth is coming, keep fervent your passion and call for justice, love and peace (and belief in its possibility) in the name of Jesus and by the power of a resurrected Christ.