Over the last few weeks, the phrase “this is a political issue” keeps coming up. As individuals and groups in our community try to express their experience, their longings, and their thoughts on racial violence and oppression. They are often met with dismissal and a lack of compassion. This “political issue” has come to a head with the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, as well as the racism demonstrated in Central Park against Christian Cooper. There are more, so many more lives lost that could be named. I believe the rapid succession of these events, which received extensive media coverage amidst a time when more people are keyed into the news due to quarantine and the pandemic, has led to an explosion of wrestling with what these events mean for America, and more importantly white America. We find ourselves at last forced to discuss a topic that we would prefer to keep “political.”
Race and oppression are complex topics, difficult topics that often lead us to division and silence. I believe the evil in this world loves for God’s people to feel their only option is to stay silent. So why do we stay silent? I know in my family, it’s to avoid division and pain. To avoid disagreement at all costs. To avoid the potential to disrupt the peace. But here is the thing, dialogue is a path to unity. Silence does not avoid division. It deepens it.
To avoid vulnerability. To expose your heart, your hurts, your values, your thoughts is inherently a vulnerable process. To listen and wrestle to understand is a vulnerable process.
To say this is a “political issue” oftentimes is code for “this is an issue that is difficult to talk about.” And that is true enough. But, as a society, we relegate certain topics as “political” so that we can mutually agree that we will not talk about them with people that think differently than us in order to avoid conflict. But in our avoidance, who does that serve?
This is not to say that the opposite is the more helpful – rush into every conversation with every person no matter the context or consequences, abandon all social grace, and beat your point home no matter the cost. Not at all. What I am saying is that we must find ways to talk about uncomfortable issues because silence isn’t working. The silence around racism isn’t working.
I agree and disagree that this is “a political issue.” I agree with the underlying message that this is a challenging topic to talk about. I do not agree with the implied message that the appropriate response to difficulty and challenge is to be silent. To relegate the conversation in quiet corners between individuals. Quite the opposite. Our faith calls us into the difficult places of vulnerability.
I want to acknowledge that within our community, there are many opinions, feelings, and thoughts on this topic. Sometimes it has been hard to talk about. I long for us to find a way to ask the hard questions, hear the hard answers, and be able to disagree and wrestle while also maintaining relationship with each other. A relationship that does not have room for conflict, disagreement, and difficulty isn’t really a relationship at all. It is a relationship-in-the-making. It is my prayer that we see this as an opportunity to deepen relationship by stepping into vulnerability and humility.
The question at this moment is not “Do we talk about this?” but rather “How do we talk about this?” Here are some beginning thoughts:
- Center and amplify black voices. Listen. Learn. Experience. Do not deny or argue with their lived experience. Their experience is not an opinion, it is a fact born from their life.
- Be willing to listen through discomfort. Do not derail or end conversations because you disagree. Do not end a conversation with “We’ll have to agree to disagree”. Instead, suspend your belief for a moment and listen. Ask for clarification. And then end with “That is a new thought for me. I need to go and consider it. Can we revisit this topic again?”
- Become more aware of what it means to be collectively white. To be referred to as “white people” violates a fundamental pillar of white culture – individuality. We are not used to being referred to collectively. Begin to get aware of the fact that there is a white culture and explore what it is and the discomfort you may feel at the use of this term is a sign of systemic inequality – even if you don’t yet understand how or why.
- Educate yourself and get political. For many, the conversation about race remains shrouded in words like unity, equality, and love. Not a bad starting place. But if our conversations and understanding of racial issues do not also include words like oppression, privilege, and system then please consider this as an invitation to dive into the large body of writers, lecturers, and thinkers who readily define these terms. Ending racism will not be accomplished through the changing of individual hearts if it does not also translate to changing systemic policies, laws and practices in our social, political, and legal structures.
*If I have made you uncomfortable in any way through this letter or through my sermons, it is my deepest hope that you would pursue me as a member of your community and share your experience with me. I welcome your thoughts, additions, and disagreements. And look forward to growing and learning alongside you.
Grace and Peace,