[In hopes of extending the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. I want to share a reflection. It was written in December, 2018, following a RULS – Racial Unity Leadership Summit, an offering of the Carl Spain Center https://carlspaincenter.org/. The summits are gatherings of primarily black and white church leaders (both men and women) and other parties interested in racial unity. The RULS occur around the country several times a year. The gathering of which I speak was in Jackson, Mississippi.]
“I have no right to speak into this conversation. As a person of privilege, the better role for me is that of a listener.” But the Spirit gently prompted, “Enter into this conversation.”
As I remember our few short days at the Racial Unity Leadership Summit in Jackson, Mississippi, sorrow and profound gratitude fill my heart. I cannot remember a more worthwhile time spent in conversation and prayer. Going into the event, I knew I would be blessed, but could not have anticipated the impact of the time spent. I have been involved in numerous conversations on the issue of racism—both secular and in the Church. I teach cultural diversity and seek to open avenues of understanding to the context of discrimination in which we live. But in this exchange, the eyes of my heart were opened in new ways.
The weaving together of the stories of Emmet Till and Dietrich Bonhoeffer was providential. Both individuals experienced great sorrow and death but were different in the privilege of choice. Bonhoeffer willingly opposed the concern of his friends as he returned to Germany to confront the evil of Hitler, but Till had no such choice. The death of Till was a result of the color of his skin and the bravado of a young 14-year old boy. He did not comprehend that a simple whistle would result in his torture and death. Choice emerged in a different way in his story in a mother who faced the tragedy with courage and faith. She stood up to a culture of racism and called for action. This same choice is the charge given to us in our time together.
The tone of the symposium was set as we were guided by the experience of these two martyrs. We learned of the torture and death of Emmet and others and were simultaneously faced with the ongoing plight of those who continue to live with the daily repercussions of being born of a certain race. What powerful conversation to hear people of deep faith grapple with the desire to address the racism and discrimination pervasive in their own lived experience. This dialogue was coupled with the life and death of Dietrich in the call to face another and similar evil. This great man calls us to action as people of privilege. We recognize the choice we make between living lives of costly or cheap grace. As people of privilege, it is so easy to choose the latter as we neglect to open our eyes to the reality of constant discrimination. The temptation is to feel pity yet do nothing. We effortlessly ignore the pain of those whose world is rife with daily fear–fear that they will be targeted because of their race. Cheap grace is too familiar.
But that is not our path. The Lord calls us to costly grace. As I listened to the pain of our friends who grapple with “black rage” and “black weariness,” I sensed the summons to step up to the plate. As a therapist, I am familiar with the influence of ongoing abuse experienced by both individuals and our country. When they live with abuse, they are impacted psychologically, emotionally, spirituality and physically. They are bombarded with the message that they are “less than.” They experience the intergenerational transmission of these messages that occur as generations of family members experience abuse. It is natural to react by either internalizing the abuse or fighting back. Yet, they dare not fight back. The requirement is submission—to turn down one’s eyes and respond with respect. How absurd that this is the requirement of the current day as it was two hundred years ago in the time of slavery. How shameful that it is the norm for those wrapped in a skin color other than white.
This is not something I can imagine. I am aware but only marginally. I cannot comprehend the deep weariness that comes from hearing yet again of brutality against another—brutality that is familiar in this supposedly civil time. Herein lay the deep sense of gratitude that I continue to experience from our time together. I came away from the conversation realizing that this is not a “they” situation. These are my sons and daughters, these are my brothers, and sisters, and mothers and fathers. I grasp that when a 26-year old young man is shot in his own apartment, this is my child. The deep pain that my Lord experiences at these occasions touches my soul. I do not turn away with my country as it moves on to other matters. My life has changed through each act of brutality—never to be the same. I can no longer have my eyes closed through inattention. I can no longer wait for others to address our national culture of discrimination. I recognize that even I contribute to racism through complacency.
However, my response must also not be driven by anger and desire for vengeance—although both logical and oh so justifiable. We turn the eyes of our hearts to costly grace. A grace that involves profound love–the love of Christ. This is not a door-mat kind of love, but a love with teeth in it. A love that holds our culture accountable for its actions, but even more than that, a love that holds the Church accountable and responsible to be Christ’s love in this hurting world. This is a love that doesn’t make sense to the world, nor oftentimes to us. This is a love that comes only when God uses us as conduits of love through our complete surrender to His shaping. When it came my time to lead the conversation of the group, I felt inadequate and full of shame. What right did I have as a person of privilege to speak to the pain of those with whom I was in conversation? It seemed that the better response was to listen. And listening is a good response, but the Lord was asking for more from me. He wanted me to step up and participate. He invited me to risk. In this small instance and beyond, he asks for love that requires us as people of privilege to make the choice to respond with courage and faith.
Grace and peace,