When we were at Jubilee, Dr. Christena Cleveland spoke to us about racial injustice. She told us about a study one of her colleagues conducted in which pictures of black or white men were flashed subliminally (so quickly that the conscious cannot register it) before subjects’ eyes. Then the subjects were quickly shown a picture of either a hand tool or a gun for a very brief time. The results showed that if the subjects had been shown a picture of a black man first, they overwhelmingly identified the second picture as a handgun. These results were true, regardless of race.
Deidra and I were roommates, up on the 17th floor, and we were walking down the stairwell together (because when a hotel is full of 3,000 college students, you can wait a long time on an elevator—only to find it crammed full of young people when it finally arrives) talking about Dr. Cleveland’s words.
“When she said those results were true regardless of race,” I said, “I felt my heart sink.”
“I know,” Deidra said.
“Because that means it’s going to take a long time to change.”
We said it at the same time and our eyes met in that narrow corridor and I looked at my beautiful brown-skinned friend and wished that like-mindedness could be so easy.
It’s going to take a long time. Of sustained, joined effort. We cannot let these tragic incidents of disunity and injustice fade from our minds just because they fade from the news. I feel too small to make a tiny dimple in the flesh of this problem. Honestly? My thoughts and ideas have not felt welcome. What do I, a white middle-aged woman, know about these things? It is tempting to turn my head and look the other way. There are many lines drawn in the sand, barriers set up.
We must cross them.
As the church, we must be the leaders.
When we were on retreat at Laity Lodge last fall, our senior editor, Marcus Goodyear led us in devotions one morning. When Marcus was a teenager, he spent a year as a foreign exchange student in Germany. It was 1990-91, between the fall of the Berlin wall and reunification.
Marcus told the story of St. Nikolai Church in Leipzeig, which is credited with helping to open the border between Eastern and Western Germany. Pastor Christian Furher began holding weekly prayer services in which people recited the Beatitudes together. He said, “gradually this prayer time turned into a weekly candlelight march through the city, reciting the Beatitudes.”
Marcus went on to cite East German officials who said, “We were ready for anything except candles and prayer.”
Furher said, “In church people learned to turn fear into courage … We did it because the church has to do it.”
“The church has to remind the world that we have hope and not despair,” Marcus said. “That evil belongs to time and goodness belongs to eternity.”
I want to be part of the goodness that belongs to eternity. These are some of the things that I can do:
I can cross those barriers. Our friend Dr. Helen Fagan says that because I live in a community that is not very diverse, I need to deliberately pursue experiences that place my white self in the minority. How can I love if I’m not sitting at the table?
I can learn about other cultures. This means stepping out of my comfort zone and opening my heart to things that aren’t normally on my radar. Like listening to the soulful voice of Amena Brown speak truth to me in a new way.
I can do these things with humility and compassion. Understanding things are the way they are today because of a long, complicated history will bring me to a place of humbling, if I let it. But for the grace of God we live in this time, this place, and all I need do is use my gift of imagination to wonder how different things may have been if I lived in another time, if my skin was a different color. What would happen if our judgments were placed in the context of all these years of injustice?
I can pray. Alone and corporately. With people who look like me, sure, but what might happen if I reach across the table for the hand of a brother or sister who looks different than I? Powerful. It’s powerful when we pray together.
I can love. Above all, I can love. Because he first loved me, I will love his image-bearers in this world. All of them.
I’m still learning. But mostly what I’m learning is that the world doesn’t always change for good by accident.
And this morning? I’m praying the Beatitudes.
Image by Ferran Jorda, used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.
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