Saturday, July 20, 2013
I was confused. Watch out? For a cop? Why did we need to watch out for a cop? In fact, I felt safer knowing that cop was there, because...well...you know. We were a group of white kids wearing expensive clothes walking through a black neighborhood late at night. Surely we weren't the ones the cops should be looking out for!
But then it dawned on me. I remembered what the ministry staff had told us earlier that week. White kids from the suburbs do come to this inner-city neighborhood on a regular basis. They come to buy drugs.
It suddenly made sense. I wanted to turn around and chase down this woman. I wanted to say, "Wait a minute! You have it all wrong! You think that we're here to buy drugs...just because we're white? As if that's the only reason we'd ever be in your neighborhood?"
Those words that I wanted to say, those perceptions and assumptions I wanted to correct...it all stuck with me for a few days. It made me uncomfortable, but as I reflected on that discomfort, I realized that it was temporary. It was limited. It was localized. At the end of the day, it didn't really impact my life.
In just a few days, I would be leaving this neighborhood and returning to my life in the majority. I would return to no longer worrying about society pre-judging me and my motives by the color of my skin. Store clerks would not watch me any more closely than anyone else when I went shopping. People would not lock their car doors when I passed by. Overzealous neighbors would not follow me with a gun when I walked around my neighborhood.
My mom never had to have the talk with me about how to avoid being seen as a threat simply by existing somewhere. I've never thought twice about getting into an elevator with a white woman...or anyone, for that matter. When driving through the gate of my Christian college after midnight, my friends and I could hold up slices of cheese instead of our school ID cards, and the security guard would simply wave us through, chuckling.
As I reflect on the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin verdict, I'm realizing just how much I don't understand.
It's one thing for me, as a white man, to say, "this isn't about race!" It's another for me to realize that for thousands of my fellow Americans and brothers & sisters in Christ...it is most definitely about race. It's one thing for me, as a member of the majority, to say, "I don't care what color you are! It makes no difference to me!" It's another for me to realize that many of my fellow Americans and brothers & sisters in Christ care very deeply about what color they are...that it makes a very big difference to them.
It's one thing for me to say, "Justice was served! It was a trial by a jury of peers! Let's accept the decision and move on." It's another for me to realize that, regardless of the trial's legitimacy, the verdict does nothing to calm or assuage the deep-seated fear and pain of these fellow Americans, my brothers & sisters in Christ. If anything, the verdict confirms those fears, it intensifies the pain, and my callous words of color-blindness only spit in their wounds.
If I'm going to love my brothers and sisters of different races, I don't need to explain and argue to them why I'm not prejudiced. I don't need to tell them why my words weren't intended to be hurtful and why they should give me the benefit of the doubt. I need to be quiet. I need to reflect. I need to pray. I need to cry. I need to sit beside and stand in solidarity. I need to listen. I need to listen a lot. I need to keep listening until I think I can't bear to hear anymore, and then I need to keep listening.
Then...maybe then...I can speak.
I don't understand prejudice. I don't understand race relations in America. I can't understand the depth of pain and fear and anger generated by George Zimmerman's not-guilty verdict. I don't know what a black mother feels now every time her teenage son walks out the door.
But I can't be content to sit here in this lack of understanding. I must listen, I must ask questions, and I must learn. I must be willing to admit that I've been blind, that I've been callous...that I've been wrong. I must let myself be shaped by the love of our Savior, love that isn't color-blind, but love that sees and values the beauty of diversity he created...diversity that leads us to greater unity.
I'll admit, as I move towards greater openness with my story as a same-sex attracted Christian...I fear some elements of prejudice myself. You may be aware of the stereotype that gay men have a far greater tendency to be pedophiles. This stereotype, as false as it is, has already left deep scars on my soul. "Maybe I can't be trusted," my subconscious whispers. "Maybe I am just a sex-obsessed reprobate." What will people think if I sign up to serve in the nursery or with the youth group? As I deal with the deeply painful prospect of never raising and loving kids of my own, I find myself avoiding opportunities to love and care for other people's kids for fear of being misjudged or drawing suspicion. Now yes, of course, I am a sinner. I am capable of just as much sin as you are, and I must rely on the grace of Christ just as much as you do, but this stereotype has slowly led me and many others to believe the lie that we're much more capable of sin than anyone else. Not only are we more broken...we're more dangerous.
I want to be very careful about equating my experience with that of racial minorities in this country. But I do want to add my voice as we speak about the deeply painful impact of harmful stereotypes. For a black man to have to explain why he doesn't want to shoot or steal from you...for a gay man to have to explain why he doesn't want to molest your kids...can we get a sense of the deeply dehumanizing effect that can have?
There's a lot I don't understand about racism and racial prejudice, but I want to learn. Before I speak, I need to listen. Before I claim my innocence, I need to consider where I might be complicit...or even guilty. I need friends of different races and cultures who can tell me their stories, who can teach me, who can show me different aspects of the gospel that I've never seen.
I humbly ask for the same thing as the Church moves forward in its conversation on sexuality. I ask you to listen. I encourage you to build friendships with those of different sexual orientations, not to prove that you hang out with sinners like Jesus did, not to preach and convince, but to listen...to learn...to love and be loved yourself. Whether or not your beliefs or political positions change, you will be able to engage in the conversation in a way that truly reflects the love of our Savior. You will no longer just speak theoretically of "gay people," but you will have names and faces and stories....names and faces and stories of people who you love and who love you back.
As I do the same, as I seek out friends of different races and ethnicities, when I discuss the Trayvon Martin case, I won't just think of a generic "them." I will think of names and faces and stories and tears. I will think of people I care about so deeply that their pain becomes my pain.
Christians are called to identify with the outcast, to stand with the oppressed and seek justice.
We're called to weep with those who weep, to mourn with those mourn. Right now, the African-American community is mourning. It's hurting. What will our response be, people of God?
Let's start by listening.
Grace & peace,
Your Brother Behind the Mask
***In the spirit of this post, I welcome your feedback. If you feel that something I've written lacks sensitivity or understanding, if I have a blind spot...I'll be the first to admit that I don't always understand. I welcome your thoughts and challenges, either in the comment section or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.