What are We Waiting for? – An Advent Sermon

What are We Waiting for? – An Advent Sermon

Luke 3:7-18

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with[a] water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

John the Baptist is the character in Advent who reminds us that Jesus’ coming is political.

Not Republican or Democrat political – though it certainly has implications for how we vote – but political in the sense of how we choose to construct life together, how we engage our responsibilities both as those governed and as those who do the governing, how we recognize and understand the power we have over others and the power others have over us.

John the Baptist was the ultimate outsider. His life itself was a protest against the powers of his day – the power of the Roman Empire and of local authorities, even the influence of the religious establishment. He lived a life in the wilderness – “off the grid” we might say – disentangling himself from the marketplace and the basics of everyday society like housing, clothing, and even food. He lived in the wilderness, wearing rough camel-hair garments like the ancient prophets, and eating a diet he could gather in the wild.

John was popular – crowds came out to hear him, and his message was clear and unsparing. “Get ready! The Messiah is coming, and he’s bringing God’s judgement on all of us! It’s time to repent! Things need to change!” That’s why John baptized people – as a sign that they were repenting and changing their lives.

And all kinds of people came to John to be baptized, Luke tells us: ordinary people, tax collectors, even soldiers. John was not easy on those who came – he called them a bunch of snakes and accused them of using baptism as a “get out of jail free” card. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” he told them – you’ve got to show you’re actually changing your life, not just talk about it!

But apparently, these folks were serious, because they ask John what they needed to do.

He told everybody, “If you have more than you need, give it to someone who needs it.” But there was more…

The tax collectors were Jewish sell-outs to the Roman Empire, and when they collected taxes, they had the discretion to take a cut for themselves. That’s the way it worked. John didn’t tell them to quit their jobs, though. Instead, he told them not to collect any more than they were obligated to – to take the system Rome used to manipulate Jews into oppressing Jews and flip it on its head.

And even soldiers came to John, most likely Jewish soldiers working for Rome as something like a local police force. They were apparently throwing their weight around and acting like the mafia, since he told them to stop extorting money from people with threats and intimidation and false accusations. They were to be content with their rations and pay – which wouldn’t have been much for non-Roman citizens, and much like tax collectors, soldiers usually supplemented their pay by using their position. John tells them to stop.

In a system that thrives on injustice, legal and illegal, John is telling people to do something different. To act with justice and compassion towards each other.

No doubt, these people were a lot like us. No one else was going to take care of them or their families if they didn’t, so they only did what they had to do. They were trying to survive in a system they didn’t create – who could blame them for taking advantage of it? And Jewish revolts were common – the soldiers probably thought a lot of the people they harassed and accused deserved it, and that some of them might turn around and kill them if they had the chance.

The Jews were divided. Extremists planned revolts, while others did their best to make friends with Rome. The soldiers were policing people who’d probably been their neighbors, and most of them thought the soldiers and tax collectors were traitors to be working for Rome.

And here comes John, and he doesn’t fit with any of them. He doesn’t tell the tax collectors and soldiers to quit their jobs, but he does tell them to quit playing the game – working the system. And he tells everyone with even a little more than they need to be generous and share what they have.

John is telling them – and us – that repentance means seeing everything differently. Instead of looking at the world and seeing how we can take care of ourselves, he wants us to look at the world and see how we can take care of somebody else. Instead of looking at the world like the tax collectors did, and seeing a system we can use to our advantage, he wants us to look at the world and see how we can seek justice for others. And instead of looking at the world like the soldiers did, and seeing threats and enemies, he wants us to look at the world and not be afraid we won’t survive without violence.

John knows that repentance means much more than saying we’re sorry. Repentance means seeing a new way to live with each other and with the systems of power that shape our world and manipulate what we see.

For most of us, Advent is about waiting for Christmas. When we’re kids, we’re waiting to open those presents! When we get older, we’re waiting for the family to gather, for the shopping and decorating and getting ready to be done, for something that will make us feel that special Christmas feeling we remember. And maybe some of us are really just waiting for it all to be over and hoping we survive it!

But for Christians, Advent is about waiting for Jesus to come. Waiting for the day we celebrate how he came the first time, as a tiny, crying, baby in a manger; and waiting for him to come again as the King of All Creation. We are waiting, and while we wait we are making our way in the world and doing our best to get ready. It’s a little like waiting for a child to come home from college – we just want to see them and be with them!

But John’s kind of waiting is less about anticipation and more about that getting ready part. “He’s nearly here!” John yells at us. “What are you doing??? What are you waiting for???”

And that’s the part of John’s message that gets me – What are you waiting for? What am I waiting for?

I spent the first forty years of my life waiting – waiting for God to tell me what to do with my life, waiting for God to tell me it was okay to do something I wanted to do, waiting – in a way – for my life to start, for things to get going. It took me forty years to realize that’s not how God works – at least not most of the time. God’s already told us what to do – “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God,” is how the Prophet Micah puts it. John the Baptist says, give what you have to help others, don’t take advantage of power, and don’t hurt others to help yourself. It’s not okay to just go with the flow – look beyond the system and what it wants you to see. Jesus said, Love God with everything in you and love your neighbor as yourself.

Where we live, what job we choose, who we marry (or don’t) – all of those things are important, but they’re context, not core. It took me forty years to realize that, and then I started making choices and doing things. One of the first things I did was start going to a different church, one closer to the community I lived in. I changed jobs so I could work somewhere I was freer to stand up against the oppression of LGBTQ folk, especially in the church. I bought my first brand new car, I moved into the City, I started giving a lot more away.

I did a lot of those things because I started looking for how I could do justice and love mercy and walk humbly, how I could love God and love my neighbor better instead of being afraid of what I might get wrong. But I’ve barely scratched the surface.

I have one friend, a Baptist pastor in Tennessee, who has accidentally become a one-man Facebook hotline for Christian LGBTQ kids whose families and churches can’t accept them. He gets at least one new private message every night from a kid asking him for help – often asking him to talk to their parents who might listen to a pastor.

I turn on the news and every day there are more kids fleeing for their lives from Central America and getting locked up as soon as they cross the US border. They’re scared and they need a safe place to grow up, and they don’t have lawyers or anyone to help get them through our broken immigration system.

I have another friend, a black man in his early thirties who grow up in Chicago. A few weeks ago on of his childhood friend’s big brother was shot and killed by a police officer while he was doing his job as a security guard and restraining a man with a gun who’d started shooting in the club he worked at.

There’s a sense in which Advent is less about what we are waiting for, and more about what and who is waiting on us. Waiting on us to realize what we can’t afford not to give. Waiting on us to see the justice they need from us. Waiting on us to vote for their good instead of our own. Waiting on us to do the right thing.

The world is messed up, and it can be confusing. And there’s so much more justice to do, and mercy to learn to love. I’m trying to figure out, what is it I’m waiting for? What are you waiting for?

What are we all waiting for?

(Audio)

Finding Justice in Voting

Finding Justice in Voting

I don’t think we have a vision for what racial justice in America would actually look like. At least, I haven’t, and I’m sure I’m far from the only one.

I always believed racial justice looked like each person accepted and judged for who they are and what they’ve done regardless of the color of their skin. And maybe that particular vision would reflect justice more accurately if it’s where we’d started from – if that’s how it had always been.

But it’s not. And that vision of justice tries to erase history, as if each day and each person starts with a clear slate rather than one filled with the scribblings and scratchings and scriptures of those who have gone before.

The history that’s gone before – the good, the bad, the biased, and the bigoted – is part of each of us. We bring it with us into community, faith, politics, family. And because we’ve always carried it, we can’t see it clearly – or sometimes at all. But it still shapes (determines, even) what our ideas about justice and fairness look like.

As I was taught is true of the Bible, “Context is king” for justice as well. I’ve been asking myself what would a context of justice in America look like?

We would need black and Native American and Asian and Latinx voices and decisions in the foundations – in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Black and native men and women would have been shaping education, finance, industry, religion – all the structures of society. But instead, they were silenced, and what we have was shaped and prescribed almost exclusively by centuries of white male voices and decisions.

That foundation matters. Inviting people of color and women to participate in white male systems isn’t justice. The rules are already set, and they were designed for white men to flourish. Everyone else starts the game at a disadvantage. If it were Monopoly, white men would already own all the property on the board before anyone else even started to play. They set the terms for admission, they wrote the rules, they decided how the game is won.

Where’s the possibility of justice in that?

The rules of the game have to change, and the way it’s played. New voices need to write new rules, and new players need a real way to catch up. The board has to change if there’s going to be a chance for justice to take hold.

And some of us are going to need to step back, shut our mouth, sit on our opinions, and listen to those who have been silenced if we’re ever going to cleanse the windows of our souls enough to even see justice for what it should be, much less contribute to it.

Maybe if, for the next fifty years, no white people could vote. And then white women could vote, but white men would need to wait another hundred years. Maybe then we’d have a shot at an America that would be truly just. An America actually shaped by all her people.

Can you see it? I’m trying to, but it’s not easy. It flies in the face of everything I was taught to value about my voice, my vote, and how important that is – critical, even.

But I can’t get past the need to at least see – to have a vision for what actual justice in America would look like. It’s not a utopian vision. It’s not Dr. King’s dream, as beautiful as that vision is. It’s not all about achieving a particular outcome. It’s about the justice of the journey. It’s about giving those who had no choice in what they were forced to build for others a chance to rebuild for themselves, for all of us.

And it’s not going to happen. I know that. White men and women are not going to give up their votes en masse for generations. And in light of that, the best thing I know to do is to give my vote to a person of color – to vote the way they direct me even, especially, if it makes me uncomfortable.

The highest thing I can do with my vote as a white woman is to use it to represent the voice of someone other than myself, someone whose voice has historically been silenced, discredited, devalued.

So I’m listening to native people, and Asian and Latinx and black people – especially to the women. I’m listening to particular people, some I know personally and some I do not, and I’m voting for their concerns and interests as they themselves understand them. I’m supporting the candidates they are supporting, with my money and voice as well as my vote.

It’s what I can do.

It’s what you can do, too. It’s not easy, though. It’s not easy to let go of something we were taught is sacred. But I think perhaps my vote may only become sacred if I can loosen the grasp my own interests have on it and let it truly serve justice.

What I Saw

What I Saw

It’s been a week.

Most of us watched something this week that traumatized us in some way.

Whether we saw a brave woman, terrified as she described what happened to her when she was fifteen years old, or whether we saw an angry, belligerent man, terrified at being accused of something he has no way to conclusively disprove, or whether we saw a group of politicians trying to score points against each other, or whether we saw some of all of those things, it wasn’t easy to watch.

Personally, I’ve seen too many women who have not been believed when they screwed up the courage to tell someone what happened to them, or possibly as bad, women who have been believed and told that they should just keep quiet, that other things are more important. And I’ve seen too many men who either knew they were guilty or did not want to believe they had done such harm fight and belittle and lash out to defend themselves. And that all came very present to me this week.

Something else came present to me as well, the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas hearings that I watched twenty-seven years ago. It was a different time, a time when we hadn’t been talking about sexual harassment as clearly or as long. Dr. Hill’s allegations were confusing to a lot of us. We had trouble seeing and understanding the power dynamics at play. And for a young woman from a very conservative context who only knew what pornography was because of how I had heard it condemned, the details sounded like something from a farce more than real life.

But I remember Anita Hill’s calm relating of even the most demeaning details, and I remember Clarence Thomas’s calm declaration that it was all a race-based attack on a black man who had risen too high.

Both were unerringly composed.

They had to be.

Both had a lifetime of experience in not being believed, in being dismissed or discredited or thought dangerous if they freely displayed emotion (and often even if they didn’t). Both knew that even (especially) the truth would require great care and deliberation from them.

I though about that as I watched the hearings this week. As I saw Dr. Ford’s careful preparation, deliberate words, and attempts to keep her emotions in check.

And I thought about it as I watched Judge Kavanaugh give his anger and frustration free reign, with little regard for protocol or maintaining order.

Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill, Christine Blasey Ford – none of them expected to be believed simply as a matter of course. Their experience had taught them not to expect that.

In America, only a white male would be incensed that he is not believed as a matter of course, as Brett Kavanaugh clearly was. Only a white man can afford to be incensed about it. We may all be angry and frustrated when the truth we tell is ignored or dismissed or denied, but only a white male can so readily display that he is incensed and offended and belligerent and expect that he will continue to be taken seriously.

It’s the American way, after all. Every right American citizens have was originally granted only to white men. As others have gained formal access to those rights, they (we) still have to fight for what white men have ready access to, because the whole experiment was constructed to work exclusively for them.

Part of the work of patriotism is to change that, to work to see the promises of America fulfilled equitably for all. It’s hard work, and made all the harder by those who, like Judge Kavanaugh seems to, take advantage of every advantage they already have, in the full belief that they have earned that right.

May we all be given eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to respond to to reality, however much it is not what we would like it to be.

And for the record, I believe her.

Feeding the Lions

Feeding the Lions

Several years ago I had the opportunity to accompany a class of seminary students on several field trips to meet ministers working in different ways on the south and west sides of Chicago. They were eye-opening days, and I came away with a deep respect for the people in these communities and the pastors who work with them. It changed the way I listen to the news, the people I follow on Facebook and Twitter, and the assumptions I’d always had about violence in “bad” parts of town.

There are few things that make me angrier on social media than people who live in the suburbs and across the country saying something along the lines of “If ‘black lives matter’ so much, why aren’t these people doing anything about black-on-black violence? Just look at Chicago! Where are the protests about that?”

They have no clue how many vigils and protests there are in these communities, or how hard pastors and other community leader work to redeem their neighborhoods. And beyond their ignorance about what is or is not actually happening, they betray a deep ignorance about what exactly these communities are up against.

The racialization of Chicago neighborhoods has a long history marked by racist real estate and lending practices (supported by federal policies), preferential treatment of white neighborhoods and constituencies, and police brutality against black people. Reduced legitimate opportunities and choices creates an increase in illegitimate options, and an illegal, shadow system breeds violence.

Chicago has its own unique factors, but the overall dynamics are no different anywhere else in the country.

Individual responsibility matters. But it isn’t the only thing that matters. Social responsibility matters, too, and sometimes, more.

The Bible is full of this reality. We are called to recognize and help the individual in trouble – someone robbed and beaten and left by the side of the road. But we are also called to care for and support “the poor” – a whole class of people who, Jesus said, we will always have with us.

Can we help the whole class by ignoring the individuals? No, of course not, and that is the pitfall of the distant-humanitarian (or politician or bureaucrat) who is content to support an abstract idea even if (perhaps because) it hides the reality of people’s lives.

But can we help the individual and ignore the whole class? Yes, and many of us do it every day – some because the problem of the class seems overwhelming and unsolvable to them, and others because they refuse to believe the class even exists. To these, there are only individuals who are poor, no class of “the poor” or “the oppressed.”

Both are ways to avoid social responsibility.

Social responsibility recognizes that, while individual have real choices, the choices available to any given individual are shaped and limited (or expanded) by societal (social) forces beyond their direct control. Social responsibility recognizes that “status quo” societal forces are perpetuated by default by those individuals who are unaware or in denial of them, in addition to those who are consciously complicit. And social responsibility recognizes that it is individuals, aware and choosing to work together, who can change the possibilities for a given disadvantaged group of people.

One of those field trips I went on took us to a rally of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition on Chicago’s Southside, and after the rally we had a meeting with Rev. Jesse Jackson. That meeting was not what I expected. We didn’t meet a politician or public persona (though he is both of those), we met a pastor. “We need your help,” he told us. “When these families lose a child, and they don’t have a church, we’re the ones they call.” We don’t have enough pastors for them – there are too many families and too many funerals, he told us.

But we need to do more than bind up their wounds, he continued. The church is good at binding and healing wounds, but we send them right back out for the same lions to keep devouring them. We’ve got to deal with the lions, too.

I haven’t used quotation marks because I don’t pretend to remember his exact words that day, but I will never forget what he told us, or the pastor’s heart he opened up to us.

Individuals need their wounds tended, and that is our responsibility. But it is also our responsibility to fight against the lions that savage their lives.

There’s more than one way to fight those lions – racism, sexism, economic oppression, discrimination against people because of who they are or who they love. But we will never defeat them if we cannot even acknowledge they exist, and if we cannot admit the many ways we have knowingly or unknowingly fed them.

For some of us, those lions are harmless pets, or mythical monsters, or species that are rare and exceptional to encounter. Some of us even see them as protectors against the pests that would destroy our hard work, like the mousers on the great-grandfather’s farm. We see them as essentially separate from ourselves, rather than as extensions of our lives and choices.

The truth is harder. It requires us to accept a responsibility that is both individual and social. And that responsibility requires a response.

Obscene Generosity

Obscene Generosity

God loves with obscene generosity.

The lengths God is willing to go to, the depths God is willing to stoop to – time and time again it baffles, even offends, those who think they know God. Ninevites are loved, prostitutes, pagans, drunkards, adulterers, murderers, idolaters, terrorists. The wrong people. The wrong kind of people.

Whatever else they are or were, they are other. Outsiders to whatever inside we’ve laid claim to. Normal; perverted. Legal; criminal. White; black. Civilized; uncivilized. Smart; foolish. Spiritual; worldly. Clean; dirty. Legitimate; illegitimate. We’re right; they’re wrong.

Yet God forgives them and blesses them and talks to them and hangs out with them. God likes them.

And it kills us. Because we want to believe we’re special.

And we are.

But so are they. They aren’t like us and they are special. Those other people who missed the boat, who get it all wrong, who mess up and hurt other people and make bad choices. (Or just choices that aren’t the ones we’d make.) Who are for whatever reason just the wrong people.

We want a “but…” on that. But…they repented. But…they changed. But…it wasn’t their fault. But…they were deceived. But…they learned. Maybe they did or do or will or were, but that’s not the point of why and how God loves.

If there were ever a foolish lover, it’s God. Loving those who turn their back again and again and again. Loving those who don’t get it, who assume they are just that lovable. Loving the selfish, in it for what they get. Loving the hurt and angry, who lash out when you get too close. Loving the ones who push away. Loving the ones who don’t care, who don’t want your love. Loving the ones who are too busy. And loving them all beyond reason or what is reasonable. This is no measured love – it’s impetuous and inappropriate.

It’s just too much!

It crosses all kinds of lines, how God loves. It’s not reasonable. The priorities are all over the place. It’s indiscriminate, wasteful, disorderly, prodigal. It even crosses the lines we understood God drew!

It makes us so uncomfortable. Maybe not in theory, where, after all, we can readily affirm that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son….” But in practice?

Yogi Bera is quoted as saying, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.” And it’s so deeply true. Theory stays safely abstract – love stays safely abstract. But when we actually see the obscenely generous love of God at work, in practice?

It disgusts us.

“That’s just the easy way.” “Shameless!” “Oh come on, you’re smarter than that!” “I can’t believe you’d even consider it!”

I’ve been on the receiving end of that disgust. I even remember feeling it myself at times, that profound disapproval of others who I believed were foolish at best, defiant at worst.

We don’t want something that’s so easily given. Its “cheap,” we say, “You’re too easy.”

As if God could do anything that isn’t priceless. Some things are of such immeasurable value that they can only ever be gifts.

Civility and Non-Violence

Civility and Non-Violence

Civility and non-violence.

They’re not the same thing.

There’s been quite a lot of discussion in the past few weeks about “civility.” In the midst of extreme political differences and polarizing public policy, calls for “civility” have rung out from both ends of the spectrum.

How to engage polarizing discussions is something I’ve been thinking a lot about for the past couple of years – well before Trump’s election. My faith has led me to such different convictions than my family and many friends (themselves people of deep faith and convictions) that I’ve had to wrestle with it.

With some, it’s easier. They may not be where I am, but they wrestle with many of the same questions and can at least accept the possibility that the conclusions I’ve come to might be reasonable or valid. For others, the directions I’ve moved directly contradict some of their most foundational paradigms, and their convictions obligate them to defend what they believe to be true. It can create deeply painful interactions.

I want to stay connected and engaged with them, but it’s hard. I’ve learned to discern how to interact based on the relationship – close family are different from close friends who are different from colleagues and acquaintances. And since most of our interactions are on social media, there can be a mix of friends and strangers in any given conversation. It’s complicated.

About a year ago, in a difficult exchange with a member of my extended family, something clicked for me. I remembered the movie, Selma. When King and the leaders of the movement were planning their march for voting rights, they chose Selma, Alabama because they knew the sheriff there was likely to respond violently. They knew that, however peaceful, they were going to be provocative, and they knew they were going to have to prepare if they were going to respond non-violently.

That’s not easy work. Non-violent protest. Non-violent resistance.

It requires knowing yourself, learning deep self-control and even a different way of seeing. It requires deep confidence – in both who you are and what you are standing up for. It requires the humility and faith to endure unmerited suffering, and trust that it can be redemptive.

It requires something very different from civility.

Civility, in the way we use it, means politeness and courtesy. That’s about social deference, both to individuals and within societal norms. Civility doesn’t work when what you are doing is refusing to defer.

Non-violence does, though.

With non-violence we can refuse to defer, refuse to back down, refuse to go away or be quiet, refuse to be convenient or cooperative, even to the point of persecution or abuse.

Civility itself doesn’t stand for anything. It doesn’t even stand for the dignity and value of every human life – great evil has been done with great politeness and courtesy.

Civility doesn’t stand for anything but keeping the rules, spoken and unspoken. And if what needs to change, what needs to be resisted and protested, are those very rules, civility is impotent. Worse, it can be complicit.

Reformation offends the rules. That’s its point. It can’t be done without deconstruction (and sometimes destruction), but it can be done non-violently.

And that’s hard work – hard work to do, and hard work to figure out how to do and prepare for.

Next week at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, NC, I’m excited to be on a panel with Brian McLaren, Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, and Xavier Ramey about what it looks like to do that work. The session is called Taking to the Social Streets: Non-Violent Engagement on Social Media, and I’m looking forward from learning with these amazing human beings and everyone who joins us for the discussion. We’d love to have you be part of that conversation – Saturday at 2:00 in the Greater Things Tent.

The roots of the word “civility” are in something much deeper than courtesy and politeness. The Latin civilas means ‘relating to citizens.’ It’s about citizenship, and citizenship is about where the power and privilege in a society lies. Citizenship is at the heart of what divides us today – the legal technicalities of citizenship, yes, but also the full privileges of citizenship – both formal and informal. We disagree on who should have that standing, and we disagree on what it means to be a good citizen of America. In this deeper sense of ‘civility,’ it is about what constitutes civility itself that we disagree.

Those who seek to challenge us to live up to the highest of American ideals are actually the most truly civil – even, especially, when their tactics break the social rules of politeness and courtesy. When they make us uncomfortable with our failure and with our denial of that failure.

A man sitting at a lunch counter where he is neither wanted nor allowed is impolite, but he is civil.

Marchers taking up space on a sidewalk or street are discourteous, but they are civil.

A person naming the realities of systemic racism is not polite, but they are civil.

Servers refusing to wait on a customer who has publicly dismissed and demeaned them are discourteous, but they are civil.

Protestors chanting their protest in front of a public official who defends morally repugnant policy are not polite, but they are civil.

But that’s not the kind of “civility” so many people are calling for. They want the politeness and courtesy that keeps them from feeling too uncomfortable – that keeps issues safely in the abstract and theoretical and doesn’t push too hard for costly change. Or they want the façade that politeness and courtesy can give to anger and pain and suffering and oppression.

That civility is killing us. May we find the non-violent response that will help us truly live.

Race, Language, and Intent

Race, Language, and Intent

I once had a friend yell at me and call me a liar because I told him that a meeting he led had made others who were there “feel attacked” (something they had expressed to me). He’d asked me about reactions to the meeting, but he couldn’t accept the answer. He heard it as an attack on him – on his intentions and character – rather than as a report of impact and results.

While that particularly instance was extreme, I don’t think the confusion is unusual. It bothers us when what happens isn’t what we meant to happen, when someone hears something that isn’t what we meant to say. We want to be judged by our good intentions rather than by whatever somehow went awry between those intentions and the outcomes.

If we can take a step back, wisdom tells us that, while our intentions are important, they are far from the only contributor to what actually happened, especially when communication is involved. Context matters, and history is a part of that. Shared meaning and/or purpose is part of it – or not, as the case may be. But all too often, we want to believe that we can control more than we do, and that our intentions are the most important thing.

I see it happen most often when we’re talking about race. When something someone says or does is called “racist,” white Americans want to talk about what their intentions were, what was “in their heart.” And when told they are participants in “systemic racism,” white Americans tend to recoil. We hate the idea that we could be part of something we didn’t choose, something that flies in the face of our good intentions and the way we think about ourselves. Something we don’t want to be true, much less responsible for.

But what if it is true? What if, in spite of our good intentions, we are actually doing harm? Perpetuating harm we don’t intend?

It’s a terrible thought. And the only thing worse than thinking it is not thinking it.

The ways we tend to use language about race are all wrapped up in avoiding the thought. Stereotype. Prejudice. Bias. Bigotry. Discrimination. Racism. White supremacy.

We all recognize these words as negative. White Americans tend to see them as moral defects in personal character – bad intentions and ugly, false beliefs. Black Americans tend to see them as negative as well, but in more nuanced ways.

A stereotype is an idea, an over-generalization. “Black people are good at sports.” “White people like yoga.”  We can know a stereotype and not believe it.

Prejudice is a feeling. “Southerners make me nervous.” Bias is a tendency, an inclination for or against something. “I just like to date taller men.” We can be unaware of our prejudices and biases – they often function subconsciously and influence our choices and decisions in ways that may even undercut our conscious intentions.

Bigotry is believing a stereotype and being prejudiced against it. But people who are bigoted rarely see it that way; they believe the stereotype is really true and dangerous in some way, so they usually see their actions as simply protecting themselves. “Black people don’t keep up their homes, and if one moves onto our block, the value of my house will go down.” Well-intentioned people who are bigoted allow for exceptions: “That black family that moved into the neighborhood, they’ve actually got the nicest yard on the street!” For various reasons (social stigma, financial incentives, etc.) bigoted people may not actually act on their bigotry.

Discrimination is acting either in favor of or with bias against a person or group because of their perceived race. Discrimination can be indirect, particularly when we want to believe in our good intentions. “I’ve got nothing against black people, I’m just more comfortable dating men with a similar background to mine.” We can act on a racial stereotype even if we don’t think we believe it.

White supremacy is the belief that white people are superior to those of other races. White supremacy is also any system (social, religious, economic, housing, judicial, penal, educational, etc.) that reflects the assumption that white people are superior and gives them preference (even indirectly). That assumption may have been a part of the system from its inception – designed to implement the supremacy of white people; or assumptions of white supremacy may have been added to it along the way. Either way, those who continue to use the system are participants in white supremacy, whether they know it or not and regardless of their personal beliefs.  It is not the intentions of those participating in a system that create white supremacy; it’s the effects of the system. White supremacy is a system that results in the preferential treatment of white people.

Racism is a pattern of harms done to a group of people because of their race.  It is a persistent perpetuation of racial stereotypes, bias, prejudice, and discrimination. The key here is the pattern of harms. Racism is in the effects rather than the intent.

When I was a child, a black family lived across the street from us. I loved them the way a child loves neighbors – though the youngest children were several years older than me and too old to be playmates, they were always friendly to me, and the mother fussed over me and gave me my first popcorn balls (a magical Halloween treat from the days before homemade treats became verboten). When I was five or six, we invited the youngest two children to come to Vacation Bible School. As my mother drove us home that night, the three of us entertained ourselves with a game of I Spy. Trying too hard to be clever, I spied “something green,” and after they finally gave up, laughed as I told them the “something green” was the color of their skin in the glow of the dashboard lights. Appalled, my mother made me apologize and after we got home gave me a stern talking to that I didn’t fully understand. I just thought their different skin color was interesting – it didn’t mean anything to me yet.

But it meant something to them. However naïve my comment was (I won’t say innocent because, while I wasn’t trying to embarrass them for being black, I was trying to best them with my cleverness), it happened in a social and historical context that made it more than I knew. It fed into a pattern of harms. It was racist. I didn’t have to plant the seed of racism – that was done generations before me – but I blithely watered that seed, however unknowingly.

We want life to be more neutral than that. We want to believe we all start on an essentially equal playing field and we all have roughly the same ability to work hard and make something of ourselves. We don’t want to believe we are watering seeds we wish had never been planted.

The world we live in is made from much more than our intentions. Black and white American live with a history every day, a history of racism and white supremacy. If we are willing to step back and look, whatever we believe about our intentions, the pattern of results is clear. Like specks of color in a tweed woven with checks, exceptions are everywhere but the pattern is clear. Changing patterns requires changing the machinery that creates them. And we’ll never change what we aren’t willing to see.