I am not an activist.
I do not protest or boycott or wave signs in front of the courthouse. I have absolutely no desire to read political blogs or engage in debates with people who cling to labels and find their identity in promoting ’causes.’ I do not consider myself to be harsh or dogmatic and, as such, have always resisted the divisive nature of politics.
I am a Christian and I have been utterly changed by the gospel. And as I look at myself and other southern, white, gospel-loving people I am saddened by what seems to be a continued lack of concern for our black brothers and sisters.
The gospel is about love– the love of the Father in making a way for us to be reconciled to him. It’s about the love of the Son as he came and lived among us and then died to claim us as his own. The gospel is about unmerited grace, forgiveness of sins, and putting all the wrong things right again. This is not a gospel of fear. This is not a gospel of self-protection. The gospel of Jesus Christ does not call us to constantly replay in our minds all the bad things that could happen to us if we reach out to those who desperately need us. No, the gospel calls us to die to ourselves– to do things that appear foolish to the world. The gospel calls us to reach out to others and actively work for their good.
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. (Isaiah 58: 6-8)
I have given myself a pass for far too long when it comes to ignoring the difficult things of this world. “My life is so hard already,” I say. Raising two small children who are determined to zap the life force right out of me seems like a good excuse. Plus, I need to spend time with my husband and let’s not forget that I have a very demanding job. There just isn’t the time, energy, or interest left over for me to care about anything beyond my little life.
Systemic problems like the mass incarceration of young black men or the still-present disparity in educational opportunities for so many poor students and students of color are issues that have existed for years. These are things that I do not even know how to begin to think about. And so I don’t.
I just don’t think about them.
I do not own these as my problems or admit that I have any role in finding their solutions. All these years I have willingly worn the blinders that my station in life affords me. These “whiteness blinders” have always been there, focusing my attention on things that society tells me are inevitable, and blocking out the really unpleasant things. I will most likely never worry about the possibility that my church might burn in the night or wonder if my husband will be seen as a threat to law enforcement officers if he’s dressed in baggy jeans and a hoodie. It’s very possible that I could go the rest of my life without ever engaging in meaningful conversations about race with my sons. I don’t think about the hard things in life because I am mostly removed from them. I don’t think about these things because I don’t have to.
But surely I have some responsibility. Surely the gospel compels me to do something. Raising my young boys to rightly understand this world—to fully grasp the gospel and how they should try to live it out in this time and in this place—may very well be the most important thing I ever do. Will I follow the example of previous generations and hope that because I do not actively teach them to be racist, that this in itself will be enough? Will they understand and see all the ways in which our society is tilted in their favor? Will they grasp the role they are to play in using their privilege to elevate the voices of those that are often marginalized? Will they even care?
How in the world am I supposed to teach them these things when I still have trouble recognizing them myself?
In an effort to educate myself on the civil rights era and how it played out in the places I call home, I am reading books, watching documentaries, and talking to people who lived through it. My husband and I are currently watching the documentary series from PBS, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years. Each night as we watch people recount stories of the bus boycotts in Montgomery or view recordings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. passionately preaching, I feel the blinders coming off. As I watch the drama unfold of what it took to enroll James Meredith at the University of Mississippi in 1962, or see numerous governors decide to close the public schools instead of integrating them, I am shaken. I am even more shaken to realize that it was totally acceptable in our society for the vast majority of white Americans—many who identified as Christians—to hold such racist views. As I watch white southerners in Arkansas and Mississippi gleefully chant “Two-Four-Six-Eight, We Don’t Want to Integrate,” I realize that I am looking into the face of my past. This—this right here—is my heritage on display.
And it’s incredibly ugly.
What do I to do with all of this? What’s my role in the months and years ahead as I teach my students and raise my children? I still have no idea how to solve big systemic problems like racial injustice, but that doesn’t mean I can remain unmoved by their existence. When people you love are hurting, you hurt with them. If I am able to move through life completely unaffected by the suffering of my black brothers, what does that say about my love for them? What does that say about my claim that the gospel has truly changed me?
Nicholas Winton, the man who saved hundreds of children from Nazi persecution during World War II, said, “There is a difference between passive goodness and active goodness, which is, in my opinion, the giving of one’s time and energy in the alleviation of pain and suffering. It entails going out, finding and helping those in suffering and danger and not merely in leading an exemplary life in a purely passive way of doing no wrong.”
To my shame, I have often been content to live my life “in a purely passive way of doing no wrong.” Due to a combination of ignorance and indifference, I have been unmoved by the injustices around me. I have withdrawn from discussions about difficult things because it makes me uncomfortable. I have not found or helped “those in suffering and danger.”
While I cannot take off my whiteness or opt out of the privilege it brings, I can do more to educate myself and my friends and family about the realities of our shared history. I am convinced that there are thousands of people out there like me. Thousands of people who have no idea what to do and so they follow the path of least resistance that is paved with apathy. For every person that is yelling something hateful or waving a confederate flag intending to offend, there are many, many more people that are stuck in the terrible trap of indifference. I am certain that there are many gospel-believing white Christians out there who want to make a difference but feel helpless and have no idea what to do.
Here is my plea to you, dear friends:
Begin by reading this book, this book, or this book. Begin by watching this documentary. Begin by reading more about how racism is a “system that institutionalizes an unequal distribution of resources and power between white people and people of color.” Begin by finding like-minded Christians who will dialogue with you about your white privilege and give you precious feedback. Begin by inviting the black folks in your life to really be in your life by sitting around your dinner table and praying in your living room. Begin in whatever way seems most natural to you.
But please, just begin.