As a missionary-on-sabbatical and mother-of-a-Yale grad, I’m at a peculiar cross-section in the social media world.
Uproar over the red cups at Starbucks and the details of whatever Ben Carson says, mixed with photos of campus protests and polarized, frustrated pieces about racism.
It’s a minefield, and the missteps are punished with explosions of sarcasm.
Meanwhile, my Bible reading covered the Beatitudes, which are found in Matthew 5. Pulling that all together, I offer a few thoughts – with trepidation and bumbling humility – because I am a peripheral person just trying to pay attention.
The Deep Iceberg of History
Persecution happens. Many of the Europeans who came to what is now the United States were fleeing religious persecution themselves as they arrived on American shores, but they still wiped out the indigenous population and imported human slaves from Africa. There is a legacy of brokenness and sorrow that touches all of us.
Many, like me, have ancestors on all sides of that story. Real people were beaten, tortured, ridiculed, raped, suppressed, driven off their land, herded into camps, separated from their families, and on and on. Every discussion on race and power must begin with the foundational context of centuries of injustice.
Today’s policeman profiling a motorist and turning on his siren, or college student wearing a sombrero and mustache for Halloween, are not isolated, face-value events. They are trivial (or not so trivial) tips to massive icebergs of accumulated angst and anger. And persecution continues.
In many parts of the world, a woman can be beaten or killed if her male relatives judge her wardrobe or romance choices to be inappropriate. Or a person who decides to follow Jesus can be beheaded. Or a person who is gay can be publicly stripped or burned.
In America, women of color are taunted or refused entrance to a party, and young men of color have few places of safety. This world seethes with evil that we are called upon to notice and to restrain.
An Elusive Enemy
But the enemy is elusive.
Just before and within my early life, laws of segregation were overturned. Protests had specific goals and targets which were quantifiable.
But racism continues, because the human heart is not purified by the passage of a law.
It is a bit more difficult to call a mass protest about an attitude. Changing cultural assumptions, viewpoints, requires dialogue. Living side by side. Real relationship. Confrontation. Creation of safe zones for expression. Listening. Which should make college campuses an excellent environment for this kind of progress, and overall I think they have been.
But subtle messages of doubt and shame accumulate, and there is no clear face of the enemy. Tension builds until something of marginal worth sparks all that rumbling resentment into a furor.
At Yale, it was an email suggesting that the University shouldn’t police costumes, that students should grow in an “iron sharpens iron” environment of mistakes and consequences.
At the University of Missouri, it was a racial slur uttered by a drunk student that did not spark the kind of institutional response those who were offended expected.
Older people shake their heads and wonder how we got to a point where students demand the right to never feel uncomfortable or to receive formal apologies from anyone they identify as offensive, while young people shake their heads and wonder why the place they expected to fill them with wonder and opportunity still reeks of inequality.
They look for enemies to fight when most of the real battle is against deeply ingrained assumptions, and sins like prejudice and self-righteousness.
Living as Consequence and Cause of Wrong
Is the victim card overplayed? See my first point, please, that the accumulated effects of racism and elitism, and economic inequality are real and inestimable.
But somehow, this culture has devolved into the sacredness of victimhood, and a touchiness that bristles like a porcupine at the slightest touch, as people take to the internet and the streets to scream their way.
Case-in-point, turning a private company’s cup-art design into a perceived attack on God.
God does not need snowflakes on cups; God does not feel offended if someone uses a “Happy Holiday” greeting rather than “Merry Christmas” to acknowledge a time of year that has become a pagan and commercial event anyway.
God, in fact, may prefer to keep distance from the worship of consumption and capitalism and may prefer that people encounter spiritual reality in serving the poor or reading the Word rather than in having it legislated down their throats by a supposed moral majority within our democracy…but I digress.
Cups aside, some people are victims, though none of us are fully innocent ones. We all live in a broken world where we both sin and suffer from the sins of others. So how should one live as both a consequence and cause of this mess?
Jesus’ Way: The Beatitudes
Embrace poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, a hunger for what is right, mercy, purity, and a love of peace.
Think of Martin Luther King, Jr., who refused to devolve into hate, who insisted that “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Think of the Charleston church shooting survivors, who stood up in court and forgave the perpetrator.
Think of Jesus, who certainly spoke up against injustice but refused violence. Think the way of the cross, which does not pretend evil does not exist but sacrifices in love.
I see some of that going on this week.
I wasn’t there, but it seems like the husband of the email-writer at Yale absorbed some hate with grace. Can we form homes and communities and institutions where diversity is celebrated because all seven billion of us only reflect one tiny facet of God’s infinite creative reality, and we need each other?
While I really don’t understand all the issues, the fact that the football team’s refusal to play hit where it hurt as the big money-makers for the University of Missouri seems like an amazing way to effect change. If we are acting in mercy and with hearts for peace-making, and then we are persecuted, that is something that creates real revolution.
So, here’s to hope for more mercy.
More sincere attempt to understand the complexity of racism, the pervasiveness of our own wrongs.
More time spent listening than accusing.
More acknowledgment that empathy is actually possible, that while each person has a unique history and perspective we can live together.