Writing or talking about race relations is something I strive to avoid. Great passion and real emotion surround the topic, and I’m deathly afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, however unintentionally. I absolutely don’t want to “go there” – so I deliberately keep quiet.
This self-protective strategy of silence may cause some to think I’m apathetic or that I don’t care. That’s not true; I do care. But in my view, it’s far better to speak little and be wrongly labeled as apathetic, than to speak clumsily and somehow get wrongly labeled as racist. Because the latter charge, no matter how undeserved it may be, is a death sentence; all you have to do is throw that label at someone one time, even if it’s baseless, and it sticks for life. Their reputation never recovers.
So, to avoid the horror of possibly being misunderstood or mislabeled, my game plan has always been to stick my head in the sand.
Not the most noble response, I know.
Yet here I am, “going there” – joining the discussion.
Why am I choosing to do this now? This time I was forced into it: My church is doing a sermon series in which several different speakers are addressing the topic, and I am the facilitator for my home community’s post-sermon discussions. So sitting quietly was not an option.
Further, I knew God was pushing me into it. When I considered asking someone else to lead the discussion, I felt certain it was the wrong thing to do (after all, passive avoiding is one thing, but proactive dodging is another). So after each sermon I replayed the podcast several times, trying to hear what God might be saying through each speaker.
And it was stressful. Very stressful. “Sleepless nights” stressful.
Not because I rejected the material, but because I knew I would have to lead some tough dialogs, and I was terrified I’d mess up.
For me, the question of race relations, especially racial injustice, is a hard thing to get my mind around, like a pulsating blob of ambiguous definitions, unsolvable problems, fiery rhetoric, and equal levels of passion, pain, guilt, and shame. As I approach this scary blob and try to pull off pieces small enough to examine, honest questions arise that I have been too afraid to ask out loud.
As the sermon series has progressed, many of these questions have been raised and discussed (not debated—there is a difference!) among my home community members, and I am grateful to them for bringing grace into this overheated area. But one thing that has not come out of the discussions is a cure-all. Race relations simply cannot be solved with a simple three-point plan.
Instead, throughout the series, the only thing I have felt sure of is the need for more discussion. Real discussion. Even for an avoider like me.
Beyond that, I’ve become aware of a few helpful things to keep in mind in discussions about racial issues. If you are involved in such discussions (and I hope you are), maybe these points will help you too…
- First, create a safe place. A one-sided discussion is no discussion at all – it’s a monologue. Everyone must commit to allow all viewpoints to be shared. Everyone must have the freedom to talk, listen, and learn without censure or shame, and even to make some mistakes. I have been fortunate enough to be able to do all of that in a close, caring home community of love and grace.
- Second, hear each other. Listen—really listen—to each other’s stories. Hear the pain behind the passion. A friend raised this point recently, and I know she nailed it. People’s hurts and needs are too complex to reduce to simple arguments. The goal is not to win debates, but to heal hearts. The only way to do that is to step alongside and carry each other’s burdens. And the only way to do that is to hear each other.
- Third, seek truth along with justice. To me, this is critical. If the facts of a case are in debate, then people start quibbling over those and stop listening to each other. Let’s work for justice, based on truth that has been verified. In the 1960s, the effects of segregation and Jim Crow laws were still very real in the South and Rosa Parks already had been arrested, but people far away hadn’t actually seen or experienced those events. Then images from Selma were published and televised, and everyone saw the police dogs, the water cannons, the tear gas, the beatings. It was horrible, but because the facts were documented, the truth was verified and the nation collectively agreed: “That’s not right.” And changes came. Justice must be based on truth.
- Finally, approach the issue with a spirit of grace. In any truly honest discussion, someone will put their foot in their mouth; someone will say the wrong thing. But nothing freezes a dialog faster than a look or a word that conveys disapproval or condemnation. Under grace, everyone is free to stumble through difficult issues to a place of deeper understanding. That is the goal – but it is possible only if we love each other before, during, and after every conversation.
I know God’s heart breaks whenever anyone suffers under the burden of injustice. And I know it breaks when his children show animosity and bigotry toward each other. (Even worse are attempts to justify such sins with Scripture!) The church should be the perfect avenue for real discussion and mutual understanding. I don’t claim to have solutions, but the graciousness of my home community has created a small circle where a few people feel less hesitant to talk. I’d like to see that circle grow, one conversation at a time.
The most important thing is how we come to the table. Our approach makes a big difference in whether people feel welcome to enter the discussion – and perhaps even to help lift the burden.