This letter is all about being a bridge and learning how to have profitable discussions about race and ethnicity. But if you’re having a discussion with someone who refuses to listen—who wishes you bodily harm, who wants to humiliate you, belittle you, and shame you—you always have my permission to walk away. Don’t cast your pearls before swine.
This letter is meant to help you navigate dealings with the people who actually want to have a conversation with you. Who may not say everything in exactly the right way all of the time, but who truly want to understand your point of view. This letter is to help you talk to people who will be patient with you as you try to process your emotions in a healthy way. It is for learning how to address things with those who desire unity, as I hope you will desire unity. Face-to-face relationships will be an important part of this interaction. But if your world is anything like mine, the internet has become a central player in these dialogues. I want to give you three overarching principles that I think will apply well in both arenas: be transcendent, know when to walk away, and don’t fear the gray.
I want you to transcend the cliques that we so eagerly gravitate toward and to share truth that doesn’t neatly fit into our tribe’s boxes because you’re more interested in prizing the gospel than facilitating a peer group. That will mean disappointing people on all sides of this discussion, from those who want to make race ultimate to those who want to discount your unique struggles altogether. I want you to be transcendent and to know that your God is capable of turning hearts even when you’re honest about complex truths.
For instance, I want you to acknowledge that victimology has gone too far in our culture. That identifying yourself solely by your status as a victim of racism is much too narrow a box. That you are actually more than a conqueror through Jesus Christ. That will make right wing folks cheer.
And then I want you to make some of those folks a bit uncomfortable by acknowledging real victims of racism, sexism, and abuse. I want you to confuse them by affirming that we are complex conquerors, that we conquer in spite of real and acknowledged hurt. That we can conquer even when we’re honest about the pain. That there is real pain to conquer, and that we can’t defeat it by pretending it doesn’t exist.
Know When to Walk Away
I want you to be the one who speaks calm into chaos. The one who pursues peace. The one who asks clarifying questions and seeks understanding. The one who will not rest until you can state your opponent’s argument in terms so compassionate that you finally understand where they’re coming from. Again, I’m not talking about frothing racists here. I’m talking about the people who truly want to understand one another but have a hard time bridging the gap. I want you to stand in the gap for them. There may be times when you have to dust off your sandals and keep it moving, and I pray that you will have the wisdom to know when that is. When you run into the stone wall of indifference, mockery, or even violence, I want you to know that it’s okay to walk away.
Don’t Fear the Gray
The Bible gives us an absolute moral standard of life and practice. You will find no argument from me there. But there are places where Christians have superimposed cultural assumptions on the Bible and made new laws that keep them from having to wrestle with gray areas. I hear your rebuttal: with racism, there are no gray areas. And you are absolutely right. With clearly defined racism, there are absolutely no gray areas. When one brother thinks he is superior to another brother simply because of the color of his skin, he is wrong. He is in sin. But when it comes to actually parsing racial disparity and pinpointing racial and cultural superiority, I believe we have to tread carefully. I want you to be tenderhearted toward your white brother and sister in Christ, even when it seems they just aren’t getting a concept like implicit bias. I want you to be tenderhearted toward your black brother and sister in Christ, even when it seems they are just looking for reasons to be offended. I want you to see that 1 Corinthians 13 kind of love enables you to tread carefully in those muddy areas even while proclaiming the crystal-clear truth outside of them.
Operate With Love
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1). My son, regardless of how hard you try to be above reproach in this conversation, you will be labeled. It’s just the nature of things. I’ve been called everything from a cultural Marxist to an Uncle Tom. And while both groups of name-callers will say that the other name is worse, the spirit behind both is sometimes exactly the same: I don’t want to hear what you’re saying so I will invalidate it with the pejorative of my choosing. Some people don’t want a bridge because division is their bread and butter. They like battle lines because they’re easier than clasping hands across the aisle. And they will hate you for trying to hold their hand. But listen to your mama’s voice. Because it will always tell you exactly who you are. And if the bullies ever get too loud and mean, I will march myself right up to the proverbial daycare and defend you from the rooftops.
Cover image by Timothy Kolczak.
Adapted from Mother To Son by Jasmine L. Holmes. Copyright (c) 2020 by Jasmine Linette Holmes. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com