“We need to have a conversation about race”
“To engage in a serious discussion of race in America, we must begin not with the problems of black people, but with the flaws of American society—flaws rooted in historic inequalities and longstanding cultural stereotypes.”
I think he’s right, but is it honest to say what we’re really looking for is “a discussion”? We want way more than just a “discussion”. We want to see hearts, minds and most of all behaviors changed.
This catch phrase “we need to have a conversation about…” is fashionable. It means to be polite, non-threatening, hospitable, gracious. All of that is good. But it also betrays an assumption that we can talk or think ourselves out of almost any problem we have. This is naive. Ample psychological study has shown that we are filled with biases we have unconsciously assumed and these are by no means exorcised just by wanting to or talking about it.
People don’t work this way. I want to remind you of the elephant and the rider. The rider says “I don’t want to be a bigot. I want to treat everyone with equity and justice not on the basis of self-interest or unfair stereotypes. I’ll stop right now.”
The problem is that the elephant is not so easily programmed, or rather re-programmed. The rider has some influence over the elephant, but mostly the rider makes up stories that justify the actions and patterns of the elephant. Are we lacking in conversations about racism OR do most of our conversations result in the riders justifying the actions of the elephants they are sitting upon or the actions of the herd of elephants they are a part of.
Racism as Subset of the Elephant’s Herd Mentality
Racism is finally about who we trust and who we don’t. It is not hard to imagine that if Michael Brown were white Darren Wilson would likely not have shot him. Why? Because whites and blacks in America (not to mention Asians and Hispanics) possess an implicit trust bias against young male African Americans. This pretty easily accounts for the elevated numbers of cops killing young black males. Regardless of how the bias is formed, it is there in our elephants and in our herds and it is a reality that takes lives.
It isn’t difficult to see how bias forms in all of us. From the moment even before birth when we first hear the sound of our parents voices we begin to prioritize our trust in them over trust in others. We are voicists before we are racists. Our little filters continue to form based on millions of interactions good and bad. Soon we will find ourselves as part of groups, family groups, geographical groups, idea groups, political groups, gender groups religious groups and all sorts of groups. We quickly see that with groups, rather than alone, we will in all likelihood have greater success in securing power, wealth, comfort and security. This is what it means to be a human being in a competitive world.
Grouping up by skin color became a very big deal during the colonial period. It had enormous advantages and disadvantages for different groups and that legacy continues today.
Most of us know, our riders at least, by virtue of many “conversations” that this really is a rather stupid way of deciding whom to trust and with whom to ally. Skin color is a rather lousy predictor of just about everything, but we do it nevertheless. Remember, we’re not in conscious control of most of our filters and minds. Our riders have limited control over the elephants beneath them. They excel, however, in making up self-justifying stories to put the elephant in the best public light.
Here’s the problem with imagining that “conversation” will eliminate racism. As riders decide “It’s bad to be racist so I’ll stand against racism!” they start to form herds around this value. Since the rider has decided that racism is bad it immediately starts telling a story that tries to show that the elephant they ride and the herd they belong to isn’t racist, or at least not as racist as the next elephant or especially that other herd of elephants over there, herds that may be identified by ideology, political party, or even, most ironically, race.
So the “conversation” devolves into self-justifying posturing upon their own elephants and within their own herds, grouping and herding against other groups of elephants, groups that have been mentally formed, subjecting them to stereotyping, labeling, and naturally promoting remedies such as shunning, silencing, instructing, informing, enlightening or marginalizing, expelling and even killing. In other words, trying to have a “conversation” about racism can ironically create more racism or just plane new groupism that reinforce the group dynamics that cause the harm the conversation seeks to undo.
Conversations can help inform riders but are generally insufficient to address actual elephant behavior because the remedy employs groupism to try to eliminate one ugly example of groupism.
Darren Wilson won’t be helped by another rider calling him a bigot or condescendingly trying to “educate” or “enlighten” or “raise his consciousness”. Darren Wilson’s elephant has a trust issue in his imprinting. This is a far more difficult challenge to engage.
Trust as our Key Vulnerability and Challenge
When the text of Genesis wishes to illuminate our nature it quickly focuses on trust.
The man and the woman in the garden are innocent and naive. All the serpent needs to do is plant the tiniest bit of suspicion in their hearts and it will quickly flower in ambition and rebellion. Mistrust will be illustrated in their journey from nakedness to fear of the sight of God.
If the Bible is the story of the undoing of the rebellion in the garden trust is a key theme. As God engages those he calls to himself, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, all of Israel, trust will be central to his endeavor.
- Can Abraham trust that God will make him a nation?
- Can Jacob trust that God will restore him from exile to the north?
- Can Joseph trust that God will use him to save the world?
- Can Moses trust that God will rescue his people from slavery?
- Can Israel trust that God will bring life to them in the desert?
- Can Israel trust that God will give them life in the midst of hostile nations?
Trust, Survival and Love
Darren Wilson, whether or not you think he’s being honest or his fears were justified or unfounded, cast the struggle he had with Michael Brown as one of survival. Based on the actions that happened in the police cruiser and built upon biases created in him by his cultural environment he believed he could not trust Michael to not take his life. Just as we saw in the infant child, trust is about survival.
In the 50s Abraham Maslow created what he called a hierarchy of needs. Survival isn’t just physical, it scales up through the levels. We learn quickly we cannot trust others. Often we get involved with a religion or a god in order to try to gain leverage, to find power to secure what we need for ourselves. Our religion quickly gets shaped by our desire to have God secure for us what we want.
We work our elephant groups all up and down Maslow’s Hierarchy. We group up by race, class, religion, ideology, everything at and in order to advantage our herd even if at the expense of the other.
Can Israel Trust?
Israel was God’s chosen people and Israel understood this to mean that they could have a special relationship with God and that God would solve their problems. In the story of Israel, however, God allows, in fact some of the prophets say BRINGS, the Assyrians and the Babylonians down to punish Israel.
Now if Adam and Eve had their naive, fragile capacity for trust exposed and exploited by the serpent, if by nature we for survival naturally group up for security and competitive advantage, and if God has a hand in bringing the destroyers of their nation, what is poor Israel to do? Why not toss Yhwh and find a new god that gives her what she wants? Isn’t this what many who walk away from the church do?
Or why not simply imagine that all of this is somehow wishful thinking, an elaborate superstition and that it is better to just throw it away.
But when you throw it away, who will secure your future? If you throw it away aren’t you standing right there with Darrin Wilson, seeing someone come towards you, knowing what you don’t know, gripped by fear?
In an piece written by a black police officer that wrestled with these issues of trust and race, in his police academy his fellow officers told him this.
Hours after coming out of the police academy, I was told something as a new rookie officer: You’d rather be tried by 12 jurors than carried by six pallbearers. In my impressionable first days, I saw officers leave the precinct every day touching the lockers of their fallen brothers. They started their shift on the defensive, thinking about protecting themselves, as opposed to the communities they served, regardless of the complexion of those communities. One of my white fellow officers once told me that if he saw a white individual with a gun, he took extra care for himself and the individual. When he saw a black individual with a gun, he took care only for himself.
Isaiah 40:1–11 (NET)
1“Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God.
2“Speak kindly to Jerusalem, and tell her that her time of warfare is over, that her punishment is completed. For the Lord has made her pay double for all her sins.”
3A voice cries out, “In the wilderness clear a way for the Lord; construct in the desert a road for our God.
4Every valley must be elevated, and every mountain and hill leveled. The rough terrain will become a level plain, the rugged landscape a wide valley.
5The splendor of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it at the same time. For the Lord has decreed it.”
6A voice says, “Cry out!” Another asks, “What should I cry out?” The first voice responds: “All people are like grass, and all their promises are like the flowers in the field.
7The grass dries up, the flowers wither, when the wind sent by the Lord blows on them. Surely humanity is like grass.
8The grass dries up, the flowers wither, but the decree of our God is forever reliable.”
9Go up on a high mountain, O herald Zion! Shout out loudly, O herald Jerusalem! Shout, don’t be afraid! Say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!”
10Look, the sovereign Lord comes as a victorious warrior; his military power establishes his rule. Look, his reward is with him; his prize goes before him.
11Like a shepherd he tends his flock; he gathers up the lambs with his arm; he carries them close to his heart; he leads the ewes along.
If God is going woo Israel into trusting him he must speak to the elephant. He must speak about trust.
The outline is simple
- God has declared that her punishment is completed and he will bring favor to Israel.
- The creator God in power and splendor will come to you himself. Mountains move out of the way at his command. He creates a highway to come to his people.
- People and their power are like grass, here today and gone tomorrow. Trust not in people but trust in the author of people, the master of creation.
- Announce to everyone that good news is coming to Jerusalem and to her towns. He will come to set things straight.
- This God of all power when he comes to you will not be a warrior covered with metal armor carrying a sword, he will be all powerful but soft, able to cuddle the lamb and embrace the child. He will be more powerful than the strongest man, and more soft and comforting that the most nurturing mother.
Every Darren Wilson needs this message. We need a God who is able to save us from the cold hard world, yet warm and intimate and nurturing which is what all of our hearts also need.
The trust issues remain, however. Words are nice, a conversation is nice, but you can’t say “we need conversation” and then turn around and say “OK Isaiah, those are nice words.”
God knows we need more than words. In Advent the Christ declares that Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words.
- Jesus comes in with great power, to still the storm, to multiply the loaves, to turn the water to wine, to heal the sick, the crippled, to raise the dead.
- Jesus comes in tender love, to embrace the disenfranchised, to console the marginalized, to welcome the little child.
Jesus as we saw last week, however, in his power doesn’t come to simply take vengeance on the morally wobbly.
To save us from the sin between us, he must save us from the sin within us.
If he’s going to save us from the sin within us, he needs to lead us into trusting him.
So how can Jesus invite us to trust him? How could Michael Brown lead Darren Wilson into trusting him? How could Darren Wilson lead Michael Brown into trusting him?
What if Darren Wilson decided that protecting his own life was not worth taking Michael Brown’s life?
Let’s imagine Micheal Brown had had a gun and shot Darren Wilson multiple times including in the head and took his life. What would have happened if Michael Brown, minutes after taking Darren Wilson’s life learned that Darren Wilson intentionally withheld his use of power so the Micheal Brown could live? What would that do to Michael Brown.
Literature and history are full of stories of people who give their life for another. Greater love has no one than to give their life for their friend, well what about their adversary or enemy?
Jesus gave his life so we would trust him because trust stands at the root of all of our fears with fuel our elephant herdisms that cost young black men, and many many others their lives.
Irresponsibility of Jesus’ Path
One might easily say “well that is noble and all, but impractical.”
Yes it is, but the resurrection makes it practical. What God does through Jesus is invite us into his life, which will certainly lead to our death and thereby inviting us into his resurrection. This is the Christian story.
You might say “well that is irresponsible because it causes death” and I would say “please tell me your solution to avoiding death. Death will come. Do you wish for it to simply take you are are you willing to give something that redeems it?”
The resurrection justifies cruciform living, if of course you believe in the resurrection.
If you don’t believe in the resurrection you’re back standing with Darren Wilson doing the mental math of the police academy: better to be tried by 12 jurors than carried by 6 pallbearers. You might not even be tried, but at what cost to your soul?
Who was it who said that the one who tries to save their life will lose it, and the one who loses their life for Jesus sake will find it?
Death finds us all. Jesus invites us to make it meaningful and fruitful for another, whether that be in the rare grand gesture, or the small, quiet normal deaths we embrace by listening, giving, serving, forgiving, enduring, blessing, loving.
What happens when someone gives you back your life at the cost of their own?
This is of course a question played out in many stories one of the most famous being Les Miserables and Jean Valjean. With the silver candlesticks the priest purchases Jean’s soul and it is never the same again.
Bold trust in gratitude reduces fear and with it racism and the manifest forms of groupism that plague our world. It is far more than a “conversation”. Stereotypes are difficult to dislodge and equality is elusive, but love and trust have the power to create spaces where they no longer govern in our endless herd/tribal conflicts.
It is not better information or greater equality that reduce racism, it is love afforded by a trust in God that invites us to surrender our lives, in large and small ways to one another sometimes at great risk. This affords and opportunity for piece that goes far beyond what any conversation can.
We see it in Christ’a story. We see it in his Eucharist.