“You are trying too hard.” My African American friend said this for my benefit. His eyes conveyed his love me as he spoke the words.
“What do you mean?” I asked. I meant the question. I was surprised by his words and wanted to hear what he thought.
“You don’t need to serve on all of these committees in this community,” he answered. “You don’t have to go to all of these racial meetings and planning sessions and events,” he continued.
Admittedly, I was puzzled. I sat there in Wendy’s and took a bite of my chicken sandwich.
“You can if you want to. Sometimes some good things can come of it. But to be truthful, I think you are trying too hard. I’m trying to say that you don’t have to do these committee things. There is an easier way.”
“Ok,” I said. “What is the easier way?”
Finding the Easier Way
“Let me ask you a question,” he responded. “Your church offices were recently moved into a neighborhood that is mostly Black, right?”
“Right,” I nodded.
“And your office is situated in a little shopping center next door to some Black business owners, right?”
“Yeah,”I said. “So?”
“So, how long would it take you to walk from your office to get to one of these businesses next door to you?”
I paused. I’m sure that I stopped chewing too. I could see that a sense of conviction was about to say hello to me. I sat back in the chair. Put the sandwich down and shook my head with a smiling realization. He repeated his good question. He was smiling now too and gentle.
“How long does it take you to walk from your office to one of these businesses next door to you?”
“About three seconds,” I answered.
“That’s what I’m getting at,” he said. “You are trying too hard. Speeding around at all of these meetings. Instead, why don’t you do the easy thing? Walk the three seconds, peek your head in the door and just say, ‘hello.'” “If no one says ‘hello’ back, try it again next week. If they say ‘hello’ back, just talk like a human being about human stuff.”
Walking the Three Seconds
I sat there thinking about what he said. I admitted out loud what I was feeling inside.
“Walking the three seconds seems harder. Why is that?” I asked.
He didn’t answer. He didn’t need to. We both lingered with the thought and ate a couple of french fries.
Looking back on that conversation, I realize that I’ve been attending, leading and planning meetings and events for a year and a half, now. There have been wonderful moments. But, I’m sad to say that it took me a month after my friend’s advice, before I attempted the easy thing. Yesterday, finally, I walked the three seconds. I said “hello.” A Black man said, “hello” back to me. He paused and so did I. I don’t know how, but we ended up talking about the crazy Saint Louis weather and the storms predicted for that night. Somehow we even got to talking about how the bones in the body sometimes predict the weather better than the news and we laughed. Then, after a bit, we both paused, and said, something like “have a good one” to each other. Then, I walked the three seconds back to my office. On Monday, I’m thinking maybe I’ll try that again. After all, my next committee meeting isn’t for another couple of weeks.
I hurt my friend. I did not mean to. I would not have known it without his help.
He is black. I am white. We are men. Both of us are husbands and fathers. His brown eyes and my blue eyes both require the aid that glasses provide.
Our community, mine and his, possesses a rich history of African American life here on this side of the tracks where Kirkham avenue companions alongside of Shady Creek for a while. Crossing back and forth across these railroad tracks has required multiple efforts over the years. Memories of pains and hopes and even blessings are the results of such attempts at this kind of travel.
Crossing the Tracks Together
Over the last two years this man and I have become friends along with others. School administrators, police force representatives, local university persons, civic and business participants and a few clergy have met together and facilitated forums designed to aid us in our attempts to talk, heal and change amid what unites us and separates us racially.
On this occasion, a team of people asked us as leaders what five words we would use if we wanted to describe what we are about and to get the word out to the broader community. My friend offered three words.
I entered the exercise earnestly and suggested that those words might not make sense to the community and I would lean toward other descriptors. Other folks joined in and led us quickly off of my friend’s three words onto other “more understandable words.” I thought nothing of it.
After the meeting I asked my friend how his week was going. His thoughts though remained fixed upon this day in which we presently stood and still on the exercise with words we had just completed. He was hurting. This was new for us.
Light Pouring In
As we talked I realized that not only is my friend black and that I am white. I learned also that he has been at this a long while and that I am new to the table. Apparently groups like this one have come and gone over the long years. White folks who start but fade. What for me is my first real attempt at racial neighbor love in a community like this is for him his fourth or fifth or sixth try. “You can’t see” he said to me. “I want to,” I answered. “Please help me to see. What has hurt you today?”
He then gently risked with me. He asked me a simple question. “Remember when you said to the group that people will not understand the words I offered?” “Yes,” I answered. “What people did you mean?” he asked. “What people will not understand my words?”
He paused and looked earnestly and sensitively into my eyes. All of a sudden, there in the long pause, I felt like a flare went off in my soul and lit up the night sky of my thoughts. His question searchlighted my hidden assumptions and brought them into plain view.
Conviction tenderly earthquaked my inner being. I saw in the pause of his presence that I had people like me in mind when I said that “the community” will not understand–white people like me. Because obviously, the words offered by my friend who has lived and served for this community long before I ever arrived here, come out of the history, experience and local knowledge of this community. I realized that I had done at least four blind things.
1. I did not listen or inquire to find out the meaning of these words to my friend or to his part of this community.
2. I quickly implied to him that he will have to surrender the language he offered to the language that my part of this community will provide for him. (as i look back I realize that almost everyone else who agreed with me and dismissed the language my friend offered was also white–they too offered “better” words)
3. At the end of the day who knows what words we would have landed on. The words weren’t the point. Ironic isn’t it? We were developing words to aid us in our attempts to create racial understanding in our community by doing the very thing that hinders it in the first place.
4. I realized in my friend’s eyes that his hurt did not rise because the others that he didn’t know so quickly dismissed his point of view. It is that I had. We were friends. Friendship means that I am no longer, just a white man sitting with a black man. He thought I’d know as a friend; that I’d try to listen further to why he might use the words he had chosen. After all, we’ve been doing life together and that’s what friends do–they listen to each other.
And when friends fail to listen to each other and they hurt one another, they ask each other’s forgiveness. They wait amid long pauses with each other, for each other. They learn together and they go get a sandwich at Wendy’s. Trust deepens.
I’m looking forward to lunch today.
I get to eat french fries and learn from a friend.
“You are like Moses.” He smiled as he said it. I nervously laughed. No one had said that to me before. “What do you mean?” I said. He said, “You are a man of privilege, with years of education, training, influence and resources.” Then this wise African American leader asked the question. “What are you going to do with your privilege?” I took another bite of my cheeseburger.
I went back and checked. Moses was forty years old when he took his first stand on behalf of the oppressed. He assumed that the powerless would readily welcome his advocacy on their behalf. But Moses made a murderous mess of his first public attempt at social action. He used power like the worst of his majority culture had taught him and then tried to talk of reconciling. He had asked no questions and yet had the answers. Moses needed another forty years of learning before he’d become by God’s grace, the liberator history recounts for us. (Acts 7:22ff)
Know the Heart of the Sojourner
A sojourner describes a person racially and ethnically different than the majority. When the Biblical God later commanded his people through Moses not to oppress the sojourner, the reason was experiential. “You shall not oppress a sojourner,” because, “you know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. (Ex. 23:9; 22:21) Moses had privilege, the power to act, and the courage to risk it. But he did not yet know the heart of the people he tried to help.
As more of us with privilege find the courage to act, we are asking, “what can we do?” To begin, we need to learn the heart of those we propose to help.
This will take time and a willingness to listen to voices we’ve previously overlooked as our teachers. I’ve made many mistakes which I’ve written about here and there. But we can take a small step and:
Admit that injustice is real
“Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. . . “(Eccl. 4:1)
Such human misuse does not surprise the wise. “If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter . . .” Why not? “for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. (Eccl. 5:8)
In this verse, the wise identify what we sometimes day refer to as a systemic problem. A system is nothing more than a collection of people accustomed to making things work on the basis of particular assumptions, routines, and practices. Notice first what the wise show us: there is no one to oppose the oppressor and provide comfort for the misused. Something in the assumptions, routines, and practices being used to get through a day is not signaling that comfort for the oppressed is a value. Notice second, this absence of value is part of the culture of accountability and expectation within the organizational structure. This is why Jesus’ personal actions on behalf of the powerless put him in jeopardy with prevailing systems of power.
Examine Your Biases
“Do not twist justice in legal matters by favoring the poor or being partial to the rich and powerful. Always judge people fairly. (Lev. 19:15)
Just as with the race and ethnicity of the sojourner, so the Bible says that once we’ve seen the current economic class of a human being, we still have nothing we can use to judge who this person is. If we think someone is righteous because they are poor, or more trustworthy because they are rich, we mistake what it means to treat a human being justly. Jesus ate with the poor and the rich complained. Jesus ate with the rich and the poor grumbled.
Listen with Empathy to the Victim’s Cry
Behold, I cry out, ‘Violence!’ but I am not answered; I call for help, but there is no justice. (Job 19:7)
Job lost everything not only to natural disasters but due to criminal conduct. He cries out over the injustice perpetrated on his family. To do so doesn’t imply dismissal of other pained lives. Imagine going to the funeral of a grandmother. As you speak of her with tears and loss, someone tells you that you are insensitive and entitled. You are stunned. You ask him why he is saying this to you on such a terrible occasion. He answers you. “You act like your grandmother is the only one worth talking about,” he says. “Don’t all family members matter?” “Why, yes,” you say. “Of course all lives matter.” But to cry for the value of our grandmother, doesn’t mean we dismiss the value of uncles, aunts, parents, siblings, and cousins. It’s just that at this moment it is grandma who died.
Give Your Voice
Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Pr. 31:8-9)
Add Justice to Your Prayer Life
- intercession Lord, you know the hopes of the helpless. Surely you will hear their cries and comfort them. You will bring justice to the orphans and the oppressed, so mere people can no longer terrify them. (Ps. 10:17-18. See also Prov. 1)
- complaint/Lament Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? (see also Ps. 44:24, 42:9; 43:2)
- petition Redeem me from man’s oppression, that I may keep your precepts.(Ps. 119:34) Like a swallow or a crane I chirp; I moan like a dove. My eyes are weary with looking upward. O Lord, I am oppressed; be my pledge of safety! (Is. 38:14)
Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the LORD understand it completely. (Prov. 28:5) This means that if we want to seek the Lord, he will bring us into an understanding of justice for powerless neighbors. We cannot seek the Lord and see the plight of powerless neighbors as a side issue.
Notice How You Talk
The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks justice (Ps. 37:30) A Hebrew proverb explains itself by comparing the first part of the sentence with the second. “Utters wisdom” and “speaks justice” go together.
The wise speak of justice. Justice can only come about through wisdom. Do you talk like this?
Notice How You Think When Trying to Turn a Profit
A merchant, in whose hands are false balances, he loves to oppress. (Hosea 12:7)
Create Art/Add Songs of Justice to Your Play List
I will sing of steadfast love and justice; to you, O LORD, I will make music. (Psalm 101:1)
Pace Your Emotional Life
Surely oppression drives the wise into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart (Eccl. 7:7) When you witness oppression in real-time, the trauma stays with you. An eyewitness bears with the trauma of the one moment–relived over and again. Be careful. When you scroll and scroll watching violent injustices one after another after another, you need time to grieve, feel, lament, break down.
You cannot binge-watch murder like Law and Order or Game of Thrones. Pretend murders can entertain. The real thing is madness. Pace yourself.
Seek non-virtual relationships, not just virtual actions
“Give counsel; grant justice; make your shade like night at the height of noon; shelter the outcasts; do not reveal the fugitive; let the outcasts of Moab sojourn among you; be a shelter to them from the destroyer. (Isaiah 16:3–5)
Once we’ve taken virtual action by posting, we still have to open our non-virtual door and take a non-virtual step toward a non-virtual person.
Be careful before judging someone on the basis of their virtual life. Local non-virtual pursuits of relationships and justice can fill a day.
Watch out for Pride which Uses Injustice in the Name of Justice
“Then Absalom would say, “Oh that I were judge in the land! Then every man with a dispute or cause might come to me, and I would give him justice.” (2 Sam. 15:4)
King David’s son imagined himself able to bring about a just society better than his Dad. He saw himself as societies’ rescuer and justified his use of injustice. Many died. Including himself.
Take Heart. Botched Attempts and Prideful Assumptions Needn’t Have the Last Word
Moses got it all wrong. But that wasn’t the last chapter in his story or theirs or ours. Grace came and spoke his name. Grace can speak our name too for One greater than Moses has come.
To consider more fully what justice is, who it is for, and why Jesus followers should care, watch this video message, entitled: What Can We Do To Help the Cause of Justice?