Thursday, July 23, 2015

Race - a Time to Listen

Naively, many Americans thought we figured out the problem of race when the Civil Rights laws were passed, or maybe later when schools were integrated, or maybe more recently when Obama was elected President. But 2015 has been the year we've been befuddled, numbed, exasperated, and driven to the brink of resigned cynicism by the realization that black-white relationships are riddled with pain, confusion, anger, and mistrust.
   It occurs to me that problems creep into all our relationships when we make a few fundamental errors, like (1) I assume I know how you feel, or (2) I presume to know what your life is like without being there myself, or (3) If there is a problem, it must be your fault, or (4) My life, my perspective, my feelings are normal, and yours are the outliers, or (5) I tell you that you should feel differently, or worst of all (6) I simply won't listen. A recipe for disaster in a marriage, among friends or family - and in our country when it comes to race.
   The Bible's persistent project is about getting inside the skin of other people. God did this in Jesus: instead of treating us as distant failures, God lived our life from the inside out. Jesus talks (no, he listens!!) to a Samaritan woman, tax collectors, a thief on the cross, Romans, and all the people nobody else listened to.
   The hardest, most painful book I've read all summer is Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. With searing candor and rising intensity, he shares what it feels like to be black in America. He will make you shudder, tremble, and blush - and then a light bulb pops on every other page or so.
   Coates explores why young street blacks can be loud and rude, why blacks fear the police, what it's like to be viewed with suspicion no matter what you do, how "nobody can be Jackie Robinson every day," how parents tell their children they must be on their guard and be 'twice as good' or they will discredit all blacks - but white parents don't tell this to their children. A friend of his was killed by a plainclothes police officer in a cruel, ridiculous case - and Coates says "he was killed not by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all its fears."
   With every fiber of our being, we white people leap to defend ourselves, to explain why Coates is really wrong, to declare "I'm not racist." But in the Scriptures, listening, not defensive chatter, is the beginning of wisdom. Jesus' brother said "Be quick to listen, slow to speak" (James 1:19). "The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice" (Proverbs 12:15). Paul urges us to "Weep with those who weep" (Romans 12:15). Building relationships and community requires nothing less.
   It's also interesting that Coates doesn't ask the white community to do anything at all.  He's not blaming so much as simply telling what it's like, narrating his tory - and it's hard to deny anybody the right to tell how they experience the world.  When he speaks of "fear" it's white fear, it's black fear, it's everybody's fear.  He does redefine the American "dream," in a way that is haunting and closer to some deep reality than we'd care to admit.
   People want to rush out and do something this week about race. But how do you build trust in a week? I enjoy several friendships with African-American clergy; we trust and love each other. One thing I know for sure: it takes time. I've been at it for 30 years. And something else: it is mine to do more listening than talking, and it is not mine to offer fixes. White people have always taken charge, haven't they? Ours is to listen, try to understand, feel pain, let somebody else lead on this, and then move forward courageously and hopefully together.
   So start now to build relationships that will matter later on, and we'll need them later on. And of course, pray - which can be less of "Lord, hear our prayer," and more "Speak, Lord, your servants are listening."

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Familiarity Breeds Liking

     In college, I signed up for a class called “Social Psychology.”  The professor must have been amazing, for I went to only one lecture before I had to drop-add to make my schedule work – and I remember his subject:  “Familiarity Breeds Liking.”  Yes, we’ve heard familiarity breeds contempt, but statistics and common sense and experience prove that familiarity does breed liking.  You get to know someone, you perceive he’s doing his best, she has struggles like you do, you listen and get beneath the superficial – and you begin to like the other person.  Or maybe even love.

     Most of what bedevils us these days can be chalked up to a simple lack of familiarity with others.  The other day, a white guy explained to me why he owns and cherishes the Confederate flag, and then he ventured an opinion:  “I bet most black people don’t mind this flag at all.”  I asked him if he had actually asked any black people about this, and of course he hadn’t.  I have, and after a few dozen such inquiries, the verdict is unanimous:  this flag means hate, it arouses fear, it wounds.  Interestingly, my friend with the flag is really a fine, ethical person.  He just wasn’t familiar with enough people.

     The ruckus around same-sex marriage is similar.  In many (but not all) churches like mine, this subject is being debated.  When someone says to me, I am opposed to same-sex marriage, the Bible is against it, I’m sorry but it’s just wrong, I ask, Do you know any same-sex couples who wish to be (or are) married?  Have you asked them, What is your life like?  Why do you want to marry?  What does God mean to you and your partner?  Inevitably the answer is No.

     Then I know liberals who are advocates of same-sex marriage, and they generally view their foes as narrow-minded bigots.  I ask them, Do you know any conservatives on this?  Have you asked them Why do you feel the way you feel?  What does God mean to you in all this?  What do you fear, and what are you protecting?  Inevitably the answer is No.  Lacking familiarity, we do not like, and therefore we certainly can’t love.

     Guns:  we have a standoff out there between those who loathe guns and can’t fathom why we can’t get some controls in place or even get rid of weapons entirely.  But they generally only talk among themselves, and do not know or listen to gun owners or members of the NRA.  We may think we know others, but usually all we’ve seen are caricatures:  the worst NRA spokesman is the one we’ve heard, the most naïve gun opponent is the one we’ve heard quoted.  No wonder we never move toward any rational solutions, but only talk past each other with ever intensifying rancor.

     Race is that complication that just won’t go away.  We watch the news, we shudder over Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and naively assume Charlotte could never become another byword for racial strife.  But in this city, we do not know one another, we do not trust one another, and therefore we do not love one another.  Familiarity breeds liking.  I challenged my congregation this past Sunday to make just one friend of a different color.  Our church alone, if we made these five thousand friendships, could alter the equation on race, unity and peace in our city, especially as we get closer to the Kerrick-Ferrell trial. 

     The police have become targets of derision, or at other times support for less than the best reasons.  But do we know policemen, by name?  Do we know their personal stories?  In Charlotte, “Cops and Barbers” is a marvelous initiative whereby we just try to get to know each other.  Our new police chief, Kerr Putney, has a riveting personal story that absolutely would cause you to like and even love – and trust him. 

     Is the solution to our problems more force? Or litigation? Or better policies?  Or is it simply realizing my college professor was right:  Familiarity breeds liking.  If we like each other, and even love, we will figure out how to solve homelessness, inadequate health care, substandard education, and crime, for I won’t let anyone I love sleep under a bridge or not get to the doctor or go to school without lunch or supplies.

     I applaud the removal of the Confederate flag from the capitol in my hometown of Columbia, and some of the other changes in law and policy.  Symbols matter.  But the heart of all the problems whose symbols we struggle to address is terribly simple, entirely solvable, and excruciatingly difficult:  we are not familiar with one another.  Only when we find ways to know the other, only when we get over the childhood rule “Don’t talk to strangers,” only when we listen, find the unlikely friend, and stop chatting only with those who share our bias and ideology will we ever have any constructive change and peace in our society.  Call me naïve, but familiarity really does breed liking, and builds community and therefore love.