Today a deep divide separates America’s citizens and religious communities – as in a polar opposites kind of divide. Many have attributed this political, cultural and religious polarization to the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. I remember racing home from my retail job that night to watch election results on television. My roommates and I were divided. One of them even said, “I mean, it wouldn’t be that bad if Trump became president.”
We all know the results.
I look back on that night and realize it was a precursor to how the nation and our communities now look: the obvious tension when someone mentions anything remotely political or racial and the ongoing debate over political correctness versus “telling it like it is.” But what does that last phrase mean? Telling it like it is.
Consider the recent sentencing of Amber Guyger, the ex-police officer convicted for the murder of Botham Jean in Dallas, Texas. Jean, originally from Saint Lucia, was shot and killed by Guyger in his own apartment. Guyger testified that she had mistakenly entered the apartment thinking it was hers and assumed the black man inside to be an intruder. She was sentenced to 10 years in jail.
“It’s like expecting a hug after you’ve killed my brother. You, white America, forgot who the victim actually is.”
After the sentencing, be it a fair judgment or not, 18-year-old Brandt Jean hugged Guyger. He held his older brother’s murderer in his arms in an act of forgiveness. Later, their sister said she supports her brother’s actions, even as she understands those who disagree. “What Brandt did, I truly admire,” she said. “I pray every day to get to the point of forgiveness and he is already there.”
The image of the courtroom hug was powerful. It encouraged much of the national conversation to shift from talk of racial justice to talk of forgiveness. But that is not the conversation that needs to be had. The work toward racial justice – for our nation and our churches – is not done. We have so much more to do.
More often than not, white churches want black and brown bodies in the pews to provide a visual of diversity, but they’re not interested in adapting their worship service. That’s not inclusion. Perhaps your congregation allows the black or brown church down the street to use your space from time to time. That’s not inclusion. Or maybe you do a “pulpit swap” once a year instead of worshiping together. That’s not inclusion either. Instead, these and similar actions are like sticking a “Christ-shaped” band aid on a blistering, systemic wound that is deep and requires much more work.
It’s like expecting a hug after you’ve killed my brother. You, white America, forgot who the victim actually is.
“I want to hug less and be more honest – especially when it benefits both parties.”
Black people are hurting, from the ongoing slaughter of black men by police officers, from Rodney King to Eric Gardner; from the murder of almost 20 black transwomen this year alone; and from the school-to-prison pipeline that is impacting black communities across the United States. We are hurting, yet you – including many progressive, white Christians – are the ones asking to be consoled during our time of mourning.
As Christians, as Americans, steps need to be taken in the right direction. That starts with basic recognition. We need you to see us as both black and human. Recognize and appreciate the perspectives and thoughts black people can bring to a space and allow us to become fully human right before your eyes while you listen with your ears and your heart.
The moment you see the humanity in a person, you are truly seeing God in them as they are and not how you think God should show up in them.
Churches, specifically predominantly white churches, are intrigued with the idea of racial reconciliation in worship spaces. These churches are seeking that hug. Much conversation happens around race and many people are truly willing to talk a big game; few, however, are willing to take concrete actions. In a “post-race” nation – and I use that term loosely – many institutions, the church included, have muddled the power of talk with power of action. Both can be powerful, but there comes a time when words are not enough, and acts of justice fueled by righteousness must take place.
There are black people, like Brandt Jean, who are willing to extend that olive branch, who are even willing to hug when actions of white people are repulsive and continuously fall short on the spectrum of reciprocal human respect. But most black people live with tired arms. We have hugged so many people. Our arms ache from being outstretched for so long.
A friendly reminder to my white brothers and sisters: It is not the job of your black and brown colleagues and peers to hug you and further enable or soothe you in your shortcomings. Sometimes a long stern look in the mirror does much more than a hug can, and only you can look in the mirror and see the person who needs to be held accountable.
The aftermath of the last presidential election was astounding, especially to white “liberals.” At coffee with a mentor the morning after the election, the conversation centered on my mentor’s woundedness. As a white male minister, he felt that all hope was lost. He was distraught, devastated and still grappling with his disillusionment in the country he thought he knew.
In that moment he needed a hug. But I did not extend my arms to him. I was hurt too. But my hurt was deeper and had long since been brewing under a lifelong experience of covert and systemic racism. It was as if my mentor just realized that racism, sexism, ableism and all the other isms that Trump promoted during his campaign still existed. There was no mirror in the coffee shop, but I provided a sounding board as best I could. I agreed that his disillusioned view was just that – unrealistic, unreal and an illusion.
“There comes a time when words are not enough, and acts of justice fueled by righteousness must take place.”
A hug is admirable at times, but the restraint from giving one when the world expects you to can be admirable as well.
Brandt’s older sister admired him for his hug and forgiveness, but I admire her. I admire her honesty and restraint and self-preservation. I want to hug less and be more honest – especially when it benefits both parties. This is no longer just a conversation about forgiveness; it’s also about telling it like it is. It’s about open and honest conversation – and then taking it from there.
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