(This blog is a excerpt from my sermon on July 10, 2016 at Concord UMC in Knoxville, TN based on Leviticus 19:33-34 and Matthew 5:9. Video of the sermon will be posted on concordumc.com)
Over the past weeks as months as our country has experienced increasing levels of racial tensions, sometimes violent disagreements over law enforcement practices, and terrorists attacks,there have been many calls from faith leaders in our country for us to move from being peace lovers to being peacemakers. The tragedies just this week in Minnesota, Baton Rouge, Dallas, and Bristol only intensify the needs for us to respond to this call. The question is how.
Until we know how to be peacemakers, our response to violence, injustice, and division will never move from anger and sorrow to the greater task of building a better tomorrow.
While the solutions are neither easy nor obvious, there are concrete things we can all do to help promote peace and equality.
Recognize that Context Matters
When tragedies occur, we need to understand that there are some of us who have the chance to respond in uniquely powerful ways to certain events. For instance, when violence is perpetuated against the LBGT community, the people who need to speak out the most quickly and powerfully to console the families and condemn the violence are leaders in the conservative political and religious community. When violence is committed by a radical Muslim the first people who need to speak out to console the victims and condemn the attack are moderate Muslims. When police brutality occurs, we need those in the law enforcement community to speak out against it. When police are mercilessly gunned down during a protest, the leaders of the activist community need to be the first ones to offer consolation to the victims and condemn the violence. When violence strikes a minority community, those of us in the majority must speak up immediately. And when violence affects the majority, the minority community needs to respond by reaching out in solidarity.
Recognize that Best Practices Matter
Building a better tomorrow will require that across all sections of society and within the church that we engage in the lessons of how to be sensitive and respectful to all in spite of our differences. Businesses instituted cultural sensitivity training years ago when they learned that diverse teams perform better than teams of people with similar backgrounds and patterns of thinking. What businesses did to build their profits, it is time for all of us to do to build a better world. We need cultural sensitivity training on a national scale.
We also need our law enforcement officials, politicians, and community activists to work together to identify what the best practices are in law enforcement and community organizing that create peaceful communities of equality. There are places that do a better job with this task than others. What are the characteristics of those communities and law enforcement departments and how can we all get behind a national movement to incorporate those policies and cultural attitudes into all of our nation’s communities.
Recognize that Words Matter
Words matter greatly to all of us. So we all must seek to learn when our words are off putting to others and learn how to express even our differences in respectful and compassionate ways.
We all have words that make us feel disrespected and patronized. We need to know what these words are and we need to know what we can do to speak words to build up rather than tear down.
For instance, as a white male, I have had trouble with the recent introduction of two new words into our vocabulary. Those words are “mansplaining” and “whitesplaining”.
“Mansplaining” is used to refer to the unfortunate ways in which men sometimes speak to women in a patronizing manner. And “whitesplaining” is used to refer to times when white people speak to black people in a patronizing manner. Now, it is extremely important that I learn how not to patronize anyone in the way I relate to them. However, if you use these terms with me, even though I believe strongly in equality, I will begin to disengage from the conversation because I will feel like the vocabulary you have chosen for our conversation is disrespectful and dismissive. Everyone of us has terms that are simply nonstarters for us. And we’ve all got to learn to use words that heal rather than hurt.
Recognize that Humility Matters
I have very little patience for any form of racist or sexist ideology. But I have incredible patience for those people who have cultural blind spots that prevent them from fully living out the equality in which they believe. The reason I have so much patience for people in this category is because it is a category than includes us all.
Let me share with you a little bit about my own blind spots, particularly as it relates to race and law enforcement.
As was growing up I was fortunate (largely thanks to athletics) to have black friends from the inner city and black friends from the suburbs as well as white friends from upper middle class backgrounds and white friends whose families weren’t able to keep much food in the frig.
I also grew up looking up to law enforcement officers as heroes. And I still consider them heroes. Though I have learned that like any profession some law enforcement officers and divisions are much better than others.
When I was 18, I was pulled over for having a tail light that was out. I was forced out of my vehicle, treated roughly by the officer, and ultimately charged with an offense that the judge found laughable and threw out as soon as it was read. Would this situation have escalated more if I were black? Who knows.
When I was 23, my roommate and I were ambushed outside our apartment door by two young black men with guns. They led us inside at gun point, took a lot of our stuff, and then made us lay face down on the floor and threatened to shoot us in the back of the head if we moved. Once the men left, we called the cops. I cannot tell you how thankful I am for the professional and compassionate way the officers responded. They eventually found one of the men and discovered the motivation behind the robbery. More importantly, the two officers who responded to our call that night treated me with such respect and compassion that they helped me begin to heal from the trauma I had experienced.
Several months later, I realized that as a result of the robbery I was beginning to judge all black people based on my experience with just two. So, I began to enter into conversations about my experience with diverse friends and colleagues as well as counselors which helped me see reality more clearly than I could have on my own.
When I was 25, I worked on a team led by a black man who became a great mentor to me. The team also included a middle aged black woman. To protect the innocent, let’s call her Bridgett. Once after a meeting, our leader pulled me aside and said, “Hey, why don’t you ever challenge Bridgett in our discussions. You’re a smart guy, Wil. And you don’t mind to challenge those who are older than you when you disagree with them. But no matter what Bridgett says, you never challenge her and sometimes she says things that I know you disagree with strongly. I want to see you engage her.”
I replied, “Look, I am a young white male. I know how a lot of people think about white males around here. If you think I’m going to challenge a middle aged black woman, you’ve got another thing coming.”
He responded, “Wil, your attitude towards Bridgett isn’t respectful. It’s patronizing. And I expect more from you.”
In that moment I realized that Jesus didn’t die on a cross to break down every barrier that divides us so that I could have superficial relationships with middle aged black women. He gave His life so that we could love one another as God loves us.
If we are ever going to learn how to overcome the divisions our blindspots can so easily cause, we all need the humility to listen to one another and to share honestly from our own perspective.
The journey towards becoming peacemakers is long, dirty, and difficult. It’s a journey we’ll probably never finish in this life. But it’s a journey that it’s time we started together.
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