“Today, we are the most frightening people on this planet.”
Those are the words of Arthur Schlesinger, the American historian, social critic, and public intellectual. He spoke them in 1968. Hundreds of urban riots had wracked the country, the war in Vietnam was grinding up lives. The country has witnessed the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had just been murdered within two months of one anotherMany people wondered about America and its character, about what kind of country – and people – we were. As New York Mayor John Lindsay said at the time, “This is a drifting, angry America that needs to find its way again.” His words, like Schlesinger’s, feel regrettably relevant to this era, almost 50 years down the line.
Columnist Leonard Pitts writes,
“There is a sickness afoot in our country, a disintegration of the soul, rottenness in the spirit. Consider our politics. Consider the way we talk about one another – and to one another. Consider those two dead black men. Consider those five massacred cops. Deny it if you can. I sure can’t. Something is wrong with us. And I don’t mind telling you that I fear for my country.”I can’t say I disagree.
Maybe what I’m feeling isn’t fear. Maybe it’s more like despair – the feeling that hope has been divided and scattered into a million fragments.
I’m a pastor. I tend to see people and situations through a pastoral lens. Pastors teach and counsel. We plant and nurture. We mend the rifts and wipe the tears. We are the kind of people who see good in others. We listen, and we desire to see the people in our care grow and flourish. We are people who keep hope alive. Sometimes, that outlook can be skewed. It’s not a bad way to see the world. But it’s also not complete. I’m learning to balance my pastoral perspective with another perspective.
Sometimes I put on my oppression glasses and imagine the stories of both victims and oppressors. I try to understand people who are locked in patterns of being silencers, or racists, or abusers -- and those who are silenced and abused. I try to think about those who have internalized a sense of inferiority and those who have internalized a sense of racial superiority. How did they get there? With whom do I resonate and by whom am I repelled? If it’s true that the Gospel of Christ brings liberation for all people, both the oppressed and the oppressor need consistent, strong and graceful work to find freedom. My faith surges, freeing me to see my connection to each and every story, each person, each quiet call for help or hope of healing.
So, I try to wear my pastoral lens and my anti-oppression lens together. When I do that, I can be even more effective in helping groups humanize, care for, and commit to learn from one another. These lenses help us to see Christ in each other and call us to be Christ for the other. I wonder what your lenses are? How do you see the world? What would happen if you pair your worldview with an anti-oppression outlook on life?
Of course, it’s not enough just to see the world anew. As part of my commitment to Christ, I commit to living anti-oppressive values in the communities I am a part of. It takes not just new lenses, but new patterns; a new set of ongoing, habitual reactions when I see oppression. You see, I know myself. I know when I’m faced with the news of the murder of Black men by police, and the murder of police by a sniper, I want to shut out the violence. When faced with the killing of 49 gay men in a bar in Orlando, or the gunman and hostage situation in Bangladesh, or the death of 200 innocent people in Iraq by a suicide bomber, or the bombs going off in the airport in Istanbul, I want to give in to the despair. That’s fear at work.
Fear does not get to define my values. If my behavior is not in line with my values, I need to do something different. I think giving in to fear can be a luxury – an indulgence – a privilege.
Living anti-oppression values means when we witness, experience, or commit an abuse of power or oppression, we address it as proactively, either one-on-one or with a few allies, keeping in mind that the goal is to encourage positive change.
Living anti-oppression values means challenge oppressive behaviors, not the people themselves.
Living anti-oppression values means when someone offers us criticism, we treat it as a gift rather than an attack. Give people the benefit of the doubt.
Living anti-oppression values means understanding that we will feel discomfort as we face our part in oppression. Be brave. It is a necessary part of the process. Being part of the problem doesn’t mean you can’t be an active part of the solution.
Living anti-oppression values means contributing time and energy to building healthy relationships, both personal and political, both one-on-one and in the community.
Living anti-oppression values means challenging ourselves to be courageously honest and open, willing to take risks and make ourselves vulnerable in order to address racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and other repressive dynamics head-on.
I want to close by saying two more things. First, racism is processed in the brain as trauma. Race-based trauma literally leaves bruised spots on the brain. So, when people of color are exposed to repetitive acts of racism a kind of post traumatic stress syndrome can develop. Race-based trauma can come in several forms: Witnessing ethno-violence or discrimination of another person, historical or personal memory of racism, institutional racism, micro aggressions, and the constant threat of racial discrimination.
Like and traumatic event, racism can be marked by an acute state of fear, anxiety, and hopelessness. If the trauma is not addressed, or is not diffused within a reasonable time frame, it can develop into post traumatic stress disorder. To our African American members and friends, please take good self-care during this time. Make sure to connect with people who are empathetic and supportive and process your feelings with them. And if you find yourself unable to cope, let’s find a trauma-competent therapist or group to help you out.
Give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom.
Don’t take their power away.
And keep your own ego out of it.
When people feel that they are held in a deeper way than they are used to, they can feel safe enough to allow complex emotions to surface that might normally remain hidden. Holding space means you allow others to make different decisions and to have different experiences than you would. Holding space is about respecting each person’s differences and recognizing that those differences may lead to them making choices that we would not make.
In all of this, I remember the words of the Apostle Paul:
“We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies Yes, we live under constant danger of death because we serve Jesus, so that the life of Jesus will be evident in our dying bodies. So we live in the face of death, but this has resulted in eternal life for you” (2 Corinthians 4:8-12 NLT). All is not lost. All is not hopeless. With resilience, hard word, hand-in-hand, and heart-to-heart, the sickness around us can be made whole.