Because I’ve put myself in a position of advocating for better cross-racial communication, I hear complaints from all sides of the debate on race relations today.
I hear progressives complaining about how critical race theory has been distorted in the current climate. I hear conservatives worried that their children will be indoctrinated into “wokeness” in the schools they pay taxes for. I hear from progressives who don’t understand how Christians could support President Trump when he disregarded the personhood of people of color. I hear from conservatives who don’t understand why they’re told they support white supremacy when they want to treat people of all races equally.
A lack of trust is one of the biggest barriers to healthy race relations. How is it poisoning our discourse? And how can Christians work against this trend?
Ultimately, neither progressives who champion antiracism nor conservatives who support colorblindness trust those who disagree with them on racial issues. And so it becomes easy to attribute the worst motivations to their political and racial foes: They’re not merely wrong. They’re evil. Thus, we don’t have to worry about addressing their concerns. This type of thinking distances us from those we disagree with and reinforces the racial and ideological silos we live in.
It’s easy to attribute the worst motivations to our political and racial foes: They’re not merely wrong. They’re evil.
Having talked to individuals on both sides of the racial spectrum, I can see why they have a hard time trusting others and why that mistrust is built upon misconceptions. The way we talk to each other deepens our mistrust. Rather than listening to others to communicate in a way they can hear us, we too often play to our own supporters. This comes off as inflammatory and dehumanizing to those who disagree with us. Do I really need to provide examples of this? I prefer not to do that because I don’t want to single out particular individuals for a problem that’s systemic in racial dialogue. Whatever side you’re on, you’ll have inflammatory rhetoric launched at you—and you’ll see examples from your own side too.
Once this type of rhetoric is out there, it becomes easy to believe that conservative white Christians don’t care about racism and only want to maintain power. It becomes easy to believe that “woke” Christians only want power so they can abuse whites in a fit of revenge. Once we have mistrust, we’ll consistently find reasons to support our lack of trust. We ignore evidence that supports trusting our enemies and magnify evidence suggesting they’re untrustworthy. We stay in our own ideological communities and only venture into the camp of those we disagree with when we want to hit them with some “truth bomb.”
Learn to See Their Humanity
However, my experience is that when we can really talk to each other, we’ll understand the humanity of those who fear that people of color are mistreated. If most conservatives were willing to listen to these concerns, they’d be convicted of the ways racism continues to harm the opportunities for people of color. Even if they disagree with the solutions offered, I believe many who previously discounted the complaints of people of color will understand these issues must be addressed.
We can also see the humanity of conservatives who feel that they’re being left behind. They often fear they’ll be erased in our headlong rush to correct our historical racial wrongs. They don’t understand why simply treating everybody the same is no longer good enough. They understand how whites have misused their social power in the past, and maybe even today, but they don’t think this justifies providing unchecked power for people who haven’t shown respect for conservative whites. Indeed, given what we know about universal human depravity, the concerns of such individuals that they’ll be targeted for revenge aren’t unwarranted. Certainly, there are ways we can introduce needed reforms that take into account their concerns about excesses.
Jesus and the Samaritans
I’m reminded of the Samaritans. This group emerged in the generations following the Assyrian captivity of the northern tribes of Israel. Some Israelites stayed behind and intermarried with the Gentiles who moved into the region. Their half-Jewish, half-Gentile offspring became known as the Samaritans. They built their own temple to compete with the temple Solomon built in Jerusalem. They claim the same rights of envisioning Abraham as Father and Moses as the one who led them out of slavery as the Jews in the South. They basically want the same thing as the Judeans. It was about competition for this same honor that led to their animosity.
If most conservatives were willing to listen to these concerns, they’d be convicted of the ways racism continues to harm the opportunities for people of color.
This provides insight into why the Samaritan woman at the well wanted to argue about Jesus about where Jews worship. It continued an ongoing argument about who the real children of Israel are. The Samaritans weren’t innocent bystanders in this conflict—they were the ones who harassed Nehemiah as he worked at rebuilding Jerusalem. The mistrust between the Samaritans and Judeans was so thick that Jews avoided even going through Samaria.
This history makes the interaction of Jesus with the woman at the well so poignant. He fully humanized her instead of accepting the Judean stereotype about her being a competitor. He opened his conversation by showing trust that she’d respond to his request for water. She was at first surprised but then she trusted that he wasn’t there to mock her.
Jesus truly shows what he thinks of the Samaritans with the parable of the good Samaritan, where the hero isn’t one of his own people but rather of the people seen as imposters to authentic Judaism. Jesus always sees the Samaritans as fully human and worthy of interaction. They’re worthy of Israelites taking the risk of trusting them. He seeks to build a community of followers and won’t allow the institutional mistrust between the Judeans and the Samaritans to get in the way.
Path to Building Trust
Jesus is signaling to us that the proper stance toward those we may be suspicious of is to trust that we want the same things. Moreover, we can build healing instead of polarizing relationships from that trust. I believe we can do this even in a society as polarized as our own. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe having productive, honest communication won’t humanize those we disagree with. Perhaps we’ve already gone too far in the dehumanization process to turn back now. But I don’t think so.
If we learn to trust others a little, we can be rewarded with the development of mutually satisfying relationships. The trust can continue to build, growing community and reducing polarization. We can learn to work with each other instead of against each other. But what steps can we take to build trust?
First, believe that those with whom you disagree have the best intentions until they prove otherwise. People can be mistaken. Even you.
Second, consider if what you’re about to say of someone else is humanizing or dehumanizing. Of course, you can and should critique bad ideas. However, don’t play to the cheap seats. Consider if what you’re saying and how you’re saying it is likely to resonate with the people holding to those ideas. If not, question why you’re saying it.
Third, listen authentically to those with whom you disagree. Understand their ideas so well that you can describe them in your own words. If you don’t truly understand those ideas, you’ll be critiquing a straw man.
Perhaps we’ve already gone too far in the dehumanization process to turn back now. But I don’t think so.
Finally, we must not engage in productive communication only in private conversation. The mistrust that’s grown so rampantly in our lives happens within a community, and so we need to rebuild trust in a community as well.
It’s easy to hold people accountable when you disagree with them. It’s much harder to do so when you agree with them 90 percent of the time. Nevertheless, if individuals act in dehumanizing ways to others, we can’t support that even if we otherwise agree with their politics or priorities. In an appropriate way, you must confront them and challenge them to do better. You certainly shouldn’t provide social media approval through “likes” to statements that erode trust.
Mistrust is a great tool for those who want to sow discord—because of our depravity, we’ll always find reasons not to trust the outgroup. As Christians, we must do better. We’re called to love others as we love ourselves. We must fight against automatically mistrusting those with whom we disagree. In the body of Christ, we need an atmosphere where we can admit our own shortcomings and forgive others for their mistakes.
When we do that, we can seek out where we agree with others and build on that. Instead of staying in our foxholes and firing ammo at each other, we can, little by little, climb out and encourage those on the other side to do the same. Wouldn’t it be great if we one day met in the middle and embraced one another rather than attacking?