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Our Present Moment: Why Is It So Hard?

Last week on my podcast—Life, Books, and Everything—I took the last 25 minutes (after a technology failure cut out Collin Hanson and Justin Taylor) to reflect on racial injustice and the current unrest in our country. Several friends asked if I’d put a transcript of that monologue on my blog. Here it is, slightly modified for readability.

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Given the state of everything going on in our world and in our country, we didn’t want to end the podcast abruptly. So let me just try to offer maybe a smattering of thought.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s making this so difficult. And the “this” in that statement refers to racial issues in this country, making sense of what’s happened in the last week, in the last five years, in the last generation. But in particular, thinking about this last week, as we are now on night seven of just mind-boggling destruction in some of our cities. How did we get here? What is going on? I don’t know the answer to that, but here’s just some thoughts.

What Makes This So Hard?

What is making this worse? Maybe that’s the way to say it. What is making this hard situation even harder?

1. There’s a tremendous amount of my-sideism going on. It happens on all sides. It happens with coronavirus, the economy, politics, and now with literal life and death. And though virtually everyone can agree that the death of George Floyd was a murder, and it was an injustice, after that, everything becomes a talking point for one side or the other.

I saw a thoughtful tweet the other day from Phillip Holmes. I appreciated what he said. He pointed out—I’m summarizing now—that something perverse starts to happen in our hearts. You root for the other team to do something evil. He said it’s easy to find in your heart that you want the officer to have turned out to be the worst possible white supremacist. You find in your heart that you want that to be true. Or you find in your heart that you hope George Floyd was on drugs or that he had a police record. You find that in your heart. The human heart wants to find those things because then it can feel like our side doesn’t have egg on its face.

This has been happening for a long time. It’s just been made worse in the last number of years. You want to show that the real people doing all the bad stuff are the anti-fascists or it’s the white supremacists. Those things do matter, but all we’re trying to do is prove that your side is the side that makes everything wrong. And that’s not going to help. That’s one thing. Just the constant my-sideism. We feel like we’re wearing these jerseys, whatever they even represent anymore. We’re just trying to find a way that our side, whatever that is, our side are the ones being victimized, our side are the ones being put out. Your side is the one that’s wrong.

2. The second obvious reason why this is so hard is personal history. This is true any time you talk about race. And I’m not going to pretend to have that history or understand that history, except that I want to listen, and I want to understand, and I want to act appropriately based on what I hear and understand. I know that there comes a point when African American friends and neighbors say okay, we want you to listen and we want you to sympathize and we want you to be with us. So there’s a personal history to it that you can’t do away with, that you don’t want to do away with. You don’t want to look the other way with injustice.

And with that, there’s a tremendous amount of guilt. There’s guilt that white people feel, and we have to be honest with that. Does that mean that every white person who is really adamant about the cause of justice is doing it to assuage white guilt? Well, no. Of course, we’re not impugning people’s motives, but it does mean there’s a personal side to it, whether you’re black or whether you are white. There are intense emotions and experiences, and in some sense we’re trying to prove who we are or who we aren’t. And so it’s never, never just a dispassionate intellectual discussion about facts. We’re always interpreting those facts, so it’s intensely personal.

3. Third, we’ve been in this lockdown. We’ll see in two weeks, I guess, whether the lockdown was really necessary or not, whether all these crowds turn out to be super-spreaders, or whether we were locked down inside and didn’t really need to be. But certainly the lockdown is something of a factor. You have all this stress and you have all this economic upheaval. You’re not supposed to go anywhere or do anything. And now the weather is nice and it’s summer and your pent up. Many of us have been wound up, missing people, on edge already.

4. Four, we are in the fog of war. Now I don’t use “war” literally, and hopefully this doesn’t escalate any further. But I just use that as an expression. Justin has said a number of times that in the fog of war you get all sorts of misinformation. And it may be intentional misinformation, but oftentimes it’s that things are happening quickly which makes it hard to know what is what. It’s all outsiders in Minneapolis, no it’s people from Minnesota—what really is the truth? And so we’re bound to want to believe what our narrative already says is taking place, and there’s so much information that we just don’t know.

5. A fifth thing: this is a really scary time. I was talking to an African American friend. He said, “I’m scared. I’m scared to go out. I’m scared what this means.” Hearing from friends in Minneapolis, they’re scared—not irrationally, but very understandably. People are scared in so many of our cities. And it’s scary to think what’s going to happen. When, and we pray very soon, that these are quelled and they calm down, will the cities evacuate, will the people go out, will crime run rampant?

You see just what a gift civilization is, and that it’s not something that comes naturally. It’s something that has to be worked for and defended and preserved. And it only takes a small handful of people, and perhaps leaders who are not up to the challenge, to see all of this unravel quickly. I don’t mean the whole nation, but I mean a lot of really hard things. So these are scary times. People are angry. And we understand why they are. And they are frightened. And everything is on video. And you have instant communication with everyone. This is a recipe for a difficult time.

Let me offer two more thoughts, a bit more theoretical. I’m thinking more broadly about why race in this country is so difficult, and in particular difficult even between people of good will, between people in your church of a different color. I’m thinking about people who agree on so many other things. And you sing the same songs and you really love Jesus together. And you read the same Bible, and you really are together for the gospel. So why is it so divisive?

6. Well, we’re not sure what our history is in this country. I think everyone acknowledges that our history, like any nation, is filled with high spots and low spots. That’s not a controversial thing to say. There are great accomplishments, and there are great injustices. But beyond those sort of platitudes, is the history of America, and I’m going to put this as neutrally as I can, is the history of America basically 400 years of systemic oppression with white people having all of the benefits and black people being systematically oppressed and treated in inhuman ways such that the founding statements of this country were window dressing for a larger, more nefarious project? Is that our story? There are certainly good things, and we’re thankful for our country, but to tell the story of our country is essentially to tell the story first and foremost of bigotry and everyone who might be complicit in that. That’s one way to tell our national story.

There’s another way to talk about America as a land of hope and opportunity, with many blind spots, grievous ones, that have oftentimes not lived up to our own ideals and the things written down in our founding documents. Nevertheless, you want to say, “I’m proud to be an American.” And on the whole you believe the country has been an exceptional country and one that has been used for good in the world.

Now I know that lots of people will say that they want to say that both of those things are true. Yes, we all understand there’s good and bad in the country. That not controversial. But the basic story that we are telling, I don’t think we agree on. It’s not the point of this podcast to say which is which here, but it’s definitely a factor in what makes these issues so controversial.

7. And then related to that, there is a final point about the current state of racism. And again, I’m talking about Christians, about like-minded people of goodwill and of good faith in the church. We don’t agree on the current state of racism in America.

To put it crudely, suppose that the experience of slavery in this country is measured on a scale from 0 to 100—100 is absolutely horrible racial injustice, bigotry, and evil; and 0 is heaven. We’re not going to have 0 on earth. Say chattel slavery in America was the experience of 90-100. And say, Jim Crow was the experience of 80-90. Now you’re going to get almost everyone to say that some things are better than they used to be. And you’re going to get almost everyone to say, yes, racism still exists in places. Those are big ideas that people can agree on. But if we were to put a number on it, and I know we can’t, but what do we think the state of racism is in America? What is the current state of privileges accrued to whites, the disadvantages and oppression personally or systemically against blacks? If it was 90-100 under slavery and then 80-90 with Jim Crow, is the number now 75, or is it 25?

If we have the number 75 in our head, then that is a framework for interpreting all sorts of other events that happen—events that are not stand-alone events but are part of a broader narrative from slavery to the failure of reconstruction to Jim Crow to redlining to mass incarceration to police brutality. And it fits in this narrative story. I’m not using any of those terms pejoratively.

But likewise, if somebody thinks, well, racism still exists but it’s going down overall. Maybe we’re at a 30 or a 25 or a 20. Then they will see these incidents as stand-alone incidents, and they’ll see bad cops as the exception with mostly good cops, and they’ll see some bad experiences and tragedies and injustices, but that won’t be the story at large. That’s not mainly what’s happening in America.

Now you’re saying, “Kevin, you’re just laying out these options and you’re not telling us what you think.” And I’ll just be honest, I do not know. I don’t what the number is or how to put a number on it. I know I can’t make my experience and what I’ve seen to be the total sum of the American experience. I know what I hear from others, I know what I read, and to be honest, I want to learn and listen and try to make sense of it. Because I think that at the heart of a lot of disagreement is a different conception of what the state of the country is, in the church at least, where the country is at present. We can agree on the death of George Floyd; it was wrong and an injustice. But the broader story of what’s going on is one that we’re not sure about and we don’t agree on.

And because the whole issue comes up in these moments of great emotion and tragedy, it never really feels like now is a good time to talk about history and look at economics and look at studies. All that then seems out of place. But I think we need to have the sort of trust and love and fellowship with one another, that even if we don’t agree on whether the number is 75 or the number is 25, that we do at least look together and try to assess as best we can the facts before us. For all those reasons I think this is intractably difficult.

What We Can Do

Okay, I’m going to wrap up this long-winding monologue. Let me end with something, perhaps a little more positive. I know sometimes we need to stare at the negative before we can look at the positive, but I want to leave you with three quick thoughts and maybe some encouragement.

1. We ought to conside—-and I know there are people overseas listening to this, but I’m thinking about Americans—we ought to consider that we don’t know what is real America. I don’t want to gloss over major flaws and faults. Over this past week, as you look through social media, you would find stories of black protestors protecting a white police officer because they’re protesting in good faith. They’re protesting for change and to be heard, not for violence. You hear stories of a white sheriff who gets down and marches with the protestors and says, “I love you, I’m listening to you, I want to change.”

What happened in Minneapolis is wrong. So, is that America? Is that the state of race relations? Again, not saying that the bad stories aren’t true, but let’s not go to the other side and say that none of the good stories is true either or that they won’t tell us anything about what it’s like in America. It’s so easy to take the worst of the stories and the worst injustices and the worst incidences and the worst sorts of people and figure, well, that’s what it’s like. We’re not going to hear about the thousands of people from all over Minneapolis who got up the next morning, from churches and probably from synagogues and from all walks of life, and started cleaning up the streets. We’re not going to know their names. So what is the real America? We don’t have to settle that it’s just the worst pictures and the worst stories that we see.

2. The second thing is: let’s not miss what we really do agree on. I went through a bunch of things that we may not agree on. We may not tell the history of America the same way. We may not assess the current state of racism in America in the same way. But don’t miss that it is something—and it is a change from 50, 60 years ago—virtually everyone wants an end to police brutality, wants to end to racism. We want people to be valued, to be treated the same way. We don’t want people to be fearful for their lives. We don’t want there to be unnecessarily harsh interactions with police officers. We don’t want stores to be looted and destroyed. We don’t want police officers to be spat upon. Now you can find people in extremes in either direction who say, “I do want those things and it’s part of the revolution.” But look, that’s not where most everyone is.

So let’s not miss what we do really agree on. If coming out of this can be a real heartfelt effort to say, we don’t want this to happen again—and there are 330 million human beings in this country, so bad things will happen again—but if we can agree on the ideal we want, then let’s find ideas out there and ways to make it better. I think there’s a great amount of will to see these things. There’s all sorts of things we don’t agree on, and we’re so easily polarized and politicized. But there are a great number of the most important things that, if we could get the my-sideism out of it, we do really want to see happen.

3. And then as Christians we can pray. And I know that this is going to sound like, “Well, Kevin, you’re being a Pietist here.” But I saw Karen Ellis tweet this today and she said, “Don’t let people tell you that prayer isn’t doing something.” There may be things to do after you pray, but we know as Christians that to pray is to work. Prayer is wrestling against not just the flesh and blood but against the powers and principalities. Prayer is not just thoughts. It’s not mindfulness. It’s talking to the God of the universe who cares about us and cares about his creation and care about those made in his image and, yes, cares about the United States of America.

And so we pray, and we pray in Jesus name, believing that God will listen. And we pray for humility. Before we think of all the sins that someone else has to repent of and all the ways that they’re benighted in their thinking, what if we would start and would pray for a week—I’ve found that this is one prayer that the Lord always answers in my life—Lord, show me my sin. What have I missed? Expose the dark places of my heart. Would you give me humility towards others? And then, what can I do, knowing that we have different vocations, have different spots in life? Knowing someone who’s doing legislation on Capitol Hill has a different calling than someone who’s busy at home as a mom—but what might I be able to do?

4. This is the last thing I promise: love. I know that sounds like I’m doing a Beatles song, “All You Need Is Love.” But, look, don’t let the world steal that word from the church. I know sometimes, perhaps fairly, Christians can get criticized for only thinking in a personal dimension. So I’m not suggesting that we just go out and hold hands with neighbors (from six feet away!) and all the problems just go away. I get it, there’s culture, there’s legislation, there’s all sorts of things. But look, if we as Christians get to a point where we’re embarrassed to say, “Love is what we need to do,” then we’ve missed what it means to be a Christian.

Love God and love your neighbor. And we know as Christians, we know the definition of love. And it’s not unconditional affirmation. It’s not just warm squishy feelings. Love means you’re patient and you’re kind. You do not envy others. You don’t want to take away blessings that they have. You don’t boast like the blessings you have are because you deserved them. You’re not arrogant. You’re not rude toward other people. You don’t insist on your own way. You want to listen. You want to learn. You want to understand. You come with a posture of humility. You’re not irritable. You’re not resentful. You don’t rejoice at wrongdoing. You’re not looking for the other side to screw up because then it makes your side look better. And you don’t want to rejoice with wrongdoing because that’s a point for our side. But you rejoice with the truth, wherever the truth comes from and whoever says it. You want the truth.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three. But the greatest of these is love. And we know love because the Lord Jesus loved us first and gave his life as a propitiation, a wrath atoning sacrifice, when we deserved the Father’s just anger against us, when we deserved to be treated as criminals, when we had nothing to our account that we should be given a second chance or a millionth chance. Because of his great love with which he loved us, while we were yet sinners, Christ loved us and he gave up his life for us. And so we who have been loved surely ought to love one another.

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