Just because we want something to be simple doesn’t mean it is. And if you’ve been told your entire life that one viewpoint is good and the other is bad… if three times a week and twice on Sundays, you have had one perspective, stamped with Divine approval, drilled into your mind… and suddenly you encounter the opposite perspective in people you respect… when Jesus Himself counteracts what you have been taught…
…your entire world shifts.
Cognitive dissonance is the term psychologists use to describe the stress of trying to hold opposing beliefs simultaneously. When your actions conflict with your beliefs; when you try to juggle contradictory views in your core.
The world in which I grew up had clear boundaries of right and wrong, rigidly defined gender and social roles, with little grace for those who broke the rules. A little stark, perhaps, but ordered and safe.
There is a moment from my college years that I’ll always remember. I had stuck my toe over the line to watch Hardcore, an R-rated movie, with my roommate. The story centered on a Midwest pastor, whose daughter disappears while on a youth group trip to Los Angeles. More graphic than Taken, the father eventually discovers his daughter was seen in a pornographic film. Posing as a producer, he enters the seedy world of 1970’s porn to rescue his child. The plot line reveals the girl had actually conspired to run away to meet the man she believed to be her boyfriend. After our viewing, my roommate commented on how horrible it was for the girl character to be caught in such a situation. My blithe response was that if she hadn’t run away, she wouldn’t have received those consequences. My roommate paused, looked at me curiously, and said, “That’s rather intolerant, isn’t it?” I realized in that moment that my non-Christian friend had more compassion toward a “sinner” than I did. My religion, supposedly based on love and forgiveness, had little room for those who diverged from the straight and narrow. That comment took me aback. If I was the righteous one, why was she acting more like Jesus? It was bewildering.
Sometimes I can hear a bit of that bewilderment in the voices of my friends who post disapproving messages about protesters who pull down statues and chant Black Lives Matter names before unmoved federal agents. Why are these lawbreakers using words like “justice?” My friends don’t understand the depth of anger being displayed. My friends have lived law and order lives. Some of them cling to the belief that only people who break the law get in trouble with the law.
If you’ve ever made that comment or agreed inwardly with it, I ask you today to watch13th, Ava Duvernay’s documentary, or Immigration Nation on Netflix. I ask you to read White Fragility or How to be An AntiRacist. I ask you to encounter these pieces not with a mind set to argue but with humility, as a learner. I ask you to pray before you watch, or read. I ask you to set aside some space with no one else around, just you and God, and invite the Spirit to speak into your heart.
Perhaps your experience will be like mine watching 13th. Perhaps, as you recognize yourself, or the absence of yourself in Duvernay’s history, you will be made aware of Jesus’ presence beside you. He doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t need to. For me, I haven’t experienced heart-piercing conviction like that since I was a little girl stumbling up the aisle in a Nazarene revival meeting. I wept, for those brothers and sisters who have suffered such cruelty. I wept in the realization of my own oblivion and apathy. I sat in growing awareness that Jesus has always known what I couldn’t see, what I conveniently dressed over with righteous words and critical judgement. He knew the fear beneath, the casual disregard I had for suffering people. As long as I was okay in my own eyes, as long as I stayed overwhelmed by my own burdens, then I couldn’t be expected to take on society’s problems. Like a puppy who has messed the rug, I avoided the eye of God. I avoided the uncomfortable notion that perhaps my privilege was somehow connected to someone else’s suffering. I didn’t want to see it.
But it was there.
And now I know.
When Jesus was asked why He spoke in parables, Jesus answered with a quote from Isaiah: “‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’
Now that I have eyes to see, I have explored further. I see how deeply and deftly racism is woven into the fabric of American society and in our churches. As white Americans, we still see ourselves as superior to people of color. It is not spoken overtly (usually) but it is blended into our laws and our social hierarchy. In our churches, we are the first to donate our used clothing and food to the poor. We buy toys at Christmas for children of prisoners and send shoe boxes stuffed with toiletries and secret surprises overseas. We deliver furniture to needy families. The people we give to are the other, poor souls who have little to do with our daily lives. We do not see our complicity in sending those children’s parents to prison. We do not recognize that our casual consumption of resources contributes to the poverty of those in need here and abroad.
In episode one of Immigration Nation, a Honduran man whose three-year-old son was pried from his arms at the border, shares his heartbreak and worry as the weeks of separation continue. He also speaks about Christian Americans coming to his church when he was a child. They had been loving people, and had given him candy. He believed Americans were good. In tears, he now asked, “Where are all the good Americans?” I wonder…Are the same Christians who handed candy to that little boy now cheering the wall built to keep him out? Does our mission cease when the poor dare to come a little closer?
In our minds (not spoken overtly, usually), we remain the great white colonial power bestowing privilege on good little darker people. The ones who are not loud or rude. The ones most like us. We say all people are created equal but we do not live it. Not when they emerge from our inner cities. Not when they cross our borders.
In another episode of Immigration Nation, the filmmakers flew to Guatemala to interview a woman whose husband was locked in a deportation facility and whose oldest son was released to a relative who resented having to house him. With her younger children surrounding her, she talked about her mother’s medical expenses which prompted her husband’s decision to journey north for an opportunity to work. Drawing water from a bucket in a communal hole in the ground, she shared her dream of someday owning a refrigerator, with incredulous laughter and the same wondrous reverie as others who speak of winning the lottery.
Despite Trump’s statements, Mexican immigrants and asylum seekers are not gangs of drug dealers, criminals and rapists, but simply people who are trying to survive difficult situations. Both documentaries address many of the uncaring remarks tossed out in American dinner table discussions – “they should come in the right way,” “protecting our borders”, “separation is a deterrent,” or “blue lives matter,” “don’t do the crime if you don’t want to do the time,” etc. We reduce very complicated issues into simplistic slogans to permit us to continue in our apathy.
Now I know. I cannot un-know. If repentance means turning around, how do I turn around from this? How do I turn from lies buried deep in my country’s social structure? Lies woven into centuries of faith tradition?
I am only one. And thankfully, I am not the center of the universe. Thankfully, the One who is the Center invites me to return to my core lessons: He is there. He cares, more than I can imagine. I can trust Him. I believe God wants to heal us, all of us. He wants to heal the pain of centuries of injustice engraved in the soul of black Americans. He wants to heal the angry white conservatives who believe they are fighting for God and truth. Love, and ever more love poured out over people who have never had enough.
Give us all eyes to see, Jesus, so we can understand with our hearts and turn to You for healing.