I’m white, middle-aged, male, Texan, and have lived in the Pacific Northwest for a combined total of 20 years. I’m a follower of Christ. I’m artistic, heterosexual, contemplative, English-speaking, have an IQ of whatever, and have decent emotional intelligence although my mind tends to go chaotic when I get in heated battles. And in saying all that about me, what have I really said that strikes at the heart of what people who know me mean when they say, “I know Jeff?”
Each category in the list above (and I could easily stretch the list out another 100 words) has something deep to do with what I’ll simply call my Jeff-ness. And whoever “the other” is, he or she too is made up of –nesses of all kinds: skin color, age, gender, culture, geography, beliefs, values, sexuality, spirituality, language, intelligence, emotional intelligence…make your own list. But in using any one descriptor to describe “the other”, deep though they may be, what have you really said that is of much use in the colossal struggle to right what’s wrong about human interaction?
I read in a book about Jungian archetypes that while categorical thinking about personality has truth in it (there are common things to know about us old white guys), nobody really fits any of the categories. Nor does anybody want to. Why? Because we deny we have these truths about us? No, because we don’t want to be reduced to a stereotype.
We are our selves. We are different. And we are human, which, ironically, is a like-ness that makes talking about difference both possible and meaningful.
We human beings have trouble with each other. And the trouble we have with each other is in no way pretend; it is real, functional, practical, and costly. It is historical, and it is now. New scars are created every hour, via glances, words, injustices, slights, and ignorant we-didn’t-know-any-betters. Fights break out, people go to jail, lose homes, destroy businesses and marriages, and yes, folks get killed, even to the tune of genocide. The culprits are fear, greed (monstrous greed), selfishness, and (here’s the hard one) competing ideas of what words actually mean, and what actions represent those words.
At a Taproot Theatre community event last night, the conversation on race in Seattle (“Do we have a race problem here?”) was enlightening, awkward, and inspiring. It was made of both stories and ideas, which are not always the same thing. One assumption (and it’s a good one, I think) driving the conversation is that “your personal story” is the only real access a person has to the conversation. Speak from your experience (as if you had anything else to speak from) is the mantra, and listen to the story of “the other.” “Respect” and “love” are the goals, story-telling the means to get there, and listening seems to be the skill we could all use some instruction in.
I had some overt racism in my extended family growing up; it was overt enough that I instinctively knew something was wrong with it. I’ve been accused of being clueless about the larger world, but in my Texas elementary school, junior high, and high school, I had friends of all stripes, and just didn’t think about it. But looking back, I can see clearly the advantage of institutional white privilege at work, and to not acknowledge that strikes me as little more than burying my head in the sand. We are always in a historical moment, and it is into this moment, by God’s grace or by his humor, with all its racial craziness, sin, and need, that we have been thrust.
Here’s the first question I’d like to put out there. And I ask it because it’s so much easier to point out how we’re blowing it than it is to articulate what it would look like if we were getting it right. (This is one of the reasons Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is so powerful and iconic.) How do we articulate and describe our Promised Land? Anybody ever seen such a place? A place where justice, love, and respect were the rule and not the exception?
Here’s a little exercise: let’s say our culture is something like the situation God faced in Genesis 1. Even if Genesis 1 is not your story, it’s still a good story by which to think about this. “The earth was null and void” the old text says, and artists like to speak of this state of being as “chaos.” And I like the phrase “…and darkness was on the face of the deep.” (Though in the racial conversation the classic metaphors of light and dark just sort of suck, you know? But I haven’t really figured out how to escape them, because they actually refer to night and day, and to be without light is really not good.) “…and darkness was on the face of the deep.” A state of un-enlightenment, if you will.
With God’s Spirit hovering over the face of this “deep,” God said, “Let there be light. And there was light.”
So we face a racial situation that’s got some null in it, some void in it, and some lack of light. If it were up to you, and you knew that you could say, “Let there be _______ , and there would be _________ ” what would you speak into being in order to change our race-conflicted world?
And as your spirit hovered over the “deep”, your –ness said, “Let there be …
One last thing: if we’re standing in a dark room, does anybody not know light when they see it?