Good Guys, Bad Guys and A Long-Overdue Apology

{A little over a year ago, I organized a #BlackLivesMatter protest in my city and preached a message on racial equality in my church. Some of what I said alienated my white friends, which I have been reluctant to address. I cannot back down on my position defending racial equality, but I see now that my tone lacked humility, and that was wrong. I hope I can be forgiven. I wrote this immediately following my sermon last year. Please read these words with this in mind.} 

“There’s a police man, Dad,” John observed aloud as we rounded the corner out of town.

“Those are good guys,” Josh informed him.

“So are we the bad guys?” John inquired.

“No, we’re good guys too,” Josh corrected him, likely befuddling the preschooler in the back seat.

Good guys and bad guys. When you’re four years old, that’s all there is. In my son’s world, it’s assumed if one person is good, the other must be bad.

But we know this is childish thinking, to only have two categories, to think in black and white. As we mature, we’re supposed to move beyond the lines and learn the art of nuance. To know that we ourselves, and everyone around us, is at once capable of great evil and great good.

Who are the bad guys? You and I.

Who are the good guys? You and I.

Yet we want so badly to categorize people, at least I do, to slide them into one column or another. Shoot, I have a Master’s degree in categorizing people: it’s called “diagnosing” in Social Work.

But outside of a medical setting, this is not merely childish thinking; it is lazy. It is a sign of an unwillingness to engage in the reality of pain in the world, and not just The World at large, but in the lives of our neighbors, friends and family.

This conversation between John and Josh struck a chord with me in light of the back and forth throughout the nation on the issue of racial politics. It seems everyone is choosing a side and villainizing the other. We feel in order to be loyal to one perspective or group of people, we must be aggressive and outspoken against the other.

In church two weeks ago, I preached on race relations and why white Christians may have missed this issue, and while many people appreciated the discussion, I offended some of my white friends in my community. At first I didn’t care because I thought, Who are you, white person, to tell me you are offended about hearing about race issues when it is your privilege that even allows you to ignore it in the first place? But after talking with one of my friends who found my direct approach distasteful, I realized my zeal to uplift the members of my community who are black unnecessarily undermined the white community members.  I apologize. That was not my intent.

I wanted to shout a wake-up call to the white community. I had part of the idea right, the longing for justice and respect. But where I missed it is that I, in humility, must remember the goal is empowerment of all parties involved. For example, if at the end of this conflict, we determine that justice for people of color means police officers are disrespected or white people lose rights or respect, then we have not won.

{Click photo for credit}

I am still trying to figure out my role here. I don’t want to follow the path of the white-Savior complex. I don’t want to be so arrogant to assume that because I am white, I have the power to pull up or elevate African-Americans to “my level”. I have seen great power come from a simple conversation where I ask a friend who is black, “What is it like to be black in America? What is your experience?” I will be doing more of that.

I do know I don’t want to be on a side anymore. I want to be a listener to the white people and the black people and the police officers and encourage equality and unity through humility and love. I want to go on record as always pursuing the Third Way.

Can I say I respect police officers and also deeply respect my fellow African-Americans who are longing for justice? Well, I want to say both because both are true.

People on every side of this issue hold opinions that are both just and unjust, right and wrong, but to varying degrees. And who is the ultimate judge between us?

The precedent the Bible sets on issues of Justice leaves no room for interpretation. From reading Scripture, we see God fight racial inequality and defend the voiceless, like when he struck Moses’ brother and sister with leprosy for their discrimination against his Ethiopian wife. In Proverbs, Solomon warns against showing favoritism to some people over others. And in his letter to the Galatians, Paul’s exhorts the church that we are neither Jew nor Gentile, neither woman or man, but all are one in Christ.

What’s more, Jesus identifies with humanity so much that he tell us how we interact with and honor each other is how we interact with and honor – or dishonor – him. 

Clearly, God’s goal is unity and equality without discrimination.

God’s call to us is to put down the weapons of right and wrong and to listen to the side of the other. We must choose empathy. Think for a moment with me:

What must it be like to a police officer who daily faces hatred from simply doing his job? By putting on a uniform and showing up for work each day, the police officer faces kickback, anger and even hatred because of something they are required by law to enforce. If a person has a bad experience with one police officer, future members of law enforcement will not be given the benefit of the doubt. They are all bad guys, some have concluded. But this is lazy thinking.

What must it be like to be the object of profiling, surveillance or violence just because of the color of your skin? What would it be like to feel that if someone killed you, especially someone who is tasked with enforcing the laws that are intended to protect your life, that your life would not be defended or held in equal value? What would it be like to be told by your family as a child that you need to accept the fact that you can’t go into certain parts of town dressed “like that”, or you can’t keep your hands in your pockets in the grocery store, only because of the color of your skin?

In America, by and large, black people are still not given the benefit of the doubt in a situation where their character is in question. The main reason I know this is because some of my friends who are black told me their stories. Are all black people being wrongly stereotyped and profiled by all white people and all police officers? Of course not. That is lazy thinking. But this is part of the story, and if we don’t hear this, we aren’t listening.

The truth is, we are dealing with people here, people who are made to be villains and heroes when neither of these are true.

I want to be part of the solution, to see black people treated with the respect and equality white people have historically enjoyed and come to expect, not just from law enforcement, but to see people of color given equal opportunities in the work place, in places of worship, academic institutions and in their neighborhoods.

I want to see police officers respected by the citizens they serve and protect. I want to see all people hold an appropriate amount of fear of their position, not fear of abuses, but because of the law they uphold and seek to enforce with the blind eye of Justice. And I want to see police officers held to the same standard they enforce.

But even more than that, I want to move beyond “good” and “bad” guys. I want to get out behind the walls language has created for us, literally making this a “black and white” issue. The inevitable result of Us vs. Them, of Police Officers Vs. African-Americans or White People vs. Black People is that there are only winners and losers.

Equality becomes impossible when there is competition. When one side advances, the other side retreats. When one group gains rights, the perspective is, the opposing group loses them. This broken thing will always result in war.

{Click photo for credit}

But I can’t encourage equality if I don’t live it. It will have to start with me.

So I’m sorry for the hammer I used to smash my white friends, which led them to believe I wanted them to be the losers. I am sorry for the ingratiating tone I used in my speech in which I hoped to uplift my black brothers and sisters, which implies that I believe pressing down one race will elevate another and perhaps level the so-called social playing field. I assume there are many who stopped listening to me because of my misguided approach.

Behaving this way says I missed it. This is not the way of heaven. If equality and unity are our goals, then we must move out from our stone-throwing positions. Instead we aim together for mutual empowerment, equality, which always means seeking the good of the other before oneself.

This is so hard to do, I know. I have been one of the worst offenders at side-picking and name-calling. I have felt a deep anger at whites who refuse to see their inherent privilege in a culture where nearly every stock photo in Google is someone who looks like them. And I have felt a great despair at the gap people of color feel is between “us and them”, that they don’t feel heard, that they might hate me for what I unknowingly do and don’t do.

But this is an internal battle first and foremost, and it is one worth fighting as equality of the oppressed will surely benefit not just those who are presently voiceless but those of us who have privilege and voice.

As Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” implying that victories of Justice here, no matter how small, are a threat to injustice everywhere. 

If you want more help thinking through the logistics of racial reconciliation and what this looks like for us in real life, check out this insightful TED talk by Vernā Myers on confronting our biases with honesty and generosity.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, having open conversations with your friends who are black will surprise you. You will learn things you never knew simply because you never asked. You can set your mind and heart to listen and not defend yourself, then ask, “What is it like to be black in America? What is your experience?” This has been immensely helpful to both me and my friends.

If you’re still trying to decide where you stand or how relevant this is for us in our culture or in the church, listen to my husband’s message on a similar issue the early church encountered 2000 years ago and how they responded.

If you have not read Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have A Dream speech in a while, refresh your memory here.

Finally, may we remember that our work is effective when we aren’t satisfied with a “losing side” and a “winning side”, but when we can say that winning means all people, arm in arm, welcoming ones who are the same and different, with the goal of unity, equality and life together. 

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