In the wake of recent tragedies in Tulsa, Charlotte, Baton Rouge, Dallas, St. Paul and more, there has been much debate as to how we should move forward as a society. Understandably, there is a growing fear that the violence and civil unrest will not only continue, but escalate. Fear begets anger, anger begets violence, violence begets fear… wash, rinse and repeat. However, these events have also given rise to this recurring sentiment that has been voiced by media pundits and echoed during recent community gatherings – the need for unity.
Case and point, on the heels of the shooting of 12 police officers in Dallas – much as we’ve demonstrated our tendency to do in response to similar national tragedies (e.g. 9/11, Newtown, etc.) – people were called to gather on conference calls, at town halls, and in places of worship all across the country as they sought to demonstrate solidarity with those grieving the calculated and well-planned loss of life. In our Christian communities especially, unifying cries for prayer brought together leaders and congregants who, on any given Sunday morning, would be meeting separately—confirming Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words about the persistent cultural and racial segregation that remains within Christian culture.
The Sunday after this tragedy, rightly so, preachers everywhere denounced the tragedy of Dallas, and instructed listeners to pray for healing as they gave their fears, anxieties, and hurt to Jesus. Some went even further to call for prayer in support of the families of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castille as a demonstration of empathy and a fulfillment of Christ’s call for each of us to love our neighbors. Far too few however, went far enough to acknowledge the deep wounds at the root of the “righteous anger” that people of color are verbalizing in response to the inequities that remain pervasive throughout American society. Instead, while many rightly condemned the senseless violence inflicted upon the Dallas community, their deafening silence around the recurring pattern of abuse by people in authority against people of color spoke volumes. Some may chalk it up to fear of saying the wrong thing. Others may point to a preference to focus on sharing the “Good News.” Whatever the reason, we must question, are people of color not your neighbor? Are their cries for justice in response to systemic oppression and racial profiling not worth heeding?
To many people of color, these calls for unity, and statements like "Give it to Jesus," have become nothing more than code for "Get over it." That might be somewhat crass. However, while unity and faith may in fact be necessary prescriptions to bring about the healing that our communities and country so desperately need, on their own they run the risk of masking the true culprits--the deep-rooted biases (implicit and explicit) that continue to divide our communities.
Yes, each of us must pursue unity. However, it’s rather pointless to do so without first demonstrating compassionate empathy that acknowledges the realities that continue to plague communities of color. Without such compassion, a call for unity essentially asks the victims of bias to simply let go of their pain, or just learn to live in their oppression. Underscoring this, a leading expert on emotions, Dr. Paul Ekman highlights in his work Emotions Revealed that compassionate empathy not only helps us to understand the plights of others, but it ultimately provokes us to respond in order to aid them in their predicaments.
In the wake of the civil rights movement of the 50's & 60's, our country went into hibernation when it comes to racial reconciliation. While there was progress in the form of school desegregation, the extension and enforcement of voting rights for people of color, the outlawing of red-lining, and the eventual election of the first African-American male to the office of President of the United States, these surface-level solutions stopped short of uncovering the deeper sickness that has ravaged our society for the last 50 years. While public lynchings and overt expressions of racial hatred may have subsided, as new laws sought to protect the rights of people of color, these same laws gave our country a false sense of achievement, allowing our citizenry to succumb to the misperception that America had become a post-racial society. However, the events of the past four years, and the escalation we've seen in the last weeks alone, have ripped the Band-Aid off the wound, exposing the larger cancer that plagues us.
So what do we do about it?
Will we pursue the course of least resistance that has led us time and time again to fall back on our empty platitudes, and to look for simple solutions that do nothing more than appease our guilt or excuse our complicity? OR will we endeavor to lean into the hurt and pain of others, in order to demonstrate compassionate empathy that leads us to grieve with our fellow humans even while we await the facts of a situation? I would suggest that a practical first step would be for communities to have courageous conversations. These conversations have the potential to uncover both personal and communal biases that sit deep beneath the surface of our collective psyche. They may be uncomfortable, but they lean into the discomfort. Let’s ask why we have such trouble talking about race. In this way we can expose the prejudices that are woven into the cultural fabric of our communities. To be successful, these conversations depend upon all sides voicing their experiences so that all parties might better understand the realities that others wrestle with. And most importantly, these conversations involve individuals who truly seek to listen rather than just loading up their next argument.
In this way, we begin to create “gracious spaces” that allow for each of us to share the realities of our unique experiences. Rather than simply retreating to our polar positions that are grounded in personal truths, listening prods us to consider the truths of others and how those truths might expose the limitations of our individual worldviews. Ultimately, listening as a mode of compassionate empathy allows us to acknowledge, honor and more faithfully approach others as we pursue unity as a means of healing in our community.
It cannot be understated how critical courageous conversations are to the reconciliation process. However, they are only the first step. Though we must lead with demonstrating compassionate empathy when faced with racial tension, we must also endeavor to walk in the shoes of others as we continue to strive towards true racial reconciliation. In doing so, we may just find that our calls for unity result in actual unity, and not just a false feeling of togetherness that fails to recognize the wounds of people of color. Fake unity will result in further civil unrest in the face of continued injustice. We need a genuine commitment to empathy. It will not be easy, and it will not be quick. However, as the old adage goes, anything worth having is worth working for.