“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” – 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill (para.)
“I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours – if not the most segregated hour – in Christian America.” – Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr
As I sat in church this past Easter Sunday, I suddenly found part of the answer to a question I’ve had for a while: “How could so many educated, reasonable, and professing Christians boldly support a candidate who seems to embody anything but the values they espouse?” (While the problem certainly isn’t limited to Christians, it is in direct contrast to the heart of the faith.) Something simply hadn’t tied together, but came clear now. I had always assumed it was about what (who?) people were against, but I believe it is really what (and certainly who) people are actually for.
Here I sat in the largest church in our town, and there was but a smattering of color found amongst the congregation. In fact, the two largest churches in the area have not a single person of color (any color) among their leadership. In all fairness, one of the larger MBC’s in the area shows exactly the opposite, so it’s not a singular problem. The question is obvious: how can we understand a diverse people if we never encounter them? How can we possibly empathize with a people we don’t know, on even the most surface level?
For example, I have worked closely with illegal immigrants – including those who didn’t take jobs away from Americans, but took jobs that many Americans didn’t want. What I remember most clearly from my interactions with them can be witnessed by merely stepping into a Western Union on payday. As the Pew Research Center illustrates, almost $55 billion in remittances was sent to Mexico and Latin America in 2013. The easy route would be to mention how this is enriching the Mexican economy at the expense of the American one. However, when you know the people sending the money – when you’ve lived next door to six men sharing a two-bedroom town house, working 80+ hours/week at multiple jobs, sending the vast majority of the money to wives, kids, parents, and siblings back home – you tend to be a little slower to judge. Seems an ideal opportunity to show grace and compassion.
This is not simply about race, either. You cannot be an effective and responsible pro-life advocate if you haven’t taken the time to know women making the difficult choice about whether to abort a child. You are unlikely to make wise choices regarding social justice and welfare without trying to understand the plight of those on the brink. When voting to ban gay marriage, do so with the weight of conversations with gay friends and family in your heart. (Don’t have them? Seek them out and live a life of shared experiences.) Before you consign an atheist coworker to Hell, ask him for his story, and really listen to what he’s saying. We try not to hurt the ones we love, but we can’t love those we haven’t met, beyond some vague affection for mankind in general. When the diversity of thought, experience, and beliefs is limited to the narrowest of ranges, it is difficult to overcome the inclination towards an “us” and “other than us” mentality.
I have dealt with this personally, where my closest friend is “other” than me, and I found certain long- and tightly-held beliefs challenged by exposure to ideas previously excluded from worldview. We all bring biases and prejudices into each and every situation – the key is to recognize them, which often takes a little “prodding” from those most affected by them. As a sports fan, I find myself justifying behavior performed by those I “know,” even if it is the same behavior I condemn when found on the opposition (sometimes even involving the same exact person).
So back to politics. What we see today is merely a symptom of intra-national xenophobia. A wall needs to be built because “those people” are taking our jobs, our health care, and our parking spots. We need religious bans and organized patrols because “those people” are killing us (just don’t infringe upon my religious practices!). Muffle the voices screaming against the police because “those people” are killing each other anyway. Drug test and cut benefits to welfare recipients because “those people” are lazy addicts who are simply gaming the system. I could link to articles supporting each of the above statements, if necessary. Or, I could go talk to the people I actually know that fit into each of those categories and try to get a little perspective. I might still want to build a wall or increase the police force. I may even want to restrict the civil liberties of someone whose faith (or lack thereof) clashes with my own. But I’ll bet it would be less likely, and maybe – just maybe, I’d be more creative in my attempts to solve our problems, and less reliant on rhetoric and follow-the-leader, where the leader in question merely echoes my unquestioned and unexamined assumptions.
Some months back, I took a small group to a nearby church that has touched my heart (not to mention my soul), and one of the younger visitors asked, “Why are there so many brown people here?” Not out of shock, even, but curiosity: it was unlike our other church experiences. The novelty was not found in the presence of diversity in a community, but rather in a church. And so when I shed tears this morning amidst probably a thousand people gathered for an Easter service, it was not at the grace of God found in the death of Christ, but rather the blatant dearth of diversity in a group that should represent the heavenly Kingdom to come – one, by the way, that will certainly be much more colorful! In the past, my ability to blend in blinded me from the obvious inability for others to do the same. If I wouldn’t feel comfortable showing up on Sunday morning with a group of blacks, Mexicans, indigents, gays, addicts, atheists, Muslims, or prostitutes, then I need to a) check myself, b) make a greater impact on my church, or c) find a more diverse and loving place to worship. After all, I’m pretty sure I know a Savior that would expect better from people that incorporated his title into their own.
Demagogues rise on a foundation of ignorance and self-centeredness; Christ sacrificed himself with divine wisdom and other-centeredness. True tolerance has less to do with ideas, and much more to do with people. After all, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18, Gal. 5:14, et al) has a clarifying corollary in “Which of these… proved to be a neighbor?” (Luke 10:36, ESV). If the Church sought out more neighbors, it could be a more powerful force of loving change in the world, much as it was in the beginning (and currently is in many places). Who we are then for might surprise us; unfortunately, it will likely surprise everyone else, as well.