Kris Loewen recently preached a sermon about the text in Leviticus that forbids child sacrifice to the Canaanite god, Molek. (http://livestream.com/accounts/7962515/events/5049835). He observed that we can learn a lot about what a society is like by noticing what laws are necessary. Apparently child sacrifice was a problem back then. So much so, that a law was forged in order to address it. If you were a child in biblical times, your life might not matter.
Using the same turn of logic, what conclusions could we draw about our own culture in the 21st century, if we notice that there is a social movement that is called “Black Lives Matter” ? The name itself certainly points to a problem. Why would we need to say such a thing? Centuries into the future, when historians find a movement named “Black Lives Matter”, they may also look at each other, roll their eyes, and say: “It must have been a problem back then”.
Racism is usually defined as the deplorable belief that one’s own race is superior to others, and we are outgrowing this belief as a culture. We now generally agree that racism fuels violence, and there is no denying the cruelty that human beings have committed upon each other in the name of racism. But whenever someone commits a racist act of violence, regardless of their skin color or uniform color, there is always one common denominator. I suspect that underneath anger and hatred we often might find fear and inadequacy. And although racism can fuel a kind of hatred, what lies underneath all racism might be simple fear of the other. If we are intensely afraid of someone, we have probably moved from reason into a survival space, and this is a place where violent things become possible.
Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman, once remarked that the best way to end racism was to “stop talking about it.” When he was interviewed by Mike Wallace about Black History Month, he told Wallace, “Stop talking about it (race). I’m going to stop calling you a white man, and I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a black man. I know you as Mike Wallace. You know me as Morgan Freeman. You want me to say, `Well, I know this white guy named Mike Wallace.’ You know what I’m saying?” On the level of human behavior, I think that Freeman made a wonderful point back then. But I think there is something deeper to consider.
Our fear of each other is silently passed on throughout much of our society. I never knew either of my parents to ever utter racial epithets or ethnic slurs about African Americans. And yet, I still remember their discomfort in the 1960’s when a African American professor joined the faculty of their college, and they learned that he had a caucasian wife. When I was a boy, we literally lived the classic Sidney Poitier movie, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” There was plenty of fear about what it meant for a black professor to have a caucasian wife. I now know that this kind of fear of the other is another form of racism.
My mother grew up in Harrison, Arkansas. It wasn’t until she had passed away that I learned that her home town was also the home address of the national Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. I also learned that at the turn of the century, African-American residents were actually banished from Harrison. When I returned to Harrison for their funeral in 2013, I found a billboard not far from their cemetery that read: “Anti-Racist is a Code Word for Anti-White”. I was so incensed when I first read the sign that I wrote an open public letter to the mayor about it, but the billboard still remained posted. Even though my mother displayed kindness to students of every ethnicity in our home, all of this made me wonder if she internalized some racial fear when she was growing up.
I have spent my life trying to do as Morgan Freeman suggested, and I have purposefully ignored skin color in my choice of friends and activities. I have had the honor of playing R&B and jazz with incredibly talented musicians over the years, and have felt accepted and comfortable in the black community, as a white man. I have been deeply enriched by their love and acceptance of me. And yet, I will freely admit to a few moments when I noticed a twinge of fear, perhaps as an unwelcoming remark was made when I was the only white man in a black nightclub. Like my mother, I naturally inherited the fears of my family, and of the white society that I grew up in. But fear is only an emotion. Fear is like a child who is carrying on from the back seat. When this happens, you don’t want to pull over and let the child drive the car. But you don’t want to lock the child in the trunk, either.
Fear is a perfectly normal human emotion, but fear of someone who is different, perhaps by virtue of skin color (or by uniform color) is a learned human emotion. Safety is not an emotion. Safety is really a judgement that we often make unconsciously, when we have been triggered, and this is where our fear comes from. Fear is about survival, and calls on our basic instincts in order to help us survive. Whenever fear shows up, it is an extremely healthy thing to say hello to it, and to notice how we have been triggered. There is a kind of healing that is possible when we can be unashamed, and understand the frightened parts of ourselves. As Morgan Freeman suggests, it may not be necessary for us to publicly acknowledge each other’s ethnicity. But if we do not acknowledge the fear inside of us, it will eventually betray us. This frightened part of our interior desperately needs support and acceptance. Fear itself can be a kind of racism that is hidden inside us.
I have a (caucasian) friend who was beaten in a parking lot by a group of young (African American) males several years ago. When he describes what happened to him, he fails to mention anyone’s race, and he harbors no lingering sense of fear or prejudice that I can see. He tells me that he made a decision to live at a higher energy level, and that he made a decision to love. I also know many African Americans who, after abusive events at the hands of caucasians have made the same decision. We all have the power to decide how we will live. And this is the power that is seen in the citizens who lined up to hug police officers in Dallas in July of 2016, after 5 were shot in a sniper attack.
I think that there is a kind of work that beckons to us from the shadow of our personal space. This is work that would help create a society where movements like “Black Lives Matter” are no longer needed, and is a kind of personal work that officers of every color could do. And it is the same kind of work that the rest of us citizens need to do as well. This work is about looking into our own hearts gently, and understanding our fears, when they begin to surface. We all do so much better when we can observe our fear, instead of being controlled by it. Unlike fear, love is not just an emotion. Love is a decision. Perhaps the most important decision we can ever make.