Monday, December 08, 2014

Black Lives Matter: White Evangelicals & The Importance of Empathy

Photo Credit: nefer | media
"How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, 'Violence!' but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted." ~ Habakkuk 1:2-4 (NIV)

Black Lives Matter
Protests have swept across the United States in response to the death of black men like Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of law enforcement. Thousands have proclaimed refrains of "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" and "I Can't Breathe" in order to emphatically state that Black Lives Matter.

For those of us in the Christian community, calls have gone out from our African American brothers and sisters to join them in their fight for justice. Sadly, these calls have gone largely ignored. Although there are a number of non-black Christians that are seeking to bring attention to this important issue, many of us within the majority culture simply aren't paying all that much attention to what is going on. 

Why is that? I'm sure there a number of factors that contribute to this but one primary reason is that we're largely incapable of offering an empathetic response to those in the black community. Even though white and black Christians claim the same faith and read the same Bible, our worldview, which is shaped by our life experiences, cause us to interpret issues of race and culture quite differently -- see Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith for further insights into these realities.

Empathy & Friendship
Empathy is simply "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another." It is stepping into the shoes of someone else to see the world through their eyes and seeking to experience what they are feeling. Brene Brown offers a compelling description of empathy in this video:

The dismissive response that too many of us as white Christians have offered in light of these protests indicates that we are not seeking to understand those in the black community. Instead of asking, "Why are so many people so upset about this?" we instead decide that the protesters, even the majority that are doing so peaceably, do not have a right to do so. Though we've never spent a single day as a black person in America, we assume we can speak to the experience of those that have. This is not empathy.

In seeking to develop this kind of empathy, one of the best ways that we can do so is to develop friendships with those of different ethnic groups. While not able to fully understand what it is like to experience America as an ethnic minority, we can gain a greater appreciation for the realities of those from ethnic minority groups through honest and humble dialogue and spending time with them in "their world." This can aid us in seeing systemic injustices that ethnic minorities may experience -- helping us to see that racism is often experienced beyond individual events or people.

Alternative News Sources
Another great way to grow in our empathy is to expose ourselves to alternative news sources. We tend to spend the bulk of our time listening to those voices that we know we already agree with. This limits our growth and hinders our ability to be challenged. Our stereotypes and biases remain unchanged and we continue on with our lives not knowing where our perspectives may be misguided.

There have been scores of well-written responses from Christian leaders to what has transpired in Ferguson, New York City and other cities across America. While not exhaustive, here is a handful of articles that I've found helpful for me as a white evangelical in gaining a greater understanding of these important matters:
In addition to these blog posts from Christian sisters and brothers, I've found that websites that include a variety of African American perspectives on current events have been especially useful. Among the sites from which I regularly receive my news are:
There is Hope
By seeking out different voices to listen to, especially from those that have experienced the world differently than I have, I find that I grow in my ability to see the world through different eyes and to truly experience empathy with others. As mentioned previously, I don't think I can fully appreciate nor understand what it's like to live, for example, as a black man in America, but I can allow God to do a work in my heart so that in my listening and teachability, I might grow in my empathy for others.

Though a lot of Christians have remained silent about racial injustices throughout the history of our country, there is a growing number that refuse to stand idly by while our brothers and sisters are mistreated and disregarded. We believe that how we treat one another is a reflection upon how we view God.

As we live to see a just society in our service to the Prince of Prince, I hope and pray that we can agree with God's response to the prophet Habakkuk's lament that opened this post: "Look at the nations and watch -- and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told." (Habakkuk 1:5)

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