I called my mother after the week of violence in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas and said to her, “So this is what it was like to live in the 1960’s, except our weapons today are even more lethal.”
It seems we are living in a lava pit with weekly eruptions of magma flying into the masses, destroying whomever they land on. Images of violence and death, headlines of blame and resentment, and public voices of racism and hostility comprise the ingredients of the boiling pot that is American society.
From a certain vantage point, the current debacle in the American political scene affords us a blessing. It protects us from the deluded notion that policy and government alone can save our society in this age of crisis. In the past, some of us may have hoped for a knight on a white horse to descend from Washington, D.C. and save us all. But not now. The time has come for parents, teachers, pastors, youth ministers, etc. – those on the ground and in the trenches – to lead the next generation in a new direction: one of peace, reconciliation, and love for our perceived enemies.
In this article, I would like to offer some insight into the foundations of the hostility detonating throughout our country and world today. Then I would like propose a few practical ways forward. In sum, we must take on the attitude of Christ which Paul describes in Philippians 2: hope and a new direction begin when we engage in challenging relationships, and a life focused on a cause that transcends ourselves.
Why Our World is So Violent, Hostile, and Hateful: Tribalistic Social Isolation
As I have listened to the indignation of people on television and observed the wildfire of outrage on social media, I get it. I feel the shock and horror of the racism, police brutality, and terrorism that pervade our current cultural narrative. But as much as the injustice of those things burns in my very flesh, as a white and privileged male, I will never truly “get it.”
I have been fortunate to sit with an elderly African American woman while she told me how she, at the age of ten, was pulled from the Birmingham Children’s March during the Civil Rights Movement and thrown into a dog cage by violent police officers. She was left for twenty-four hours in the sun without water, food, or access to a bathroom. Yes, at the age of ten.
I was blessed to hear a well-educated African American man, a man who had put nine of his own children through college, once describe to me how he was pulled out of his car and thrown on the ground in front of his family. The police officers considered him a robbery suspect in the white neighborhood through which he was driving. The actual assailant was a tall, light-skinned, black teenager. My acquaintance who the police accosted was short, dark-skinned, and forty years old. But he was black.
I am grateful to have an acquaintance who is a state trooper. He has detailed the anxiety every officer feels when he or she pulls over a car. He told me that he sees the image of his wife and children every time he approaches a vehicle, understanding that this could be that traffic stop; the routine traffic stop is the most common scenario when cops are shot and killed.
I will never really understand these fears and prejudices on a personal and profound level. But because of my relationships with these diverse individuals, I can sympathize with each side of such complex narratives. I can lament for both of them. The presence of compassion – rooted in actual relationships and actual stories – serves as a governor for my emotions and a link between myself and people unlike me.
Relationships and story-sharing form this fabric of compassion and understanding. They cool tempers. They promote peace.
In our current culture we must ask ourselves, how often do we intentionally leave our respective “tribes” to enter into (potentially) awkward conversations with people who are not like us, or who may oppose us? And how often in those conversations are we willing to listen – to surrender to being understood or deemed “right” – and to let the other person fully have the floor? How often are we there just to listen and understand and not to win, to change a person, or to prove a point.
How many white people have looked an African American person in the eye as they relate the repeated incidents of marginalization and prejudice they have experienced in their life? How many African American people have considered the anxiety and hesitation white people feel about discussing or inquiring about race, because they feel as if they’re not allowed be a part of the dialogue due to sins of the past? How many Christians have lovingly and sympathetically listened to the life narrative of a gay person? How many citizens have relationally engaged a police officer? How many Americans have listened to the account of an immigrant’s journey from a foreign land to our country?
Social isolation and narrow tribalism lie at the heart of today’s issues.
The Mindset to Move Us Forward
The Apostle Paul calls members of the church at Philippi to embrace the attitude of Christ Jesus. He writes, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; Rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant being, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!
God writes the playbook for leading children and all people toward peace. First, we see in the person of Jesus of Nazareth how God engages in the ultimate dialogue with those who are not like Him. He passes from the comfort of heaven into the awkwardness and pain of earthly humanity. God befriends His enemies: sinners; all of us.
Beyond this theological crossing over, we see in the life of Jesus His interactions with a wide diversity of people. Jesus relates to His racial enemies (Samaritans), to women, the rich, the poor, law enforcements officers (centurions), religious fundamentalists (Pharisees), the sexually liberal (prostitutes), corrupt government officials (tax collectors), etc. And He doesn’t just chat. He enters into their stories. He listens to their narratives, their shames, their fear, and their doubts. He does not necessarily agree with them, and He never affirms their sin, but He always cultivates intimacy and understanding.
The first step for parents and student ministry leaders is to lead our young people out of their comfort zones and into the stories of the “other.”
Our students will only learn the empathy our society so desperately needs through relationships and listening. Relational engagement on mission trips is a good start. Documentaries and videos are a helpful tool as well. Still, there is no substitute for real, face-to-face, “put down your cell phone” conversations, where students listen to the stories and perspectives of people who don’t look or talk or operate like they do. No organization possesses the assets of diversity like the worldwide, multi-ethnic, multi-generational, cross-socioeconomic Christian church. We have no lack of opportunities.
This aim cannot just be talk; it must have legs. We should seek out events with churches that are ethnically and socio-economically totally different than ours. These events can’t be superficial, where we pat ourselves on the backs because “the black church and the white church played touch football and ate pizza together.” Real friendship, real dialogue, and real conversations about difficult topics like race and injustice must occur. Retreats and mission trips are a great place to partner because it forces our kids to live life – to eat, sleep, play, learn, pray, worship – together for an extended period of time. And, as a white youth pastor in a predominantly white church, let me just say that if churches like mine do not engage non-white churches, we are failing in our biblical call to seek reconciliation. To take this even a step further, if suburban white churches – the pastors, youth ministers, and parents together – do not seek out partnership and relations with predominantly black churches, we are being negligent, pretending like the turmoil around us today does not exist.
Secondly, the self-sacrificial mentality of Jesus must be championed. Paul says that Jesus maintained a disciplined commitment to the mission of the Kingdom to the point of death. This mission was more than the establishment of a religion; this mission hoped (and still hopes) for the healing, reconciliation, and redemption of every nation and every person under God. Jesus gladly endured suffering. He willfully “lost” in the name of the good of those other than Himself. But He endured this cross for “the joy set before Him” and for eternal glory. There was no instant gratification, but rather a far greater deferred reward for His sacrifice. Only with this mentality will our students understand that the problems we see today belong to all of us.
Christian leaders must constantly remind students of God’s inspiring call to live for something bigger than themselves. Therefore, their actions and words have consequences far beyond the number of likes and comments on Instagram. This beautiful mission of the redemption of the world is compelling but costly. Youth must be warned of the sacrifices and discomforts. They must prepare to own their own prejudices and sins. They must be ready to get awkward. They must learn to shift the focus to the voice and welfare of other people.
But when we repeatedly reorient ourselves toward the Gospel – the news of Jesus entering into our lives and loving us when we were utterly unlike him – we are compelled to champion justice and redemption for others far more than our own comforts and rights. The Gospel can move young people to be a leading force of shifting our culture toward peace, nonviolence, and love.
There is hope. There is always hope, because Christ our king has and will pave the way.
Join us for Rooted 2016, an intimate youth ministry conference, where we will explore the good news that God’s grace is sufficient for our relationships: with ourselves, with others, with the world, and with God. Jesus is our reconciliation yesterday, today, and forever.