A Message To White America
“Let me put it this way, there were a number of folks who got up on the floor and gave the same speech, you know that night…while there was a crime scene investigation and a dead woman’s blood drying just a few feet outside the door….they were giving the same speech that was written that morning…maybe a throw-away line about condemning political violence…but I mean, just the dissonance…it was just staggering.”
— Rep. Peter Meijer (R) of Michigan
“But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.”
(Gospel of Luke 10: 33–34)
DEAR WHITE AMERICA,
For several years, quietly, and not-so-quietly, I’ve pushed the notion that what’s truly sick in our society today is a lack of compassion, empathy, and understanding. These are themes that are especially relevant during Christmas and Epiphany, because compassion and empathy are most easily comprehended when we can “see the Christ” in another person, incarnationally.
(Or, “see the “Divine,” if that’s better language for you…)
The extent to which we see all human beings — and all life, the earth itself — as touched, graced and kissed by God…that is the extent to which we will be able to generate true compassion, empathy and understanding toward others.
The extent to which we “Otherize” human beings — or see the Earth as a commodity or an exploitable resource — that is the extent to which we will diminish and devalue the lives of others, and even fail to care for the world itself.
Seeing God in all things…in all people…is not just a huggy-touchy-feely, Kum Ba Ya sentiment. One of my enduring frustrations is how society ridicules this profound and important spiritual belief and pollyanna or shallow, instead of seeing it for what it is: a driving force behind all ethical behavior.
Because, if I truly “see the Christ (God)” in another, then I not only cannot harm or Otherize another, but I am instead morally compelled to love them…to show compassion for them…to see them as like me and like God.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is an enduring spiritual teaching that’s now two thousand years ago. Jesus implicitly names the “Otherizing” of his *own* historical culture and time:
A conflict between “Team Samaritan” and “Team Jew.”
Each group saw the “other” as apostate and unclean. Each group saw themselves as “morally right.”
Jesus sets up the story by positing us that three Jewish religious leaders simply walk by the injured man. Keep in mind…they are walking by a member of their own “Team” (Team Jew). The implication is clear, yet unstated: Whatever religious training these so-called learned leaders claim to have, they fail at the task of truly being spiritual and ethical in that moment.
All their book learning, their seminary degrees, their accumulated years of power and authority…have clearly not helped these men truly become compassionate and loving toward God and others.
But, when a member of “Team Samaritan” comes by, Jesus says that man “was moved with compassion” for the injured member of “Team Jew,” and stops to help him.
And here, we come face-to-face with my favorite Biblical word…with the word that, I am convinced, most describes what is missing in far too many of us today….COMPASSION.
The Biblical word here (“Splagchnizomai”) is only used a few times in the New Testament. But its meaning is deep. It means “to be moved in the bowels, in the gut…a deep and visceral feeling of love, empathy, and compassion.”
That is what is most missing in our world today.
I have been deeply influenced by the writings of Ezra Klein as his book “Why We’re Polarized.” Klein suggests that the major divide in our world today is between “Team Red,” and “Team Blue.” The data shows how the polarization of America has deepened over the past 50 years, as the two major parties have become less “cross-sorted.”
Plenty of us reject dividing human beings into two categories. Plenty of us pretend that we “see all sides.” But the reality is, at an emotional level, often we do not.
Often, we have visceral, sub-conscious reactions that drive in surprising ways…and push us to see the “Other Team” as “THE ENEMY.”
Such thinking is, of course, a disaster for our innate sense of compassion and empathy.
The above quote from Representative Peter Meijer (R), Michigan, shows a man who is both aware of the divides between our “Teams” in America, and also aware of the disturbing lack of empathy in our nation.
He notes a lack of empathy and compassion in his own Republican colleagues in the form of speeches they gave on the House floor, deep into the night on January 6th. Some of them, he said, gave the exact same speech they had planned to give earlier in the day…while, now, “a dead woman’s blood (was) drying a few feet outside the door.”
This is literally the story of those religious leaders walking on by.
As Meijer says, the “dissonance is staggering…”
Meijer — a first-year member of Congress — voted for impeachment, knowing full-well that this very first major vote of his congressional career might end that career. He now claims he is living with the fear that he and his family’s lives might be in danger. He and all members of Congress have been advised that body armor is a “reimbursable expense.”
To be clear, the “threat” he now feels is the threat from his own “Team Red.”
And so, my empathy goes out to him. I do not doubt for one bit that his life is now in danger.
I feel this compassion for him, because I know too many friends, colleagues, and activists on the Left who have dealt with these same threats of violence for years.
I have personally received threatening messages over the years (including a three vaguely threatening anonymous calls to our church voicemail this week. None that feel super-serious…)
But how many times have we seen these threats over the past few years in our culture? On our TVs?
How many times have those threats been dismissed as “over-reacting.”
And I mean, far before the attack of last week, or the attack on Governor Whitmire in Meijer’s home state.
Several Republican lawmakers — Meijer’s colleagues in the Republican caucus — have posed with actual fire arms, and threatened to “come after” the “Squad” and other Democratic members of the House.
I also recall, some years ago, Sarah Palin posting pictures of Democratic lawmakers with bulleye targets on their faces…
Therefore, I ask:
— How many times have we seen violent memes with pictures of “The Squad?”
— How many times — during these last few years — have we White people heard People of Color speak of how unsafe they feel to just walk down the street?
— How many times — during these last few years — have we heard the “Me Too” stories of the women we love?
— How many times — during the past few years — have we heard the despicable things said of Muslim friends? Or LGBTQ friends?
My message to Meijer, then, is:
“Welcome to the club, friend. Welcome to the club. Pull up a chair. Look around. Not only are you *not* alone, but there’s a shit ton of folks in here already.”
Far too many People of Color, far too many LGBTQ friends, far too many religious minorities, far too many women, already know what it’s like to be a target.
Therefore, while I have sympathy for these newly minted targets of Right Wing Republican Wrath, I also invite them to consider just how many of Americans have already dealt with these threats for years.
(And, yes, a Bernie Sanders fan did try to gun down Republican members of Congress. I am not forgetting or minimizing this. “Otherizing” is possible on both sides…hope you hear this. But equally possible, and more common, is a paralyzing “Whataboutism” that keeps us from confronting real root issues as they happen…)
So…this morning, my own empathy extends in all sorts of complicated directions.
For decades now, my primary empathy has been toward the oppressed groups I’ve just mentioned…People of Color, the LGBTQ community, Women, Muslims, immigrants…and it is still my primary empathy today.
But this morning, it also extends to all of us White Americans who are now seriously, and with intention, confronting the “dissonance” we have with that portions of “our tribe”…White Nationalists and Racists…who tried to forcibly overthrown our government two Wednesdays ago.
If this is you, let me just say: I feel like I know a bit of your journey and the dissonance you now feel.
The hardest journey of my adult life has been the journey of turning my back on the White Conservatism of my youth and young adulthood. (I’m not looking for any violins or participations medals by saying this…)
I was raised in the “tribe” of “Conservative, White Straight Man.” But I consciously began to leave that tribe in the late 1980s, and my journey toward being a new kind of man continues to this day. As I’ve written before, I fail at it…often.
So, Dear White America, let me state it plainly:
The “MAGA” and “Trump” brand is forever now tied to insurrection against the United States. That may not be how you see Trump flags and bumper stickers, but that’s how everyone else sees them. Fifty years from now, almost all Americans will look at those Trump flags as they do the Confederate flag today.
Some of you are not “MAGA” Conservatives. You’ve already left that train, or were never on it in the first place. But you were raised “Conservative” and “Republican,” and are now even questioning those allegiances.
If you are a generally conservative White American who is now seriously, and with intention, confronting your own “dissonance” with portions of our “White tribe” — the White Nationalists and Racists who control your party — let me say that I empathize with the dissonance this journey can stir up.
Some of you had your eyes initially opened this summer, during the protests after George Floyd’s death. For some of you, that was the first time you seirously wondered “Is this really my tribe?”
The events of last Wednesday have no doubt caused some of you to come back to these questions again.
Don’t push down the questions.
Don’t immediately leap to the rationalizations, justifications and “whataboutisms” that your rational mind wants to throw out. That response comes from your discomfort, and from your own tribal mind trying to defend itself.
I’d invite you to sit with the discomfort. Because that discomfort, dissonance, and heartbreak you feel right now can lead you to the door of a new and larger tribe: The Tribe of everybody else.
(Note: I did not say, it leads you to become a Democrat…)
For years, I’ve joked that there are two kinds of people in the world…those who divide everyone into two kinds of people…and everybody else.
That’s a joke, but it’s also somehow true. I often — as Jesus did — use the shorthand of “Tribes” to name this fundamental flaw in our human nature. Jesus used “Samaritan” and “Jew” as shorthands. Later, Paul would mimic this and name three binaries: “Jews and Greek, Slave and Free, Male and Female.”
And he would state the hopeful truth: “You are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Because we all have that imprint of God’s presence in us.
There is no “Other,” there is only “US.”
I have to trust that there is a future American where there will be a diverse, “Conservative Tribe” that separates itself from White Supremacy. That’s not where we are right now, “Republican Party” as it now stands.
Conservatives, and especially White Conservatives, have a challenging journey ahead of them.
For White people in America, this can be harrowingly challenging journey of finally waking up. I genuinely believe this a spiritual journey, primarily, and only tangentially a political one. At least, that was my experience of the past three decades. This is a journey of ‘repentence,” in the truest Christian use of that word…meaning, “to turn in a new way…”
As Ezra Klein notes, one political party in America is doing a much better job at being open and welcoming to all people (Democrats) than the other (Republicans). He quickly notes that Democrats are clearly not at all perfect, suffer from many flaws, and still must overcome their own supremacy and paternalism. But they are, at least consciously working on these issues (some) and rejecting overt White Supremacy.
There will always be conservative people of genuine faith, good will, and compassion. But that is not where the Republican Party is right now, and many of you are seriously questioning what that means for you.
Take the journey, White friends.
Take the journey.
The nation needs you to take the journey.
Take the journey of “giving up” the idea that our lives, our bodies, our souls, are more important than everyone else’s. It’s a terrifying journey…not just because the journey means a loss of power — realized or unconsciously internalized — but also because there are still so few good models for us White people (especially White men) as to where the journey leads.
Many of you are privately asking: “If I am NOT a White Conservative Straight Republican Man, than who am I?”
It’s hard to know what we are “not” if we don’t have a clear sense of “who we are.”
White America is, right now, having an identify crisis about who it will be, as American finally — at long lasts —groans toward becoming the multi-cultural Democratic Republic we were always called to become through the best of our founding documents.
And in this emerging world, many of us don’t understand our place. We know what we don’t want to be, but who we are in the future is still yet to be determined.
After the events of “1–6,” I’m more convinced than ever that, at the heart of this journey is a terror at the loss of our SOCIAL TRIBE…our White identity…an identity that for far too many of us has also been connected to one specific POLITICAL TRIBE.
I personally believe that this unacknowledged “loss of tribe”, buried in deep their subconscious, is what also drives much of behavior of these Right Wing Zealots who tried to steal our government on “01–6”; even as I’m equally convinced they are so tragically “unself-aware” that they cannot realize this.
But the way THROUGH is THROUGH.
You may never become a “Democrat,” or a “Liberal.”
Those labels…those “Tribes” still may not be your place.
But take the journey of leaving behind this deeply sick and disturbed Team that is so lacking in basic human compassion.
Take the journey toward the tribe of everybody else.