One day I was preparing for a speaking engagement that I had with a predominantly white church in rural Iowa. I couldn’t wait to “smack them in the head” with the truth about racism and their complicity in it. By the end of my hour with them, I was going to have those people crying with shame and repenting of their evil sin. Richard Webb, who has been one of my mentors in this work (big “shout out” to Richard), looked at me and asked me this simple question: “Do you want to be right or be effective?”
For those of us wanting to cross-cultural barriers (particularly around politics or religion), we can fall into our own ego’s desire to have all the right answers. This often prevents us from having important relationships with the very people that we can help influence. How is the Holy Spirit leading us to engage with people who are different from us? How do we engage in productive conversations that move us closer to the heart of God? Here are five techniques that we could employ as we do this work of moving people closer to an expansive understanding of God’s love and justice:
#1: Humility and Vulnerability
“Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”-Luke 7:47
The most important thing I need to remind myself is that I myself will not change anyone’s heart. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, I have still not arrived at perfection when it comes to anti-racism work in Jesus’ name. That means that I have to make space and grace for others the way that God has dealt graciously with my shortcomings. There was a time in which I did not know what I know now about some of these justice issues (it could have been last year, or it could have been last week). In the same way that Richard was gracious with me, I need to find ways to extend that grace to others who are still learning like me. When I hear someone use an offensive term to describe someone, I find myself saying something to the effect of, “You know, I used to think that was the term to use as well, but I have discovered that some of my friends have said that they would like to be called by a different name.” This acknowledges your own imperfection, and invites your conversation partner to join you on your journey of inquiry.
#2: Clarifying Questions
“Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6)
Jesus asked many questions as a way of catalyzing change. When someone says something with which I disagree, I have learned how to ask this question quickly to them: “Tell me more about why you believe that?” As I ask this, I have committed myself to being genuinely curious about their answer rather than just waiting to weaponize their responses.
This question allows someone to reflect on what they believe and why. If there are inconsistencies in their own theology or ideologies, they may come to this understanding on their own and adjust their point of view. Perhaps they never thought about where their stereotypes originated. Maybe they don’t think about race often enough to have a cohesive argument. Your clarifying question could be helpful for both of you. Another helpful function of a clarifying question is that it buys you time to take a deep breath so that you do not “blow up” on the other person.
“Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15)
I was fiercely arguing with one of my friends about gun control one day and we were spinning in circles. He kept rattling off statistics, and I kept citing articles I had read. We were talking over each other without progress. I finally asked him as genuinely as I possibly could: “So, why do you like guns so much?” In that moment, he immediately lit up as he spoke about growing up hunting with his uncle George in the woods. George had passed away when he was younger, but he felt like he could feel his spirit with him whenever he went out to the deer stand with a gun. I began to understand why he might be so into guns when I realized that he had equated them with the fond memories of his uncle. He then responded with a similar question, “Dave, why do you hate guns so much?” I was able to share a story with him about a 12-year-old girl that I used to work with who had been tragically shot in the head during a drive-by shooting. After this happened, I began to equate guns with traumatic tragedy and death. We affirmed the validity of each other’s story. We had been connected in a way that the statistics could not accomplish. I am not convinced that we changed each other’s stances that day. However, I do believe that we had changed both of our hearts through this sacred practice of story sharing. We need stories of oppression-breaking hope that are readily available to us at moment’s notice. Stories change us.
#4: Sleight of Mouth
Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him.”-Mark 12:17
Jesus had a way of calling people “in” rather than just calling them “out”. This begs the question: How do we humans (who are not Jesus!) correct someone’s racist behavior without shaming them and cutting off relationship? In his Anti-racism Study Dialogues, Dr. Okogyeamon often talks about using “sleight of mouth” (as opposed to “sleight of hand”) as a way of creatively admonishing someone. Think about Nathan’s story he told to David that moved David’s heart to repentance. Think about Jesus’ clever quips when authorities were abusing their power. This is the Spirit-led discourse and action that we are seeking. I was in a small group recently. One of the white members kept asking an African American woman in the group what black people thought about the subject we were discussing. He asked it twice and she was starting to look uncomfortable at the notion that she could speak on the behalf of 44 million people. In this moment, I gently reminded the group that it is not fair to single someone out in important conversations like the one that we were having. I did not call the offender out by name, but he clearly knew who I was talking about and he was able to correct his behavior while still preserving his dignity. I believe that the Holy Spirit will provide creative ways to disrupt injustice as it happens if we listen. Sometimes it is very direct. Other times it is less direct. Sometimes I have gotten it right, and there have been many other times where I have missed my moment to stand up for God’s justice. “Sleight of mouth” is a skill that takes time to learn.
“But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.”-Luke 10:33
Many of Jesus’ parables actually had an ironic (and dare I say “funny”) element to them for listeners that understand the context out of which they came. As Emily Dickinson once said, “tell all the truth but tell it slant”. In the story I mentioned earlier, I told a joke about a scenario in which group members would ask a white person to speak on the behalf of their entire race. Everyone joined in on the joke realizing the absurdity of it, including the person who had been called out. The laughter had been healing for everyone and broke some of the tension that could have lingered in the room. Many psychologists have noted the healing properties of laughter in our own bodies. It is indeed good for our souls. Anti-Racism Writer/Theologian Andre Henry is often called out for smiling in pictures by people who question whether he should be so happy amid all of the injustice in the world. He says that he responds to them by posting pictures of all of the civil rights workers in the 1960’s laughing and celebrating together. I share Andre’s belief in the controversial notion that joy and humor are still invaluable tools in the fight against racism.
Many of you more than likely have churches full of people who are in different places ideologically and theologically. They are longing for your gracious invitations into a better story than the story of “Empire” in which so many of us live. How will you tell better stories? How will you model the humility and vulnerability of the cross? How will you ask questions with curiosity and respond creatively to injustice? Our world, our country, and our churches need it now more than ever. And when you find yourself eager to hit everyone violently with the hammer of truth to prove how right and “woke” you are, may you be reminded of my friend Richard’s question: “Do you want to be right, or be effective?” Amen.