During incredibly tense and raw moments like these, our ability (or lack thereof) to have good and constructive conversations about sensitive topics becomes all the more apparent. Desiring to talk to those closest to me and grapple with the implications of recent events us as individuals and communities, I’ve spent much of the past couple weeks pondering about what good conversations look like. Whatever progress or regress we experience in both the short term and long term will hinge on how successful we are at having these difficult conversations.
This isn’t something that pertains only to recent events. Difficult conversations can happen often. In the lead up to an election. Within our marriages and dating relationships. With family. With friends. With coworkers. With fellow congregants, teammates, or neighbors. We will be presented with moments throughout our lives where hard and challenging dialogue is required. How are we going to approach these moments when they inevitably arise?
Much of this post comes from my own experiences. From my successes to a degree. But even more so from my failures at trying to have good-faith dialogue with others. I by no means have perfected the art of having these conversations. But one opportunity at a time, and often with forgiveness and graciousness of the others I’m dealing with, I’ve been able to start figuring out a better way to have a conversation. And my hope is that these lessons I’ve learned over the years can be of benefit to others. That it can make your conversations more effective as well.
So here we go!
1. HEAR THEIR STORY
One of the best pieces of advice that Morgan has given me in our marriage was to allow the other person to speak for at least two minutes without butting in. This was a counseling tip she learned during college, and it’s something I think we’ve practiced well in our marriage. Honestly, it works wonders!
By giving people room to share their story without interruption or assuming what they are thinking and feeling, you give them license to share what they are truly thinking and feeling. I think we all know that sometimes finding the words to say can be difficult. By allowing them space to reason through their thoughts, you will often find they get closer to the root of the issue by the end of the two minutes. And allowing them to work through that process, will only help the conversation move from the surface level issues, to the deeper concerns your conversation partner has.
The first few times I tried it, I had to make a conscious effort to pause and count to 120 seconds and allow that breathing room in the conversation. I wanted to respond and give feedback earlier, but resisted. You would think it would be awkward, but people actually sense the freedom you are offering them to speak their mind. And they inevitably fill in the void.
After a few times, it became natural and every time I’ve made a conscious effort to do this, I have been able to take part in a much more genuine and fruitful dialogue. Unless we truly hear the other side out, we may wind up talking past one another. And that rarely leads to a successful conversation. So give space in the conversation to really hear the other side out. You may find you’re already starting from a better spot.
2. what makes us angry?
Anger almost always results from unmet expectations when we feel a lot is at stake. While a child might be angry that strawberry jelly was used for their PB&J instead of grape jelly, we would hope an adult would not respond likewise. To the child, the unmet expectation of what jelly would be on their sandwich is substantial at their stage in life. The adult however, should (hopefully) have a much broader and appropriate perspective in life.
Yet, and I don’t think you need me to say it, adults do in fact get angry too. Sometimes very much over minor things but, more often than not, it’s usually over things that are substantial. The betrayal of a friend or family member. Getting dangerously cut off by another driver. Being overlooked for a promotion. Or most recently, the unjust death of a man at the hands of law enforcement. When events like these get us angry, it’s because our expectations for life were unmet and that’s a big deal.
Unlike a simple matter of getting the wrong jelly, these unmet expectations can feel like life or death. While our response is often to great extents in our control, the very fact that we react in anger can tell us so much about what we value and how we perceive the world.
Asking our conversation partners to try and elaborate on what in particular about the difficult topic that makes them angry can shed a light on what is of most importance to them. What are their expectations, and what is at stake for them? It helps us to bring the humanity back into the conversation and better understand what is seemingly at stake in this conversation for one another.
3. find common ground
I’ve heard it said that the best conversations happen when two people have enough of a foundation shared that they can talk to one another, but enough differences to keep it interesting. Whether it’s shared experiences or shared values, there must be enough commonality to bear the weight of difficult conversations. Even the shared desire of respect for the opposing view would be enough.
As I think through the events that have unfolded over the past couple weeks, I cannot help but think there’s much more common ground shared than our news and politics make it appear. Whether it’s the nearly universal condemnation of the officer, or even the desire to see at least some amount of police reform in response, there is common ground to be had. Often this is very much the case in all of our conversations.
The desire to love and be loved. The desire to care for one’s family. The desire to pursue the truth and better ourselves and our communities. We may have varying ideas on how to go about these very things. Oftentimes vastly differing ideas. But I think more often than not we are conversing with other people who share the same good intentions we hold. And if that good will is not shared by both, the conversation cannot be productive.
Maybe as we share our stories with one another and reflect on our shared experiences and values, it will help us to see we’re not as divided as we once thought. And that maybe we can take a bit of that confrontational spirit out of the conversation.
4. define your terms
We all are culpable of throwing around rhetoric and loaded words that we often aren’t completely masters of ourselves. Even seemingly simple terms like “love,” “kindness,” “systemic racism,” “social justice,” or heck even the word “God.” They often serve as shortcuts in a conversation, but are we sure we are talking about the same thing when we use them?
Loving someone well depends upon what love in fact is. Often it’s through watching the embodiment of love in others that we learn what it is. And is kindness just tolerance, or is it more than that? Maybe we could view kindness as a more active trait, like using our resources to the benefit of another. Those are two very different ideas of kindness.
Maybe right now, no bigger term requires defining than systemic racism. This term has been so widely used lately for the purpose of admitting guilt and at times to compel others to see their complicity in “the system.” This term is unfortunately the perfect combination of ambiguity and humiliation and is rarely ever defined by those who use it. And as a result we often don’t really know what one another is saying, and many just tune out.
We don’t need to have textbook-level definitions prepared for our conversations. But we do need to step back and realize we may not understand each other because we’re assuming different meanings for the shared vocabulary we use. If we are willing to flesh these ideas out, we will better understand where each other is coming from.
5. What’s your solution?
I learned in premarital counseling that we (mostly men) should remember to be slow to offer solutions to other people’s problems. With that in mind, hopefully we’ve already heard each other’s stories, shared what makes us angry, established common ground, and fleshed out some of the vague terms we use as shortcuts in our conversation before offering advice. It’s at this point that I think it would be appropriate to discuss what we think the remedy to the situation may be.
This is often a challenge to do. We all have a much more difficult time defining the good than defining what is bad. It is far easier to know what we should be running away from instead of what we are running towards. This is probably no clearer than in many movies and TV shows today.
It is far easier for many of us to relate to and understand villians than to appreciate when storytellers try to depict the perfectly virtuous and upright character. We often feel dissonance when presented with altruistic characters because they’re so much more difficult to relate to. None of us can live the perfect life, and so we struggle to articulate what the greatest good would truly look like.
Yet, trying to define the solution to the situation is a very important aspect of the conversation that we need today. Social media is packed with negative stories pointing out all the flaws in the opposition. And those can certainly have a place in the conversation. But how many people are really casting a vision for what the good looks like? How many people are really trying to define and articulare what the remedy may be?
What are we aspiring towards and how are we going to get there? If we don’t ask this question, we’re spinning our wheels and probably just complaining the whole time. That’s a recipe for a conversation that goes nowhere but downhill.
6. Steelman not strawman
After listening to one another, one of the most helpful and difficult things you can do is to try and repeat back to your conversation partner the essence of what they are saying. Our news and politics is saturated with the strawman approach. They pick the most ludicrous and asinine versions of the opposition’s viewpoints and (as expected) dismantle them with ease. It’s an easy game to play.
Instead, consider that your conversation partner is disagreeing with you for the best reasons and intentions possible. Summarize back to them the clearest and most charitable “steelman” version of their argument to make sure you truly understand where they are coming from. And allow them to correct, supplement, or endorse your version of their argument.
You may find that the opposing side has some good reasons for holding the position they do. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with their argument, but it does mean you are lending as much credibility to their stance as possible. And that should only foster good will for all parties involved.
7. who is irredeemable?
Finally, and most importantly, tense conversations tend to lead to deriding remarks and contempt for the people who share different views than our own. It’s not just that the actions of that police officer are condemned in the killing of George Floyd, but anyone’s opinion that may not completely tow the line with the current sentiments of the social justice movement. And it’s not just them. This guilty-by-association trend can often spiral beyond appropriate boundaries in any of our difficult conversations. It’s a byproduct of tribalism in whatever form it takes.
But especially over the past couple weeks, there has been a severe lack of forgiveness present in our conversations. A significant void of graciousness with one another.
If you want to hear my biggest concern with the social justice movement it’s this: That there is no mechanism for forgiveness in this relatively newfound religion (yes, I think this is a religion) and it will probably divide us. Look at Drew Brees. Look at Grant Napear. Look at Evergreen University, Relevant Magazine, or the Methodist Church. Look at past movements which have dug up old social media posts and hung people out to dry for past remarks. And even those who publicly confess their previous unawares to the privilege and supremacy of their past, will never excape the crushing weight of shame heaped on your shoulders. No one in the past is forgiven and it’s hard to imagine anyone will be today.
Can that approach to dialogue ever produce the long-term growth necessary to effect positive change in this world? Are people really to be completely written off by a couple statements, whether you believe their remarks are good or bad? What about the looters? The police? Our friends and family members we disagree with? Dare I say, even the police officer who killed George Floyd? Is there no forgiveness for anyone?
To me, this is what is most at stake. That divisions will be created where they weren’t before. That nuanced conversations will not be allowed. That we cannot take the dialogue to places that some deem uncomfortable. Feel free to disagree, but that’s what I feel is at stake.
I believe in a God who was willing to die for me to buy me back from all my transgressions. To redeem me when I was least deserving of redemption. He didn’t have to forgive me. He didn’t have to offer forgiveness to any of us. Yet he shared in our pains and paid our debts so that we could live fully through him. He could have shut us out but was willing to lean into us even when it meant pain and sacrifice for Him.
I’ve seen the change this type of sacrificial love can bring to people’s lives. It brought that change to mine and so many of my friends and family. It’s the kind of love that makes you want to extend that same love and forgiveness to others. The kind of love that can make communities out of a bunch of screwed-up misfits. The kind of love that can put political and social divisions we may have at the time into proper context.
This God affords redemption and forgiveness. Are we offering that to each other in our conversations?
We can disagree. There can be a lot at stake in our conversations worthy of anger. But are we willing to heal the scars and restore community by making the sacrificial move to forgive one another? That my friends is what will make or break our famillies and communities. Let’s try to converse well.
Bryan Stevenson the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and one of the main protagonists of the movie Just Mercy recently had an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air Podcast. (Yes, I listen to NPR at times. Don’t judge me…) The interview was certainly thought-provoking and Stevenson brings his share of insights to the conversation from representing people who have been illegally convicted or unfairly sentenced. The main point he wished to convey through the interview was that the listeners should deal with the racism of not only this nation’s past, but also of its present. One of the key mantras of today’s social justice movement.
But out of the entire podcast there was one story in particular that left quite the impression on me. It was the story of three young black men, who broke into a house to steal a TV and were confronted by the homeowner, an elderly black man. But instead of backing down, the three young men decided to kill the older man and steal his TV anyway. After telling the story Stevenson laments, “What type of society could produce young men who would do such a thing?”
It’s an interesting question… and certainly not a question that I would think to ask? This story and the question Stevenson poses here is critical to understanding the social justice movement. And questions like this should, especially for Christians like myself, make us take a step back, and discern on how we are to respond and engage with “Woke Christianity,” the Christian branch of the social justice movement.
Who is to blame for the sins that left this elderly man dead? Do the young men bear any responsibility? Does the “social system” that influenced them (however broad we wish to define that) bear any responsibility? We get a sense of what Bryan Stevenson thinks. But what should our response be as Christians?
there are real issues but… solutions aren’t so obvious
When I was in middle school, my dad served as the coach for a competition my friends and I were doing called Odyssey of the Mind. Each team of middle school students were given a creative prompt for a skit and had most of the school year to write the script, memorize the parts, create the sets and costumes for the show, and then go perform. But getting a group of middle school kids to commit to a single idea for a skit was daunting. It was like herding cats and we were willing to throw away weeks’ worth of work on one skit on a whim just because we found a small flaw in it.
My dad provided some sound advice that has always stuck with me. If you’re going to critique something, you better have an idea of how to improve it or replace it with something better.
We need to understand that the social justice movement has significant ties to Critical Theory, which emerged at the Frankfurt School back in the 1930’s. It was a tool, initially used to evaluate literature and critique (there’s the word “Critical”) the social and historical influences on the works to reveal and challenge these power structures. To be clear, I don’t believe that this critique, in and of itself, is a bad thing.
However, the real issue with Critical Theory occurs when Critical Theory as a tool becomes Critical Theory as a guiding star, especially when applied as a political and social movement. The theory claims that ideologies, often instituted by the oppressors, influence people to become something that they wouldn’t be in their natural state. That we are at the mercy of the systems and ideologies that govern our groups and we cannot see anything with particular clarity, unless you are oppressed. Then, and only then, can you actually see reality as it is.
It purports to provide liberation if we could only dismantle all of these systems that have shaped and molded people over all these years. But beyond that liberation experience, there is a void of any clear picture of what will replace these “power structures” once they are torn down.
For example, what are we to make of studies that show black men have to send out 50% more resumes to get an interview than white males on average? Or what about all of the studies done on the lingering effects of redlining practices within cities? Just a few deeper and authentic conversations with friends is all it takes to understand that our experiences can differ substantially, and those experiences seem to be tied, at least in part, to our race, gender, and sexual orientation. So it’s not completely unfair for Bryan Stevenson to be posing his question. Not everyone’s outcome in life is the same. Research in the social sciences demonstrate these patterns do exist even if they are often impossible to see in practice. We all do a disservice to the conversation if we don’t at least admit that disparities do exist.
But how we “deal with” said disparities, as Bryan Stevenson would challenge us to consider, can vary quite considerably. Ask someone how much of someone’s experience is based on any individual or combination of group identifiers and you are sure to get a variety of answers. Has Colin Powell’s son experienced more oppression than the son of two white parents who can’t stay off the pills or stay sober for a day?
And ask if all cis-gender white males are accountable for the majority of social ills we see today and you are bound to get a similar variety of answers. Do first-generation immigrants to the nation who happen to be white bear the same responsibility as an openly racist person? They still experienced privilege. What about affluent African Americans who have no ancestry back to slavery. They still get lumped in with the rest of the black community.
But the biggest giveaway is if you ask what specific legislations will resolve these disparities? Quotas for top executive positions like the one California passed? Are there also going to be quotas for NBA and NFL players? Or how about for janitors, nurses, construction workers, or trash collectors?
Or how about reparations for descendants of slavery? It’s one with precedent, but seems incredibly difficult to try and legislate so long after these offenses were committed.
In the 1860’s the legislative goal was clear. Abolition of slavery. In the 1960’s it was clear, desegregation and voter’s rights. But now… the critique of power structures is full throttle, but is there an answer offered for how exactly we will correct these so-called “systemic sins?” And does the church have an answer for these issues? Does the gospel come into play?
the spectrum of gospels
The late Christian philosopher and author Dallas Willard stated in his book The Divine Conspiracy, “When we examine the broad spectrum of Christian proclamation and practice, we see that the only thing made essential on the right wing of theology is forgiveness of the individual’s sins. On the left it is removal of social and structural evils.” The book was published in 1998. By no means ancient, but pretty prophetic of the movement that is really churning just two decades after he wrote it.
Christians who subscribe to the right wing of theology, as Willard elaborates further in his book, believe that the gospel message is essentially the good news of forgiveness for the individual. Taken to its most lackadaisical application, this gospel message serves as simply an insurance policy for the afterlife. A Get Out of Jail Free card if you will. That because our sins are forgiven, we’re not expected to be perfect and therefore there isn’t really a day-to-day change in how my life is to be lived or any obligation to conform to any particular way of living. This theology fights completely against anything that feels even remotely like a “works-based” religion and as a result has no framework for considering social and structural evils or what personal response, if any, is warranted.
But how can that gospel message deal with passages in the Bible like in James 2, that state a “faith without works is dead?” Not that the works save us or justify us before God, but that if there isn’t a change in how we live our lives and care for those around us, isn’t it fair for other Christians to doubt whether we actually have experienced the true life-changing salvation? A salvation from knowing God intimately (not just propositionally) and trusting in the willing sacrifice of Christ for our justification. A salvation that allows us to live in the Kingdom here and now and not simply await the afterlife.
Does that gospel not appear shallow in it’s ability to affect us in the here and now? If Jesus really did raise from the dead, shouldn’t that change something for us and how we live in this life?
Cue the left wing of theology, that provides a response to this apparent disconnect between faith and works that can so often be observed within the church. The pendulum swings from one side of the spectrum all the way to the other and then emphasis gets predominantly placed on urgent, expedient, and desperate attempts to effect change. In essence, to bring heaven down to earth. But oftentimes when we try to bring heaven down, we accidentally bring hell up instead.
How have proponents of “Woke Christianity” decided to contend with these structural and social ills that seem to be everywhere and yet at the same time are persistently just beyond our ability to grasp and define? Two ways… Shame and silence.
If you don’t believe me, listen to Bryan Stevenson’s podcast and listen to how prominent the shame tactic is in his mission to have America deal with her sins. The church is adopting a similar approach. It’s present in campus ministries. Getting members to stand and stew in the shame of being a particular race or gender and undeservedly enjoying their privileges all their life. It has even worked itself into so much of the social justice content coming out of evangelical and mainline churches.
But is shaming in keeping with how Christ wants us to deal with one another? Are we really supposed to be assigning guilt, defining their character, and shaming simply for the color of their skin or the Y chromosome they do or do not have? Shaming isn’t a sustainable motivator for kids so why should we expect adults to be different?
And silencing. “Shut up and listen.” “Listen and believe.” “Believe all women.” You may have heard of some if not all of these. We should listen to people. That doesn’t mean we have to agree. And telling people they no longer have a voice within the church, or that they are invalidated because of the group they are a part of is an incredibly reactionary and dangerous way to try and resolve these conflicts. It’s the quickest way to end important and difficult conversations and shove them underground. We need to talk about these issues. All of us, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, etc.
The trojan horse
Quite possibly the biggest reason the church needs to be careful with the “Woke Christianity” movement is directly tied to Critical Theory and it’s inability to be implemented at large scales. The reason the Trojan Horse worked on the city of Troy was because the horse, this apparent gift, was appealing to the Trojans. They would have never taken it within the city walls if it wasn’t. The reason that this woke movement has gained the traction that it has is because it is cloaked in good intentions. Good intentions that we must recognize and appreciate in our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. But good intentions cannot justify the hardship this will bring to churches and how it will hurt people.
We need to be observant of how other organizations are handling this social movement and notice the trends. Others have tried it, and the results aren’t good. Critical Theory only works if there’s something left to critique. It’s like a parasite living off its host. It can linger on as long as the host lives.
Critical Theory will leech life out of whatever organization or entity that tries to wield it. Read about Evergreen University with the Bret Weinstein situation. Or observe how the Christian magazine Relevant handled the Cameron Strang situation. Look at the split occurring within the United Methodist Church. Or heck, look at how even Hollywood has a tendency to eat its own.
What’s the common thread that weaves through all of these stories? An inability to forgive. And we as a church must fervently remind each other of our needs to forgive one another as God has forgiven us. Because if we cannot still allow for the forgiveness and redemption of individuals, even the overtly sexist or racist individuals, then we will tear each other to shreds. Endless critique, and often unjustified critique, without grace will undermine our churches and destroy communities and relationships.
And we’re robbing ourselves of some of the most beautiful aspects of the gospel if we don’t forgive like this incredible man did for his brother’s killer.
so what is the gospel message for a divided nation?
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” -Galatians 3:28-
Jesus offers us an invitation to join his Kingdom. A kingdom where we all will be able to be united in Him. Where we will no longer cling to our heritage, skin color, gender, or class as a source of identity. It seems cliché, but we need to realize how radical this actually is.
Study history and you will realize that these struggles between men and women, different races, and different classes are not a fluke or bug but the default state of humanity. Critical Theory proposes that it’s ideologies perpetrated by oppressive power structures that make these divisions occur for their own gains. Oppressive leaders and groups have certainly exasperated these divisions at times. But to think our natural state if all these power structures were removed would be to sing Kumbaya together, is naive.
Furthermore, we need to be cautious about absolving people of responsibility for their actions and assigning blame to the systems that created them. Not holding those young black men accountable for killing an elderly man because they grew up within an oppressive society is a slippery slope and I don’t see anywhere in the scriptures where God says that if you belong to a particular group or had a certain set of experiences, you’re excused.
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” -Romans 3:23-
That’s where the power of forgiveness is most necessary.
And we are told to love our neighbor as ourselves. But did Jesus say the Good Samaritan represented the idyllic neighbor because he went to the Roman government as an activist to get them to care for the man who was severely beaten? Oh wait, the Samaritan met the immediate needs of the man. Is there anywhere in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus teaches us that moral posturing and virtue signaling is the evidence of a life truly rooted in God? Or that seeking equal outcomes for all people was the goal of his Kingdom? I don’t recall those parts of his ministry.
This drive for acceptance and understanding of one another is a good thing, and it’s fundamentally a very Christian thing. But I think God actually calls us to more. We are to care for the needs of others. Get down and dirty with serving, not just being an activist or advocate. We’ve been too quick to name those who become “woke” as heroes when we are to be humbled far more to actually move towards and love others, even the ones we’re less inclined to love.
The Bible tells a story from beginning to end of a God trying to help his people learn how to treat their neighbors well while also discerning what values and ideals of those neighbors should or should not be adopted. Israel wasn’t very good at it. The church as recorded in the New Testament struggled with it. And we will continue to have a hard time living up to the challenge. We’re naturally bad at this.
But fortunately we have a God who is willing to forgive, willing to lead the way, and willing to pay the penalty that can afford us true unity in him. And that’s a gospel message I think is needed to heal the wounds we still see today.
One of the unanticipated benefits of keeping a blog I have discovered is having the ability to revisit some of the ideas you held in the past. Similar to how a familiar song can help you instantly recall memories of your past, rereading what you wrote can remind you of what you used to be concerned with and how you previously thought about certain topics. A little blast from the past in a way.
For every post that I have published there has typically been at least one other left in draft form and unpublished. Sometimes these drafts weren’t posted because the ideas weren’t fully formed. Sometimes I wasn’t comfortable with the language I was using and was a bit afraid to share my thoughts. Sometimes I thought the post wound up being really boring and wasn’t worth sharing. Whatever the reason for not publishing these posts, they have been a joy to reread recently. Did I think and feel about these topics in the same way today? Would I have said things differently?
One old draft in particular caught my attention. This particular one was drafted shortly after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, which was a little over four years ago. You may remember that riots occurred in the aftermath of his death. Tensions flared because this unfolded during an especially volatile time nationwide with police and African American relations in the spotlight. I grew up not too far outside that city. I frequently visited the Inner Harbor with my family for Orioles games and with classmates to visit the aquarium. I have fond memories of the place so this story in particular caught my attention.
I figured I would share a snippet of that draft post I wrote at that time.
“The riots that have occurred. The fires. The stones thrown at cops. The stones thrown back at the rioters. All over a lost life. A young man very similar to several others who have experienced similar stories in these past months and years. The story is too familiar. It’s too repetitive to be a coincidence. There is a huge issue at hand. And both sides are aggressively making their cases that the other side is completely wrong, uncaring, barbarian, and deserves punishment. And if both sides keep pushing, fighting, and pointing fingers, I don’t see us moving anywhere anytime soon.
I’ll admit that I have been wrong. Growing up I thought that everyone had the freedoms to be able to take advantage of opportunities and turn things around for themselves but I’m realizing more and more that I was wrong. There is a clear inequality that exists between classes in this society that is contributing to the issues we’re seeing and it’s one that should be addressed.“
Some loaded words there… especially for me. I’m not usually one to use heightened language like that, but there it was. I never finished this post. I didn’t offer a solution by the time I finished writing. I didn’t have a suggested stance or disposition to recommend beyond realizing myself that issues were present and a feeling that something (whatever that something is I don’t know) should be done.
I’m not exactly sure where I intended to take the rest of the post at that time, if I had a resolution in mind, but the sentiment and feelings I had I think are evident in this passage: that not all of the tension and violence between law enforcement and members of the African American community should be attributable to individual responsibility on part of the African American community. My reasoning was a realization that there were significant class differences, perpetuated by longstanding issues of racial discrimination, rooted centuries in the past in slavery, and still propagating in segregation and discriminatory behaviors up until just a few generations ago. That systemic racism is a real thing. Even though I wouldn’t define myself in this way at the time, I was, as some would say, “woke.”
I never shared this at the time. The post was never finished so I’m not sure if it was because I was fearful to share these thoughts, or just that I hadn’t finished grappling with them. So why am I sharing this now? With the Democratic presidential debates underway, the topics of social justice, reparations for slavery, gender equality and equity are all hot button topics of discussion and the conversation can often get heated around these topics.
Questions arise… How much of people’s struggles are due to systemic issues out of their hands and how many are the result of personal choices? How much disparity between economic and social outcomes are attributable to race, gender, class, and what we would now consider the errors of our forefathers? Should we try, and if so how do we try, to mend and heal the wounds of the past? Is legislation the appropriate, or even a plausible approach for making amends?
I found this recent article by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times to be quite interesting and I think a politically balanced overview worth reading on the topic of reparations. Among the many interesting tidbits she shares, she notes that economist David H. Swinton estimated in 1983 that 40 to 60 percent of the disparity between white and black incomes are due to historic and ongoing discrimination. Additionally, she mentions that as the Civil War ended that General William T. Sherman made a promise to redistribute a large section of land along the Atlantic Coastline to black Americans recently freed from slavery that had the support of Lincoln. But that plan was later rescinded by President Andrew Johnson. And on top of that she made reference to the reparations we made after the Japanese internment camps ended and those made by Germany to the Jewish people as examples of reparations previously executed. One considerable difference I’ll note though, is that these reparations were made almost immediately after the cessation of the harmful acts. They were handled much more rapidly than the case being discussed in America today.
I only share that to say that there is credibility to the statement that the sins of the past have bearing on the present and that there is precedence for reparations in similar cases and we, as a nation, previously considered them shortly after the abolition of slavery. I am not prepared to give a vote to support or disparage either side of this particular debate. These are incredibly complicated issues and warrant a large investment of time, study, and conversations with others. A sufficient investment I don’t feel I have made yet to date.
But I do want to explore how we discuss these issues. I believe this question of how we converse is the bigger underlying issue to be addressed, and one that, if addressed, will help us navigate through these incredibly complex issues like social justice, equity, equality and reparations. Because let’s be honest, is there really a debate or discussion occurring on these topics currently?
In my next post I’m going to explore what I believe are the two biggest threats to having a productive conversation on these topics. And then I want to share in the following post a couple of overlooked and undervalued principles that I think are necessary to help us move in a more positive direction. These are incredibly sensitive topics and ones that I intend to handle delicately. I hope you’ll join me in this conversation over the next few posts as we explore these issues of social justice and reform. And hopefully some good conversation can result. That we can make an investment of time, thought, and conversation in trying to grapple with these incredibly important and difficult topics.