Your Racist Language

You know, language and words have a life of their own. Some words can change meaning drastically, taking on so much weight, baggage, and connotation that they become nearly unusable unless prefaced by a huge contextual aside to clarify the meaning. The common example here is “thong.” Now, a certain age group will see that word and picture a sandal to be worn on the foot. Before then, a group would have seen a strap to tie town luggage. Now… well… the artist Sisqo had a very particular type of underwear/swimwear in mind when writing his famous “Thong Song.”

That said, there are so many other examples of words that have changed or evolved over the course of history. English is a living language, meaning that new words are added and definitions can change over time as words are used. I ran square into this my first time through “The Lord of the Rings” as the Hobbits and others would regularly refer to bundles of sticks as faggots. Now, my middle-school brain had a hard time with that one – until the context clued me into what was actually being said. I have since come to discover that this particular word which is a slur used for a particular minority group, also had connotations with smoking.

Some words have subtle meanings to certain groups – which would be referred to as coded language. You may have heard the term “dog whistle” to describe some of these terms – the metaphor being that these words are indistinguishable to anyone without the code or specific knowledge.

For instance, the term “Nazi” has a very specific meaning. We, as Americans, have probably overused the term for a joke’s sake (“grammer nazi,” for example) but that may have been an attempt to degrade the power that the Third Reich held for a short, but devastating period of history. The term “Fascist” also has a very particular meaning, also bandied about a bit too much and has probably degraded in its descriptive power over the years. Now, individuals and groups who ascribe to the social policies of Nazism and Fascism would prefer the terms “alt right,” “white racialist,” “white nationalist,” etc. America didn’t do as good a job ridding the world of these groups as originally thought or celebrated at the end of WWII. (And on the other side, America has such a checkered past with “communist” that the word hardly has a meaning in today’s society. It could almost be defined as “enemy of the U.S.” for the way its used in common speech.)

That said, there are some coded phrases that are used, even by well-meaning people that tend to mean something other than the textbook definitions. I’m a believer in clear communication. If we’re going to speak to one another, let’s try as best we can to use the same meanings so that we can both walk away with the same impression of a conversation. Let’s take “urban” for example. Urban can mean, simply, “of the city.” However, it’s often really just code for “black,” as is “inner city.” Take a moment and think about the picture those words conjure up for you. Do you see a diverse group? Or one color of skin? And the word “diverse,” what picture does that draw in your mind? Is it multicolored? Does it include lighter and darker shades? Does it include age, gender, or ideas? What about the word “immigrant?”

Take this verse, for instance, and replace the word “stranger” with “immigrant:”

“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:34 (JPS)

Or maybe replace “stranger” with “refugee.”

The problem with the world is that it tries to paint human beings as objects, often using language to accomplish tat goal. In some ways, we are fighting against our own minds to keep this from happening. Between racism, sexism, porn, abuse, politics, and misconceptions of religion, the idea that human beings are all made in God’s image gets lost. People are not problems… they’re people. It’s very easy to sit or stand in a place of privilege, and point a finger at a group, dehumanize them and see them as an object, or a problem. It’s much harder to look into the eyes of another human being and see the face of Christ there.

There is a sentiment often attributed to Joseph Stalin, though it has been stated many times in many eras, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” This, sadly, has often been the case in history. Jesus, though, did the opposite, he approached the individual, dealt with the human aspect of any situation. He praised a Roman for his faith, interacted with women, welcomed foreigners, and accepted people as they were. (He never left them there, but did accept them as they were.) Jesus didn’t see numbers, he saw human beings.

Until we see others as people, as being made in the image of God, we will be lacking that love of God so crucial to life in the Kingdom. As long as we see numbers, problems, statistics instead of faces, stories, and suffering, we will ultimately miss the work God has set out for us.

Our language needs to reflect God’s love. We should all look at our language and ask what we mean when we discuss with others. When someone challenges us and points out our racist language, we need to be humble submit to one another in love and change our habits.

Your children listen to what you say and what those you respect say. What are they learning about how to speak with others? Are they learning love? Respect? Peace-making? Humility? Are they learning to speak of others as human beings, loved and cherished by the God who made them? Or are they being trained in the world’s mindset – to see people as numbers, statistics, problems?

May we speak truth, love, and peace to our children.

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Outrunning Racism in Borrowed Shoes

Americans have a mythology that has been an identity for a couple of centuries now. The mythology is that American was founded, and sustained, by self-made men who struggled against injustice to establish a land of equality where all would be able to pursue their goals. This is a nice, packaged ideal that has very little grounding in actual history.

America has been won and sustained not by self-made men, but by people who have, from the outset, been opposed to injustice and oppression, but who have often succumbed to the temptation to oppress others. And then that oppression has been fought against, triumphed over, only to be replaced by injustice in a subtler form. This is the American pattern, slowly, but surely, rooting out injustice and replacing it with a sense of equality, not in means or stature, but under the law.

And at the moment we are at a moment of decision. We have reached another boiling point where the felt injustice of one group is threatening the comfort of another. We’ve all heard the anecdotes about conviction rates, prison populations, attacks, shootings, etc. And I could go into the graphic, gritty details, but instead, I want to set a pair of shoes in front of you to try on.

This pair of shoes belong to a black parent. As you wear those shoes, begin to develop a conversation in your head to explain to your young son, who is also black, how life is going to be different for him. Explain to him how he will have to be above reproach in every aspect of his life. Explain to him how his behavior, speech patterns, and way of dress will all be taken into account more so than his white friends. Explain to him that he will need to keep his car in immaculate condition and check it regularly to make sure there is never a reason to be pulled over. Rehearse with him the words he must use when conversing with law enforcement should the need arise.

If you were as uncomfortable imagining that as I was writing it, then we can both admit that there’s a problem. The excuse “I have a black friend” or “I adopted a black child” does not excuse us from facing the reality that others live with daily. I wonder at all of the young black men who haven’t heard from their white parents how reality might be different from expectation.

Our story as people of God should be different than the traditional American story. Our story includes a people who lived in slavery in a strange land in order that they might have respect for the stranger in their own land. Our story includes a man who was excluded from his own people and sentenced to die so that we might identify with the excluded and sentenced to die. Our story is one that from its earliest days until now includes people who suffer and die on account of their belief, so that we will not look down on others who face the same. Our story is one of role-reversal in order to relate to the stranger, the Other, the different. We should be a people who wear other people’s shoes, who walk in them, walk beside them, and work to make a better world.

We are a people who are called to mourn with those who mourn, to love our neighbor, and care for the Other – because they, too, carry the image of God. Can you look into the eye of your black neighbor and tell them that everything is fine and racism doesn’t exist? Can you look into the eye of the Syrian refugee and tell them to go home, when home is a pile of rubble? Can you look into the eyes of your Muslim neighbor and tell them that it’s their individual responsibility that violence happens?

More importantly, can you look through the eyes of your black neighbor and feel the pain of hearing that your experience doesn’t matter? Can you look through the eyes of the Syrian refugee turned away from sanctuary? Can you look through the eyes of your Muslim neighbor and feel the fear at being told “your people” are the problem?

Jesus simply told us that whatever we do for the least of these, we have done for him. Whenever we recognize the suffering of another, we recognize his suffering. Whenever we relieve someone of their burden, we are caring for Jesus.

How have you responded to your children when they ask about the news? What conversations have you had with your children about racism, about strangers, about neighbors, and those different from you? How does your faith affect the way you talk about these things?

photo credit: Running Shoes,  Josiah Mackenzie via  http://www.flickr.com,

Be Ready with an Answer

“[…] Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” I Peter 3:15b

The news has been quite busy lately… coincidentally, so have I. With VBS in full swing at the moment and camp not too far away, my plate has been a smorgasbord on its own. I’ve also been studying some Mandarin Chinese for kicks and giggles and studying up on Chinese history in my (albeit small) free time.

All that to say: the news has snuck up on me. FIrst of all, we have had a whole bunch of racism in the news lately. As a white middle-class man, I am probably the least qualified to speak on the subject, but let’s be frank. We are all different. We are all made in the image of God. We live in a broken world, with a broken society, and a broken system of privilege. We, as a people, a nation, and a world humanity have written ourselves into a corner. It will take a great deal of effort to break out of this prison of pain, frustration, and brokenness. Thankfully, we have a big God that reminds us about how we should tackle this.

First, we should recognize privilege where it does happen. It does. Once we’ve recognized it, those of us who have it should work to wean ourselves off of it. This sounds like a huge step, and it is. Consider Jesus who, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but took on the very nature of a servant and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.” Our model should be Jesus who had every privilege, but gave them all up in order to share in the lives of others. As many people in the past have said, Jesus has already modeled the best life. Follow him and we will begin to build heaven on earth.

Have you talked to your kids about race? Have they asked questions? How do you as a parent deal with it? Where do you see hints of racism in your own life?

Secondly, and this is another huge topic I’m going to try and fit in as few words as possible. The Jenner debate. regardless of what you call the Jenner clan member currently in the news, it will probably come up in conversation, especially if you have an older child.

Post after post have argued one way and the other on many different sides of the divide. Here’s what it boils down to. Are you ready? If you are a Christian looking at this issue you have to wrestle with Scripture. God still speaks through the Bible, and you must be ready with an answer that you can find contained therein. As a parent and a Christian, you need to make sure that you are soaking in the life of Jesus and in the story of our big God daily.

We often try to argue people into a relationship with Jesus. Not once do I see Jesus do anything of the sort. If he wants a relationship, he begins a conversation. He looks for a need and meets it. He peers into the deepest, darkest recesses of the human being in front of him and finds what that person most truly needs – which is usually companionship, purpose, truth – and he gives it to them in the context of relationship. Jesus’ actions speak loudly. He turns expectations on their head and when he’s asked why he’s doing, whatever it is he’s doing, he’s ready with an answer. “There was a shepherd who had 99 sheep and lost one…” “There was a woman who had 10 silver coins and lost one…” “There was a man who had two sons…” “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick…” Cryptic, strange, thought-provoking.

Whoever does the asking, brothers and sisters, whether it be your kids, neighbors, coworkers, or passersby, be ready with your answer. Make sure it’s built on the solid foundation of Jesus life, words, and relationship with you. Make sure it’s in the context of relationship with that person. Give your answer, plant a seed, and then allow God to do the heavy lifting.