We were standing in the kitchen making dinner, my sister scrolling on her phone when she suddenly cried out. Her tone was grieved, foreboding. As she read out an account of Ahmaud Arbery being gunned down mid-jog, I sat and sobbed. The tears returned in fuller force when weeks later she read George Floyd’s last words, wheezed from a throat being crushed by another man’s knee:
“I can’t breathe. Mama. Mama…”
They still hurt to type.
To look at me you’d think I was white, more Caramilk than Creamy Milk. Yet my Fijian grandfather is cocoa-hued. So are my cousins, aunties, uncles. Growing up I’ve had a deep sense of kinship with people of colour. But as the Black Lives Matter movement sweeps the globe, I’ve faced an uncomfortable realisation: although I identify with people of colour, at times me proclaiming my quarter brownness has been more about being admired as exotic than genuinely reveling in my heritage. (“Woah, you were born in Fiji?!” / “You’re so lucky you can tan like that”, etc.).
It’s hard to admit, but I’ve been known to relish the benefits of being brown while bypassing the difficult and sometimes brutal realities experienced by those more ‘coloured’ than me. When my caramel-coloured Dad began doctoring at Starship Hospital, he had people assume he was the janitor. I’ve heard racial slurs hurled at dark-skinned rugby players from Southland sidelines, the likes of which tempted me to make a few tackles of my own. And the recent displays of injustice that have left black American families bereft?
They are so far removed from my experience. I don’t know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of racism, whether personal or systemic. And I’m left wondering, like many of us in Aotearoa, “What am I supposed to do?”.
I mean, empathy is honorable. But it’s not enough.
Right now, the volume of outrage, the roiling emotion, the sheer clamour make it hard to hear. It’s difficult to listen intently let alone widely, to not take shelter in comfortable echo chambers filled with those who think and feel like us. We’re told to hush and let the voices of the oppressed be heard but we’re also told silence is complicity- so we sure as hell better say something, do something. And quick.
So we attempt to educate ourselves, sifting through clips and conflicting narratives.
We put our #blackouttuesday squares up on Insta to
show we’re not racist express solidarity.
We take to the streets with shouts and Sharpied signs in protest. Some even topple statues.
We converse and sigh and knit our brows in consternation, feeling more than a tad helpless before what seems like a tidal wave of injustice.
And for me, the question becomes a prayer: “Lord, what would you have me do? What would you have us do?”
I recently came across a quote from an American pastor that has both unsettled and resonated deeply with me:
“Christianity that does not speak to and practice and seek justice on behalf of those who are brutalised and marginalised is no Christianity whatsoever in a time like this. A Christianity that merely is a private, individualised, personal relationship-only-between-the-individual-and-God that someone does in their head, only?
That is not the way of Christ. Christianity has practical, tangible, gritty, horizontal, relational implications.” – Alex Early
Mmhmm. Precisely what are those ‘practical, tangible, gritty, horizontal, relational implications’ in my context? That’s what I’m on a journey of figuring out these days. I’m guessing you might be too, if you’ve made it this far.
When I look at how Jesus impacted his first followers, I’m hope-filled that true racial reconciliation is possible for us today. With divine empowering and radical generosity on the part of its members, against all natural odds the first Christians created communities that came to exemplify unity in diversity. The church ‘family’ was made up of people with centuries of vehement racial and class animosity between them. Yet they worked sacrificially and persistently to overcome long-standing prejudice and inequalities. Yes, this required transformation of both personal attitudes and institutional practices. It also required them extending each other a whole lot of forgiveness. As in, a lot.
In 2018, an off-duty white policewoman came into the apartment of 26-year old Botham Jean, a black unarmed accountant. Thinking she’d entered her own apartment, she mistook him for a burglar and shot him to death. She was sentenced to a decade in prison for Botham’s murder, the jury’s decision influenced by racist text messages she was found to have previously sent. Yet, in an unexpected turn of events in the courtroom, Botham’s brother Brandt addressed his brother’s killer.
“I forgive you… and I love you as a person. I’m not going to say I hope you rot and die just like my brother did, but I personally want the best for you,” he said.
“I wasn’t going to ever say this in front of my family or anyone but I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want … and the best would be, give your life to Christ.”
In a gesture that stunned the world, Brandt then sought permission from the judge to go over and hug her.
Quite frankly, we’re deluding ourselves if we think that our human efforts alone are enough to tackle issues with roots as deep and hellish as racism. Some of the versions of “justice” I’m hearing advocated on social media right now would be better termed vengeance than justice. They extend minimal grace towards those who have wronged them, and can be downright ruthless towards those who disagree with their notions of fairness. In doing so, they hinder true reconciliation from taking place.
We need justice, absolutely, but we need the kind that is merciful and not merely wrathful. And that’s exactly what Jesus extends in abundance to all humble enough to ask him for help. Here in Aotearoa, we’ve got racism of our own to address, and a complex history with the tangata whenua where we are still working towards reconciliation. But that’s a conversation for a separate space. Here as we ponder the pursuit of justice in our own settings, allow me to pose a few gritty questions.
- How intertwined is your life with those of people whose race and beliefs are different from yours? (A quick scroll through your mobile contacts and Insta feed may prove enlightening)
- How often do you deliberately linger in the discomfort of really hearing from/ getting to know those with contrasting ethnicities or convictions?
- What could it look like to move a step or three in that direction as a way of life?
I for one think it’s time my Insta feed included a few more thoughtful people with perspectives and experiences beyond what my vantage point offers: I’m beginning with BeTheBridge. I’ve also started scoping out AllSides, a site that lets you read about the same American news topics from the left, right and centre views. And now that we’re out of lockdown, what better time to take home baked brownies over to the unknown neighbours, to learn their names and perhaps a snippet of their stories in time? After all, the best olive branches are often edible; few things cross divides like shared meals.
As I move towards racial reconciliation alongside others, both those who represent Christ and those with alternative affiliations, I pray that our ‘doing’ would make his kind of justice and compassion more and more tangible.
God only knows we need his empowerment on this one.