I started this series talking about my heritage, and how my upbringing led me to be a member of the “Heritage, Not Hate” crowd. I did so with two hopes:
- To help those who cannot comprehend how a person displaying a Confederate flag can claim they are not racist,
- To help folks with backgrounds like me to consider how we might be hurting others without realizing it.
I am hoping that some might choose to pursue a journey of understanding similar to mine. I’ll warn you up front, it’s not a fun trip. You’ll find yourself between two warring factions, understanding, yet disagreeing (in some aspects) with both sides. You’ll be frustrated, misunderstood, attacked and condemned, sometimes by your own friends. Not the greatest sales pitch, is it? Best answer I have for why you should walk this route comes from my faith. If you’re not a Jesus follower, this might be meaningless to you, but you may have a similar principle in your faith background. But Jesus told his followers, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
In Part 3 I explored the idea of “heritage” and the key point that “you have exactly zero input into your heritage.” Heritage is inherited from our ancestors-it is what they did, not what we did. Today I want to explore the other side of the “heritage” coin. We call the coin our ancestors made our heritage, but the other side of that coin is their legacy. You have nothing to do with forming your heritage, but everything to do with forming your own legacy–what you hand down to future generations. You choose your own legacy.
The legacy I’ve chosen is one of love, of peacemaking. “That’s a nice sentiment, Greg, but it’s not going to change the world we live in. This has been going on for centuries.” I will agree that it’s easy to look around, and become overwhelmed with a sense of doom. We’ve been fed a pretty steady diet of fear and defeatism. But here’s the thing: While I might not be able to change the world, I can change the world around me. Jesus called his followers to be peacemakers, not to set us up for an impossible task, but precisely because it is possible!
How? Good question. I don’t have all, or even most of the answers. But I offer a few things that have helped me.
“If you never leave the small comfortable ideological circle that you belong to, you’ll never develop as a human being.” -Malcolm Gladwell¹
“Read one thinker and you become a clone. Read two and you become confused. Read a hundred and you start to become wise.” -Tim Keller
Unfortunately, what passes for learning in our culture today often is simply reinforcing what we already know or believe. If I keep reading the same books, or blogs, from the same authors whose ideas I already approve, all I’m going to learn is how to embed the same ideas more deeply into my thoughts. Repetition of a thought is critical if you want it to become something that you call forward without thinking, but it’s not “learning.”
Read things you disagree with! This is hard, but it’s key to learning. If your news feed doesn’t include at least one or two sources that are from the other side of the ideological aisle, you’re becoming a clone. I’m not saying you have to go totally extreme. But if your thoughts and perspectives on a subject aren’t challenged, they’ll remain shallow.
With respect to the discussion of heritage, and race in our country, take the time to read things from the “other side.” A couple of suggestions:
- The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois. Written over 100 years ago by the first black man to earn a PhD from Harvard, who founded the NAACP, this is a great look at the history of black Americans in the initial decades after their emancipation.
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. Written in 2012, this book looks at the legacy of Jim Crow laws, and how the underlying biases have carried through despite the advancements in civil rights of the late 20th Century.
- Don’t want to buy a book? Pick some topics and read the Wikipedia posts for free. Start with Jim Crow Laws, Emmitt Till, Lynching, 1917 East St. Louis Riots. This last one was eye-opening to me, because it happened near where I grew up, less than 50 years before I was born, and yet it didn’t once get mentioned in school, not even in my state-mandated Missouri History class in high school.
Beyond reading, I recommend listening. Not just to podcasts and famous speakers, but also to those around you. Really listen. Remember the story about SPC Marshall in Part 2? I learned from her because I took the time to consider her perspective. I could have easily dismissed it, because it didn’t align with my own, and simply told her what I really meant, and called it good, because I had taught her “truth.” That route would have left me continuing to believe what I believe, and reinforced her beliefs as well. We’d have both been worse off.
If you don’t get “Black Lives Matter,” ask them. And listen. Especially in light of the history and personal experiences you may not be aware of. Consider that the white person in the Midwest who is railing against immigration may have very legitimate concerns that aren’t driven by an ideology of racial superiority. Discover why “systemic racism” and “white privilege” are not condemnations of personal character.
Add some variety to your life. Ruts are easy, but pretty much guarantee things won’t change. Think in new ways. Here are three ideas:
- Stop “winning.” Start “excelling.” Don’t mistake this for “everybody gets a trophy.” Winning is measured against an opponent. To win, someone else has to lose. Excellence is measured against a standard. The Latin word literally means “beyond lofty.” When I was in the infantry, we had an award we could earn called the “Expert Infantry Badge.” One of the tasks was to complete a 12 mile road march carrying a 35# pack and weapon, in under 3 hours. It’s a difficult task, and in theory, 10 soldiers could finish the road march, but not make it in the 3 hour time limit. The first one across the line still “won”, but none of them “excelled.” Conversely, in an “excellent” unit, all 10 might come in under three hours. When we set our standards as beating the next guy, winning can be as easy as choosing an inferior opponent. If my goal is to beat the clock, I have to push myself. If my goal is to beat you, I can just push you in a ditch.
- Ask a brilliant question. When you find yourself ready to disagree, to fight for your (correct) position, ready to condemn those ridiculous fools on the other side, ask this question: “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person act that way?”² Part of the problem with the polarization we see in our country today stems from the mindset that everyone agreeing with me is a genius, and those who don’t are either idiots or devious evil people bent on all us good folks’ destruction. In truth, the vast majority are reasonable people. Rational people. Decent people. So, if they’re acting contrary to my way of thinking, that means there is a good chance they have a reasonable, decent explanation. If you begin there, and then ask, they’ll be likely to share, and you can learn. If you aren’t in a position to ask, check yourself, because you’re likely about to head down a dangerous, divisive road. You’ve already started forming a story in your head to explain the action. Most likely, that story begins with a belief that the actor isn’t reasonable, rational, or decent. Once you re-start the story, you might find a plausible explanation, or at least be open to one. Most of the people you disagree with, really aren’t the enemy. They’re not even necessarily wrong.
- Get out of the box. This goes along with learning by listening. Too many of us are living such a homogenous life that we can’t listen to diverse voices because we don’t have any in our circle. When’s the last time you had a person of color as a guest in your home? Had coffee with someone from outside your political, social, economic circle? Be deliberate about making friends with people different than you. Sure it’s awkward, but if it’s genuine, people will appreciate your willingness to reach out. You’ll discover that most people are just waiting to be invited in-but someone has to be bold enough to be the inviter.
One of the most overused, misinterpreted words in English. I’m referring to sacrificial love; not an emotion but an action, a choice that says, “I value the wellbeing of others more than I do my own.” Love says, “I want to see you excel.” Then love surrenders some of oneself in order to actually make it happen.
Call me naïve, but consider history. When real cultural change has occurred, strength and power didn’t achieve it. Military force or threat of violence doesn’t make someone think differently. Power might subdue someone, but it won’t make them your friend. Loving those who aren’t like you is the most counter-intuitive, objectionable answer there is; And it’s the only answer that actually brings about real, positive change.³
What about you? Have you seen people change for the better? Have you experienced change in your own perspective? What has worked? What are you struggling with? Let’s keep the discussion going. Drop a note in the comments. Help us all learn.
¹ Malcolm Gladwell is an author and speaker that I’ve just started listening to. His podcast is called “Revisionist History.” If you want to be exposed to some new thoughts, I highly recommend it.
² I stole this question from Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High. This book is probably second only to the Bible in helping me change how I view and interact with others. It has helped me become a better problem-solver and communicator. Even if you don’t want to change the world, it’ll make you a better employee, spouse, friend. It’s really that good.
³ If you’re a Jesus follower, love isn’t an option. It’s a command; Jesus says it’s how the world will know you are a Jesus follower. It’s your identity. Beyond the “spiritual” aspect, consider Roman history. The world’s most powerful country, a pagan empire that oppressed and killed Christians to defend its emperor-religion, became a “Christian nation” in just a few hundred years, not through force, but in spite of it.