Think about that proverbial uncle, that older, white man sitting across the table from you at that otherwise innocuous party. He makes a comment about “colored” people and you can see the desperation in his eyes for validation. In my experience, anyway, that guy is not looking for validation for his racist ideas, but simply asking to be treated as a human being.
This is the dilemma of the moment: cancel culture. Do we invalidate people because of their backward, out-dated, of offensive ideas? Do we cut off and remove people from our lives because they act inappropriately?
It’s a positive dilemma, despite its problems. It shows we’ve moved beyond the phase of ignoring the offense. That was our old stand-by response, right? We’d hear the Uncle and see the desperation in his eyes and change the subject, leaving both of us feeling empty and unfulfilled.
Because it’s a two-way dilemma.
It’s not just that we struggle to separate other people from their words and actions, but we have the same struggle when it comes to ourselves, as well. If someone judges our actions inappropriate or ill-advised, our first reaction is to take it personally.
“I love you, Uncle Jim, but that’s a really offensive thing to say,” just doesn’t cut it.
It should, by the way. “I love you, but,” should be enough to validate the person and also address their problematic words and actions. It just so rarely works that way.
A lot of that is because we get defensive. We don’t hear the “I love you,” at all or we hear the “but” as invalidation of that love. We hear that phrase as conditional love, which is often more a burden than a comfort. “I want to love you, but you must change.”
Theologically, Christians affirm that love is the only way to change the world. We won’t get anywhere by forcing people into change, through threats, fear, or shame. We live in a world, though, where all of those things are baked into every system. If there are no consequences to selfishness, people will just be selfish.
This is seen in the theological notion of total depravity. Humans are inclined to selfish, sinful activity and only God can change them.
This isn’t wrong, of course, but how, precisely does God change people? Is it through threats of bodily harm? Do we fear Hell so much, we decide to behave? Is it shame or the withholding of love and affection? Those approaches may actually affect what people do, but none of them changes a person.
God so loved the world that God deigned to become a lowly human, live among us, and be executed for showing us a picture of what we could be. Jesus reserved his condemnation only for those prominent figures who refused to acknowledge their own faults and failures.
Love may not be the cheapest, easiest, or most efficient way to get people to say and do the words and actions we want from them, but it is the only way for any of us to become the kind of people we were created to be.
It’s not enough to tell Uncle Jim that’s he’s valuable, regardless of his offensive words and actions, he has to know it, to feel it, to be loved. Part of the problem may be his past damage – that others have treated his so poorly he no longer knows how to receive love – but more likely than not, the root cause (for him and for us), is our inability to separate the value of people from the things they do and say.
That’s not to say we can’t have boundaries. If Uncle Jim is going to continue saying racist things, he’s not going to get a public forum – as far as I can help it – although I have to be careful to continue those conversations in private so as not to transmit my opposition for his ideas to the man himself (and to show I’m not writing him off with his beliefs).
We also have to protect ourselves in those cases where our foundational, bedrock ideas are in direct contradiction to those of someone else. Someone who believes in non-violence is going to be able to sustain only limited interaction with someone who’s quick to justify a fight. They may be able to dialogue and show love for one another in certain circumstances, but they probably can’t be roommates.
We have to work hard to define our relationships in ways that treat people as people (including ourselves) – even if that’s our main disagreement with them. We are called to love our enemies, but that’s much easier if we’re the ones who’ve labeled them enemies than if they’ve intentionally set themselves up in opposition to us.
I imagine this also requires some measure of relationship to begin with. If the only connection we have to each other is disagreement about a certain idea, we cannot see each other as human beings. The offensive words and actions must be secondary to the humanity of our opponents. I must understand you in order to really understand what you say or do.
That doesn’t mean you let the words or actions go, but you must address them in the context of the person you know. And we have to be fair to their humanity – which, at least if you’re a Christian, is equally valuable to the humanity of everybody else.
It’s one thing to stop watching a TV show or not buy concert tickets because the ideas of the actors or musicians are offensive to you – there is no personal relationship there – it’s quite another to say “you can’t work on my car, because you don’t care about the poor,” or “you can’t bag my groceries because you haven’t recognized your white privilege.”
Morality is not a battle to be won. Christians believe love is already victorious, we’re just waiting for the effects of that victory to work their way through the world. Whatever ideas or actions we wish to see eradicated are already dead; we don’t need to kill them again, and we definitely don’t need to kill those people clinging to the corpse.
Racist, sexist, selfish, and offensive words need to be addressed, for sure – ignoring is no longer an option – but we have to remember hate harms both victim and perpetrator, even if in different ways. If we can’t walk beside both parties, with the care and concern appropriate to their specific context, we’re not living out the gospel.
No one gets written off or we’re no better than “them.”