When I was a teenager, my cross country coach took us up to the Indiana Dunes and had us run sprints up the white sand dunes. Not only was it painful and exhausting then, but almost everyone I ran with (literally) in those days developed chronic ankle/knee/hip/back problems over the years that can be traced to this “training.” It is a reminder for me of the times we engage in activities expecting benefit but ending up doing more damage than good. It is frustrating and irritating and leaves you worse off than when you started. But this can be a defeating metaphor; often we feel mired in futility, yet it is important to keep going.
This memory came to mind recently due to two separate conversations that left me frustrated, confused, and stymied. For the past forty+ years, I have worked hard to be as inclusive, sensitive, supportive, and collaborative as possible with the marginalized, the oppressed, the attacked, and the abused. It is a sincere motivation to expand my awareness and understanding of those who do not experience the same privilege and cultural benefits I do as an educated, straight, white, male in society. I engage in intentional conversations and attend a wide variety of ethnic and cultural events, work in inter-culturally and multi-culturally diverse organizations, listen to a wide cross section of music genres, watch a whole lot of international films and documentaries, and I read – a lot. I work diligently to be both advocate and partner, but there are times when it feels a lot like running uphill in sand (and, yes, white dunes is an apt metaphor – white people made the mess we are in, so now we have to own it…)
Okay, so, I am having a conversation with two of my black colleagues and I mentioned that I have been reading John Lewis’s Across That Bridge, and that I found it both inspiring and compelling. I have been a fan of John Lewis for decades, so I am predisposed to like anything he does. I asked my colleagues what they thought, and one retorted, “So Uncle Tom’s assimilated nephew has a convert!” The response was like a slap in the face, and I stuttered, “Why do you say that? How does John Lewis deserve the “Uncle Tom” moniker?” He leaned his head back and looked down his nose, saying, “See, if you don’t know what Uncle Tom means, you don’t get it.” Working really hard not to get defensive, I replied, “I know what Uncle Tom means; I simply can’t see how it applies to John Lewis.” “He thinks we should just give in and cooperate with the whites,” was his answer. I was a bit stunned and trying to figure out what I was missing, so I said, “I really want to understand what you’re saying, but I am struggling with the connections. Can you tell me anything specific you didn’t like in the book?” “Oh, I haven’t read the book. I don’t have time to waste on “white trite” writing.”
I left this conversation troubled because I never got a clear sense why John Lewis was so offensive to a black leader I deeply respect and enjoy working with. Lewis’s book is divided into eight chapters, and uses the Selma to Montgomery march of 1965 as its foundation. He explores these eight concepts – faith, patience, study, truth, act, peace, love, reconciliation – to offer a way forward through the sin of racism and prejudicial violence to create a civil society for ALL people, acknowledging that success depends on everyone working together, that woke whites must own their history, repent and make reparations, and be willing to give up unjust, unfair, inequitable privileges to create a new world order. From my limited old white guy perspective, I find John Lewis to be a prophet and a guide. But also owning that I don’t know what I don’t know, I truly want to understand the perspective of black people who see Lewis as part of the problem rather than the solution.
A few weeks later I talked with a pastor/professor friend from Nashville, and through the course of the conversation I asked him if he had any books he could recommend that might be good for me to read. He recommended Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste (which I have read and highly recommend), Brownstein & Saul’s (editors) two-volume work, Implicit Bias and Philosophy (which I also highly recommend, thought they are very technical), James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree (again, well worth the read), then he paused and said, “Oh, oh, it’s an oldie but goodie; you need to read Across That Bridge by John Lewis. We got too many young crusaders who don’t know the story. If we’re gonna move things forward, we need to remember where we been.” He noted my silent pause in response and asked me what was the matter. I related the earlier conversation I had about John Lewis. He exploded, “John Lewis an Uncle Tom?! That’s crazy. That’s trashing Parks and King and Evers and the whole Civil Rights movement. Don’t they know we wouldn’t have the freedom to fight for true freedom and justice without those folks?” I lamented how hard it is for me as a white person to grasp the whole, big, complex, dynamic, conflicted scope of transformative and revolutionary change for true inclusion and justice. My friend responded, “it’s not going to be easy; it’s never been easy, but it’s not going to happen if we keep acting like we can do it alone. We’re either all in this together or we just keep doing the same sh** over and over.”
I have come to three conclusions over the years concerning true inclusion and radical transformation. First, there is never a simple solution to a complex problem, especially where human beings are involved. Humans are hierarchy builders and we create structures where we are always ahead of somebody else, and systems are designed to provide benefits to those who control the system. So, second, you can bring about all the “change” you want to within a dysfunctional or unjust system, but it is still a dysfunctional, unjust system. True transformation demands the creation of a completely different system; a system that will not tolerate discrimination, functional prejudice, and violence against personhood. Third, seismic change is not brought about through information, but relationships. All the theory, all the evidence, all the process steps and outcomes, all the necessary information already exists. We aren’t going to convert people, change thinking, and transform action through information (not that the information isn’t helpful or important). I am not sure we need another book, article, film, documentary, or website about inclusion, racial justice, inter-culturalism, or beloved community. No, it is only going to come through a very intentional, very intensive, and very committed engagement across all cultural, political, ethnic, social, class, and educational boundaries and barriers – those dividing walls that Christ supposedly broke down and that Christ’s followers have since given so much time and effort to rebuilding – that will make a difference. And the wisdom and inspiration I receive from John Lewis is this: don’t waste your valuable time and energy worry about all the places this won’t work, or that this can’t happen. Instead, give yourself completely to every opportunity where it will work, and where it can happen, and ignore those times when it feels like you are running uphill in sand. When you stay focused on the goal, and you refuse to be distracted or defeated, when you refuse to give up – and you join a growing tide of others with the same dedication – you will see change; through your faithful discipleship together, God will transform our world.