It was President Jimmy Carter who quipped that the first thing a church has to do when it decides it is going to help the poor, is to find a poor person to help. It’s true. Many of this country’s churches are isolated from the poor. Comfortably and safely tucked away in suburbia, having an encounter with real poverty is not a daily exercise. And to be honest, many church folks are not all that interested in facing poverty on a daily basis.
Many churches, likewise, have been largely insulated from the racial conflict of this summer. Suburbia, oddly in the 21st century, can be very segregated. Thus, it’s hard to be a part of understanding and involving yourself in racial reconciliation when you don’t know anyone who is a person of color.
And if a predominately white congregation makes it a mission to “find a black person to help,” it will smack of such patronizing condescension, that it can do nothing but fail (as it should). The requirement is relationships: Real, meaningful, time-consuming, cross-cultural, face-to-face relationships. Because “what you don’t know” can, contrary to the proverb, hurt you. Indeed, ignorance hurts us all.
Take this summer’s conflict for example: Those who criticize the current civil rights movement as little more than unrest by a few “troublemakers and outside agitators” (language reminiscent of Dr. King’s time rather than our own), show a profound lack of knowledge and compassion for the real, longstanding injustices and fear faced by African-Americans. Further, those who classify all police officers as goose-stepping, jackbooted racists who hope only to inflict suffering on the communities they patrol, are equally culpable in perpetuating falsehood. The overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers are honorable, unbiased, and work extremely hard to serve and protect the entire populace.
If you are not a black man or woman (I am neither), you must “seek first to understand” his or her unique position; his or her historical perspective; and his or her legitimate grievances that cry out for justice. If you are not a police officer (again, I am not), likewise, you have to make a concerted effort to understand his or her unique situation, unique challenge, and pressures. When we get to know people well – people who are black, gay, Islamic, evangelical, or whatever – it becomes increasingly difficult to misunderstand or demonize them. It becomes possible, even probable, to understand, accept, and join together with them to find solutions.
It’s hard to be a black man in this country. It’s hard to be a police officer. It’s hard to watch our society rip itself apart. And in that problem is the solution: There can be no more “watching” of strangers doing battle on our television screens and smartphones. We have to engage in the hardest activity of all – getting to know one another. It’s the only hope we have to overcome, for as Dr. King said, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance.”