Wielding a Kitchen Extinguisher
Back in 1999, our wood stove overheated, igniting our fireplace wall. While we waited for hose-bearing firefighters to arrive, my then 16-year-old son and I stood face to face with the flaming wall; me with a standard-sized extinguisher in hand; he with a kitchen extinguisher no bigger than a can of hairspray. With a peripheral vision of this young muscular dude fighting fire with a hair-spray can sized weapon, I busted out laughing. Not at him (for I was proud of him) but with him (for the visual struck me as funny, and he laughed, too). Yet as amusing as the sight was, his efforts mattered. For they helped contain the flames until the professionals came.
You could say that this post (and all that I ever do to address today’s racial sorrows in my multiethnic church and beyond) is my own little kitchen extinguisher, wielded in combat with a centuries-old raging infernal. It is one frail fallible sinful man’s personal effort to douse at least a little bit of evil. Laughably inadequate, but truly important. And the same goes for you.
The blaze of racial bigotry still burns hot in our land, and—I say it with tears—in our hearts. Where do we even begin? What extinguisher is adequate to put out completely the hellish fire of such raging sin? Let’s be clear: other than through a dissolution of this present world order, and the establishment of a new one through God’s cleansing power, there isn’t an adequate extinguisher (2 Peter 3:11-13). But world order change isn’t our business God doesn’t call us to end all human hellishness. He calls us to pick up whatever extinguisher is at hand—no matter how small and seemingly inadequate it may be—to help keep the fire from burning everything to the ground. To that end, here are a few life commitments that might help us to do our part. In what I call “The Art of L-evation”, there are ten “L’s” that can become our own personal kitchen extinguisher to slow the advance of racial anger, hostility, and bigotry wherever the fire rages.
We need to locate ourselves near to those who are different from us, in neighborhoods, in churches, and in hospitality. The more we share—by way of space, experiences, conversation, joys, sorrows, and food—the shorter will be the relational distance between us. It’s been well said: “Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Stride toward Freedom, p33). Distance, ignorance, and belligerence almost always co-exist; and they will co-exist inside of us, if we do not pursue cross-cultural proximity as a way of life.
People are made to be lifted; to be elevated as image-bearers of God; to be crowned with glory and honor (Psa. 8:5). How much we value people will determine how well we will treat them; and justice is treating people in keeping with their true value as measured by God. And we know God’s measurement of human value by realizing they are made in his image, redeemed by his blood, and heirs of his glory. When we fail to see and respect this in others, we grieve them, like the former slave whose plaintive song still haunts the sensitive heart:
“Am I not a man and brother?
Ought not I then to be free?
Sell me not one to another.
Take not thus my liberty.
Christ, our Savior, Christ our Savior,
Died for me as well as thee.”
This song was sung on the Underground Railroad, though its author is unknown. It sings the sorrow of a beaten down and un-lifted spirit. Sorrow then. Sorrow now. The indignities of bigotry, of pre-judgment, of assumed superiority of my kind over your kind, or of color, class, and culture hierarchies continue still. These must be replaced with a practiced and lived out sense of the equally shared worth of every single person we ever meet.
In my book, Respect the Image: Reflecting Human Worth in How We Listen and Talk, I emphasize our need to respect others enough to listen to them and then make sure we understand what we hear. That isn’t anything new. But it is rare. Listening is the essential that few care or dare to practice. Most are not willing to put in the effort. No doubt it’s been said before, but it bears repetition: we need to learn to listen so we can listen to learn. And we must choose our listening sources wisely. We would all do well to stop getting our information about others through social and mainstream media outlets, nearly all of which are agenda driven. Face to face conversation, with an emphasis on listening over talking, is the far better way to go.
Since only a fool is right in his own eyes (Prov. 12:15) we’d all do well to assume that we are more ignorant than informed (1 Cor. 8:1, 2); and then open our minds wide to learn. When we enter a conversation, relationship, or controversy with a dogmatic assumption that we know, and that we are right, we are likely to exit no wiser (or humbler) than when we entered. We need to learn others’ personal history, their culture, their perspectives, their narrative-shaping life-experiences, their idioms and styles, their fears and their tears. Statistics lifted from an academic study or even less reliable sources won’t help us much here. We need first hand, face-to-face encounters to hear voices, to feel hearts, to share humanity. If geographical distance makes this nearly impossible, then much reading of stories, of history, and of real life human drama and trauma will be needed.
If loving our neighbor is the second greatest command, then love is not optional. We must love with a love marked by affection, patience, kindness, humility, an absence of arrogant self-confidence, courtesy, a sense of brother and sisterhood, and a refusal to give up (1 Cor. 13:4-7; 1 Peter 1:22; 2:17). As Ben Watson writes, “We need to know the difference between the issues we hold dear and the people we hold dear.” We need to be “jolted out of a distant view of the ‘other side’ and…allow the human heart to become engaged” (Ben Watson, Under Our Skin, p115). How people-engaged are you in the racial tensions of our day? Since we are called to love our neighbors and our enemies, we must seek out as many relationships as possible (including very difficult ones), to move our hearts beyond studies and statistics into deep, affectionate, heartfelt love.
We need unhurried time with people who are different from us. Quick fixes and fast resolutions won’t happen. The racial infernal that has raged for centuries, is not going to be extinguished by a five-minute or five-hour or even five-year effort. We’re going to have to settle in for the long haul; something with which most whites like me are not comfortable. When quick fixes don’t happen, way too many throw up their Caucasian hands in impatience. “Why can’t they just get over it!?” we protest; when in fact it is very hard to get over what has long been happening, and is still going on. We need to slow down and linger long. Some things cannot be hurried. Don’t push. Don’t press. Don’t send the signal that you’re anxious to get this over and done with, so you can move on. It’s going to take careful caring time, and lots of it.
Unhurried time listening to others’ stories will lead to shared sorrow. This has been my experience. Testimonial conversations with dozens of African-American brothers and sisters (not to mention several dozen books read) have filled me with grief. These accounts are not the hype of a liberal agenda, but the real-life experiences of real people in the real world. When facing the racial tensions of our time we will find reason to lament the sins done against us, the sins done by us, and the sins done before us. So we had best prepare to be sad.
An old battle-worn woman encouraged justice advocate Bryan Stevenson with these words: “Now you keep this up and you’re gonna end up like me, singing some sad songs. Ain’t no way to do what we do and not learn how to appreciate a good sorrow song. I’ve been singing sad songs my whole life. Had to. When you catch stones even happy songs can make you sad” (Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, p309). As for me, I want to make sure that my black brothers and sisters are not singing sad songs alone. Indeed, I want to make sure that their sad songs are mine, too.
We need the laughter of mutual celebration and deep trust; the merriment of those—as C.S. Lewis puts it—who realize that there are no mere mortals—and that to relate to other human beings is to commune with wonderfully diverse immortals (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, p45-46). It is this knowledge of others that makes us take each other seriously, but with cheerful delight. This is not the mere tokenism that says: “Okay it’s your turn to show your style; then it’s my turn to show mine.” Rather, it is a true mutual celebration; a humble happy awareness that people who are not like us bring to life, faith, song, art, sport, and worship a grace, a goodness, a truth, and a beauty that we would not otherwise experience without knowing them.
It is—to paraphrase Carl Ellis—to realize through knowing others, that knowing God deeply and doing life rightly involve both classical and jazz; both form and freedom; both notes on a page, and freshness and vibrancy in the soul (Carl Ellis, Free at Last: The Gospel in the African- American Experience, p174-175). In relationship with God and each other, some of us are classical. Some are jazz. All are beautiful; a reality that leads to a much needed, mutually enjoyed, and very deep laughter of delight.
We must know that what we have is not for us alone. It is given that it may be shared. Avoiding the endless wrangling about the phrase “white privilege”, let me suggest instead that we simply acknowledge that almost all of us have had certain advantages in life that others have not had. With that advantage comes responsibility (Luke 12:48; 2 Cor. 8:12-15). Whatever God entrusts to us by way of freedom, opportunity, and resources need not make us feel guilty (unless gained by our sinful choices and actions). These are not bad; but they are to be leveraged for good. We need to advocate and act for the well-being of others, that respect and justice may be had by all. Without endorsing the social justice movement as defined by the world (for I emphatically do not endorse it), we should endorse a biblical justice lifestyle as commanded by God. Which means that we must leverage whatever platform or position or possessions we may have, to speak and work for the betterment of those who do not have (Prov. 31:8-9; Psalm 82:3-4).
The glorious goal of racial empathy, reconciliation, justice, and love requires endurance—a readiness to last. Justice and peace are not achieved by short bursts of energy, or by attendance at a diversity seminar, or by passing flights of oratory, or by mere appearances on a racial diversity panel. These goals are not achieved by a decision to show up; they demand a commitment to stay. To be sure, we will not solve every problem or agree on every issue, but we can commit to a love that will outlast every problem and issue; a love that will not fail.
There may be times when we need to start over or try another way. But there will never be a time to quit. If we don’t last, we will revert. If we fail to go forward, we will fall backward. If we do not elevate, we will denigrate. If we don’t appreciate, we will depreciate. Since people made in the Image, redeemed by the Blood, and destined for a throne are created for so much more, we must choose the love that always lifts and never gives up.
My son and I did not extinguish the house fire with our laughable little extinguishers. But we did slow down the fire’s spread, and put out whatever we could see. And that was enough for the moment, until the guys with the hoses came. The truth is that you and I will never be able to quench the fiery infernal of human hatred and bigotry. But we do know that there is One who will extinguish all evil and make all things both new and right when he comes. Until then, let us slow the advance of evil, and, by practicing the Art of L-evation, douse it in our own hearts and in the hearts of those around us. While it is unlikely that this will change the world, it most assuredly will change us.