What should I do in the face of injustice?

I have been processing this post for a while, uncertain of what I could possibly offer that hasn’t been said many times over. I want to hear from my friends of color, and want to be the listener. But I also know that I can use my voice to help draw attention to needs around me, and to invite others to join me in my journey of growth.  We are in an important cultural moment–a time full of division and confusion in many areas of life. I am not trying to address all the challenges we are facing; I am just offering a reflection on racial inequality.  I have been broken-hearted over the injustices we see in this country that are ingrained deeply into the cultural fabric. The consistent mistreatment of people of color, and the blindness to that very fact by so many.

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Art by my daughter Bethany

When faced with racial inequality and injustice, my constant question is “What should I do?” Some clear principles I have learned over the years are the following. Don’t close your eyes to it; instead be a learner. Choose neither passive silence nor aggressive defensiveness; instead, listen and seek to understand. Don’t think it is just a moment that will go away in a few months; rather, decide to be part of the long-term solution.

Those principles–grounded in humility and a learning posture–have been with me and given me wisdom as I seek to love and engage with those around me. But I also want to know what to actively do. For a while, it felt like the “thing to do” was to post on Facebook and represent yourself as an ally. Breaking “white silence” is indeed very important, but my impression is that, while that is helpful and encouraging to our friends of color, it alone is not what is going to produce a long-term shift in the culture that will bring change in each of our local communities.

So what will dismantle the long-embedded, deeply rooted systems that perpetuate injustice, sometimes without even the consciousness of the majority of community members? What leads to lasting change? It is critical to learn about and listen to history and facts.  But we must do more than that. Nor is it enough to enact policies or pass legislation or win court cases. That is necessary, but it won’t by itself uproot the underlying tendrils that weave injustice into the fibers of our communities.  We must get to the heart-level—my heart, your heart, each individual’s hearts.  This is because external behavioral change tends to dissipate when the external motivation is removed. Internal change, however, works itself out into our behavior in a lasting way. It changes not just our actions, but our side comments and our daily decision-making. Ultimately, it causes long-term generational results. Only internal heart change person-by-person will make our world a better place!

I have heard of big companies making very well-stated and powerful “public statements” in response to injustices like George Floyd’s death.  But I have also seen articles by weary people of color carefully pointing out that many of those same companies have been saying they care about empowering and giving more representation to people of color in their companies for years, yet their boards of directors and almost every layer of their leadership structures are still white.  These companies have the right external posture, but have not done the hard work of internal cultural change.

The same problem can happen to us as individuals too. We can (and I know I have struggled with this) say we really care about more equal opportunities, yet then still hesitate when it means our white children might have to sacrifice part of their privilege, their opportunities, or their access to the best school districts and teachers.

Lets go back to our question: what leads to lasting, real change? Maybe you are like me and you already feel overwhelmed by all the responsibilities you have in your life as it is (parenting, working from home, managing life with multiple children). When you hear about these systemic injustices, you say to yourself “wow, that is so horrible, but there is nothing I can do about it. I hope others are able to fix it…”  But if everyone says that, then we as a community largely passively ignore injustice once again.  That means we are ultimately complicit.

I don’t think we all have to be front-line activists, but I believe that if individuals (especially white people like me) all take individual steps to grow, learn, and act, it will cumulatively help to heal the fault-lines of injustice in our culture. One step then leads to another step, etc. Our communities, after all, are made up of individual people. The laws and structures are only as good as the people upholding them.   

For me, this journey started with friendship. Knowing people of different ethnicities and backgrounds makes me more sensitive to the challenges that different minority groups face. Hearing the stories of racism first-hand makes it harder to ignore or make excuses for behaviors that harm certain people groups.

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Meaningful relationships, however, don’t just happen without effort. I have pursued young women of color that I began to mentor and then I ended up learning as much from them as they learned from me. I continue to learn more every year.  In addition, we started our journey of doing foster care back in 2013, which led me to know the birth families of the children we cared for. That helped to break down stereotypes that I didn’t even know I had, so that I could grow in compassion and understanding of people from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. I have also become friends with more people from different religious backgrounds and perspectives, and that has helped me to become a better First Amendment lawyer, seeking to advocate for the religious liberty of all people. Overall, my journey so far has involved listening and learning, and has led me to places of sacrifice and risk-taking.

It may take months and years to get down this road of internal change, but I guarantee it will bring lasting change! I firmly believe it is better than the most articulate post on Facebook. I believe that my engagement will look different as I walk through different stages of my life. But I commit to stay engaged!  I will continue to learn and grow, in my awareness, in my love, and in my advocacy. One step at a time.

My deep personal motivation driving me towards action is grounded in my faith. I long to help our broken communities begin to have lasting hope for healing.  My faith calls me to follow the example of my Lord and Savior, Jesus, and the words of the Apostle Paul, to look “to the interests of others” and to “in humility count others more significant” than myself (Philippians 2:3-4). Jesus calls us to live this way, not so that God accepts us (since he freely offers us acceptance through Jesus), but rather because it is the only way to true happiness – walking in love and towards unity!

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