I recently met a Caucasian woman in her late fifties at my apartment complex; during our conversation she asked me if I had been having any trouble with some of “those people” in the building. I asked “What people?” She leaned in and said “those black people”. Sighing deeply and smiling tightly I said “Nope, no trouble at all.”
Right then a guy I know, who is originally from the Congo, walked past in the distance and waved; as I waved back, she commented “There’s one of them now”. I explained to her he is very friendly and respectful to everyone he meets, always plays with his children, works in healthcare, and is a regular churchgoer. She said “Well they all look alike”. Then she added “I just thank God I live in the other building.”
Thank God for human segregation? Oh, the irony.
This conversation was just a brief, minor interaction, but it is being played out on a critical scale in our country and throughout the world. We’ve heard it called a lot of things by a lot of people—racism, prudence, xenophobia, security, hate, responsibility. I wonder if these labels are erratic representations of reality at best; but comprehensively, they leave us feeling like we are absolutely nowhere and with no direction home.
But as this season of Advent comes upon us, I believe its sacred story heralds hope for what we could be as human beings. When Mary was strangely found to be with child, her fiancé Joseph was afraid to make this strangeness a permanent part of his life. That’s when an angel clarified for Joseph the identity of this child he would be harboring in his home—“do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
Immanuel. God with us.
God facilitated humanity’s salvation by means of his incarnation. God could not save us unless he was with us, one of us. Jesus expresses God’s understanding that humanity needed to be saved by someone who is in the chaos with them. More concerned with the prospect of perpetual human horror and damnation than with continuing to grasp the comfort and convenience of his celestial glory, God empathized with humanity, putting himself in our place, walking around in our human skin, taking our sins upon himself. We are saved by God’s empathy.
Black, white, Latino, French, American, Syrian, Muslim—in Jesus, they all have a friend who has identified with them, walking around in human flesh. In Jesus, humanity is being united together; not a single one of us now has any ground to stand on if we want to stand away from fellow human beings due to our unfamiliarity with them. Just as he emptied himself, being made in human likeness, God tells us his followers to “get familiar”. Like Joseph, adaptively receive this strangeness into your life. Christ’s kingdom narrative supersedes our tribal narratives, regardless of the versions.
The debate over whether or not we have a race problem is everywhere and messy; but beneath it all I suspect is a struggle everyone has, myself included, to empathize, being willing to patiently perceive reality from the point of view of another, especially those very different from us. I believe much of the tension thickening this debate results from a failure to think outside of ourselves or to adamantly expect the situation to be resolved once others come around to our way of thinking. One thing everyone everywhere has in common is the desire to be heard, understood, respected, and responded to in accordance with that respect. They want others to empathize with them. I believe if individuals in communities can will themselves to calmly and genuinely understand and respect where others are coming from and carefully respond accordingly, community-building solutions can slowly be formed. Do not be afraid to invite unfamiliarity and strangeness into your lives; learn to work the problem and not make things worse by guessing.
By identifying himself with the whole of humanity, Jesus is the end of racism and tribal separation and the beginning of a humanity being communally renewed to his holy image.
Look around your local community; who needs someone to come alongside them and be with them? If you are a believing member of Christ’s church body, that someone could be you.