James Earl Ray, the escaped convict who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr., was arrested 52 years ago today in London, England. He fled to England after shooting King with the goal of reaching Rhodesia, then led by “an oppressive and internationally condemned white minority government.”
Ray would later confess to killing MLK before recanting and saying he was the fall guy for a much larger conspiracy. There are still a number of people who believe him, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and multiple investigations across the decades since. The constant harassment by the FBI in King’s final years and his public denouncement of the Vietnam War give many pause in assuming the US government did not play a role in the civil rights leader’s death.
I bring all that up now to remind us that often the lens through which we see the world around us and the actions of others is determined as much by our personal experiences as by the larger reality of the situation.
The impact of a single experience
As I’ve read the various accounts of personal experiences from members of the black community in the wake of recent protests, what’s stood out the most is how even a single incident of racial discrimination can have a lasting impact.
In an article for the Athletic, for example, a series of black writers who cover various teams shared stories of the times they’ve been targeted and mistreated because of their race. The accounts of when they were discriminated against by police were especially poignant and left a clear impression on how they view cops to this day.
And it’s not that all—or even most—police are racist, but enough are to make it a real problem throughout this country.
The simple truth is that the actions of some, if seen as representative of the larger group, can often have an outsized influence on how we see the collective whole. It’s why a few bad cops can make people suspect of police everywhere, and also why a small group of rioters can cast an otherwise peaceful protest in a violent light.
And nowhere is that the case more than when those actions threaten our safety or leave us feeling powerless and afraid.
Why we’re still tribal people
As people, we’re hardwired to gravitate towards grouping both ourselves and others according to easily identifiable characteristics. Most of us have one or two that define the core of our identity and, consequently, how we identify others as well. That basic tendency is often referred to as tribalism.
For some, it’s based on what they do for a living. For others, it’s based on race or culture. Still more find that sense of identity in their faith. But all of us do it to some extent.
For the vast majority of human history, such grouping was necessary for our survival. History has, at least to some degree, trained us to see people who don’t fit in the same groups as we do with skepticism and fear.
However, a society as large, diverse, and interconnected as ours cannot sustain itself under those conditions. And that’s a good thing. After all, just because our nation was able to endure through discrimination and inequality in the past doesn’t mean it should continue in the future.
Where this is becoming a challenge for many of us today, though, is that we can agree on the problem but not the solution. That’s in part because there is no simple solution to the racial discrimination, police brutality, and other factors fueling the recent protests. Just as important, though, is the reality that it’s often simply not possible for us to fully understand the perspectives of people with whom we have trouble identifying.
Understanding what you can’t understand
I don’t know what it’s like to be pulled over by a police officer and searched, questioned, or otherwise harassed without just cause. I can read stories about it and try to empathize with those for whom that moment was not only real but, in many ways, defining, but we can’t truly understand something we’ve never experienced.
In the same way, I don’t know what it’s like to be part of a police department where a coworker was shot making what seemed like a routine stop or was otherwise injured while trying to keep the peace. I can listen and I can try to understand, but I’ve simply never had that experience.
And while neither experience would justify sinful and prejudicial action towards another person, perhaps understanding the degree to which we can’t understand where others are coming from can give us the necessary empathy and self-awareness to find a better path forward than the one we’ve been on to this point.
Ultimately, it’s not a sin to lack understanding, but it becomes a sin if we’re content to continue living in ignorance when that ignorance facilitates the discrimination and degradation of other people’s lives. God has called us to so much more.
Valuing lives over comfort
Eric Stephens put it well in the Athletic article referenced above. In talking about the residual anger and pain from experiences of racial discrimination, he wrote, “Don’t try to relate. I don’t want you to. Just understand. Just acknowledge that in some ways, our existence will always be different than yours. Don’t be afraid to stand up if you see someone being mistreated. And don’t be afraid to speak up and have a conversation about race in public and, more importantly, in private.”
Such actions will seldom be comfortable, but engaging in them anyway puts us in good company. After all, you don’t have to dive too deep in the Gospels to find plenty of examples of uncomfortable conversations Jesus had with those he encountered. But whether it was condemning the religious leaders for being blind and insensitive to the pain caused by their legalism, confronting the woman at the well with her sin, or simply teaching the otherwise bewildered masses, our Lord made a habit of valuing people’s lives over their comfort.
Given his example, can we really afford to do otherwise?
Two paths forward
It’s been two weeks since George Floyd was killed, and the protests, difficult conversations, and calls for real change don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. As such, it seems we’re left with two choices.
The first is to wait and hope that eventually things will get back to normal. I’ll be honest, there’s part of me that wants to do just that.
However, the second option is to take an honest look around us and accept that normal probably isn’t worth getting back to.
I think it’s pretty clear which path will do the most good for the kingdom and for the people God has called us to love with the self-sacrificial empathy, compassion, and concern that Christ displayed for all those who crossed his path.
Which will you choose today?