In recent years I’ve made no secret of my interest in the conversation about the way folks of different colors view and relate to one another. I’m particularly concerned with how this is going in the Church and with what Jesus and his Good News have to say about our pain, our sins, and our hope for healing and growth in these areas.
My personal history here is without a doubt a mixed bag — part typical white guy and part kid permanently rattled in fifth grade when C.L. Armstrong told me about Martin Luther King and why he mattered to black people. And a lot of other parts generally fitting one of those two categories.
But the gist of my more contemporary engagement has been the realization of how little my life and surroundings have changed, despite my sincere decades-long concern for racial reconciliation. In that awakening I began to hear the Lord ask me — yes I’m one of those; no, it was not an audible voice — if this was all about passive enlightenment for me (something I do quite well) or if I was going to be intentional about altering my life and relationships. In response to that, I decided I can’t get to the end of my days and find I never changed this part of my life. So far that has mostly meant seeking new voices and friends and just sitting, listening, and learning. I still give myself a C-minus in actually doing what I want to be doing, but I’m determined.
Though both my life and my learning are works in progress, I have taken hold of one clear conviction which has led me to make one specific request of others who look and generally believe like me. The conviction: Humility is always the right posture for me in this conversation. The request: Just be willing to listen and learn before you speak. I’ve made my case for that in a few ways, perhaps most clearly in a sermon I preached last January on the words of Jesus about peacemakers.
My prompt for writing today is to give attention to and commend what I believe to be a helpful model for this kind of listening and learning. Andrew Peterson, a singer/songwriter I’ve long admired who is also now a friend, last week released a video for the song “Is He Worthy?” from his upcoming album, Resurrection Letters, Volume 1. You can watch the video here:
Soon after the video released, some observed that all the faces in the church are white, an unintentional but noticeable visual juxtaposition with these lyrics:
From every people and tribe
Every nation and tongue
He has made us a kingdom
I wasn’t in this corner of the internet when the video released, and I did not observe any of the reaction until Andrew wrote about it today. Here are some of his words (I’ll link to his full piece at the end):
If I could go back in time I would tell the Andrew of a month ago, “Don’t assume. Make sure that this video is a true reflection of the Kingdom. Make sure it paints a glorious picture of the promise in Revelation that every people, tribe, nation, and tongue will sing (indeed, already sing) of the worthiness of Christ, the Lamb who was slain to free the captives. Think about the subtext, about what this video will say, wordlessly, to your friends of all colors.”
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So, as a white American singer/songwriter whose only hope is Jesus, I’m asking forgiveness of the friends and listeners to whom this video brought any measure of grief. I’m also asking the good people who have come to my defense to refrain from using social media to do so. Be silent long enough to really listen. And then, if the Spirit leads, engage with love and patience and humility. As I said, the only way to learn something is to screw up. What was only a small voice in my head a few weeks ago will, I assure you, be a loud, clear voice of wisdom in the future. I’m sure I’m going to make a mountain of mistakes in the days to come, but, Lord willing, this won’t be one of them.
When I aim to be humble, and when I ask fellow white Christians to assume a listening posture when these conversations arise, this is the kind of thing I have in mind. I am convinced the cross compels us to believe we have nothing to lose and everything to gain in selflessly placing the experience of others above our own but the cross itself to lose in dismissing others for the sake of self-preservation and self-defense.
Andrew has a lot at stake here. This song is part of a decade-long gathering of creative and spiritual energy, and the video has to feel like part of his soul’s work coming to life. I can imagine that releasing it into the world and quickly receiving negative feedback is awfully painful. I’m not suggesting it’s equal to or greater than anyone else’s pain. I just know Andrew well enough to understand that he cares about his work pointing to the reconciling mission of Jesus, so the realization that it did something else for someone couldn’t have been fun for him.
And because I know his intentions were good, I know how easy it would have been to respond with self-defense or to try to excuse the situation with explanation.
It would have been completely natural to just say, “Of course I didn’t mean to be hurtful. Could everyone just cut me a break here?” After all, he certainly didn’t intend to be hurtful.
It would have been simple to insist, “Let’s all just focus on the point of the song and video — Jesus — and not get distracted by silly little arguments.” And focusing on Jesus is, of course, important.
But the way of the cross is:
If your brother has something against you
Don’t think of yourselves more highly than you ought
In humility value others above yourselves
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.
This is not about shame or guilt, white- or otherwise. It is not about political correctness or safe spaces or anything of the sort. It’s about coming to terms with how we obey the directive to think like Jesus.
He was always right, but he didn’t cling to that. He instead gave up his privileges and served those of us who are often wrong.
He was God, but he didn’t stay separate from us or above us. He instead put himself in our skin, saw the world through our eyes, and suffered the pain we created.
Do that, the Bible says as clearly as it says anything. Do it for the people you don’t understand, don’t like, and don’t think are right. Do it and discover that real victory comes from selfless sacrifice, not superior arguments or standing your ground or trying to force God back into spaces he never left.
So when brothers and sisters say to us: “This part of what you do and how the world works is hurtful to me and to my children,” or ask us “How natural is it for you to think about how your words or work or life impact me and people who look like me?” our response ought to be to listen and consider how we might value and serve them rather than to leap to a posture of self defense or bemoan the demands to be fully inclusive all the time.
For the record, in my experience, the people I talk to aren’t asking for total inclusivity all the time. They’re asking me, as a person, to consider them, as a person, in the way I think, talk, and live. That request ought to be easy for me to honor because Jesus called me to that way of life long before any person of color ever asked it of me.
But of course it is not always easy for me. I don’t hold any high ground here. This requires death to self and to long-held points of view and to comfort and convenience, and I still resist all of that at every turn. But I’m convinced it’s the way of Jesus, and the promise is that it’s the death before the resurrection — the way to the life that is really life.
One last word: Sometimes in these moments we go a step too far in making heroes out of people for just doing the right thing and owning a mistake. That’s not my desire. Andrew is admitting an error that matters, and I’m sure part of him would rather no further attention be drawn to it. But I think his confession is one many of us need to join, acknowledging that we still aren’t as inclined as we should be to pause and consider how our words or lives impact people who aren’t like us. We don’t mean any harm, but we also don’t “value others above [ourselves]” in areas where doing so is completely reasonable and attainable.
So this isn’t about heroism; it’s just about seeing signs of the way forward and acknowledging them. This strikes me as such a sign.
There is longer, harder, deeper work to be done, but it will only be possible if there are beams of simple, sturdy humility to hold it up. Let’s build.
Andrew’s response in its entirety: Waking Up to “Is He Worthy?”: An Apology