Eating the Elephant in the Room

Reflections on Urbana 15 and #blacklivesmatter from a pastor who was there.

This post is divided into 2 parts, 1) The difference between “addressing” and “endorsing” an issue and part 2) How Christians can move forward. I do not presume to be the final authority on Urbana 15, #blacklivesmatter, or how to move forward but these are my thoughts.

He’s in the room looking all majestic.

Addressing vs. Endorsing

On Tuesday night, the second evening at Urbana 15, the schedule reflected two speakers, Francis Chan and Michelle Higgins. There was a palpable momentum headed into the evening expecting great things from Chan. The worship team took the stage in matching t-shirts. The shirts bore the words/slogan “Black Lives Matter.”

The worship team began to worship and after some time, Chan took the stage to a cheering crowd. He spoke on the authority of Christ and that Christ being in authority is a great thing. As a result, we get the privilege of being under his authority. It’s a good thing!

The worship team was brought up for another set. In the middle of the set, I think, the worship leader interviewed two of the African American members of the team (something they did for all members of the team). They talked about their lives and their church culture. After some singing, Michelle Higgins took the stage.

It’s worth noting here that it was good to see so many African Americans (and many others) blessed by the worship and encouraged with a message that they mattered and their experiences were not forgotten.

You can view Chan, Higgins and the worship by clicking here.

Much has been written about the content of what Higgins said. Some good, some bad. Having been in the room for the whole conference there are a couple points that I think are worth addressing from the conversation that has continued from Urbana 15.

Number 1: There is a difference between addressing and endorsing an issue. In a press release on December 31st, Intervarsity said that they “addressed” the issue of #blacklivesmatter essentially because it was/is a huge issue for many of their students. I’m thankful they saw the need on campuses, in their organization, and in North American Christendom at large and attempted to add/start the discussion.

Further, in their press release they rejected the part of the #blacklivesmatter movement that promotes efforts to “attack or dehumanize police.” Good, as well they should.

Here’s the problem, that release did not reflect the conversation had at Urbana 15 regarding #blacklivesmatter.

Not once on the 28th was the discussion nuanced or framed as anything other than support for #blacklivesmatter.

Not once on the 28th was the support of #blacklivesmatter nuanced (like, we don’t want you to kill or dehumanize cops) (or like, we don’t agree with the trans/queer affirming stance of #blacklivesmatter).

Not once during the many other #blacklivesmatter mentions (at many plenary sessions) was the discussion aimed at education.

So when Intervarsity says, “we addressed” #blacklivesmatter it is rather divorced from the experience. With seemingly no care for the complexity of the movement (or social inequity, for that matter), Intervarsity seemed content with leaving the “conversation” at a decibel loud enough to deafen a redneck at a Nascar track.

As you can imagine, it’s difficult to hold a conversation at that volume.

The conversation had at Urbana was more like an invitation to endorse #blacklivesmatter as a movement and not an invitation to address and discuss the systemic injustices or racial discrimination that undergird the need for a movement. That’s problematic for any number of reasons.

Number 2: Complex issues require complex conversations. My main gripe with #blacklivesmatter and its presence at Urbana 15 was that there was almost no attempt to teach or instruct. In a stadium filled with 16,000 young adults, impressionable and waiting to be taught, both Higgins and the IV team missed a golden opportunity to educate and exhort.

First, Higgins. Again, much has been written about the content but my gripe isn’t so much the content (though certainly you could have gripes with content) as much as the method.

As a pastor, when preaching, the job is to move those in attendance closer to Christ. Whether it’s attempting to expound on the glories of God or expose sin, the desire is that at the end of the message, God has used the pastor to bring people closer to Christ. Usually, there is no immediate or tangible way to measure this. Still it is a goal as a preacher, one I have fallen short of and one I’m sure the good people at my church will, with great long suffering, endure on my behalf in the future.

I must admit, I was angry. Higgins was dismissive of the pro-life movement (that wasn’t her point, by the way). I was angry when she said that the evangelical church had white supremacy as her “side piece” (no evidence was given, or if it was, it was drowned out by the volume). I was frustrated at the notable absence of Jesus and his restorative power.

When preaching, the goal is to help the listener find the tumor in their body and with the help of the Spirit, excise that which is causing death and decay. Good preaching is more like precise robotic surgery and bad preaching looks more like Jack the Ripper became a surgeon. Both can be effective but the time spent recovering isn’t equal.

Speaking only for myself, I’ve found I’m woefully unprepared to have the conversation Higgins wanted to have. I know so little about the experiences of my black brothers and sisters — I had almost no framework for her to build on. It would’ve been helpful to have a defter touch, more information, more Scripture and more Jesus. Maybe spend some time defining terms. Maybe spend some time with some concrete examples of systemic injustice and explain why they are examples of systemic injustice. Help us to build a framework to see and recognize systemic injustice more effectively. This may seem remedial but it’s necessary. One can’t assume we’re starting the conversation with equal experiences or frameworks.

Help us find the areas in our hearts that we harbor inequity towards anyone. This is such a complex and personal (which, in part, accounts for Higgins’ passion) issue, bring us along in a way that doesn’t diminish either.

The more distance I have from Tuesday night the more I wish Higgins wouldn’t have changed what she said per se but rather sought to educate us and exhort us to living more like Christ.

Second, IV. Throughout the week, they ducked the conversation. Attendees were asked to “lean into” the #blacklivesmatter movement. I wasn’t sure what that meant but after the 3rd time throughout the week, it felt condescending. What might have worked better would have been for IV to “lean into” the conversation and, at the conference, separate what they were trying to do from the extreme parts and ideologies of what the #blacklivesmatter movement contains.

This omission may seem small but for myself, some on my team, and others I spoke with at the conference it was notable.

What might have worked better would have been for IV to keep the #blacklivesmatter conversation of Urbana on Tuesday night/Wednesday afternoon when Michelle spoke.

The continued presence, at times, felt like they were conflating those persecuted for their faith with the #blacklivesmatter movement.

Or, if the conversation was going to continue throughout as much as it did, spend more time in the main sessions with other speakers addressing racial and social inequity.

In short, if IV wanted to have the “conversation” much more could’ve been done before and after Higgins to continue the conversation and mobilize young people.

They missed a golden opportunity to educate and equip.

IV settled for far too little.

A conversation I had last week with a close friend from seminary, who happens to be African-American, left me feeling overwhelmed. He went into some detail about his experience as a black man, his wife’s experience as a black woman, and fears for his son. He was exceedingly generous with my questions because it became painfully obvious I had no frame of reference when he said “Jim Crow”, “social inequity”, or “social justice.” So I needed to be brought along like a child, something he did with grace and tact.

The sheer enormity of the situation felt like a 20,000 pound elephant sat between my friend and I.

In feeling overwhelmed, it’s possible that I might have, in that moment felt a small portion the frustration, despair, and hopelessness that plague many of our African-American, Latino, Asian, and Middle Eastern brothers and sisters.

Their stories were a poignant reminder that inequity does exist and that some of it is divided along racial lines. The reasons for the divides are complex and multi-faceted but still they persist to exist.

As I continue to read articles, pray, and have the conversation with others and attempt to move toward action, I think that there are a few things Christians can do to move forward.

Number 1: Recognize that your reality is not everyone’s reality. That is, as a balding, married, middle aged white guy, my experience is different from a single, full head of hair, ripped, young white guy. If we can concede that (certainly we should), then how much more different is my experience from say a Syrian Refugee, or a Chinese Student at Stanford, or a young black kid in the inner city.

That recognition should lead us to give room for the experiences of others to be valid — both good and bad and complex and simple.

It should also lead us to an understanding that words, phrases, and tone will likely be misunderstood because we come from different realities.

Too often, we settle for the easy answer when a complex problem requires a complex answer. I know I’ve been guilty of offering easy answers to situations far too complex for a soundbite.

If humility can reign from the outset, these conversations about social inequity, racism, and justice have a chance of moving forward.

Without humility, we’re destined to distrust and demean the experiences of others.

Number 2: Listen to hear not just to respond. I was an insurance negotiator for a while and I had created a checklist of responses to certain objections. It seemed expedient at the time but as I continued I realized that my calls were becoming more and more contentious (yeah, for some of you, I was that insurance guy. Sorry.). At one of my reviews, my boss told me that I needed to stop listening to respond, it wasn’t fair to the other person and it didn’t move the claim closer to resolution.

James 1:19–20 says, “My dearly loved brothers, understand this: Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for man’s anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness.”

Many conversations had about race, social inequity, and social justice sound like debates and then shouting matches. Each person fumbling over themselves to get their word in or the last word out.

As you can imagine, it’s difficult to have a conversation like that.

Listening to hear requires that experiences be affirmed as having happened. It’s not required that the other party interrogate and look to dismiss the event. This is a tendency, but the complex stuff comes later, with relationship.

Honestly, it’s a lot like active listening for married couples. So much meaning is lost because we’ve developed poor communication habits. That means we might have to resort to “What I hear you saying is….is that what you meant?” Sterile as it is, it might help to slow the conversation down.

When we listen to hear, we validate the experience of the person talking and affirm that what happened, actually happened.

In an age where communication is so polarized, this is a vital part of moving forward.

Number 3: Act where you can, speak where you can. Sometimes it’ll mean saying something uncomfortable to a relative, a co-worker, or a member of your church. Sometimes it’ll mean joining in a protest. Sometimes it’ll mean defending those whose dignity is being stripped.

The point is this, once you become acquainted with injustice, you’re required as a Christian to do all you can to eradicate that injustice.

The power to reconcile doesn’t rest in the striving or efforts of man, it rests in the power of Jesus Christ to change hearts and minds. Lasting social change happens when those with the life-changing, mind-altering, and soul-saving power of Jesus Christ stand up, fight for, and advocate alongside those who are marginalized.

It’s gospel work to eliminate injustice, inequity and racism.

So, like with any other sin present in our lives, we must root out ideas, habits, actions, words, or attitudes that demean others who bear the stamp of the imago dei on their lives.

Still, it’s overwhelming.

So, how do you get rid of the elephant in the room? By eating it, of course.

Still, that’s a monumental task.

But, if we all grab a fork, it becomes easier.

And slowly, the elephant disappears like it always does.

One bite at a time.