Overcoming the Barriers That Separate Us
By Hal Knight
I write at the end of an especially troubling week for America. Two African-American young men, one in Louisiana and one in Minnesota, were killed by white policemen in situations that should not have resulted in their deaths. In Dallas, Texas, which is considered to have one of the finest police departments in the nation, five policemen were murdered by an African American sniper, and others were wounded.
In Louisiana the man who was killed was selling CDs on a street corner. In Minnesota the man was in a car with his girlfriend and her four-year-old child, reaching for his wallet when he was shot. The cell phone video taken right after the shooting is extremely painful to watch. These two deaths fit the pattern of African American young men being killed by police in numbers far out of proportion to white young men stopped for similar offenses.
What was so deeply moving in the midst of the murders in Dallas was seeing police, out-gunned and vulnerable to the assault weapon used to target them, putting their lives in danger to move the crowd of peaceful demonstrators to safety. They would say they were just doing their jobs; I call it heroism.
It has just been over a year since a young white racist murdered nine members of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, hoping to start a race war. He had shown up at the church during an evening Bible study and was invited to attend. It was not only this horrific act that stunned the nation, but how grieving family members told the murderer that even though he caused them unbearable pain, they nonetheless forgave him.
It is easy enough to cite John Wesley on racial equality: “the African is in no respect inferior to the European” he wrote in his Thoughts Upon Slavery. But I believe Wesley has a deeper challenge for America today, and especially for Christians.
In speaking about concern for the poor in his sermon “On Visiting the Sick” Wesley observed “one great reason why the rich in general have so little sympathy for the poor is because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is that...one part of the world does not know what the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it—and then plead their voluntary ignorance as an excuse for their hardness of heart.”
In America today people tend to live in neighborhoods with people much like themselves. They share common outlooks and sources of information and reinforce their perspectives and prejudices largely by only talking among themselves. As a multitude of studies show, this isolation makes it difficult to understand where others unlike ourselves are coming from. One part of our world indeed does not know what the other suffers.
Could it be that one essential task for the church today is to overcome the barriers that separate us? Can we find ways to truly listen to one another and to discover what persons different than us face every day, what they fear and what they hope for? Whether it is an African American parent, the spouse of a police officer, or anyone else, until we learn to see life from their perspective as well as our own we will be unable to truly love them as our neighbor, much less address those issues that should concern us all.