It is hard, however, to know how to react, what to say, what to do. Because where, indeed, is the evil?
Racism is evil, and I know it's alive and well in America. Being white, in a largely white community, means I'm not exactly qualified to speak about it though. I've experienced mild forms of prejudice because I'm a woman...but nothing that I couldn't handle, nothing that made me so angry I wanted to lash out, and nothing that significantly limited my life or opportunities.
I can't know what racism is like, but I do know that I don't want to live in a country plagued by it.
At the same time, I also know that any particular situation is far more complicated than we, the general public, can know. The facts are twisted and warped and selectively edited for mass consumption by unknown individuals with agendas who care not a wit for truth. I've watched major news stories play out in the media...news stories for which I was a privileged insider...news stories that held absolutely no resemblance to what I knew to be the truth.
This makes me question everything I "learn" from the media and has taught me to be hyper-aware of my ignorance and the ease with which my feelings and thoughts and responses might be manipulated. I sit back and watch the media play on fears, provoke reactions, and angle for viewers. I sit back and read public tweets and blog posts and Facebook posts and comments on news stories. I sit back and stare in horror at video footage.
I sit back and wonder. Where is the truth? What is the context for that video clip? What happened before and after that will change the meaning of that heavily-edited 30 seconds?
I don't know.
I am aware of my ignorance largely because I know how to manipulate words myself. Language isn't some sort of objective thing that means what it says and says what it means...ever. It's sneaky, it's multi-layered, it's manipulative; it's the only way we can know anything, and its revelations are not nearly as clear as we want them to be.
Rhetorical devices can be powerful tools. I know how to take someone from the guffaws of helpless laughter to the tears of helpless tragedy in five words or less. I recognize the signs of manipulation and know that sometimes, manipulation is for our own good, to guide us to truth, and sometimes, it's evil and intended to make us stumble. Finding the truth in particular situations takes more hard work than most of us are willing to exert.
LOTS of people, however, think they know the truth. They take what they hear (or want to hear) in the media as absolute gospel, jump to conclusions based on incomplete evidence, and react...often over-react. But they don't know. Not really. And their reactions--on whatever side of an issue--end up making things worse.
And therein lies the problem. What should I do--what should any of us do--in such uncertain situations if we seek to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly? How can we know the truth?
As I contemplated this dilemma, Martin Luther King, Jr., came to mind. He was a man of words and faith and action, a man of God. He felt racism in ways I never will. And he skillfully used words to manipulate others toward peace and harmony, love and goodwill, hope and faith...the things we should value not just this Christmas season but all year, every year.
What did King say that might help guide us in these circumstances? He saw far more clearly than I the real truth of racism. He suffered the ugliness of it in Montgomery, in Birmingham, in Atlanta, and finally in Memphis on the day he was killed. I invite you to think about what he said and consider how it applies to your reactions to the media, to your personal philosophy, and to your actions toward others. How can you--no matter your race, religion, sex, profession, income, location--be part of the destruction of racism and the strengthening of justice and mercy in America and throughout the world?
"History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people."
"Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness."
"The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it. Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility."
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."
"In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system."
"Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude."
"An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity."
"Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'"
What am I doing for others?
Well, I can't be silent, even in my ignorance of the particulars of Ferguson or Cleveland or Beavercreek, but I also can't take a side that may or may not be just. I can't over-react for my "side" (whatever that might be) because that makes things worse. I need to step out in love. And thank God, I am not alone. Plenty of people are out here with me, stepping out in love, reaching out with love, working for the cause of love, speaking words of love and mercy and forgiveness and compassion.
This season, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, Emmanuel, God-with-Us, the Prince of Peace. Jesus was born into a world riddled with injustice, hate, violence, anger, fear, and oppression. Love came down at Christmas.
Jesus' message to the world, His final commandment to us, given shortly before His death, resonates for us still today, just as it did for Dr. King:
"A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another."
Love one another like God loves us. If we work toward that, we will all end up on the same side.
Peace be with us all, and a joyous Christmas.