(Editor’s Note #1: My wife and I recently traveled to Quest Church in Seattle to hear a guided conversation with Austin Channing Brown, author of I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. It was an excellent conversation (as is the book, I’ve been listening to it on Audible), and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the author, along with theologians and pastors Brenda Salter-McNeil and Gail Song Bantum, as they discussed the issues. In the Q&A section, Ms. Brown made a statement that is very similar to the one that I’m making here, so out of respect I’m citing her as a source, albeit not a primary one.)
(Editor’s Note #2: If you’re in a hurry and want to skip the first half that explains how and why I felt the need to answer this question in this way, scroll down to the picture labeled “My Response Below.”)
So I there I was, arguing about racial issues on Facebook.
(Those of you who know me well should not at all be surprised by this.)
Okay, actually, arguing is a bit of a misnomer, because I’ve actually resolved to do less of that on Facebook. (I was going to say, “I’ve stopped doing that,” but I work as a pastor now, so the consequences of lying in a blog post are even greater than before.)
What I was doing, though, was having a spirited exchange with a few people (mostly mutual friends, or friends-of-friends) on the topic of racial injustice, which is where I spend a significant portion of my time on Facebook. I also do a lot of normal Facebook type activities, but because this particular online forum is the only place where I can interact with people who are both ideologically or politically opposed and honest enough about their beliefs to articulate them (as opposed to most church communities, where people are either unchallenged in their beliefs or far too polite to ever get into such discussions), I tend to have these kinds of discussions often, and almost exclusively on Facebook. I readily admit that talking about highly-charged political and/or emotional topics online is less than optimal, but in our segregated America, my choices are usually either to talk about it on Facebook or not talk about it at all (which in many cases is how we got into this terrible situation to begin with). So, as in many other situations, Facebook conversations about race seem like the best of several bad choices.
What complicates this further is that often many of the people with which I’m engaging identify as Christians. In theory this should make the conversation easier, as it should provide for a larger base of values and beliefs for me to appeal to. In practice, however, it often makes things even more difficult. Because our collective misunderstandings and untruths about race sit next to and are intertwined with our collective misunderstandings and untruths about God and our nation, the sense of cognitive dissonance people experience when encountering the truth is even greater than usual, and causes even more misunderstanding and/or pushback. Thus, when it comes to me talking to white people about racism, particularly if they haven’t done much work to pierce that layered veil of untruth that shrouds much of the white evangelical church, it’s often exhausting, whether Christian or not. (This is a good time to mention that Austin Channing Brown dedicated a whole chapter of her book to this exact dynamic).
This exhaustion tends to give me a shorter fuse than usual.
So when I happened upon this particular exchange that I had recently on Facebook, I must admit that my feelings were truly conflicted.
I won’t get into what started this exchange, but one person in particular, whom I surmised as white, asked about the original’s poster’s theology of reparations. Well, that’s my succinct encapsulation of his question. Literally what he typed was this:
[regarding your original statement]… where does this fall in line with His truth? Where can I find a scripture that agrees with reparations for behaviors of generations past to be paid for by people generations later, who not only have no relations with anyone who ever participated in the egregious behavior, nor did any of their descendants even agreed with it, but they must repay only because of their skin color…please, my brother in Christ, where is this in the Word of God?
Now, this was a comment on a friend’s post, one which I also commented, which by the way, had nothing to do with reparations. I don’t know if my Facebook friend who made the initial post had said anything recently about reparations, either in public in private, so I wasn’t sure where this comment was coming from. But considering our current political climate, I felt that the original post was especially conciliatory in tone, and did not in any way seem to be aggressive or combative, as can occasionally be the case when black folks talk about reparations.
Anyway, all that was going through my head, so I said this in response:
[Commenter’s Name], embedded in your question is a laundry list of specific qualifications that, in my estimation, you’ve stacked high so as to prove that such a Scripture doesn’t exist. But I think you’re asking the wrong question. Instead of “where in the Scriptures does it say we should provide reparations in such & such a scenario” you might fare better if you ask the question, “what does the Word of God have to say about racial injustice, and how I should respond to it?”
This was my honest attempt at a healthy conversational redirect.
I mean, I didn’t want to put him even further on the defensive, so I didn’t challenge his implicit assumption that the burden of proof must exclusively lie on me, a person of color, to demonstrate exactly how and why reparations are a Biblical concept, instead of resting on him to prove why it isn’t. As if every political idea or cultural practice in America has an exact chapter-and-verse recitation attached to it. Christmas trees aren’t in the Bible, but most conservative Christians accept those fine, no problem. But when the topic suddenly has to do with race and power and money, now all the sudden we’re all ‘where is it written?’ C’mon son.
Like I said, I didn’t even want to go there.
But he insisted again with a similar question, and then when he asked a follow-up suggestion, I told him to start with Acts 10, because I think that’s a great foundational text for understanding what God thinks about race and racial divisions. But upon asking for more, he included the phrase, “I am genuinely curious.”
Now here is where I felt conflicted.
On the one hand, this is a legitimate question, and as someone who considers himself a perpetual learner, that kind of humble question is a welcome respite from the argumentative tone that I often see on Facebook (and, to be honest, I had just seen a few comments prior).
But on the other hand, I had stuff to do. So in another comment, I ended with this:
If you’re genuinely curious, I would encourage you to do your own research in the subject (start with Googling the phrase “theology of reparations”) and see what you find. I appreciate your curiosity, but it’s not our job to educate you.
A few days passed, and then I saw this in response:
Jelani, we are all, as ambassadors of Christ, to encourage each other in the Word. It is our job to disciple each other, build one another up. Esteem our brother over ourselves. Part of that, is teaching the truth. Educating one another in The Good News. If I had more of a similar belief to yours, would you have more interest in educating me?
Again, conflicted. It seemed like he really wanted a response here, and I couldn’t tell if he was just earnestly expressing his desire to learn, or if he was trying to Christian-guilt-trip me into answering, or what. And the truth is, had this conversation happened perhaps five years ago, here is the point where I would’ve taken the time to research five great Biblically-based responses and feed them to him, right in the middle of the Facebook thread.
But this time, I could immediately sense that this would be a mistake, but I didn’t completely have all of the language or ideas at the top of my head to explain why. And I didn’t wanna leave my dude hanging.
So here, after 1,300+ words of introduction, is my answer.
Dear (Probably White) Facebook Friend-of-a-Friend:
Here is a list of all the reasons why I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to continue to educate you about racial issues. These are numbered, but not necessarily in order of importance.
1.) I almost labeled this post “Why I Can’t Educate You on Racial Issues,” but it dawned on me that I was already educating you.
Even my initial answers could’ve been sufficiently helpful to someone sufficiently motivated to seek the Truth. The fact that you kept asking for more answers could possibly serve as evidence of a desire to know more, but it could just as easily been evidence that you’re just looking for reasons to disprove the things you’ve already heard. So instead of being disappointed by the answers you didn’t get, it might serve you well to be grateful for the ones you did get, particularly from people of color.
2.) My continuing to educate you in this informal context might disincentivize you to experience interacting with other people of color on this topic.
I think you should branch out! I mean, can you imagine what would happen if you asked those questions about reparations to ten different black people on Facebook? Do you know what kind of responses you might get? (Okay, I’ll be honest, that was kind of a trick question. You probably don’t have ten different black friends on Facebook.) Most black people don’t like being condescended to, and will not be as easily willing to overlook it as I was. Even though it might not be fun, in the long run it might help you to get chewed out a bit, just so you can see things from our perspective.
3.) This isn’t CSI: Facebook.
My experiences with trolls online have taught me that sometimes, whether intentionally or not, trolls will often derail the conversation by requiring greater and greater samples of forensic evidence, often to a comical degree. That’s what I felt like you were doing with your line of questioning. It was like, bro, this isn’t Jeopardy, you don’t have to provide your answers in the form of questions. Such a demand for ridiculous specificity is often a sign that you’re just trying to build a strawman to defeat, and I refuse to play that role.
Speaking of which…
3b.) Another troll move is to invalidate the source of any information that contradicts one’s beliefs, and I’ve seen that happen a LOT.
“Oh, well don’t you know that author is biased? How do you know that really happened? Did you see that exchange in person, or are you relying on the biased media?” I’m not trying to say that my sources are always correct and that my word should never be scrutinized, but I can relate to Jesus in Luke 16:31, when he tells the parable of someone begging from the place of eternal torment to give them a chance to warn their family members of the judgment to come. “Let them listen to Moses and the prophets,” Jesus says in response. “If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they listen to someone who comes back from the dead.”
At this point, the best I can hope for is a Lee-Strobel-esque scenario whereby your dogged search for the truth leads you to… find it. But that requires a certain level of initiative to look and a willingness to examine what you find.
If you don’t have ears to hear, brah, you ain’t gonna hear, regardless of how sound my ideas or airtight my arguments are.
4.) Related to the last answer, you asked this: “If I had more of a similar belief to yours, would you be more interested in educating me?”
I wasn’t totally sure how to answer this question because it sounded a bit like you were accusing me of playing political favorites, like “are you just mad because I appear to be conservative?” If that wasn’t the spirit of your question, then I apologize, but that’s what it sounded like upon first glance. Either way, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that no, it’s not just because you have beliefs that differ from mine that I’m reticent to continue educating you, because there are people who are much closer to my beliefs both theologically and politically (I’m a center-left moderate revangelical) who often ask me similar questions, and for the most part, I won’t be doing this for them, either. The bad news is, the fact that you’re this defensive about the topic means I’m less likely to want to extend myself for your benefit. So… #sorrynotsorry.
5.) We’re not Ephesians or Philippians.
I appreciate that you made several Biblical appeals from Paul’s writings about unity and cooperation and encouragement. Implicit in your question were references to 2 Cor 5:11-21 (“we are God’s ambassadors”), 1 Thess 5:11 (“encourage one another”), Phil 2:3-11 (“esteem our brother over ourselves”) and several other Scriptures that I don’t have the time to even reference, let alone unpack.
But I want to draw your attention to something. Paul made these admonitions to people who were in churches together. That is, they had a foundational relational component that undergirded their fellowship, which is why Paul also reminded them not to neglect gathering.
Unfortunately, the quick and up-to-the-minute nature of Facebook conversations and the ease with which we can converse about the minutiae of life can provide an illusion of intimate relationship, but it’s not the same.
Now, am I saying that I don’t have a duty to behave respectfully to anyone who isn’t a part of my church? Of course not. But what I am saying is that I’m not only less motivated to extend myself without the benefit of relationship, but even if I am sufficiently motivated, the result will not be as effective.
After all, Jesus’ requirement in Matthew 5:24 that we resolve our conflicts before we come to the altar… presupposes not only that God will be pleased with our humility if we take the initiative to seek out and rectify an offense, but also that it will prevent the additional drama that would ensue with two people with enmity trying to worship in the same space. If you remove the time and space constraints, it’s pretty doggone easy to worship while having enmity with someone. Spoiler alert — a whole lot of Christians in the American south did this for centuries.
Now, the fact that I am a pastor means I am actually predisposed to want to see these conversations take place, both in and outside the church. But I’m more and more convinced that some kind relational connection point is needed in order to build enough trust to have effective dialogue, and right now, I just don’t know you like that, so I’m not gonna extend myself as far.
6.) Believe it or not, this isn’t fun for me.
This might be the hardest thing for certain conservatives to understand. I think if you view everything through the zero-sum lens of winners and losers, and you see society starting to turn away from racism and toward a broader, more inclusive view of equity and justice… then all of the sudden it looks like The Blacks Are Winning All the Time. And winning is fun, right?
But dude, seriously. Think about this. Any true, honest conversation about racism is going to require a lot of unpacking of generational trauma because of centuries of oppression and disenfranchisement. You think that unpacking trauma is my idea of a good time? You think I want to talk about all those times when I was qualified for that job or that raise, but I didn’t get one because I “didn’t fit the culture of the office?” You think I want to keep drawing attention to the fact that in my city, state and nation, the government has a historical legacy of mistreating its African-American citizens, failing to apologize for that mistreatment, making half-hearted attempts to make things better, and then reneging on those half-hearted promises?
These conversations are hard, and they’re full of shame on all sides. Honestly, I’d rather be playing my XBox, or watching The Good Fight. I’d rather be riding my bike, or working on beats for my new hip-hop project. The extent to which I’ve previously extended myself for the cause of racial unity is largely because I felt there was a need that would go unmet if I didn’t step in. Not because I enjoyed it.
and finally, because this blog post is already way too long…
7.) Education is work, and I can’t work for free.
The things that many black folks like myself have learned over our years on this earth, we’ve not just learned through experience. Many of us literally had to take out student loans so that we could earn degrees on these subjects. Because as Fannie Mae can attest, education is not free in America.
Thus, if you view any of us as trusted sources of legitimate commentary and perspective, it’s probably because we had to write books on the subject, or start a successful podcast, or build an audience through a lot of freelance work in a variety of publications, or teach in a university, or build a career in broadcasting. Even those of us fortunate enough to become household names, we were motivated to do so not out of a chase for fame but because learning how to monetize our craft was the only way we could do what we cared about and still find a way to eat.
So the biggest reason why I’m answering here on my blog instead of directly on Facebook is because I need to somehow benefit from this exchange of information, and I short-circuit that exchange by too-quickly providing it for free in passing.
So if you see me out at a conference somewhere and I have the blessing of being able to speak on a topic, don’t just ask me in the hallway what my talk was about. Come to the talk. If you see me teaching a class on the subject, don’t ask me to have coffee with you — come to the class. I don’t know a ton about how to create economic self-sufficiency, but I’m pretty sure that consistently working for free isn’t the way to go about it.
So there you go. If you’re white, and you’ve previously engaged me on some racial topic on Facebook (or, more likely, I push back at you for something ignorant you said on Facebook), and you think I was too abrupt in the way I left the conversation, now you know why.
And if you’re a person of color and you’re tired of explaining yourself over and over, just share this article instead.