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Saturday, January 23, 2021

Danger for well-meaning white folks

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Danger for well-meaning white folks

Is “listening and learning” in danger of becoming the new “thoughts and prayers”? 

A 20-year-old — which is the age group we need to hear, especially these days — told me she thinks it is, especially for white people.

Just like some respond to tragedy with the promise of thoughts and prayers, her concern is that too many are responding to these days by offering to listen and learn.

As this young adult made her case, I thought of the story in Matthew 21: A father asks his two sons to go to work. One says no but changes his mind and works. The other says yes but doesn’t do anything.

Jesus then asks, “Which son did the will of his father?”

Not a very hard question, is it? Not a hard question for us, not for them. The one who said no but went to work — he acted. Fine story. No big deal.

But Jesus doesn’t end with the story. Instead, he says that overly and overtly religious people remind him of the second brother. They are ones who say the right things, stand for the right things, maybe even believe the right things, but do not do the things that God asks.

Jesus is not the only one to suggest this idea. Buddhism has similar teachings. Confucius understood kindness to be of more importance than purity of thought or ritual.

I’ll stay in my lane, though. Being a Christian is less about rigidly held dogma than about how we live. It’s less a set of beliefs than a way of life.

Confusing beliefs for actions, convictions for obedience, happens. For instance, we believe and say that we love our families yet sometimes we give them far too little time and thought. We believe and say we are against violence yet sometimes we buy violent video games for our children or support other violent activities. We believe in the United States’ form of democracy yet sometimes we don’t vote. We believe in God’s creation yet sometimes we don’t reduce, reuse and recycle — much less challenge the systems that produce so much waste.

It’s easy to confuse beliefs for actions. But that doesn’t make it excusable. Beliefs mean little, if anything at all, apart from what we do about them. There’s not a creed or dogma or belief in the world that is worth one visit to a sick friend, or one ice chip on the lips of someone in the hospital, or one pair of flip flops for a child with no shoes. Or one action that challenges racial injustice.

I can hear what you’re thinking, which is scary for us both: Listening and learning, or let’s say having a book study and discussion, is doing something. Education is an action. It’s not nothing.

I agree. It is something. For many, it’s a good starting place and for all, it’s good to continue to learn and grow. There are excellent study and discussion-worthy books written by authors of color.

But if that is all one does, then it’s not much more than nothing. It’s certainly not as active as contacting a mayor to request the establishment of a civilian-led board to review police use-of-force policy and the cases where police use excessive force. It’s not reminding a city council member that budgets are moral documents, and so a city’s budget should reflect commitments to all the community. It’s not donating money or voting.

Listening and learning, much like thoughts and prayers, need to be followed by actions for change.

By the way, what prompted the story in Matthew 21 was a question from some closest to Jesus. They asked, “Who are you?”

It’s as though Jesus was saying that who he was, and who we are, is determined by our actions.

Rev. Nathan Wilson is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He currently serves as director of communications at Christian Theological Seminary. Read his blog at www.nathandaywilson.com, or follow him on Twitter @nathandaywilson.

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