Anger. Empathy. Race

Earlier this week I was praying with some friends, asking God to make me more attuned to feelings of anger and powerlessness in others and in myself.  The desire to tune in to anger has come from beginning to serve on this national Cultural Training team with the Navigators.  Anger is not the focus of the team—the ultimate goal is growing beyond our biases into genuine empathy and the capacity to relate across cultural lines for the sake of the Gospel.  But even my early work with this team has made me realize that being able to understand and negotiate anger (and the hurt often beneath it) is integral to the task of crossing cultures in the U.S.

And then I got a text this morning from a friend asking for prayer in a sense on her, but not just her, behalf.  She and I have been in very honest conversations about our hearts, race, and God for many years.  As a black woman, she has encountered a level of soul pain tied to race that I only know bits of.  She wrote:

Trying to pray but the words won't come. I would lift my eyes to the hills for my/our help but I cannot see them in the fog of hurt, rage, and disbelief that has swallowed me whole. I don't even know what general direction the hills lie from whence our help could come. Or what that help might even look like. Please pray in my stead for Dallas, for Alton, for Philando and everyone else lost in this madness. Thanks.

I didn’t even know what had happened in Dallas and found myself googling at 6:00 a.m.  My heart literally cried for my friend’s hurt, rage, and disbelief.  And for so many others.

Earlier this week, before New Orleans, Minneapolis or Dallas, I shared the following reflections with one of my teammates about being with my Goddaughters at a water park in Alexandria, VA:

Sitting there and feeling for the day what it was like to be with 1000 people, 850 of whom were black, and we were a part of a mish-mash of non-black people, and then imagining that being the case for 100s of years, and then trying to imagine the realities of 100s of years of active, governmentally sanctioned racism towards my people and then towards me as an individual (let's say, not from everyone--of course there would be genuinely kind individuals--but from some people directly and many people indirectly) and then also the latter, unofficial-oft denied, institutional kind of racism...I realized that a combination of fear, powerlessness and anger, rage really, would be boiling over me, spilling out in ways I wouldn't have words for.  Not that God couldn't work or being showing up in that context.  He could and would.  But still.

One black friend said she was just glad that I could admit it.

In the midst of this mix, my friend, Ralph, who has studied intercultural communication his whole life and picked up his Master’s degree in this in his 50s, reminded me that all people are so brilliantly and beautifully made in the image of God and so terribly fallen.  If Jesus is right, that murder in one’s heart and murder in practice really are the same, Ralph says—not tongue in cheek but seriously—he and Hitler really need the same amount of God’s mercy.   

Making peace with the depth of both realities is integral, Ralph was saying, for navigating these racial tensions.  For when I can accept the reality of man’s fallenness*, his profound inhumanity, I can accept—as in acknowledge and not back away from—the reality of man’s inhumanity to man.  And when I can accept that, spawned by the 2nd commandment, instead of trying to dodge the resulting pain, I then can move a bit closer in empathy towards any who have suffered at the hands of another (even my hands).   

I know my thoughts are a like a small icepick in the face of the seething iceberg on which our culture appears to be crashing.  But conversations about God’s anger and human depravity have basically been out of style much of my life, and I wasn’t raised in a realm where human anger was talked too much about, either, so I’m weak on this (and therefore bend towards deflecting most anger (people's or God's), with “Oh, it’s not that bad…”).  But more often than not, that is not empathy (or even reality); that is gloss. 

This weekend, I am going away to an abbey for 48 hours of silence with Jesus. I love wandering and just being with him.  I’ve also printed out scads of Biblical references to anger, God’s and ours.  This might seem counter-intuitive, but pondering these passages is part of my attempt to become a woman who can wade into the deepening anger around (and frankly, often within) her with the mind, and empathy, of Jesus Christ.  There’s something about the brutal seriousness of the cross and the reality of God so loving the world that tie together anger and empathy.  And I ache to discover, far deeper down in my bones, the links among these things that I might become a woman who ever more deeply lives and serves—including in the areas of racial violence and pain—in the way of Jesus Christ.

I’d love your prayers for my baby steps, and perhaps your own, in this journey.  And truly, your insights on this would be welcomed.


*I'm using the word "man" but meaning humanity.  I have kept "man" simply because of the phrase "man's inhumanity to man."