I appreciate your words from your latest post so much. I don’t know how to articulate my thoughts beyond that. My heart feels beyond heavy and that has left me feeling clueless about what I, a white 37 year old woman from Northern California, can even begin to do. I’m going to listen to those who are hurting and affected by this. I am also going to pray for those affected and for the “yucky bad guys” (I have small boys and I literally can’t think of another way to describe them right now). My question now is how to pray, what to pray for the racist community? It feels feeble and not enough to just pray “Lord change their hearts.” How do you pray for these people that our God loves even though they are despicable and have disgusting views? How do we love like Christ in this?
Stumped & Confused
Dear Stumped & Confused,
Thank for your encouragement to me, and for being an ally in the fight for racial justice. I, too, often feel pretty clueless about what I can do, in my neighborhood, with my family, and in my small slice of the world around me. But I’ll tell you one thing: you’re listening. You’re beginning to feel the pain and maybe even the anger that many of us (and especially those of us with white skin) have been ignorant to for too long now. You’re maybe even realizing that this isn’t about knowing or being personally connected with a person of color, but it’s about the basic tenants of humanity. It’s about the imago dei present in each and every human on this earth. And as someone who directly feels the impact of recent events in Charlottesville, Portland and the like, I need you to recognize my pain. I need you to say, I see you. I’m with you. I’m sorry. That little gesture of kindness and minor act of acknowledgment means the world to someone like me.
As per those “yucky bad guys,” I wish I could whip out my Masters of Theology degree, and wave around magic pixie dust sprinkles of a perfect theological answer for you. But I can’t. So I’ve got three thoughts for you: who knows if any of them are right for you, but as I’ve been sitting with your question, this is what’s come to me.
First, maybe it’s not so much about asking God to change the hearts of our enemies, as much as it is to simply pray for our enemies – as much as it kills us, as much as we don’t want to, as much as we don’t feel like your prayer is “actually” working. I love how Jen Hatmaker recently talked about it in Of Mess and Moxie: the last thing she wanted was to pray for her enemies, but she knew she had to start somewhere. Instead of praying heaps of blessings upon those she hated, she started out by asking God not to let them get hit by a car. Done. That was it. That was her prayer on day one.
Maybe the specifics of our prayers aren’t that important, but the recipients of our prayers – the ones we hate the most, the ones who’ve hurt us the most, the ones who don’t deserve the prayers of the saints in the least – are. Maybe what feels like the weakest and the shittiest of human prayers are actually the holiest, because we are eventually graced with the teensiest ounce of love for our enemies.
Maybe. (You’ll see that there are a whole lot of maybes in this letter, and for good reason: I’m not sure. This is a difficult question to answer, and I don’t know if there’s one “right way” to go about answering it).
So, here’s the second idea: We begin to tell better stories about our enemies. This doesn’t mean that we excuse or legitimize hate-filled actions, but we do seek after our shared common humanity, which is perhaps the hardest thing of all. Osheta Moore coins this phrase in her upcoming book, Shalom Sistas, when she takes Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 seriously and seeks to understand the story behind her enemy’s story. So, if you’re a Christian, maybe this means going to church this Sunday just so you cozy up beside those you most vehemently disagree with. Pass the Peace. Break the Bread. See what happens when holiness and grace squeeze their way into your heart, as you realize the presence of Christ also happens to live in the heart of the biggest Fox News fan this side of the Mississippi.
But another thought along the same lines: How do we engage and change the minds of those who hate, who are so very wrong in belief and action? This is perhaps the hardest question of all to answer, but if you are in legitimate relationship with someone who, say, hates green people just because of the forested color of their skin, then consider this an opportunity to understand and honor the human behind the story. Ask them questions. Desire to know more – not so you can be right, but so you can understand who they really are, deep down inside, so you can see the innocent child that still resides inside. Share a meal with them. Honor their humanity.
(For the record, I’m also a pretty big fan of not engaging in serious conversations like this on social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like want us to believe that this is real intimacy with another human being, but it’s not. So, if that is your primary – or only – way of engaging with your enemy, just don’t go there. If someone whom I consider a friend tries to engage with me in this way, and this is a relationship I want to fight for, I ask if we can meet in person or talk about it over the phone. But I refuse to engage in an impersonal, hollow space such as social media over such an important topic).
Third, perhaps we change the trajectory of our prayers. Maybe you’re like me right now, and you feel like you can’t even begin to muster a prayer for your enemies. I’m pretty certain God’s not going to send down a healthy dose of hell, fire and brimstone to smote you for bad or ill-timed prayers, not now, not ever. So, maybe you and I do what we do in parenthood and in life and in friendships all the time: turn it around.
If threats to my son to eat all of his broccoli for dinner aren’t working, then if I’m of sound mind, I change my mode of operation. Robot Mama enters the dining room and she’s a whole more fun to eat your broccoli with than Hurry-Up-And-Eat-Or-You-Lose-All-Your-Privileges-And-Go-To-Bed-At-6 Mama. In the same way, maybe we seek not to pray for our enemies but for our allies.
Just last night, I read a line from my father-in-law’s book, Three Years in Mississippi, that deserved all the exclamation points in the world: “However, my purpose is not to discover the ones who are against, but to see who is for” (87). In his journey toward integrating the University of Mississippi, there were many people, both in the white and black communities, who disagreed with his idea. They didn’t want to rock the boat. They thought he was abusing the system. They felt endangered by his actions. But he couldn’t not do what he believed God had put him on this earth to do, so in all his interactions leading up to the actual integration, he looked not for the naysayers but for the optimists. He looked for those who shared his ideals, who journeyed with him and for him in his mission, for those who were for him and not against him.
So, maybe we do the same thing. Instead of looking for the haters, look for the hopeful resisters. Look for those brothers and sisters of color who are leading the charge – the ones who’ve been talking about this a whole lot longer than some of us, who are just now waking up to the reality of racial injustice in the United States. Then, listen more than you speak, especially if you’re white. Learn about everything you were privileged not to have to know for too long in your past. And then, when an incident of hate happens again – because it will, because the fight’s not over yet – maybe you’ll find yourself actually ready to pray for your enemies.
But in the meantime, hang in there. And thank you for being in this fight with me.
So, your thoughts? What would you add? Have another question you’d like to throw my way – leave it in the comments, or shoot me a private message from my Facebook page.
*Post contains Amazon Affiliate links. Click on one and you’ll support research for my book!0