Can we all just get along?
If you were around in the early 1990s, you would remember this challenge posed by Rodney King, a black man who was beaten by police officers in Los Angeles. To quell the riots, perhaps, after the officers were acquitted for their level of inhumanity, King exhorted people to learn to get along instead of allowing the black-white divide to remain the defining characteristic of our society.
At first glance, King’s challenge appears to be a good one. As an American people, we should learn how to get along across racial, ethnic, and economic differences. We should be interested in building bridges that connect us to each other instead of constructing walls that intensify long-standing resentments towards those who do not share the same skin color or ideology that we do. These are worthy goals and even necessary as such actions do create some semblance of peace in our society. Some.
Far too often, however, our efforts to bring about peace and reconciliation stop at the getting along part. So long as our neighborhoods are diverse and we are able to attend multi-cultural churches and our workplaces have one or two people from a different cultural background than our own, we feel as if we have arrived. We host one or two potlucks that bring people of diverse cultures together and we think we have really done something fancy. The unfortunate truth is that diversity does not equal reconciliation and neither do our attempts at peace that make us feel so warm and comfortable on the inside. If at the end of that potluck – and even during – we cannot have an open conversation about why we are divided in the first place, we have done nothing more than apply a new shiny layer of paint to walls that are moldy and in decay.
More than showing that we are committed to the arduous task of reconciliation, “getting along” only reflects our inability to deal with conflict. We cannot handle disagreement, especially when people disagree with us. Neither can we handle being wrong. So instead of working through our issues with blood, sweat, and tears, we call for unity.
But the conflict that we want to avoid does not solely reside outside of us; in many instances we want to avoid having conflicts within our own person over what we understand to be true about ourselves in the world when we are presented with new information that challenges our assumptions. We cannot have an honest conversation about racism, sexism, and other systems of oppression because we are not able to handle what having this conversation actually means for our own lives. If police brutality exists; and rape culture is pervasive; and we are living on stolen land; and the Church is complicit in white supremacy; and internalized racism is a reality; and oppressed people really do oppress other people; and both political parties are corrupt; and even the most liberated man can exhibit sexism; and our justice movements still resemble white supremacist, individualistic ways of being in the world, what does that say about us as individuals and as a society at large? It says we are all guilty. And that we have some serious work to do.
Most people would rather not have THAT conversation. Most people do not want to explore the ways in which they have been complicit in oppression; they would much rather point out the ways in which others have oppressed and harmed them. I know it does for me. Even though I sit at the intersections of multiple oppressions as a black woman who was raised by a single mother in the hood, I also realize that I carry multiple privileges as an educated, middle class, homeowner. It is easier for me to talk about how my life is littered with examples of the ways I have been hurt by others; it is more difficult for me to speak to how I benefit from the hurt and pain of others.
Shallow attempts at diversity and unity allow me to downplay my own privileges but they also force me to ignore my pain. In pursuit of diverse workplaces, houses of worship, and neighborhoods, we cannot rock the boat – everybody must play ‘nice’ and ‘get along’ in order to have peace. In the absence of that peace, anything can happen when real trouble ensues. But the reality is that the persistent refusal to deal with issues leaves trouble festering behind our kumbaya’s and worship songs sung in three languages.
How do we move our culture and churches beyond ‘getting along’ to ‘being whole?’ And for that matter, is wholeness – total and complete shalom – even possible in a society that is so broken? I believe so. I trust in the Word of God and the salvation that Christ extends to everyone who believes in Him. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that through the shedding of His blood, the walls that divide us as a result of race, sex, class, religion, and every other distinction are utterly destroyed. In Him, we are made one.
But understand, while this gift is free to us, it cost Christ a lot. He was born in a stinky manger in questionable circumstances; He was on the run for His life from an early age; He lived in deplorable housing situations; He was a part of a marginalized ethnic/religious group in his society; He knew hunger, grief, and pain; He was ridiculed, despised and rejected; He was spat upon, abused, and cursed at; and He was ultimately executed by the same state that sought His life in the beginning. Christ’s efforts to reconcile us back to God and to each other was not an easy process but demanded a lot of sacrifice on His part. As His disciples, wouldn’t the same be required of us?
If we truly want unity, if we honestly want reconciliation, we have to be committed to doing the hard, laborious work to bring it to pass. Nothing in Scripture, or life itself, suggests that this is an easy process. It may appear easier to settle for artificial pleasantries that require no work and force us to all get along but the current frontrunner of a major political party should be proof enough to understand that ignoring the task of reconciliation only pushes the proverbial can down the road; it does not actually get rid of it.
Link to image: https://www.uschamberfoundation.org/initiative/diversity-and-inclusion