Our oldest grandchild is named Gunnar. Gunnar is a good-looking, smart, happy, energetic, athletic kid. (I’m being as objective as I can here.) And if these traits don’t give him an edge on the playground, there’s this: He’s white. The other day Gunnar’s pre-K teacher made a comment to our daughter-in-law about how much he and another boy in the class rough house. I’m sure this is the first of many comments Brittany will hear from Gunnar’s teachers in the future. As a mom of four boys, I understand why it freaked her out a little. She acknowledged that the comment wasn’t mean and that the teacher really likes Gunnar. She also wisely admitted that her own identity is too wrapped up in how Gunnar behaves. But then she said, “Up until now, everyone who is around Gunnar loves him and gives him the benefit of the doubt.” The big, wide world doesn’t always do that for our kids, and Brittany is smart to brace herself for that.
Right here is where this could become a post about raising boys, but it’s not.
It’s about Ferguson.
This morning my husband made a startling observation. Even though we raised four boys who did not always make the best choices, who drove cars and motorcycles too fast, who thought a life without a little danger was hardly worth living, we never once worried that a police officer might treat them unfairly, or hurt them, or much less kill them. Heck, we rooted for our local lawmen who, on more than one occasion, reiterated the lessons our boys learned at home. When Gunnar’s dad, Stephen, was sixteen, a cop called us to say he’d clocked Stephen going well over the speed limit on Ronald Reagan Parkway. He said, “Your son seems like a respectful young man. I don’t want to write him a ticket, so what do you want me to do with him?”
“Write him a ticket and send him home,” my husband said, but not before thanking the officer for looking out for our kid.
Not once did it occur to us that the police were anything but benign servants who would only threaten our boys if they really deserved it. This highlights what Ferguson, for me—a white Christian—is all about. Not race, but white privilege.
So what do I think we, the white church, need to hear in light of what is happening in Ferguson? Is it that we should be ashamed of our edge on the playground? That we should apologize for something we only vaguely understand we have? That we are wrong to have that edge at all?
It helps me to go back to the pre-K classroom and remember Gunnar. At the end of the day, what should Gunnar do with his privilege? His mother’s first instinct is to domesticate the roughhousing out of him, which in some way denies him the right and freedom to be who he is. And his father’s first instinct is to cheer him on rather than “castrate” him (his word, not mine), which, taken too far, denies others the room to be equally celebrated for who they are. Gunnar, because he’s bigger and stronger than his peers, already has a touch of the big man on campus sheen. If that’s true, what responsibility does he have in a role he didn’t choose or necessarily earn, one that he isn’t even aware he has?
And what is the responsibility of the white church for the privileges we did not choose or earn, that many of us are not aware we have?
I’ll tell you the irreducible minimum advice we always gave our boys when we sensed they had an edge and were tempted to take advantage of it. We told them the same thing when the tables were turned and they felt marginalized. It will not sound like near enough to make any difference in a scenario like Ferguson. But it is a start:
I know this sounds weak, maybe even feminine. It’s the name of a granola bar for heaven’s sake. But true kindness is more powerful, more subversive and radical than we think it is. It’s what prompted God to put his redemptive plan in motion in the first place. It’s the powerful tractor beam that leads us to repentance. And it is rooted in grace and compassion. In grace because when we become convinced that nothing we are or have is earned, we will become equally convinced we are not superior to anyone and no one is superior to us. Privilege becomes nothing more than a commodity to be spent, not hoarded. And kindness is rooted in compassion, because you cannot be kind if you do not feel what someone else feels.
Titus 3:4 describes the Incarnation, the radical act of God becoming flesh, like this: “But then something happened: God our Savior and His overpowering love and kindness entered our world.”
This is the core action of kindness: to enter someone else’s world. So when something like what happened in Ferguson can happen in someone else’s world, what then? I wish I had an easy answer for that. Jesus was, at times, infuriatingly cryptic: “Our Father is kind; you be kind.” (Luke 6:36)
I’m continually surprised whenever I try to look at the world through the eyes of my black friends. Where I see opportunity, they often see barriers. Where I see acceptance, they see rejection. Where I see a culture that has “moved on” from the historic blip of slavery, they see wounds that are healing but not yet whole. Where I see safety, as in the moment a policeman pulls me over, they see danger. I am not exaggerating. Ask around.
Kindness is radical because it is like God. It is radical not only because it seeks to understand what the world looks like to someone else, but because it enters that world and takes action. Kindness opens your mouth to protest real injustice and it shuts it to silly complaints about “reverse discrimination.” How you take action is up to you, but if you’re not advocating for someone somewhere in the world who will not get the fair shake in life that you get, I dare to say you are not being like Jesus.
I am not saying all white people are actively unjust. Or that everyone should do any one thing in particular. I’m just saying, in so many words, what I’d say to Gunnar:
Be you. Be you mightily. But while you are being you with everything you’ve got, make sure to also be kind. Being kind will take care of the rest. It will make you respect your teacher. It will make you attentive to the kids who are different from you. It will make you advocate for any kid in your class who isn’t treated fairly, even if that kid is not a big man on campus. It won’t fix everything, but being radically kind will solve a lot of what’s wrong in your little world.