When I started to really engage with the problem of privilege, I wanted to figure out how to fix it. I studied the issues by reading books and listening to podcasts and watching documentary films. I prayed and even fasted and read Bible verses about mercy and justice. I talked with other people who shared my concerns. Eventually, I decided to write a book about it.
But if there is anything I have learned from thinking and reading and writing and praying about the reality of harmful and undeserved social divisions in our world, it is that this problem has no easy solutions. There are no quick fixes. No lists of action items to work through one by one. Rather, this is a lifelong work of transformation, a lifelong work of turning toward love and away from fear, a lifelong work of longing for all to be well.
Still, many readers have asked me what to do after reading White Picket Fences. How do we move from thinking about the harm of privilege into participation in the healing process?
In a subsequent post, I plan to write about people and institutions who have committed themselves to this type of participation, but I also want to explain my resistance to offering any sense that there are solutions to the problem of social division and privilege.
One, the attitude I have had in the past of wanting to “fix” things betrays an arrogance in me rather than a willingness to listen, to engage with the centuries of harm and exclusion, and to examine my own role in this harm.
Two, it implies that problems are solved by individuals in positions of power rather than through cultures transformed through relationships of mutual dependence. Our social divisions will only be overcome through collective and connected action that grows out of relationships of love, powered by a love that is bigger than any one of us.
And three, because action is the last step in a long process that will only be effective if it involves the whole self—the action, thoughts, and feelings—of the person involved.
Human beings consist of mind, body, and spirit. Put another way, of head, hands, and heart. All three of these aspects of who we are as humans need to be engaged in order for healing to happen.
We need to use our minds to consider the historical and contemporary reality of privilege—what it is, how it operates, who it excludes, and what damage it does. Engaging our minds can take the shape of reading books (yes, books like White Picket Fences, but also other memoirs and histories and works of sociology) and discussing them with others, listening to speakers, researching local history, and asking questions. Without this work of the mind, anyone engaging in the work of racial justice runs the risk of well-meaning but harmful and ignorant action.
The “heart”—the seat of our emotions and the soul—needs to be engaged through relationships of mutual dependence. As a Christian, I see those relationships as both vertical and horizontal. There is the vertical relationship with God expressed through prayer: both the confession of corporate, historic, and individual sin, and the crying out to God for help in knowing how to participate in the work of restoration and repair. Then there are horizontal relationships, not relationships that perpetuate a power dynamic, but relationships that involve giving and receiving, recognizing our common humanity, trusting that each of us has gifts to offer and needs that only other people can fill. Without engaging our hearts, we run the risk of an arrogant approach to social problems that ignores love and perpetuates existing power structures.
And finally, once the head and the heart are engaged, the hands can get to work and move lovingly into the world (more on what that might look like in a later post). But our actions in isolation run the risk of burnout or despair, action not grounded in a love outside ourselves, actions not connected to other people working towards the same end.
So my hope for myself, and for anyone who hears me speak or who reads White Picket Fences, is a patient and humble engagement with the issues of social division, starting slowly and quietly. Engagement that doesn’t rush to action but sits patiently and learns and listens, grieves and connects, asks for guidance, pursues friendship, and begins to trust in love instead of fear.
This is not charitable work of service or financial aid. This is not removed intellectualism that studies a problem without grieving the harm inherent in our history. This is not emotionalism that means well but accomplishes little. Rather, this is a work of body, mind, and spirit, of hands, head, and heart, of the whole self engaged in relationships with others and with God. It is lifelong, transformative work.
If you are someone who wants to participate in the healing work of social change, then let it take time. My hope would be that you would:
- Use your head. Read White Picket Fences (and other books) and discuss it with other people. Learn about the historical and contemporary realities of racial, economic, and other social divisions in your communities.
- Use your heart. Confess your role in the pain. Pray for guidance. Pursue friendships outside your typical social group. Look for a mentor who is a person of color. Look for a mentor who has an intellectual disability.
- And then, use your hands: Take small steps towards change in your individual life. Look at areas in which you have influence or power and consider how you could use that influence for the common good, for breaking down social barriers, for healing. Connect with other people—through institutions and organizations—who are working towards justice and healing.
I will be writing more about all of these things and beginning to offer resources for engagement with these issues and topics. And I will be praying for each of our small choices to help us participate in this ongoing and lifelong work that changes us, makes us more dependent upon each other and upon God, prompts us to take risks to connect to one another, and moves us away from fear and towards love.