We’re (not) better than this

August 21st, 2017
To my Christian friends: I assume you know that white supremacy, Nazism, racism, and misogyny are antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As Christians, we hope for nothing less than the full equality of all members of society because everyone is made in the image of God. Surely you have no wavering thoughts about where the Church stands with respect to white supremacy or racism. So today I want to be more specific.
Folks like me, in my demographic — educated- white- Southern- Methodisty- types — tend to respond to news like that out of Charlottesville with a couple of common phrases including, “We’re better than this” or “we must do better”. I even heard someone on CNN, someone who could have been from my people, say, “We just need to remember that we are Americans and we are good and that everything will be okay. And keep reminding ourselves of that.” Those comments mean well, but they are just a bit off. Let me explain.
When I hear phrases like “we are better than this” or “we are Americans and we are good”, the “we” is being used to refer to the comfortable white person, which is to say people like me. Me and my people. White. Maybe some education. Decent jobs. Overall, a high quality of life. Not that our lives have been without strife, but we have never directly known the challenges of race and racism. “We” live in a world where we can imagine that people are basically good and reasonable because those are, most often, the benefits we have experienced. That is certainly the case for myself.
When we see the stories of rioting or uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri or Milwaukee, Wisconsin, we lean toward our neighbors of color and whisper, “we are better than this.” Perhaps that is meant to be an attempt at unity, somehow aligning ourselves with them in their plight. When, of course, “we are better than this” is actually a veiled jab at what we see as bad behavior. We know we would never be caught doing something like that but we forget the reason why would never do something like that is because we will never have to. To the degree we do not understand the anger, mistrust, and displays of outrage by our black brothers and sisters is in fact the point. Our lack of understanding is an invitation to humility and education. We must admit we have not endured a history of racism or dealt with a racially unjust society and therefore do not understand.
When we say, “we are better than this”, we must ask, on what grounds? With respect to race, have we ended poverty and hunger? Do our communities reflect fair wages, quality schools, and decent healthcare across all races? No. Our times may be less tumultuous, but we have not outlived the sins of our forefathers.
We do have the decency, or the manners, not to act publicly on feelings of racism or supremacy or misogyny, but we are no less so. And I use the “we” here very much including myself. We don’t tell racist jokes or use racial slurs, but neither do we walk away from people who do. We say we believe in order and justice, but we rarely give our black citizens the benefit of the doubt when they tell us they are treated unfairly. We may not wave a confederate flag, but we wonder if Affirmative Action is really necessary. We suspect the mass incarceration of African-Americans is uniquely their problem. In all those ways, we silently acknowledge that we are the benefactors of a racialized society and we often contribute to ongoing, covert, socially-acceptable racism.
So when we white people see the news from Charlottesville, Virginia, let’s not reach too quickly for “we’re better than this,” because we are not. What happened there is exactly who we all are — we are a racially divided nation with a history of slavery and violence toward minorities that benefits people like us. We are not magically insulated from what we saw on our televisions.
Sometimes we’ll also say things like, “we must do better.” That seems like a step in the right direction because it acknowledges something is wrong and we should change. But I want to remind you that telling people to “do better” rarely works. We can’t even tell ourselves to diet. I doubt we can tell ourselves to be un-racist. It may be noble to want to imagine a better society, but we are not capable of mustering up some internal strength to overcome our worst selves.
Phrases like “We’re better than this” or “we must do better” are a form of exceptionalism. We want to believe against the evidence that America is a uniquely good nation and we are good people that only need to be reminded of our goodness and tap into our reservoirs of goodwill. While that sounds nice, it is not true.
As Christians, our hope is not in our goodness or our ability to do better. Our hope is in the healing grace of Jesus Christ. Our power to name and overcome racism does not lie within ourselves, but in the Gospel of Jesus. We need nothing less than Christ’s peace for our broken hearts and misguided souls. For ourselves. For our enemies. For the world. The Gospel is not a get-out-of-hell-free-card. Rather, I believe (and we say we believe) in the Gospel that names our sins, calls us to repentance, and leads us toward transformation and wholeness. The Gospel is a message of reconciliation and healing between man, woman, God, and neighbor. Anything less than a robust proclamation of the Gospel will not do.
This is where people like me, “we” (middle- upper- middle- class- educated- white- church folk) could stand to be a little less bashful about our faith. Instead of reproducing phrases like “we are better than this” or “we can do better than this”, let us instead proclaim the Gospel. Let us say together that we are broken and angry sinners prone to hate, distrust, and manipulation. Let us share with everyone that healing is available through the redemptive love of Jesus Christ in the Cross. And let us seek to live fully into Christ’s love, so that we may see ourselves for who we are and love our neighbors as children of God.
This short word is my attempt to remind people like me, white- Southern- happy-go-lucky Christians, that we are not better than anyone else, nor do we have some special capacity to make ourselves better. What we do have is Good News far greater and more helpful than “we’re better than this.” We know the Gospel of transformation. We have theological, biblical, and ecclesial resources that give us a vocabulary for understanding sin and a reason for hope beyond our ability to improve ourselves. Our hope rests in Jesus alone. We are not better than this, but Jesus is.

 This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.
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