I ran across an acquaintance who is passionate about racism, investing as much effort as possible in anti-racism efforts. It’s the kind of passion expressed with righteous indignation directed at those he assumes are unaware of how pervasive the problem is. It is, says he, that very unawareness that allows racism to be so deeply embedded in the American psyche. He heaps contempt on those who should be aware but aren’t. Self deluded closet racists, they are. Who are the unaware ? Right wingers to be sure. White men are on the list of usual suspects because they’re white men. More important are those who do not share the same passion expressed with the same indignation. They are guilty of indefensible ignorance in the face of a grossly blatant injustice. They are the ones who allow the perpetuation of racism. I imagine that gatherings of like minded people are contests to see who can be the most angrily indignant in competition for the evening’s blue ribbon. It’s a funny scene to imagine, but I doubt she would see any humor in it because it is, she would say, not a laughing matter. No, racism isn’t, but the image of a room full of righteously indignant people trying to outdo each other is.
It is a fatal flaw to equate one’s passion for anything as the standard against which all others can be judged, even for something as important as racism. Using passionate indignation as a weapon to thrust at others who don’t share it, or don’t express it in the same way, is guaranteed to be met defensively. It’s automatic. It’s what we do. We defend ourselves when attacked. There are many issues that generate strong passions, but only a few generate passionate indignation, and they generally revolve around questions of injustice, oppression, and immorality. Maybe it’s because they’re so intimately connected to life itself. Because they are so important, there is nothing to be gained by antagonizing the very people one wants to convince of the rightness of a cause. To be clear about it, there may be many whom one does not care to convince for one reason or another. But there are those about whom one cares very much. Convincing them is unlikely while beating them about the head and shoulders with accusatory righteous indignation. A few weeks ago I wrote about a right wing vacation condo neighbor who asserted the truth of his opinions by bellowing them louder than anyone else in the room, pugnaciously demanding agreement with him. There isn’t much difference between his tactic and that of my anti-racist acquaintance. Neither is likely to have credence with anyone not already in their camp.
It shouldn’t be hard for either one of them to say, “This is important to me, and it should be to you also. Let me tell you why.” Doing that requires an assumption about the essential dignity of the other that is worthy of respect, even in the face of disagreement. Easy advice to give, but hard to put into practice, especially when passion can override awareness of one’s own prejudices. It brings me to my own Lenten discipline: make progress loving people I don’t like. Loving requires that I respect the dignity of every human being, including the people I don’t like. Respecting their dignity does not require agreeing with what they believe or do, but it does require trying to understand it without prejudice.
Is there an example of how that might work in practice? Not long ago we remembered Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and many did it by rereading “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In it, King addressed the clergy of Birmingham, whom I doubt that he liked very much, with stern words that nonetheless respected their dignity as persons, community leaders, and ministers of God’s word. In many ways it was a love letter demonstrating that he had heard and understood what they believed, and was now calling them to consider a new understanding of a better way. I wonder if my passionate anti-racism acquaintance would find greater success following King’s example? I wonder if I could become better at loving those I don’t like if I did the same? I wonder if my vacation neighbor, the bellicose right winger, might have something useful to contribute to the conversation if he would stop bellowing?