Should Christians “stay angry” at the injustice in our world? That’s a question raised in two different blog posts this week. Rachel Held Evans says she “can’t stay angry” even while she stays committed to her prophetic witness while my friend Rod the blerd (black nerd) theologian explains why he does “stay angry,” particularly at patronizing white moderates who presume to tell black people when to “just let it go.” I don’t see these two pieces as point and counter-point, nor do I interpret Rod’s piece as a dig on Rachel since she wasn’t telling black people what to do. Reading the way that Rachel and Rod accent and nuance the issue differently has forced me to really wrestle with what it means to be a genuine ally to people of color and others who have been marginalized in our battles against injustice.
I am a child of privilege who understands taking up my cross to follow Jesus as a call to join the procession of condemned prisoners to Golgotha, since that’s the only meaning the word “cross” would have had to Jesus’ original listeners who didn’t have centuries of distance from the real physical terrorism of Roman crucifixion to turn it into an abstract symbol of self-sacrifice or ascetic discipline. Because of this understanding of cross-bearing, it is central to my vocation as a disciple to walk in solidarity with the people who are crucified by the world, or in “movement” lingo, to be an ally.
To be an ally requires more than just being helpful. Doing good for disempowered people in a way that reinforces your power over them is being a patron instead of an ally. The difference between a patron and an ally is that patrons think they know what’s best for the objects of their advocacy, while allies listen carefully and submit to the person whom they’re showing solidarity. A patron may engage in service towards marginalized people; an ally seeks to be their servant. This is because an ally’s goal is to give power to the other, not just to “make their lives better.”
In considering Rod and Rachel’s posts, I see two basic ways in which allies like me patronize and betray our solidarity with others: 1) when we claim their plight as our own personal affliction and 2) when we forgive their oppressors on their behalf. In the first case, we “stay angry” as a self-justifying spectacle. In the second case, we “let it go” when it isn’t ours to let go.
Few people are more insufferably obnoxious than activists of privilege who are determined to prove to the world that they are more radically “self-hating” than anybody else. I put “self” in quotation marks because they talk very harshly about a group of people they call “we” with whom they don’t really identify themselves. Their harsh talk is their means of erasing their privilege and thus giving themselves credibility. (If you’re scratching your head remembering some things you’ve read on this blog, yes, I count myself among this obnoxious breed of people though I’m trying to do better.)
When I was in the radical community in DC at the turn of the millennium, we had problems with two types of white guys. The first type were clueless about the sense of entitlement with which they dominated conversations and belittled other people. The second type used their vocal condemnation and deconstruction of the first type as a means of proving our “enlightenment” and “self-awareness” in order to gain power and credibility. Some of the “angriest” people among social movements for liberation are privileged people who are trying to co-opt the movement for their own personal platform-building.
I have often “stayed angry” in order to prove how radical I am, when I could have been much more effective in evangelizing people who share my privilege if I articulated myself with more compassion and less presumption. My privilege used properly gives me the access to dialogue with other privileged people who don’t realize they’re being offensive, hurtful, or oppressive in a way that I couldn’t if I were the direct object of their oppression. The need to prove and legitimate myself through “staying angry” needs to be taken out of the equation if I’m really going to be an effective prophetic witness.
Of course, this in no way means that the “civility” which my privilege affords me is an expectation that I can place on others for whom issues of injustice are not “causes” but very real, personal experiences of humiliation and suffering. And even though I am in a unique position to engage in vulnerable conversation with privileged people like me in which they can be candid without getting judged, this does not mean that prophetic truth should be “tempered” into a back-slapping good-natured discussion among white folk or men folk or rich folk in which I offer absolution on behalf of those I am supposedly in solidarity with.
Jesus was brutal with Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7 just for giving a dirty look to the woman who anointed his feet. It’s important to name the fact that Jesus showed solidarity to the woman by being rude to Simon just like he showed solidarity to the sick on the Sabbath not only by healing them but by calling out the religious leaders who were scandalized by it.
To be chummy with oppressors is a slap in the face to those who have been hurt by them. It is unjust to reduce the humanity of people who are on the privileged side of the powers and principalities that corrupt all of us to the single word “oppressor,” but we cannot privilege their humanity at the expense of those on the other side of the equation, which is basically what happened in the Zimmerman trial when George won the jury’s sympathy simply by being a human being they could look at and listen to while Trayvon remained the mysterious dark-skinned figure who lurked in the night for four whole minutes he couldn’t explain since he was dead.
Mostly as an ally I need to recognize that it’s a privilege to be able to tune in and out of the “issues” that make me mad according to the needs of my spiritual and mental health. Those who are actually impacted personally by the things I march and chant and write blogs about don’t get to tune in and out; they actually have to live through it 24/7. So I do need to “stay angry” as an act of solidarity, not in the sense of putting on a show so everyone will know how radical I am but in the sense of refusing to declare “peace” when there is no peace.
The wrong kind of “anger” that we are called to avoid as Christians is hate, which means desiring for another person to be harmed. We shouldn’t hate even hateful people. The anger that should burn inside us against sin and injustice is more like the zeal for God’s truth that consumed Jesus and made him drive out the money-changers from the temple. So my task as an ally is to resist letting my comfort quench my zeal for justice, staying angry about what hurt the people Jesus championed without hating anyone or putting on a show for people.