I originally wrote this for Tumblr but wanted to share it here:
The trio of damnation on any social media site. These words erect a barb-wire fence around the individual who has erred so horrendously that no word or action stemming from them afterwards will be acknowledged. They become no more than an SNL punchline to mock, a post to type layer after layer of scathing comments under until it resembles a stairway descending to hell.
The crimes committed range from as large as misogynistic characterizations in a movie, acts of infidelity, endorsement of policies that would disenfranchise an entire marginalized population to the individual levels of a racist comment on Twitter, a personal interaction reeking of homophobia.
Do not mistake me–these words and actions wield the power to devastate and kill and alienate. People must and should challenge actions that index problematic attitudes and broken systems of power. If we do not, we bear some responsibility for the consequences they will reap for those already disadvantaged by society.
However, when we label a person “trash” in opposition to their words and actions which anger us, we dehumanize them into an object which we can readily abuse and cast away from our community forever. In our minds, they no longer deserve a place amongst us, not even where the dogs sit under the table. I understand this compulsion; when I see a comment on YouTube spiked with sexism, I want to shut that person’s mouth and shove them as far away from me as possible. When I see pictures of another black teen bruised from a hate-crime, I want to rage against all white people. For that moment, I wish I could just purge the world of stupid trash that write and act in such awful ways.
That. Not who. In the midst of my justified anger, grief, and pain, I cease to recognize the person behind that comment, behind that beating as human. By calling them trash, I not only distance that person from their humanity, I also distance myself. I assert myself as morally superior, more knowledgable, more progressive, and in some ways, I’m right. There are opinions and ideologies that are simply better, less oppressive.
In the other ways that matter most, I am utterly wrong.
In my desire to separate myself from all the “trash” that oppresses people in big and small ways, I fail to comprehend that by my own definition of problematic, I belong in the trash heap too. Maybe I didn’t type that ignorant post on Tumblr or exploit immigrants to line my pockets. Maybe I’ve never screamed racist obscenities at a political rally or threatened to deport Muslims from our nation.
Instead, I stay silent and passive instead of speaking up about racism in church. I cling to hateful, petty thoughts about people in my head. I appropriate indigenous symbols and language for my own entertainment. I watch TV instead to avoid spending time with a lonely friend. I still struggle to see black men as beautiful because of my internalized racism. I lie to get what I want. I act out of ignorance and make excuses when I’m called out for it.
The potential to say and do problematic and oppressive things lies in me, and it’s not dormant. While I don’t have the products like Joss Whedon or the power of Donald Trump or the history of a Kim Jong Il, I have the power to hurt people, and that matters. I don’t get an exempt card because I’m “not as bad as that guy.” I don’t get a free pass because I’m a woman of color. I’m accountable for what I do in my sphere of influence and how I treat the people within that sphere. When I do wrong by them, I am trash….
…or I should be. In an interaction with a rich young man who wanted to assert his superiority in the community, Jesus said this:
Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Matt. 19:16b-22)
In the King James Version, Jesus says “None is good,” and he meant it. From the perspective of God, we are all fallen. None of us is kind, loving, respectful, harmonious, and selfless 24/7–we are not perfect, and we fall gravely short of the way God designed us to live. Within this paradigm, the mountains of human morality are soil heaps in comparison to the peaks of His holy standards.
In this divine landscape, so radically foreign and impossibly counterintuitive to our own, Donald Trump and I dwell in the trash dump together. My mind can barely wrap around that idea because it feels so wrong, it rails against everything that feels just. I can rationalize it all I want–that doesn’t make it any less true.
Within Jesus’ message remains this amazing, beautiful thing called grace. Grace represents favor undeserved, unconditional love given when we have broken all conditions. Grace represents forgiveness for wrongs done and a commitment to reconciliation and union. Jesus gifts that grace to us and continues to love us even when we are profoundly unlovable.
We are not Jesus. I watch a racist pundit on the news and feel like punching him in the face. I grit my teeth at a particularly offensive Facebook post. But the miracle is that when I lean into the grace that I have been given so freely, God enables me to extend that grace to others.
What can grace look like? It can be as simple as not immediately shutting down a conversation with someone on the opposite end of an issue even if they speak hurtful words out of ignorance. It can be listening to a person’s pain across partisan lines, across color lines. It can be sharing a meal with a person who has wounded me. It can be the seemingly impossible forgiveness towards the Wall Street tax collectors and politicians who have prostituted themselves for profit.
We demonstrate grace through the way we challenge problematic words and actions, encouraging an elevated dialogue rather than insult-slinging. We show grace by eliminating the word “trash” from our vocabulary, recognizing that we interact with humans just as pervasively broken and divinely created as we are.
Grace rejects the quick path from hurt to hatred to war by advocating for a type of conciliation and hope our world barely grasps and dismisses as weak.
It is then crucial to emphasize what grace is not:
Grace is not appeasement.
Grace is not accommodation.
Grace is not blindness.
Grace acknowledges grievances, acknowledges loss of trust, loss of credibility, loss of relationship and carves a path towards transformation. It reminds me that the racist pundit on TV has the potential to be an a**hole, but also that he has the capacity to change in fundamental ways. I know he can because Christ has changed my life in endless fundamental ways even as He peered right into the darkest and most disgusting parts of me. I want to contribute to that change in other people and in society. I want to keep challenging what is problematic yet avoid losing myself to bitterness and resentment and rage in the process.
I also feel the legitimate tension of how grace is always seemingly asked of those marginalized towards those who have oppressed them. It can feel like such a heavy burden to be constantly pushed into that position or else deemed unrighteous for being frustrated and angry. We must acknowledge the reality of that experience of being sinned against, and the trauma it causes. A person with privilege must understand the gravity of what they ask for when they demand that people of color and others of targeted identities show grace. It is a divine enabling of forgiveness, not an obligation to ignore the consequences of individual and collective sin.
Extending grace is difficult, especially when our compulsion is to require others to change in the ways we want and show remorse in order for us to forgive them. I still resist the unearned status of grace when all I desire is for the people who have hurt me to repent and atone for it. However, my reflex towards punishment and a list of red-lined conditions is not grace.
There are times where you may need to remove yourself from an abusive and/or toxic conversation or environment. There are times where radical action is needed to hammer home a vital message or cause. There are times where we must challenge those with privilege and power to hear those hurting, but those situations are not mutually exclusive from grace. In God’s framework of grace, there is no damnation, no demonization, only broken people communing in a bruised and bloodied world that God invites us to help make healthy and whole as a community.
None is good. None is wholly irredeemable either. That is the space between trash and human.