don’t catch fire as you rise

Wax dripped onto my fingers as I gripped a candle in the midst of hundreds. I stood in Washington Square two nights ago, catching snatches of the speakers’ declarations, a litany of “Stand up, fight back”s and “This is what America looks like”s and “No ban, no wall”s. The memory of the press of people at my shoulders bolsters me now as I consider the past few days of controversial Executive Orders and the resulting protests.

It is a complicated day to be an American. It gets even more labyrinthine when you are a woman of color and a Christian. I find myself caught between multiple communities, affirming some words, hesitating with others, all the while trying to be consistent in where I stand. I must contend with the condemnations of the Women’s March that I walked in as well as the constant charges from other Christians to “give Trump a chance” and “wait and see.” I understand their reluctance to judge Trump’s actions–it can be perceived as an exercise of grace for a new leader.

Yet Trump has had more than a year-decades in fact-to demonstrate what kind of man he is and what he values. Words reflect the orientation of the heart, and I take his words seriously, as well as those from the constituents he surrounds himself with, many of whom at the worst have ties with nativist, neo-Nazi, and other discriminatory organizations and at the least offensive are unqualified for their positions of influence.

One hand grips this understanding. Then there is this:

Do I believe in a God big enough to transform Donald Trump’s heart, lead him in paths of wisdom and mercy? Yes. The answer will always be yes, as much as it was for Paul, as much as it was for me. When I align with Michelle Obama’s stance that “When they go low, we go high,” I choose to believe in God’s boundless ability to cultivate love in any person and use their life for good purpose–I refuse to doom them to eternal depravity, and it’s not my role anyway. Out of this, I choose to refrain from attacking Trump’s family, from engaging in aggressive actions against those who voted for him. Even if he doesn’t change, I still choose this. Going high means we don’t get to satisfy our desire to hurt others who have hurt us, no matter how justified it may be, and only God can enable that kind of grace.

I want to do the hard thing: acknowledge the imago dei in others AND hold them accountable for their actions–especially when those actions carry so much weight for communities already facing intense marginalization. There is a way to do both, and that path leads to the Cross. “We have the privilege of loving our enemies,” a friend told me yesterday. “And God’s like ‘You weren’t able to do this before. Not without me.'”

I had never thought about it in that way before. I get the privilege of loving my enemies. Before Christ, there was NO reason to do this–it makes no sense, it feels wrong even. Unfair. That is the Gospel though: the unfairness of Jesus’ sacrifice for us because how dare He choose to love the unlovable. How can I stand before God and reject the humanity of another person He created when I have been reborn through this Gospel?

I think it becomes harder to receive this message when others have co-opted it to silence you and soften the edges of horrific realities. I have witnessed too many white Christians appropriating the grace of the Gospel to dispel the pain of their sisters and brothers of color. I went to a Christian college and felt the sting when me and other black students were criticized for “creating more division” and “being too angry” when we talked about the racial problems on our campus. By the time a blatant incident of racism happened and no one at school could ignore it, the chimes of forgive forgive forgive forgive from our white classmates pricked at calluses built over years of dismissal and apathy.

Looking back on that experience, I’ve realized that the barriers became so thick because I felt like we were being asked to extend a hand, extend trust, extend grace, with no assurance that the other students even acknowledged our pain or would take steps to stand by us in the future. Some of us had been burnt too many times to risk it.

I’m sharing this now because I want to emphasize how hard Jesus’ teaching is when he tells us to love our enemies–and it may not even be our enemies! It could be loving our friends and neighbors and co-workers-and even family-who have committed microaggressions against us, who have offended us with their words spoken out of ignorance, who have perpetuated a passive acceptance of the world as it is because they haven’t seen it for the specific challenges we experience–or have been unwilling to. Where we locate the resistant tension in our hearts when we think of these people in our lives, that is where all the implications of “do good to those who hurt you” becomes a serrated truth, cutting deep.

I get the privilege of loving others when it feels impossible to do so. That is what Christ enables us to live out in our everyday interactions with others, whether that be on Facebook, in the work room, or at the dinner table. But what does this love look like? Does it look like holding hands and smiling at each other, pretending that our houses aren’t burning behind us? Does it mean we wave off Trump and get over it?

Well…no.

There is grave injustice at work in our country, and there are forces actively spurring the flames of disunity and fear. We shouldn’t diminish the wrongness of that. I am furious, and every time I see another Executive Order, I feel like screaming to the sky “Come, Jesus come!” Our church is in a fractious state, our conversations with neighbors brittle with unspoken grievances. We must stand where are and look around; this is where we are starting. Loving each other within this space of tension and uncertainty and breaches of understanding means that we choose to wrestle with the pain, with the current division and still face the Cross together as we do this.

We call out evil when we see it. We humbly challenge each other to consider experiences we aren’t familiar with (I’ve been learning a lot about the experiences of my low-income white sisters and brothers lately). We mourn the pain of others even as we invite them to enter our own. We speak out when we’ve been sinned against and repent when we sin against others, individually and as a community. We say NO to any laws and actions that harm our neighbors. We resist racism and sexism and xenophobia and persecution of any kind that grieves God’s heart. We acknowledge unbalanced power dynamics in our relationships, in our systems, and we dismantle them, guided by those who have been disempowered. That is love that rises to survey the mess and embraces the incisive truth-telling and white-knuckled dialogues that form the foundations for bridges.

Exposing the pain, exhaling it, tangling and untangling it with another person willing to work through it with you, as equals, is one of the most terrifying and healing choices you can make. I had one of these conversations with a friend, a white woman I love dearly, and I’ll never forget what she told me, or the validating balm it was for my grief and outrage:

I’m sorry that in the great gamble of history, for some reason, people who look like me, people with my color skin, came out on top. I don’t know why that is when it could’ve have easily been the other way around. I’m sorry for the ways me and my people have hurt your community. I’m sorry for the ways I’ve oppressed you or silenced you and your community–especially unintentionally…The greatest injustice is that you were made to feel guilty for doing the things to survive, to feel safe…I don’t have a right to your trust. I have to earn it…Will you forgive me?

I did. And she forgave me for all the times I’ve painted her with a broad-brush, dismissed her as another white person I struggled to trust, failed to empathize with the suffering she has seen and experienced in the South. We’ve had a lot more of these conversations in the past year–and it’s hard. It’s confusing and tense and cathartic and vulnerable. We have found communion within burning wreckage and discovered ways to build a friendship that allows us both to rise without blistering.

In some ways it’s easier and harder to do this with a friend–what about with a stranger? Someone on the Internet? That person at church whose politics make you grit your teeth?The politician who makes himself an dart-board for mockery? Can we pursue this type of radical, counter-cultural, Gospel-seeded love with them too? I am asking myself this question now as I struggle between the reflex to pile insult and indignation and the awareness of how my actions testify to Christ whom I claim dwells in me. There is a difference between the righteous outrage that illuminates wrong and the bitter rancor that can warp our vision. We cannot shame and demean another person and face the Cross at the same time. Neither can we go high and still grip stones to throw.

voices in the desert

Prophets were like Gandalf, my 15-year-old self mused into a glass of pulpy orange juice. Too young to brood over coffee like an aloof seminarian, I settled into imagining waspish old men with crinkled faces, dirt-gritted beards, and eyes that pierced skin with otherworldly intensity. Those eyes carried the secrets of ages as they flared to life when a nation needed scolding (for lack of a better word). I saw prophets like Gandalf with threadbare robes preaching off arid mountaintops, voices reverberating like thunder and staves thrusting towards the heavens that sent them.

Prophets were the alien messengers sent in human skins to defy kings, topple empires, unite the peoples of Middle Earth if necessary. The pantheon of Old Testament prophets constructed itself in grand, fantastic visions of raven companions, fire called down, crushed golden idols, and leviathans of the deep. Speaking to the peoples of ancient worlds on behalf of a simultaneously wrathful and merciful God, prophets held mythic sway over my imagination. They belonged to a different age, far removed from me and my glass of orange juice in America, the intoxicatingly greasy scent of McDonald’s coming from three blocks away, and my phone chirping incessantly with text messages. No leviathans to call forth here. 

In Western streams of Christianity, there is that temptation to consign the prophetic into the attic of the past, where we can survey it like historians rather than active recipients. The words rippling with righteous rage and lacerating grief bear little relevance to those who are not exposed to that as part of their daily reality. Heightened in emotion and vivid in imagery, the words of the ancient prophets are exactly that–ancient. Western Christians are not always taught to seek prophetic meanings in the events and people surrounding them now; in fact, I have observed a reflexive hesitation towards the idea of the prophetic in our time. When living in a Western country bathed in empiricism and a tailored-to-you app culture, Christians may experience trepidation in exploring the hokey-seeming concept of prophecy. Let’s just say that it would never make the top three of an Awesome Spiritual Gifts list on Buzzfeed.

But if we believe in a spiritual dimension that undergirds our physical reality, why don’t Christians talk about the prophetic more? I think part of the problem is that, again, many Christians are not encouraged to look for the prophetic already woven into the fabric of our current world. Their sensitivity to how the Holy Spirit works through people in prophetic ways right now is diminished, their lenses blurred. So when missionaries bring forth incredible stories of miraculous healings, the repentance of national leaders, searing judgments against immorality declared over entire communities in the global South and East, Western congregants squirm. They may praise God for the miracles and clap hands together, but inwardly people are thinking: This is crazy.

There is a troubling pattern of thought within Western Christianity where people do not believe in the prophetic anymore because they don’t believe God works that way anymore. Or maybe He works that way in the Third World, where fantastic, larger-than-life and exotic spiritual acts “make sense.” A white American congregation can view pictures of hundreds of brown people prostrate and praying for salvation, can hear about the casting of demons and the throwing down of corrupt governments, and they can leave the church service with no illusions that it could ever happen in their neighborhood. In the postmodern Western world where the “integration of reason and faith” often equates to “the submission of faith to reason,” Christians have the privilege of being skeptical of the prophetic. Elevated above the destitute and desperate circumstances of peoples in the global South and East, maybe it’s safe to say that Western Christians don’t need prophets anymore.

The other glaring problem lies in how Western Christians define the prophetic. When the only portrayal of prophets we get is the crooked old men shouting at tyrannical Israelite kings, it’s easy to separate whatever relevant moral lesson we can find in the story from the idea that prophets are normal and actually an expected part of living in a world not fully redeemed yet. They appear in the Bible not as special Gandalfs sent to help out a very screwed-up Israel and then evanescing when no longer needed, but rather to serve as markers for how prophets serve a vital function for every age and every country. Scripture highlights a reality where prophets are always among us.

Moving away from the old-man-with-staff archetype, when we look at the function of prophets in the past, we are able to clarify what they look like now–especially since we serve a God who is consistent in the way He interacts with human beings. It is possible that Western understandings of the prophetic are so limited that it prevents Christians from receiving words with the prophetic implications they contain. It’s like God has placed Pokemon in every corner, flailing for our attention, but no one knows to go find them. Our lives would be rocked if we did.

So what do prophets do? Just look at the prophet Isaiah:

The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth!
    For the Lord has spoken:
“I reared children and brought them up,
    but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its master,
    the donkey its owner’s manger,
but Israel does not know,
    my people do not understand.”

Woe to the sinful nation,
    a people whose guilt is great,
a brood of evildoers,
    children given to corruption!
They have forsaken the Lord;
    they have spurned the Holy One of Israel
    and turned their backs on him.

Why should you be beaten anymore?
    Why do you persist in rebellion?
Your whole head is injured,
    your whole heart afflicted.
From the sole of your foot to the top of your head
    there is no soundness—
only wounds and welts
    and open sores,
not cleansed or bandaged
    or soothed with olive oil.

Your country is desolate,
    your cities burned with fire;
your fields are being stripped by foreigners
    right before you,
    laid waste as when overthrown by strangers.
Daughter Zion is left
    like a shelter in a vineyard,
like a hut in a cucumber field,
    like a city under siege.
Unless the Lord Almighty
    had left us some survivors,
we would have become like Sodom,
    we would have been like Gomorrah. Isaiah 1:1-9

Something tells me that attendance for religious services dramatically decreased after Isaiah offered this message (it’s not exactly a feel-good sermon). But what we see is a human being allowing God to speak through him in order to address his people–in this case, the Israelites of Judah living in a nation that was sinking into corruption. Isaiah provides a staggering vision of his nation’s current state of depravity, calling out its wrongdoings and conveying God’s anger and grief at His peoples’ rebellion.

Throughout the Old Testament, prophets emerge as the dauntless voices carrying God’s messages to His people. A consistent theme arises: these people inspired by God arrive on the scene to Shake. Things. Up. They condemn political leaders for disobeying God (Samuel). They direct entire populations out of oppression (Moses). They predict the failures of exploitative empires and governments (Daniel). They call the people to repentance (Huldah–yes a prophetess). They mourn injustice within their land (Jeremiah).

These are the people authorized as vessels of God’s truth, pouring it out to the communities that do not even recognize how desperately they need it.

There is also a distinction we can make between “prophets” and those who “speak prophetically.” The Bible presents so many examples of people uniquely called and gifted to make predictions, challenge, provoke, and guide the communities in which they are placed. I believe there is an even greater number of people who, when aligned with God’s purposes and equipped with clear sight, speak and act with prophetic implications. They may not be called to devote their lives to professional ministry or preach by baptismal waters, but God speaks through them in ways that stir revolution and agitate nations out of complacency.

I think we can discern prophetic voices by asking one question: Who is challenging us?  A week ago, I heard a pastor preach on Revelations and explain how the nature of prophecy is to “de-stabilize those who are comfortable so we are secured in Christ.” The prophetic is meant to be unsettling because it shows us what we don’t want to see and leads us both to conviction and blessing. So we have to conduct some self-analysis, pinpoint our areas of discomfort and tension, and then ask ourselves, Who are the voices prodding that sore spot? 

In a discussion about racial issues in the church, Bishop T.D. Jakes points out: “Pain is a gift that draws us to areas we need to give attention to…anything you ignore long enough will emerge as a symptom that hurts us in order to heal us.” He suggests that pain wields a prophetic function in that it alerts us to the deeper problem and challenges us to do something about it. Prophetic voices are then the people who provoke discomfort by pointing to our wounds; they cause pain by exposing us both to the reality of suffering and evil…and the reality of our culpability in it.

Prophetic voices prescript acknowledgement and repentance of sin on both an individual and communal dimension. When we are cloistered in the relative security of our lives, prophetic voices drag us out of our havens so we can look at the walls and remember the slaves who built them, the exploited land upon which the foundations sit. Wherever we experience tension that won’t leave us, wherever we encounter words that won’t let us settle, there we will find the people speaking prophetically to our time and place.

How do we even know if someone is speaking prophetically? If we are honest with ourselves and God, we can test the words we hear against the consistency of Scripture and God’s nature. We can separate mere opinion from the truths that rankle us because they expose us. The impulse to dismiss a person’s words because they are “angry” or”make me feel bad” is an excuse, not a theological rationale. If anything, our resistance may represent the very barometer of our need to hear these words and change because of them. Maybe we resist their words because they reveal our frailty, our harmful acts towards our neighbors, our ignorance. Maybe we don’t trust them because we haven’t seen the wounds with our own eyes, so how can we believe it’s bleeding? Maybe we don’t want to wake up to this horrifying depiction of our community’s brokenness–but we must.

If prophetic voices act as the pain index of our communities, they should result in motion. When someone yells at you that you are sick, you don’t just say “Uhhh…okay” and curl further into your couch–you get up and search for the means to heal. In the same way, when certain people point out a reality that either we ignored or were oblivious to, our practices should alter in response to what we have heard.

A dear professor of mine at Wheaton once told me, “Prophetic voices bring people to the margins.” They move us out of our bivouacs of ignorance and privilege and pull us to the “taboo topics” and stories and grievances and injustices that demand the Church’s attention. They should be the people stoking the fires of controversy or they aren’t being prophetic. Consider this: in Scripture, prophets are always the people who are thrown out from the mainstream religious community. They are the people facing torture, death, imprisonment, isolation, insult, harassment, utter rejection from their own peoples! Who among us now face this type of dismissal when they bring before us the unyielding truth of our communal and national sins? Who is bearing the burden of the injustices we neglect to confront?

Since prophetic voices are the ones to draw us to the margins, it is most often those who are marginalized who are speaking prophetically to us. These also tend to be the voices treated with the most suspicion.

I think of Gustavo Gutiérrez and other liberation theologians like Virgilio Elizondo who gave me the vision of a political God who stands in solidarity with the poor and oppressed and calls for their emancipation.

I remember reading The Cross and the Lynching Tree by Cornel West and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and being startled into the reality of how deeply racism pervades America and the Church as a whole. I remember hearing from Michelle Higgins at Urbana ’15, her voice tying these threads together by declaring that #BlackLivesMatter is “not just a political statement–it is a theological reality.”

I think of my current pastor Robert Guerrero and his call to love and serve the immigrants in our midst. I think of his challenge to the Church: that it becomes an incarnational body leading movements of social justice rather than lagging behind secular activism.

I remember weeping as I read Soong-Chan Rah’s book Prophetic Lament and his striking indictment of the silence and passivity of Western Christians on issues of systemic racism.

I think of peers of color at Wheaton who rage against the disparity between the poor and privileged, who contest the harassment LGBTQ persons experience in my country.

I remember professors who drew my gaze to the plight of the undocumented, ripping away my ignorance so I could not longer sit idle.

I think of friends like Lourdes Delacruz championing the restoration of their local communities across cultural, racial, socioeconomic lines. I think of friends confronting disunity and prejudice in the spheres of their churches, schools, places of work.

I remember being shaken by Mark Charles as he advocated for a Truth and Conciliation commission in the US so we do not forget the atrocities of our history, especially regarding our abuse of indigenous peoples. I remember Christina Cleveland, Lecrae, Noel Castellanos, Kathy Khang, Larycia Hawkins.

These are only a few of the voices that have spoken prophetically into my life and cast a farther net to capture the attention of our world. Their words forced me to look at myself and my nation; they led me to grieve the darkness, the brokenness I found there. Their words also cracked into my consciousness so illumination could pour through–so I could see my steps forward. Prophetic voices are a gift in that way–they hurt us to heal us, as Bishop T.D. Jakes would echo. Instead of allowing us to lie in the refuse of our denial, these people throw us into upheaval until we are so shaken out of our entrenched patterns that we finally align with the purposes of God’s heart and the direction of his redemptive work. They risk so much to throw us into riot so we too can be part of a greater movement of restoration.

The words that are the most prophetic open our eyes to the death already in front of us so we will cherish that which cultivates life and pursue it doggedly. Know this: the prophets of the past are buried, yet their words speak to us still. The prophetic voices of today are no less loud, no less unsettling, no less demanding, and they wait in the desert for the day we leave our oasis and enter the parched places where we are needed most.

 

breaking down babel

tumblr_mus5y0fd7W1qz8q0ho1_1280After 4 years of obsessive dedicated scrolling on Tumblr, I know you have several options to arrange your experience on the popular social media site. You can fill the jay-blue space with aesthetic posts featuring all manner of ethereal landscapes and fashion and carefully placed vintage chairs. You can make it teem with crazy cat gifs and irreverent text posts dotted with the occasional fandom (fan parlance for the community surrounding a particular media item like a TV show, comic, or movie) inside joke. You can meticulously reblog posts on specific social justice topics and write lengthy streams of meta. You can stuff your dash with posts from every fandom imaginable and reblog gifset after gifset of that one character who is your cinnamon roll, your sunshine, your baby. For clarification on the latter terms…see Tumblr.

One aspect distinct to Tumblr and its greatest asset is that it allows you to construct your own fortress of entertainment and knowledge. You are the gate-maker and gatekeeper, setting the posted bounds for what information you will receive from others. If Captain America is what you want to see on your dash, you will adjust your detective’s monocle and investigate the vast micro-blogging landscape to find the blogs that align with your interests. For the uninitiated, following a blog is like joining into a conversation; that person’s opinions and favored images and stream-of-consciousness musings settle onto your dash and invite you to look and read and respond.

For the main demographic of 25 year-olds and under, Tumblr represents a space where an individual wields the freedom to share in the open discourse and fan squealing (and fan dregs). They express themselves in a realm where emotions are heightened through a complex system of gif and tag use, and both rhetorical flame wars and incensed defenses of an OTP ignite from a single text post (I have borne witness to some harrowing ship wars).

Ideally, Tumblr exists as a space where everyone has a voice. If you can think it, you can not only blog and reblog it, but you can probably establish it as a meme future users will groan about. Whole blogs are dedicated to highlighting women of color with natural hairstyles, to shipping Luke Skywalker with Hermione Granger (I’ve never seen it, but I’m sure it exists), to discussing the problematic elements of Dragon Age video games and American foreign policy. Your dash is your door to a thousand conversations, and you choose which ones to listen to and participate in.

Some voices are louder. While each blog technically maintains its own space and has equal access to growing a follower base, some blogs inevitably become the equivalent of “Tumblr famous.” Theirs are the voices that take the most room, that are the most blatant, magnetizing attention like hair to a static balloon (a terrible analogy but certainly Tumblr-worthy). These blogs champion their interpretations of a TV show, defend their ships, assert their stance on identity politics as if every other is, of course, valid but inherently deficient. Disagree with a popular position or blog and you are setting yourself up for battle as followers bombard you with anonymous messages demanding your death. I’m not kidding.

Beyond the presence of popular blogs, tension emerges on Tumblr when ideologies clash. The cracks in fandoms become apparent when one blog points out that out of the Star Wars characters from The Force Awakens, white pairings such as Kylo Ren/Rey and Kylo/Hux attract far more fanworks and attention than interracial pairings like Rey/Finn. Another blog argues that race plays no role in this, explaining that Finn is just not as popular or interesting as a character. The next blog rips into that comment and lays out that this is exactly the kind of internalized fandom racism the first blogger was talking about. Arguments stack on top of each other as you scroll down, devolving into capslocked f-bombs and rallying of allies to oppose the “trash” on the other side.

I’ve scanned the anti- tags, the places where people can air their critical (and sometimes vitriolic) thoughts about a character or aspects of media they disagree with or find racist, homophobic, ableist, etc. I’ve also scrolled through topic-specific tags that brim with the stories of queer Latinx globally or track the presence of fridging (killing or harming female characters to create motivation/impetus for a male character) in Marvel comics. These are the arenas of tension on Tumblr, where words spear into your consciousness. In this realm, users unapologetically throw down challenges to the -isms they see pervading media or the world at large. They grab you by the shoulder and demand you to open your eyes to what you were blind to before, simply because you didn’t know. It does not entail you agreeing with every idea laid before you, but it does necessitate your interaction with it.

There is an alternative: you can gate yourself. The blue stretch of screen transforms into a comforting haven, a place to retreat from the shouting, the crying, the online picketing. Blacklist “racism” and”homophobia” and “fandom critical” and every character you dislike, and your Tumblr dash will become a Tower of Babel, enshrining all that matters to you as the din outside the walls fades.

While there are times where this is necessary for our mental health, the impulse to ward off what makes us feel uncomfortable or draws us into heated spaces of distress can easily become an excuse to avoid conversations we simply don’t want to have. I’m not only speaking about Tumblr.

On Tumblr, when someone confronts you about a social issue, it’s easy enough to dismiss them as a “Social Justice Warrior,” those oversensitive hellions making everyone feel bad and adhering to some distorted view of a perpetually “problematic” world. However, when we are presented with a problem from voices that are angry, grieving, hurt, we all too often pursue the avenue that allows us to judge their tone rather than deal with their message. How many times do we submit to this reflex outside of our social media use? How many of us balk when confronted with the bellows of black parents whose children are dead because of police brutality, with the cries of the exploited Chinese persons who make our shirts, with the wails of trans teens beaten in our city streets? Where are these voices, and those of so many others, in our lives?

It’s a question of space. We build Towers and collect within them all perspectives and ideas and peoples we value, cramming those who agree with us or share our race, our class, our religion into the remaining crevices. The terrible thing is that sometimes we do this unconsciously, never questioning the homogeneity of our lives. On occasion we peer through the slant of window, and we see Those People protesting outside, their yells knocking against the stone. Waving a few “We love you guys!” back for good measure, we retreat, cushioned by what we know and do not dare to unknow. We can’t know everything after all; we can’t hear from everyone. 

Should that stop us from trying, from inviting the conviction that we should be listening to certain people more? Is it possible that something does not burden my heart because I have not allowed it to?

Paul declares: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” in the passage 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, pointing out that he makes himself a “servant to all” so that all may be drawn to and share in the blessings of the Gospel. He presents a startling thesis on community: we must pursue the experiences of others outside of our own and inhabit them. We don’t necessarily become them-I can’t claim the experience of  a Chinese factory worker-but we allow the tides of others’ lives to pull us into understanding so that we may exhibit God’s love to them in ways that hold weight.

This posture towards others requires more than listening and nodding; it requires unlocking the gates surrounding our consciousness-crafted Towers so the stones can crack, slammed with the bouldered realizations of others’ suffering. Paul’s challenge suggests that not only should our minds be woke, but our hearts need to break for those we didn’t see before, either because of our blindness or our unwillingness. 

Instead of surrounding ourselves with friends who echo our opinions, newspapers and radio stations with a sole bias, books and movies that only make us feel good, and churches where issues of racism and inequity are headlines rather than realities, we should cultivate learning communities for ourselves that contain a diversity of voices. As we do this, we develop a multilingualism that allows us to build relationships with other people as we acknowledge not only all they are, but also what they are telling us.

Going back to Tumblr, this idea has manifested in my recent re-vamping of my dash. I’ve been reminded of how ignorant I am of so many things, including the plight of indigenous people in my own country and the struggles related to race and gender for black women outside of the U.S. I started searching for new blogs. I typed in keywords and scrolled and clicked and read the posts on unfamiliar ground. Then I pressed the “Follow” button and in that moment, a new voice took space on my dash, filling the blue with stories I need to hear more of in my life. I started following the blogs of native women raging against government abuses, black queer sci-fi fans, Asian media critics, a Disney aficionado who struggles with bipolar disorder. The blogs I already followed didn’t diminish in value; instead, I chose to value more blogs, more peoples, and give priority to those of whom I had once been ignorant.

These new blogs save me from safety, a kind of safety that would inoculate me and render me a passive contributor to institutions that are broken.  They prevent me from settling within my worldview without reflecting upon the ideas and actions I exhibit in my lifestyle that might actually be harming others.  I choose to educate myself with the understanding that what I learn may change my reality. Rather than immersing in my carefully-maintained space, detached from stories that provoke tension, I want to be profoundly shaped and informed by them. It reminds me of the classic evangelistic question: If you were told that the Truth existed, would you seek it–even if it meant your entire life would change? (my paraphrase).

This applies to other contexts as it animates us to consider how we would respond when confronted by pivotal truths. For instance, there is a tendency among many white people in the U.S. to dodge conversations about racism. Defensiveness flares as an effort to avoid being called racist, scaffolding over the lived experiences of people of color. The statistics are out there, the heft of research, the historical analysis and recent literature. However, there are still too few who seek out this information, who seek to educate themselves. Starting a journey into a world more complicated, more horrific, and more intimately tied to your lifestyle, mind, and heart than you previously thought is an intimidating prospect. It signifies prying oneself from a matrix of ease and safety to enter an altered reality. It’s a disorienting process, a painful upheaval…and we all need it.

We can choose to have conversations about race, sexual identity, politics, and poverty with compassion and an empathetic posture rather than sharpened blades ready to judge and condemn. We can choose to seek out more information about social issues from alternate points of view. We can choose to experience the discomfort of listening to the anger and frustration and alienation of others and allow our worldview to shift to encompass their experiences.

When our towers finally crumble, who will take up space on the new plain? Whose voices will we allow to shape our reality? Women of color? Gay and trans individuals? Immigrants? The disabled and those with mental illness? Saying that we love these people without making the effort to include them in our friendships and churches and self-education results in the rigid reinforcement of our ideological strongholds rather than the re-evaluation of them. We fear compromising our beliefs and diluting our convictions, that creaking open the gate will welcome a flood that will drown us–but does this point to a theological high ground or a lack of trust in the God who steers us as we enter this process of listening and learning?

Rather than walling ourselves out of anxiety, we should fear more that we have not upheld the other half of the greatest commandment: We have failed to love our neighbor because we don’t know our neighbor, and we are too afraid to change.