This week I got a reminder from someone who loves me and desires God’s best for me that it is very possible when someone is highly committed to something to use language that makes it seem that everyone should be equally committed to precisely the same thing. That is not what I do believe, but since communication involves both a sender and a receiver, it’s important to consider this kind of feedback.
I got a second dose of that this morning while reading my latest “stretch” book, “I Must Resist, Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters.” Rustin was a black, gay, communist turned socialist, conscientious objector, civil rights leader whose career extended from the 1940’s thru the 1970s.
He had heavy Quaker influences and objected to all violence to achieve political ends. This meant that at his draft hearing he refused to go to war but also refused to participate in the alternative but still war supporting camps the government made available for conscientious objectors. He was sent to prison and worked hard to bring change to a prison system that was still segregated in every way possible.
He would often get in trouble there – sometimes unnecessarily. Once, his friend and mentor A.J. Muste sent Rustin a stinging rebuke of how he was allowing himself to get in the way of their mission. It rang true to the dangers I face as well, although in a very different context. The entire letter is worth reading for those pursuing humility, but here’s one part:
A third consideration – you want to hang onto shreds of self respect, and that means you want to continue to feel superior to somebody at least, because it is by comparing itself with other people that the unregenerate self manages to keep a good opinion of itself. “God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are.” So you have a mental image of certain people as conspirators, bureaucrats, etc. Toward the individuals on whose faces you plant these masks you can be haughty or arrogant. You can completely forget the complexities of their task, the opposition which they may have to encounter.
Rustin’s friend was saying that part of the job of someone trying to bring systemic change is to empathize with those who have not yet changed in the way Rustin wanted. As I think about what I see as conservative evangelical churches contentedness in being a white, middle class movement I also need to consider how hard it would be on a church leader who genuinely felt like a directional change was necessary. Doing so will not only grow my heart for those brothers and sisters and remind me that at one time I was one of them, it will put me in a better position to help them anticipate the practical challenges they might face and overcome them.
(The book has been really interesting and I’m looking forward to finishing it and writing the review.)