Wednesday, September 26, 2007

More Walking and Less Talking

"Walk a mile in my shoes." An age-old truism and the title of a great 70's song that reminds us that we best understand the plight of others when we allow ourselves to be exposed to the full force of their life experience up close and personally. For some reason, the talk shows I have found myself listening to over the past few days have all been tackling the issue of race relations in the US. What usually bothers me about such discussions is that they are often based on theoretical and ideological assumptions that have very little foundation in real life cross-cultural experience on the part of the pundits. There is an abundance of sound and fury that yield very few meaningful solutions and tend to add only more hostility and confusion. Even when the discussions are positive, they are often Utopian visions of "togetherness" that leave listeners feeling good, but offer few insights that address the situation in an applicable and practical way.

After days of listening to discussions that seemed to always go to the aforementioned extremes, as I was about to throw my hands up in frustration, I received an e-mail with a commentary from Mark Early, the President of Prison Fellowship ministries. In the e-mail, he addressed the case of the Jenna 6, revolving around six African American young men who faced the possibility of prison time after being involved in a fight with a young Caucasian school mate who needed serious medical attention after the incident. What really encouraged me about the commentary was Mr. Early's avoidance of the highly charged and significant, though secondary issues and his dead-on assessment of the real issue the incident brings to the table - the disproportionate number of African American males incarcerated in the US. In a very straight-forward yet earnest manner, Early cites a few well-known statistics and issues a somber warning:
[Inequitable justice] and the disparities that cause it are issues that should concern every Christian. Not simply because it is unjust that one group of people should be punished in such a disproportionate manner—that's bad enough—but it should also concern us because it undermines confidence in the rule of law. It makes it easier for people to suspect the worst in places like Jena.

How could Early come to such a conclusion? Especially when his identity as "A conservative Evangelical" is considered? Easily! He spends day in and day out ministering to inmates around the US and the world, not only hearing their stories, but getting to know them personally and seeing the impact of inequitable justice on families and communities. Early particularly cites the drug enforcement laws that punish African Americans disproportionately when drug usage by Caucasians is statistically much higher. He doesn't' cite these statistics to advocate drug usage or to go "soft" on crime. He simply points out that while "creative" solutions are offered to some elements of our society who struggle with substance abuse, others are offered only incarceration - a solution that neither eliminates drug usage nor rehabilitates the user. Early has observed that race plays an undeniable role in how justice issues are often handled and that the disparity that sometimes manifests itself poses a threat to the very democratic ideals upon which our nation has been built.

For this reason and others akin to it, discussions of race need to turn a corner. We must progress beyond theoretical talk and distant, sterile statistics. We need to emulate the examples of Mark Early, Prison Fellowship's founder Chuck Colson and other countless and unknown Christian servants to engage ourselves in actively walking by putting our hands on the plow of ministry to see life from the viewpoint of those around us. Our overall well-being is at stake. Good intentions and token efforts are insufficient and unacceptable. It's time for us as Christians, whatever our ethnic, economic or social backgrounds, to see those different than ourselves as more than statistics, but as a part of our human family - folks we must love, serve and help as Jesus commands. This is hard work that takes resources, time and energy, but it must be done by those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ.

So, put down the charts, put away the graphs, turn off the pundits and put on your walking shoes. Go approach that co-worker you've never really gotten to know personally. Invite that neighbor from a far away place to have a cup of coffee. Ask your church leadership how you can become involved in the outreach efforts your church has to offer. It has been said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. We may have a long way to go, but we'll never get there if we don't start walking now. Walk a mile in my shoes. I'll walk a mile in yours too. Then we can walk together and light a few candles instead of cursing the darkness.

Until next time...


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