Thursday, June 11, 2020

A Place at the Table

We need to be having some important conversations in America right now. These conversations run the gamut on human realities, and they are dialogues we need to have with those who have historically not been given the right to speak. Thankfully, we are starting to recognize that the time for these conversations is long overdue. 

Sadly, however, we're going about it the wrong way. 

You see, we've recognize that we need to bring more voices to the table, but we haven't made a bigger table. All we're doing is swapping out who's allowed to sit at it. This is how language in a philosophically postmodern world works - it's a weapon, and we limit who is allowed to speak and shame those we don't want to listen to. We decide which voices are given air time and which we're allowed to shut down. And we call it good, but the truth is that it's getting us nowhere. It's not tearing down our walls; it's just painting murals on the other side of them. 

Here are a few examples of how our current approach isn't working: 

Pride organizers, at least in my local jurisdiction, have come out and said that they won't be contracting with the police for their security when they resume in-person festivals next year. They still welcome police officers and members of the military to attend, so long as they are not in uniform, because "we want everyone to feel welcome." Except, it seems, members of the military and police, who have to conceal who they are in order to be welcomed by a group founded to make sure everyone is included. 

NASCAR has banned the display of the Confederate flag at all of its events and facilities, saying that it's important to NASCAR to be a place where "everyone feels welcome." Except, of course, the 'Southern Pride' crowd for whom this flag has been detached from its historical roots and transformed into something that doesn't necessarily hold its strong ties to the ideology it once represented. (To be sure, some still use it as it was historically used, but many do not.) 

Harding University wants to rename a building on its campus because it currently bears the name of someone who once fought to keep Black students from attending. The building isn't named for him because of his ideology on race; it's named for him for the myriad of other good, valuable contributions he made to the community, but a friend connected to this issue said, "We just want to make sure everyone feels welcome on the Harding campus." Except, of course, men like the man who the building is currently named after - who make good, valuable contributions to their community but can be wiped away in a second if they have even one perspective that someone doesn't agree with. 

It's even this way when we talk about whether we should wear masks in public. There have been companies come out and say that they are mandating masks for all customers in their stores "because we want everyone to feel comfortable here." Except, of course, persons who aren't comfortable wearing masks. 

We're not making our tables bigger so that we can have the tough conversations that we need to have; we're just changing who we let sit at them. We're not giving air to more voices; we're giving different voices a chance to speak. It's still not a dialogue we're having; it's a shouting match. It's a shame fest. Clothed in words like 'tolerance,' it is anything but as we are just changing one out-group for another. 

Until and unless we change this, we're never going to do the hard work that we need to do. We're never going to have the real conversations that we need to have. We're taking marginalized groups in our society, and we're letting them do the marginalizing, all while they proclaim their openness and acceptance...all while living much less.

And maybe you're saying, but wait - those persons don't deserve a place at the table. They are so wrong, so backward, so stupid that we shouldn't have to listen to them. They don't deserve even a nanosecond of our attention. We don't condone their behavior. Okay, but remember this - there was a time when we said this about the very groups that we're now trying harder to listen to. There was a time in our history when we said that a man didn't deserve a place at the table because of his skin color or his sexual orientation, because he was so wrong, backward, and stupid, maybe even dangerous, just because of who he was, that we don't have to listen to him. He doesn't deserve our attention. If we were wrong then, though we were just as confident in our judgment of others, why would we repeat that mistake now by just directing those attitudes toward a different group?

I can't help but look at Jesus, at His table, and think how painfully wrong we're getting it. Think how far away from His version of love we are. I can't help but think about the conversations that had to happen around His table, and the truth is - I want that. I want that for us. I want that for our world. I want that for our children. 

I want us to not be afraid to talk with each other. Not to each other, but with each other. I want us to stop trying to figure out who deserves a place at the table and which voices we're supposed to listen to this week, and I want us to just build a bigger table and let everyone come to it. I want us to wrestle with the hard stuff, really wrestle with it, and figure out a way to truly make everyone welcome...without making anyone unwelcome. Because the minute that we say 'you're not welcome here because we want everyone to feel welcome here,' we've already failed. Hear me - we have already failed. If you have to push someone out to let someone in, even if you have to push one person out to let twenty in, you have failed.

We have a lot of conversations that we need to be having right now. A lot of them. And they are long overdue. But the way we're going about it right now is still wrong. We're not any closer to having those conversations today than we were two months ago, five years ago, three decades ago. Because we haven't built a bigger table. All we've done is change the guest list to accommodate what we have all known for far too long is too small a space. 

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