The woman standing in front of him would die within the year. He hesitated to tell her. An American doctor was on a relief trip to Haiti, and his patient would have no further access to health care. Ultimately he divulged his suspicions to her, thinking her family would benefit from advanced notice.
Internet influencers offer bad news far more willingly than that physician in the slums of Port-au-Prince. They build audiences with addictive “hits” about the other side. They stir-up their tribes with daily diagnoses without offering any prescriptions. Negativity sells. Solutions take time.
Selling or solving injustice?
For the past year, our country has struggled to find the right words to name the unfinished business of racial injustice. Many people circled back to language of the civil rights movement, like systemic racism. In the mouth of a provocateur, this complaint suggests America is beyond repair. When the intent seems to sell rather than solve, then not all objections to the term are racially defensive. Some simply dismiss a hopeless diagnosis without a prescription. If words are going to help us, then we should not use them just to diagnose what we are against.
Sometimes it is necessary to cry foul when values are absent. We don’t always live what we say we value. Naming values helps us align institutions with them. We need permission to name the gap between aspired values and the ones we actually live. But healthy confrontation of the status quo means prescribing what we are for, not just naming what we are against. We need prescriptions. Below I offer a few.
Why national prescriptions fail
One size does not fit all. And yet our national debates often seem like a neurotic quest for the philosopher’s stone. We want a panacea to solve all our problems. It certainly is energizing to fight one big cause, but it can become just so much tail-chasing futility when it’s more about win-lose factions than win-win action.
Even worse, it’s not all conspiracy theory to suggest how one big solution can become “one ring to rule them all.” Stalinist Russia did not start with the Gulag. Stalin wore the title General Secretary. He rose to power promising equity through administration. National shame over inequity makes people anxious for a quick fix. Savvy dictators leverage a nation’s anxiety to consolidate power as the only way to fix problems. What’s the alternative?
In 1915, a Scotsman named Patrick Geddes said, “Think globally, act locally.” It has become a meaningless platitude. Yet there’s wisdom in it. How can we gain from this global-local bifurcation?
A filter for Global thinking
Understanding issues on a national scale can yield insight we all need to have in common. Much thought goes into those “one big solutions,” and no matter how flawed, we can find some benefit in them. In a recent article, Professor Anthony Bradley gives some guidance about how Christians can participate in the national conversation over race, especially when the language used seems so loaded. Even concepts like Critical Race Theory, associated with Marxism can still have some benefit. Bradley advises:
the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), the Presbyterian tradition, and covenant theology allow Presbyterians to take an “eat the meat and spit out the bones” approach to cultural theories like Critical Race Theory and other legal or social science theory that attempts to give a secular account of evil.
In other words, a biblical worldview helps us distinguish the faults in a proposal from its redeeming value without dismissing it entirely. Such a dismissal would be, itself, an unprincipled reaction rather than a thoughtful response. A measured response keeps you in the conversation.
Grace and truth for local thinking
Addressing social conflict locally must begin with grace. Agreeing to disagree for example can help common ground emerge. A common future is an obvious place to start working together locally. Even if a group of people is too emotional or divided over the past, they can certainly agree about future opportunity. Creating pathways to bring out the best in everyone is good for anyone. A future focus makes the majority culture less defensive about the past and makes minority cultures less apprehensive about the present.
Second, thinking locally takes truth. We must learn to tell the truth until everyone is sick of hearing it. That means we are not finished remembering the history of people whose ancestors were enslaved until they are tired of it and ready to move on. Repairing relationships requires some discomfort from time to time. It begins on the far side of a little chaos. That chaos is already there festering. We can wait for a crisis to drawn it out or we can surface it intentionally with the truth.
“If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” Isaiah 58:10