“Suffering will either make you better or bitter.” I don’t know where I first heard that saying, but it’s stuck with me. It’s filed right next to a saying my high school basketball coach used to bark at us as we ran hellbenders in practice, “Adversity makes cowards of us all.” He was quoting someone but I forget who. What I haven’t forgotten is the simple lesson these quotes communicate—we find out who we really are when we suffer.
The COVID-19 pandemic is revealing a lot of people. Sometimes it reveals our better selves, like the medical professionals and hospital janitorial staff risking their lives to help and to protect others. Or the factory workers voluntarily quarantining themselves to make thousands of masks for doctors and nurses. More of that, please Lord.
But sometimes the pandemic reveals our depravity. There’s the stupefying report of a young Hispanic man who attacked an Asian-American family, stabbing three members including children ages 2- and 6-years old (story here). We see depravity on any number of cell phone videos capturing African-American men harassing, haranguing, intimidating and assaulting Asian-American women and elders (examples here). This pandemic shows that racial sin crouches at the door of ethnic groups who themselves have often been the victims of bigotry, prejudice, stereotyping and racism. For that reason, as the Williams Brothers sang, it’s time we sweep around our own front doors before we continue the sweeping we do at others’.
Growing up in a small southern town made up primarily of African Americans and Whites, I was unfamiliar with Asian-African American hostility and hatred until the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots. I remember news footage of some Asian-American store owners arrayed across the rooftops of their shops wielding rifles to protect their businesses. There were a few televised panel discussions that explored the tensions between the communities. Then for the most part, the conversation seemed to disappear along with the inevitable disappearance of the LA unrest itself. But that began an awareness of a problem, usually muted in larger conversations about reconciliation and justice, that nevertheless simmers and occasionally boils. The quiet strife feeds upon stereotypes and prejudice, racist attitudes and actions, recollections of harsh treatment from Asian corner stores owners or by Black employees of TSA. Anecdote gets added to suspicion which builds on racial animosity and mistrust. Before long, ethnic minorities are harboring sentiments and taking actions we decry in ethnic majorities.
In this particular historical moment, however, a lot of animosity is being aimed at Asian Americans. The association of the novel coronavirus with a province in China and the President’s reference to it as the “China virus” legitimizes hatred, threats and slurs in the minds of some. Rather than join the fray, African-American Christians have a moral responsibility to stand in solidarity with those being vilified, marginalized, “other”-ed and harassed.
African-American Christians are stewards of the longest, most successful heritage of pro-justice, pro-equality, pro-love activism the country (the world?) has ever seen. From the fight to abolish slavery, to the efforts at Reconstruction, through the classic Civil Rights Movement, African Americans—a great many who were Christians—have taught and forced the country to live up to its highest ideals. We have been used of God to prompt, cajole and force the country to practice what it preaches when it says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” By precept, example and sacrifice we have made the “self-evident” truths of the Declaration of Independence actually evident in law and society.
But we did not do that alone. We had help. Others stood in solidarity with us in our times of greatest need. We, now, are obligated as stewards of this heritage to stand with others in their need. This obligation is but the application of a truth Dr. King saw very clearly when he wrote:
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
Sitting in that Birmingham jail composing this letter, King’s words applied most directly to African Americans in our cause. That was the pressing need of the hour.
Today, sitting in our homes across the country, Dr. King’s words still apply, only in this COVID-19 moment they apply most directly to our Asian American neighbors and brethren in Christ. We still exist “in a single garment of destiny.” We still owe a conscientious reciprocity. We still must recognize that injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere. We cannot be so historically and culturally myopic that we fail to apply these principles to others as well as ourselves. We cannot be so taken in hypocritical self-interest that we imagine ourselves to be the only ethnic people with a legitimate claim on the compassion of others. The apostle Paul might say, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4).
It seems to me that African Americans, Christians in particular, need to be dedicated to two concrete actions at this point in history. First, we need to find concrete ways of standing in solidarity with Asian Americans resisting bigotry and injustice. If we see something, we need to say something—especially against those persons within our own community who perpetrate hate. We need to stand up for our neighbors in public ways, like signing and circulating “The Statement on Anti-Asian Racism in the Time of COVID-19.”
Second, we need to commit to self-examination, discussion, repentance and reconciliation with Asian-American neighbors and brethren. This process is long overdue. The longer it is delayed the slower will be the process toward justice. We cannot call others to repentance for their racism, prejudice, stereotyping and bigotry without attending to our own. Thankfully, there are practical resources like Be the Bridge and faithful guides like Latasha Morrison and Brenda Salter-McNeil to help us on this journey. We need to take full advantage of the opportunity to become more fully committed to gospel reconciliation by dealing with the logs in our own eyes.
Lord willing, this period of social distancing will one day end. When it does, I pray we have not socially distanced ourselves even more by allowing the creeping, crouching, devouring sin of racial prejudice and bigotry to curl up in our lives. Our depravity is being revealed to us. May God give us grace to be better rather than bitter, by applying the resources of the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit in resisting anti-Asian discrimination, mistreatment and racism—starting with us stewards of the longest-running justice tradition in the country.