When Beyonce and Jessmyn Ward made me feel all the things

Usually I am not cool enough to know about big pop culture things as they are happening.  I usually find out about things just when they are starting to become uncool.  I wear mom jeans and drive this generation's equivalent of a minivan.  Actually, I don't even think I was cool back when I thought I was cool.  Anyway, that's not the point.

This weekend, I happened to be scrolling through Twitter when Beyonce dropped her new video, Formation.  So I watched it.  And I watched it again.  And again.  I don't think I can count how many times I've watched the video now.  It is mesmerizing.  It is gorgeous.  It makes me uncomfortable.  I've since read a billion think pieces about the video and what it all means.  And I think I'm supposed to be uncomfortable.  I think it's good that it makes me uncomfortable.

I've been made most uncomfortable by the varied reactions I've seen to the video.  Almost to a person, every negative reaction to either the video or the Super Bowl performance I've seen on my Twitter and Facebook feeds has been from a white person.  And almost every African American reaction I've seen has been positive.  This isn't the first time I've noticed this kind of divide.  Many, if not most, of the people (nearly all white) who live in my area have been unsympathetic (putting it kindly) to the deaths of young, unarmed black men in confrontations with police.  I've seen many comments about how they should just "do what the police tell them" and if they don't, "that's what they get."  (These same voices, by the way, are up in arms over the death of Lavoy Finicum, a man who is shown in videos to be reaching for his weapon.  But that's another story.)  What is becoming more and more obvious to me is that our country is terribly divided.

Last week I started reading Jessmyn Ward's memoir Men We Reaped.  The book is at once very personal and terribly universal.  I had heard it described as a memoir of loss.  This is a memoir genre that I've become a student of in the last 5 years and so I picked it up.  And it is a memoir of loss in many ways.  Jessmyn Ward weaves the stories of the loss of her brother and four other close friends into a discussion of family and relationships but also of race and economic disadvantage.  These five seemingly unrelated deaths become a microcosm of the ways that we have not cared for our neighbors.  Actually, let's go further.  It's not just that we haven't cared for our neighbors, that's too passive, it's that we have actively hurt our neighbors. 

The deaths Jessmyn Ward tells about in Men We Reaped have many causes.  From one point of view it could be argued that the young men caused their own deaths, in one obvious instance of suicide the man did die by his own hand.  Yes, there are aspects of personal responsibility in all the deaths Ward remembers, with the possible exception of her brother's death by drunk driver.  At the same time, Ward rightly points out the ways in which we are all complicit in these deaths: few job prospects, lacking educational systems, high rates of incarceration, the world is a very precarious place for young African American men. 

Christians like to trot out Galatians 3:28, "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."  It's true, we are all one in Christ but our practice of that oneness is far from perfect. When Christians, white Christians in particular, ignore the systems of injustice that oppress our brothers and sisters, we are not only a part of the problem, we are caught up in generational sin that is far from what God intended for His people.  

I get it.  Acknowledging systemic racism is hard and it will require real work and real change that may be painful.  It is so much easier to pretend it doesn't exist.  Let me be the first to admit that I don't have any answers about this and even less real knowledge.  None.  But I think awareness is the first step.  And I think a big part of moving toward reconciliation is being willing to listen to other voices.  I have enjoyed (and been made uncomfortable by) Christena Cleveland (her blog and her book, Disunity in Christ), Osheta Moore, Eugene Cho, Austin Channing and others. 

"When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don't get to decide that you didn't."  I've seen this Louis CK quote making the rounds on Facebook lately and I think it applies to this situation perfectly.  Our brothers and sisters are telling us that we've hurt them.  It's up to us to help change the things that are causing the hurt.