a proportional response

Love is always the answer…but only when it sits in relationship with truth. 

a feast of proportionality at the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking on to Central Park

Public discourse at its best is rich with paradox but recently seems mostly littered with misunderstanding. Echo chambers resound wildly amplifying hurt and fear, both of which, I can say personally, are utterly warranted in this new political landscape. But how to hold the hurt and fear with the nearly impossible paradox that brings love and truth together? What is a proportional response?

“Truth without love is brutality, and love without truth is hypocrisy.”
– Warren W. Wiersbe

And there’s the rub. A truth untempered by love is violence, while love without truth is toothless. I’ve seen quite a few white folks floating Dr. King quotes on the internet, especially this one: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” That seems like an enlightened response, but I’m not sure if it’s completely proportional. I think it’s a great sentiment that makes folks feel good. I think in its original context, the quote is a powerful stand for peace and reconciliation. But reconciliation is about first confronting some ugly truths. The light makes all the dark places known, not just the ones we want to see. 

The hard truth that white folks need to fully embrace before they reference Dr. King is the question we must live, posed by MLK himself near the end of his life:

“Why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains?

“The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.”
– Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, 1967

Is this what Vice President-elect Mike Pence was talking about when he said in his convention speech that one of the heroes of his youth was Dr. King? I hope so. Whenever any of us white folks references Dr. King, I really hope that this is the truth we’re talking about. Racism is real. It doesn’t preclude the idea that love is real. It doesn’t negate calls for unity and justice. It exists with love, unity and justice, all together in paradox.

Any attempt at active listening, any effort to create space for dialogue, any gesture toward hospitality must be balanced by the confrontation that lives between those two Dr. King quotes. My personal hospitality hero, Henri Nouwen, calls confrontation the result of an “articulate presence, the presence within boundaries of the host to the guest by which he offers himself as a point of orientation and a frame of reference…Receptivity without confrontation leads to a bland neutrality that serves no one. Confrontation without receptivity leads to an oppressive aggression which hurts everybody.” (Reaching Out, 99) 

Love holds space for hurt and fear. It is an “articulate presence” that embraces and lives alongside hurt and fear. Truth holds space for reality, the “presence within boundaries” that confronts the light and the dark, the “harmony” and the “self-deception,” the “Utopia” and the “comfortable vanity.” Without both love and truth we will continue to brutalize each other while we are lying to ourselves. Taking shelter in the field of paradox is uncomfortable, but it is a proportional response to the destruction at work in our public discourse.

Here’s the truth, and we can’t acknowledge it enough: racism is real. This election has exposed it in a way that white folks haven’t been aware of in years, but people of color probably weren’t particularly surprised by. But progress is real, too. Some of the white voters that voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 are the same ones who voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 and 2012. There’s a paradox if ever there was one. It’s a paradox brought to you by the un-mutually exclusive forces of racism and progress.

To better participate in cultivating the twin ideals of love and truth, we white folks may want to first try sitting squarely in the center of our privilege and asking ourselves the questions Dr. King poses to us: “Why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains?” Do we believe that our nation is committed to “fair play,” and how are we actively engaging as agents of equity? How are we using our privilege to disseminate our power, the evil we retain?

I’ve had experience with helpful white folks, deluded and full of not-so-virtuous rationalizations. I’ve been one. I’ve gone into black spaces as a volunteer and as a teacher, and I have done it with a whole lot of flawed narratives in my head while responding with some graceless gestures. I have lived and embodied the paradox of racism and progress. I have vainly thought to know what’s best for black lives without even considering my role in furthering white supremacy and the institutions that support it. 

Fortunately I’ve learned that before I put my privileged white foot in my mouth, I should do a whole lot of listening to the folks who are actually in communion with the community. I’ve learned that a proportional response is about contemplation and action, humility and courage. Every act with compassion. Every word in awareness. Always listening. Always waiting expectantly for more wisdom.

And a healthy dose of forgiveness for ourselves and our community when we don’t get it right at first, but we’re committed to doing better next time.

The ratio between love and truth is a golden mean.



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