Choosing Truth and Tolerance When Working for Racial and Ethnic Justice

10996106_503491369788834_3094261624110450754_n Once again our nation has been mourning brutal killings—that of three Muslim university students in Chapel Hill, NC. The lives of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha and many others here in our own society—every bit as valuable as ours and our family’s lives—have been snuffed out through violent attacks.  These are Muslim lives, Black lives, Hispanic lives, Native American lives, Jewish lives, LGBT lives, and the list goes on.

Unfortunately, this surge of killing is not new and will likely continue. It’s just getting more pubic attention as masses of people around the country stand up and speak out in public protests and over social media. For much too long, people from particular racial, ethnic, or religious groups have been suffering atrocities and indignities without public acknowledgement. There has been a pervasive blindness of our own racist attitudes as well as of white privilege and institutional racism and other isms. Many people of faith allowed themselves to see the deaths and economic and educational improvishment of certain racial or ethnic groups as the consequences of their “sinfulness” or inferiority. There have been steps forward for minority groups, but we have a long way to go.

The hopeful news is that people are opening their eyes and hearts to see what is happening and are speaking out boldly and persistently for change. Media and public officials are feeling pressure to be accountable for reporting and addressing the corruption and brutality of our institutions. Members of white, dominant groups are looking more deeply at their own privilege and assumptions. Religious orientations that had fostered hatred or disdain for certain groups are being challenged and called on to see that even other groups that don’t fit their image of “normal” or “faithful” must be given the same rights and protection under the law and be treated with the same dignity and respect that they want to be given.  More people are seeing that the issue often thought of as Muslim against non-Muslims is really a struggle between people operating out of intolerance, hate mongering, or extremist understandings of their faith, and those operating out of tolerance and seeking solidarity.

The struggle will continue as old patterns of bigotry are disrupted and changed. Those who resist change may feel uncomfortable and righteous and even defend the way things have been, which they saw as more calm or settled.

While living in the Middle East in a predominantly Muslim society much of the past thirteen years, I was the one who was different, the one who could have been seen as representing western culture and U.S. imperialism, and could have been seen as the “enemy.” Even amidst the tensions of war and some hostile actions against our peace team, we were generally welcomed lovingly by the local people and not judged by negative traits of the groups we belong to, but by who we were. I experienced openness and grace—both important if we are to struggle for change that brings us together in our diversity, rather than further tearing us apart.

Here are some suggested ways we can respond and work for change:

  1. Seek to understand and care about those who seem different or strange to you. Whether you are a person of faith or choose a non-faith position, draw deeply on your sources of love and compassion and see the humanity or image of God in them. Open your eyes to their pain and need, but also to their gifts. See the well-being of society and your particular racial or ethnic group as being interconnected with the well-being of each other group.
  2. Be willing to look honestly at the legacy of injustice and oppression in our society as well as your own attitudes and behavior.  Do your actions and lifestyle support injustice or suppression of certain peoples? Do you use your ethnic or religious identity to gain privilege to the disadvantage of others?  How can you change your attitudes and behavior to be part of positive change?
  3. Take and support actions that boldly speak and demonstrate the truth, that are carried out in love, and that seek reconciliation and restoration of just and caring relationships and opportunity for all people.

It may be a long struggle, but one we need to take, along with others around us. When the road gets rough and long, let’s keep the vision of sala’am/shalom or the “beloved community” before us.  While we act, remember to (according to the civil rights song) “keep your eyes on the prize, hold on…hold on!”

By Peggy Faw Gish

Her recent book is Walking Through Fire: Iraqis’ Struggle for Justice and Reconciliation, (Cascade Books, 2013)

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