Just under a year ago, I began my Race & Ethnic Relations course through Eastern University — the Campolo College of Graduate & Professional Studies to be precise. Our wise and patient professor, himself admitting to be a 'recovering racist', began our on-the-ground residency time with some of the most sage advice I have ever taken away from class. While he targeted this advice to a diverse, multi-ethnic class of varying shades of skin colour, students unsure of what to expect in such an emotionally charged room, I knew the words could be invariably applied to all aspects of our lives.
So, with the debacle of Chik-Fil-A and subsequent group movements in our wake, perhaps this advice needs to be pondered on and drawn into the heart of who we are collectively. I use this example because it is probably the most recent and raw one to draw from.
"When sharing with others using words and actions, consider well both the intent and the impact of your behaviour."
I call them: The 2 Eyes.
Intent refers to our inner feelings, thoughts, motivations and desires when speaking to another person or group. Often, we believe that our intent is thorough enough to be communicated across to other folks, when to our shock, it often is misconstrued.
Impact refers to the effect our words and actions have upon other people and groups. Whether we mean to hurt or whether we have no intention of hurt, we often do not have control of impact. Sometimes we are considerably surprised at the damage or, on the flip side, the healing we generate. Often, there has been negative impacts preceding ours, so we add to deep damage but we are left confused as to how our little addition to debates could create such a tearful force.
Let's apply The Two Eyes a little bit deeper shall we?
Many believers during the Chick-fil-A war truly wanted to support the business, defend free speech, and the Cathy family. These were their intentions. Feelings about the LGBT community aside, it was their speech and action directed by a desire to defend whom they perceived as good people — honourable, no?
People of the LGBT community, single-parent families, or other family structures feeling attacked by the organizations supported by Chick-Fil-A did not want to be attacked anymore, and chose to stay away. The intent was not to create a war or "promote the gay agenda" (if you still believe that there is a gay agenda, perhaps we need review some of that propoganda and start with a clean slate), or dare I say even to hurt those of differing opinions.
Things got vastly out of control all too quickly.
There were many believers, churches, and organizations who claimed to "hate the sin, love the sinner" — a tired phrase that is serving more to alienate even Christians now, rather than to create God's kingdom. It broke my heart, but the intent of some Christians was to turn into trolls (internet code for big meanies online). They wanted nothing more than to declare their distaste for gays and lesbians, taunt, call names, design horrible memes that went viral, use sarcasm… and all in the name of defending a "biblical" definition of family.
(On a personal note, if I didn't agree with this definition before, I definitely do not now after the words and actions of brothers and sisters who made it clear with letters of destruction to 'the Other'… namely, gays. But I'm getting ahead of myself into impact.)
On the other side (typed while cringing, knowing how badly I hate that there are sides), people of the gay community and other marginalized groups feeling the wrath of God's people lashing out at them likewise engaged in similar language and behaviour — fully intending to hurt, degrade, and attack. This fueled the war, and it was to believers' shame that we felt justified to retaliate in kind… again.
Bullying and trolling of any sort from anyone is unacceptable, but I will reiterate that when someone declares a love for Jesus Christ and a commitment to following His Way, the responsibility to express that love becomes all the greater for us. Am I saying someone who doesn't ascribe to Christ cannot express empathy, shalom or compassion? Not at all! I am only pointing out that believers whom claim to know better need to start acting better.
So… some intended peaceful demonstration from both sides; and some intended hateful demonstration.
While we all value our ache to free speech, what happens when our words and actions create an impact painful to those around us?
Joey is impressed with himself. He has made his first climb upwards past the treeline, along the narrow pathway, and is now with his buddies enjoying camp amidst some of the most beautiful mountain peaks in the world. The ranger at the way station was sure to give them all sage words of safety, including volume levels in high-risk zones where avalanches occur. Dazzled by the beauty of the world around him, Joey yells out a huge "WHOOP!!!!" and delights in the fabulous echo that reverberates back to him.
He is delighted.
His friends send dark looks at him, but don't stop him because they feel the pull to shout out too.
Joey keeps shouting.
The reverberations suddenly become small tremors; first unnoticed by the climbing troop, but all of a sudden becomes thunderous crashings — rocks, ice, and snow heading straight towards them, picking up speed and debris with every second.
Did Joey mean to cause an avalance? Probably not.
Did Joey want to get hurt? To have his friends hurt? Most definitely not.
Yet his words impacted the world around him to such a degree that it reacted back with violence.
It is my firm belief that many believers supporting Chick-Fil-A, in their fervour to defend a Christain business, did not see the impact their words or actions were having on marginalized groups. So caught up in the fever of it all, statements were made, actions were taken, people were hurt, and only after the dust settled did we see how badly wounded others were.
Here's where impact gets sticky.
While we fully expect others to accept our original intent of what we say, we rarely like to take responsibility for the impact our words have — "It's not MY fault that person took my words that way! They should know better!"
Both "I" words are ones we must be fully aware of when handling delicate matters of the kingdom. Does this make us cowardly or watered down? Hmmmm… it can if let only to human machinations, and not hinged upon the person of Jesus Christ. But so can handing out teeny tracts laced with a few choice Scriptures. Cowardice can be found anywhere, just like legalism. I am of the mind that when have our minds fixed on Christ, we will learn to accept the discomfort of the impact of our words as well as our original intents.
Looking back on the week, what has been the impact of our actions (whatever they may have been) upon the people around us?
Even if our intents were 100% pure, if they have hurt or wounded another are we willing to race to that person's side and be the people now focused on healing, rather than continued mud-spinning when we're stuck in debate?
For those of us who truly intended harm upon the people around us and succeeded, I implore you to rediscover the actions, reactions and responses of Jesus Christ. Two of the most divided people groups on this planet today are Christians and the gay community. In kingdom creation, this must not be. It is not acceptable. Instead of demanding a change from the other side, where have our intentions and impacts exposed the need for change in our side?
Intent and impact… two simple words bearing a lot of weight. Yet keeping them at the forefront of our daily mediatitons and interactions is crucial. All too often we demand the other side accept our intentions as Gospel, when we refuse to accept the consequences our impacts have created. Sometimes, we do not even factor into the equation that our words and behaviours could cause such rifts! What a humbling lesson…
Yes, I used the recent example of Chick-Fil-A to demonstrate how The Two Eyes work in daily life. But as I said, they are applicable anywhere. Trying to wade through a course about historical and current faces of racism was like wading through muck — I wanted to be right, I wanted to be without stain. Yet learning more of how my skin colour gave me invisible privilege made life suddenly a swamp to carefully, gingerly step through. Messy… yet beautiful… sometimes full of bugs… full of learning… full of change.
What shall be our words towards the chronic alcoholic coming to church, accepting Christ, but showing no outward signs of an inner change? Intent… and impact.
What shall be our signs of love towards the woman hiding the secrets of her abortions, but hearing sermon after sermon of the evils of murdering her babies? Intent… and impact.
What shall be our behaviour towards people of developing nations who desire to be seen as equals, and not charity handouts from our pockets? Intent… and impact.
What shall be our expressions of love towards our brothers and sisters in Christ when we squabble… argue… declare each other heretics or Pharisees? Intent… and impact.
I'm sure any one of you could add your own example to the list.
What shall be our signs of love?