Monday, January 04, 2010

the blind side

Twenty-ten, here we come.

On New Year’s Eve night we did what a lot of old people do: we went to a movie. After a great meal with some friends, we headed to the Rave to see The Blind Side with everyone’s favorite biker girl, Sandra Bullock (and who would have guessed that Faith Hill’s husband was turning into a real actor?).

The hit film is based on the true story of Baltimore Raven Michael Oher’s “rags-to-NFL” journey and has taken in a hefty $209 million and change. It’s a heartwarming story, but it leaves me a little flummoxed. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a feel-good, inspirational movie. Quentin Tarantino it’s not. And it’s dealing with real issues: racism, social classes and poverty. But here’s the deal: the audience was totally white…and will always be. Uh, big deal, Dave. Did you see who went to Narnia?

But here’s what makes me uncomfortable: the subtext is racial reconciliation, yet I wouldn’t invite any of my African-American friends to see it. It’s one more movie about white people rescuing hopeless and helpless black people. I know it’s done earnestly, but if you’re reading this and you’re white, try putting yourself in someone else’s shoes that has years of generational cultural minority baggage and abuse: how would you feel? Would you take your kid to see it? Sometimes the meta-message is bigger than the intended meaning.

And that’s the funny thing about the level of reconciliation that’s needed in the Church between the races. One would think that this movie is about the main character (Sandra Bullock, unlike the book it’s based on) having her perception of African-Americans turned upside-down. She responds to her friend’s statement, “You’re changing that boy’s life,” with “No, he’s changing mine.”

So why would I be uncomfortable inviting my friends to see it? That alone should give me a clue to part of the problem

Reconciliation is the core of Christianity: God reconciling us to Himself. He did this by slipping into the skin and sympathizing with the weaknesses of those who were powerless. That’s the incarnation. Paul sums it up in the hallmark scripture we used during the Christmas series: Your attitude should be the kind that was shown us by Jesus Christ, who, though he was God, did not demand and cling to his rights as God, but laid aside his mighty power and glory, taking the disguise of a slave and becoming like men. And he humbled himself even further, going so far as actually to die a criminal’s death on a cross. (Philippians. 2:5-8 Living Bible)

Jesus had all the power and all the privilege and rights with His Father, they were one in the same. But something remarkable happened because of love. He slipped into the skin of a slave. He knows what it’s like because He did the unthinkable: He became one of us. That’s the responsibility of the one with the power.

Incarnational Christianity is what I believe each one of us is called to do—to slip into the skin of someone else, to feel what they feel and see what they see, and so love them to the fullest. That’s the real thing. That’s why it says in 2 Corinthians: You know how full of love and kindness our Lord Jesus was: though he was so very rich, yet to help you he became so very poor…. (2 Corinthians 8:9a Living Bible). It goes beyond the power of empathy. In the early centuries, it was the Christians that stayed behind in natural disasters, famines and diseases to take care of the ones left behind.

Here’s the theological principle: Reconciliation is the responsibility of the people in power. Understand this: in the Kingdom of God, African-American believers must extend forgiveness to me, their white brother. King Jesus demands it. But there’s something vitally missing in that for me. If I don’t ask for forgiveness and show fruits of repentance by seeking systemic and individual justice, then I’m going to miss the transformational power of love in my life. It is always the responsibility of the people of privilege and power to seek reconciliation, not the other way around. That’s what Jesus did: left the privileges of heaven to reconcile the world to Himself, became a servant.

That’s incarnational Christianity. It’s all about real love. And when I make any attempt to see the world through my black brother’s eyes, then I let go of all claims, defenses and power, and become one with him…reconciled.

Years ago after one of our large scale outreaches, we reconvened in the Atrium with about a hundred of us to tell stories of what happened. I noticed one African-American couple with their little boy of about six or seven years old in a sea of white faces. The second person on the microphone told how excited they were to “talk to a black homeless guy”. She was earnest and sincere. But as I stood there, I wondered what was going on in the head of the husband of the couple who had brought their little son to do an outreach: Would he have to process what was said? Was the meta-message here that what this church does is help “black people” and the people who do that are white? And even more, if you want to grow up and be a leader here, you really need to be white…because that’s how it looked that afternoon. I wondered what it must be like to be a black father who wants to raise his child to be proud of his culture and his heritage, love the heart of the church he’s in, but have to wrestle with what’s between the lines of every conversation and communiqué.

Reconciliation is a little more complex than we who have the power probably think. And as my friend Ray McMillian once said, “I can’t take another foot washing.”

So isn’t reconciliation what Sandra Bullock did in the movie? Yes. But stop and think: the theatre is filled with white people. Maybe if we thought about that more—and the “why” behind it—it would do more for reconciliation than anything.


  1. Dave,

    I'm confused. Are you saying you wish more people of color would see the movie, or that as a white person I might be bereft of feeling for my brothers?

    Does reconciliation begin with me, or with God?

    Like many things I try to do in my own strength, I wonder sometimes if our "human" attempts to solve this issue are just making it worse? If I reach out to help someone of a different color, am I judged as a person feeling guilty and trying to relieve myself of some of the guilt?

    I think until we treat each other as God sees us, there will always be conditions of suspicion and inequality.

    I read in Genesis just the other day that God never intended for us to know good & evil, just His love. I guess that's why we keep going back into the neighborhoods, offering help, week after week... because we want relationship, not relief from our guilt?

  2. It would be so much easier to just be people helping people.

  3. Hey Don,
    I think it's the latter in your opening question. I believe kindness is always the right approach across any lines, but I'm just making an appeal to question how someone of another color may feel about some of the things we in the majority say and publish...perhaps even the things we think are conciliatory. Maybe seeking to understand even before wanting to be understood. I think that's the responsibility of the people with power. I believe that's "incarnational Christianity".

  4. Wow, Dave, I thought the same thing about this movie though I haven't seen it yet. "Rich white family rescues poor black kid" Aren't we past this by now?

  5. It's Oher's story and it has a lot to teach all of us. It should be told. I imagine myself in his shoes, as well as in the shoes of Tuohy and I learn something by looking from both perspectives. When will it be OK to watch films like this and not see the race of the individual's as the primary issue? I agree that it says a lot about where we are in this country with racial reconciliation that a great story like this is diminished by one possible perspective on it's meaning.

  6. Dave

    You and I are long time friends. We've served together at VCC, laughed together, and I've been privileged to stay in your home. I'm only saying that for the benefit of other readers, not to reestablish credentials with you. :-)

    In my years in Cincinnati - and much more clearly now from a distance - I couldn't help but notice a certain collective pastoral neurosis around the issue of race. Most efforts, started with the best of intentions, were sabotaged by cries of "Lame! Inadequate!" before they got off the ground.

    Actually, I think it has more to do with the Cincinnati mindset than it does the black/white issue. I think of it this way - in Cincinnati, things are never as they seem, good or bad. If the city were to burn to the ground tomorrow, true Cincinnatians would insist "We meant to do that!". Then they'd gather around their kitchen tables and worry if their fire was as spectacular as Chicago's. Issues in Cinci take on a life of their own, are talked about in a circular fashion, and are rarely settled. Angst is the emotion of choice.

    I love all things Cincinnati, except for that part. Having travelled a lot and lived in other places, I have found no place where as much hand wringing goes on as in Cincinnati, or where as little progress is made.

    The Blind Side was not movie of the year material, but it was a clean flick about a family moving beyond themselves. They were born white. They couldn't help it. The football player was black. He was also big, but big people seemed to like the movie. I read your post to my kids to get their reaction. My eight year old - the rock star - said "It was about white and black people? I thought it was about the big guy rescuing the little kid."

    I'd take black people to see it. And Latinos and Asians too. In fact, I'd have to if I took my 3 adopted daughters. Somehow, the whites in our family are nearing a minority. Not sure if that qualifies as incarnational Christianity, but it sure makes for a fun family.

    Love you much, friend. And that's from one very white guy to another. :-)

    Randy Bohlender

  7. I'm sure this wasn't your intent, but after reading your blog I felt discouraged about my work at the Healing Center. I have been part of MercyWorks/Healing Center for about 10 years. I do "assessments" -- talk to first time guests; or returning guests who have a need other than food and clothes. I'm white and way more than half of the people I talk to are African-American. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about that. I'm mostly thinking about their need and what direction to recommend to help fill that need. I'm thinking about how to make that person feel valued. I am "out of my comfort zone" every week. Lots of weeks I'd rather be somewhere else than sitting across from someone with a seemingly insurmountable problem -- but I believe this is what God has called me to do so I do it. Do I think I can rescue black people? No. Can I fully relate to the black experience. No. No more than I can relate to what it is like to be male, widowed, childless, disabled, bi-polar, etc, etc. I can't "incarnate" myself like Christ did for us to fully understand what anyone else feels. I can only be there and hope we make some kind of connection. After reading your blog, I feel that I am suspect to every African-American person I come in contact with and that I deserve to be suspect just because I am white. I did stop after reading your blog to examine my motives. They are not totally pure, but my heart is on the right track. I get frustrated with the suggestion that no matter what I/we do it's not enough. And it is very discouraging.

    But, I do see what you are talking about in many instances. Ernie and I helped at the clean-up in Lincoln Heights last summer. It looked like a swarm of white people trying to beautify a black neighborhood. I felt like a voyeur. We also started tutoring with Whiz Kids in Lincoln Heights. All but one tutor was white and all the kids were African-American. I would love to see these kids being mentored by black role models. I believe they would be much more effective than I. What does one do with that? Do we not answer the call because we can't fully relate? Just stay away because of the possibility of offending?

    I saw the movie and liked it because the story was true. It wasn't a great film. As far as stereotypes -- how about the snobby women at lunch? You could assume all white women are rich and self-indulgent. That offended me ;). I came away from the movie envying the main character for her willingness to take such an amazing risk and wondering what holds ME back. But, of course, I saw it through my white eyes.

  8. My point was not to dissuade any of us from working for justice or expressing simple person-to-person compassion. I actually don’t do a lot of hand-wringing about serving other people, regardless of race. I’m not even questioning the motives of the Tuohy family. And I’m not saying white people should not help black people. I admire the Tuohy’s for stepping outside their comfort zone. I have no doubt that any white person would find it inspiring and even catalytic to help those trapped in poverty. That’s good. I’m just raising a question of wonderment of what it must feel like for the average African-American to watch movies like this with their kids. I find it interesting that the one African-American person that emailed me about the post said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I’m not trying to win points with anyone; I’m just thinking that it might be wise to wonder ever so often what certain things must look like from another POV. Or maybe have that conversation with a person of color.

    I would strongly recommend the classics, “Divided by Faith” by Emerson & Smith and “Race Matters” by Cornel West. Or for a quick read, “Letters Across the Divide” by Zuercher & Anderson.

  9. it's a sweet story and someone will make a lot of money from it. probably not a black producer.

    signed: above average white man

  10. its funny we still see people in racist terms still, after all these years from jim crow and segragation. white black yellow makes me wonder if people change

  11. I participated in two "Undoing Racism" workshops hosted by a nationally recognized organization based out of New Orleans, entitled "The People's Institute for Undoing Racism for Survival and Beyond," to get what you got from watching a movie. Yep, you're right. And, it humbles me that in my youth I had to go so far to get a message that came to you in an after thought during a movie that you saw just down the street. ;-)

  12. this is funny, I'm talking about a movie I've never seen. who knows what the motives of hollywood are?? I do agree with dave, it reminds me of a time I was in chicago for a friends wedding. i was in the lobby of the hotel and there wasn't a pale face anywhere to be found. it was increddible, just a small taste, { if that } of what my darker skinned brother might be fealing. maybe the story would be better if it were told from the eyes of Michael Oher.
    above average pale face

  13. I don't think the issue is with motives and of course there is nothing *wrong* with the movie or with a white family helping a black family. But there can be no doubt that racism still exists and that it is the reason so many African Americans live in poverty and then need "saving" by some benevolent white family.
    Consider this, as a woman, the old "damsel in distress" story gets old, even when it is a true story. Because it is the story that is always told. "Woman needs rescuing by man" is THE tale as old as time! What strikes some as an innocent tale is for me another reminder that women are still considered inferior in many ways.

  14. My husband and I took our daughter to see this movie...we were the only white people at the showing. i wondered if they thought we were weird for watching it! My reward came Sunday during the NFL football game when my daughter asked me if "Big Mike" was playing :)

  15. The Church stays racial divided because the leadership only talks about change but does not show that they are really intersted in change, starting with its staff and board of trust. Change starts wih servant leaders who proclaim themselves as Pastors