A couple Saturdays ago, my wife and I hosted a prayer gathering and discussion in our home on the subject of “race, society, and spirituality”. We read some sacred writings together and prayed, watched a short video, and had a discussion over some good food. People shared their personal anecdotes and experiences along with their heartache, their joy, and their concern about where we are going as a nation and as a human race. A friend whose dad is Kenyan, mom is white, and step dad is Persian told of a childhood of conflicted identity growing up in Upstate New York. A Polish immigrant shared her experiences of living in America for the past decade. A black neighbor told us about raising a daughter in an overwhelmingly white neighborhood in Greenwich, CT after growing up in Harlem. A Jew from Brooklyn shared his sadness over the needless suffering currently being felt in Israel and Palestine.
The two of us have hosted these prayer gatherings/discussions sporadically in our home for the past few years, but more recently we’d been contemplating dedicating an evening to the topic of race in particular. One reason is that unity is perhaps the single most important theme in the Baha’i Faith — Baha’u’llah once declared that “So powerful is the light of unity that it can illumine the whole earth” — and thus opposing racism and prejudice naturally becomes an important component of being Baha’is in America. But this wasn’t the only reason. The other was that the two of us have become tired of listening to friends and colleagues decry racism without an eye towards an actual solution, and in tones that seemed to accomplish nothing more than to fan the flames of suspicion and distrust.
During the height of the protests in St Louis last year, in reaction to the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager back in August, my Facebook newsfeed blew up with posts and articles denouncing the racism of the police, the scourge of “white privilege”, and the rampant prejudice within our country’s legal and economic institutions. This burst of collective anger came from truth; there was no way objectively to witness the horrifying shooting of Michael Brown — especially as seen as just one episode in an apparent epidemic of violence on the part of the police towards people of color — and feel nothing. For even the most optimistic and positive among us, the reality of our nation’s racist disease had once again become impossible to ignore.
Indeed, the first step in defeating a disease is to diagnose it and acknowledge its existence. There are plenty of us who have yet to accept this first step, deluding ourselves into believing that despite hundreds of years of slavery and other forms of institutional racism, America and its inhabitants now have a clean bill of health. But most of us, I’d hope, are wiser. We know that, though the severity of symptoms varies from patient to patient, each one of us — black, white, or otherwise — is a lifelong carrier of a deadly pathogen. Nonetheless, diagnosis alone is meaningless without actual treatment. There should be a limit to how many times we can circulate Ta-Nehisi Coates articles among ourselves before we ask, What are we doing here? To simply express our anger and outrage within a circle of similarly angry and outraged people is yet another form of putting one’s head in the sand, perhaps on par with the behavior of the racism deniers themselves.
There are practical policies that, on the margin, could make a difference. To take one example, our President recently proposed federal funding for police body cameras, which could conceivably reduce the incidence of horrifying and humiliating police actions against blacks and other minorities. But no matter how laudable these types of measures are, their focus is more symptom than disease. The underlying problem with America is not something that can be solved with new police equipment. Like so many other social problems, finding a meaningful solution isn’t going to be that easy. In his letter to North American Baha’is in 1938, Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Faith, wrote the following of the racial tensions between blacks and whites:
Let neither think that anything short of genuine love, extreme patience, true humility, consummate tact, sound initiative, mature wisdom, and deliberate, persistent, and prayerful effort, can succeed in blotting out the stain which this patent evil has left on the fair name of their common country.
How do we achieve this “genuine love”? What does that “deliberate, persistent, and prayerful effort” mean in practical terms? In my mind, it means purposefully breaking our comfortable social routines and forcing ourselves to meet and truly understand the neighbors, coworkers, and casual acquaintances around us. As Jesus once asked*: “And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” Invite a friend who is of a different race over for dinner. Ask an immigrant you run into at the office, the coffee shop, or wherever where she is from and how she came to this country. Share a hot beverage, Sheldon Cooper style, with a neighbor who happens to look different from you. And if you are spiritually inclined, get these various individuals together and pray for the soul of this country.
‘Abdu’l-Baha once said, “A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love.” As we’ve recently been reminded, America like so many places can be a hateful and cynical place. It’s time to stop succumbing to such hatred and cynicism, and simply acceding to their needy demands. In every living room, office cubicle, or street corner, it’s time to suffocate racism with overwhelming love, and a purposeful effort to bond with and come to understand those around us.
*Hat tip to Brian Aull’s The Triad, which is where I came across this particular Bible passage. This book deserves a post of its own at a later date.