Have you seen the movie?
Bright lights flicker and fade to grey and then darkness.
I scooch back into my snuggly, red plush seat, and the projector reveals a figure on the screen. I look right, barely able to make out the face of my girlfriend sitting only inches away. The pitch black of the theater invites me to focus on one image — the man about to speak to me, large and looming, straight ahead. I feel a connection with the man on the screen because his face is the only face that is illuminated. The darkness of the theater has a special kind of superpower. It creates an intimacy between myself and the man who has just introduced himself as George Tillman, Jr — the incredibly gifted and bold director of The Hate You Give.
His deep voice speaks. With conviction, Tillman looks into the camera, his eyes seemingly focused on the millions of us sitting in the theater. He introduces this story of Starr, an African-American teenager whose name was gifted her by her father, that she might be a bright light for truth. The book was written by Angie Thomas.
But the story is also being written out in our lives today. How will we respond in conversations about racism? Will we be receptive to hearing and seeing the social ramifications created by hundreds of years of white-impelled shame on people of color?
Nearing the end of his introduction to the film, Tilllman challenges his viewers: After experiencing The Hate You Give, might you be changed?
Tillman actually gives the audience fair warning, You might be changed.
Dear God, please…I pray that we might be. We do not want to run away from conversations about racism.
Conversations about racism should not scare us. Conversations about racism should change us.
This body shaming tool, skin-color shame, is yet another weapon that Satan has been wielding for generations. As God-fearing believers, we can unite to dismantle this weapon. There is time and space to discuss how racism has been used as a shaming tool that isolates a group of people and defames their physical appearance.
So, believers for change, stand up!
But be ready. Choosing to stand up isn’t necessarily an invitation to be the first and loudest speaker in the room. In standing together, we choose to listen first, even before opening our mouths to speak in defense.
Brene Brown Offers Her Perspective on Shame
Actually, I can already hear the voices speaking in defense. Please, simmer down. I know there are some of you who hear the name Brene Brown and cringe. But read this and listen. It speaks to the power shame has in our human experience.
In her article published in January, 2013, Brown defines shame as an “intensely powerful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging — something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
For all human beings, there are experiences we do not get excited about bringing up.
Some of us claim we just don’t see the point of bringing up “that event” from our teen years. That was before I became a Christian.
Some of us claim it will hurt the people in our lives to hear what we’ve done. That was before I changed my ways.
Some of us claim bringing up a past action we’ve committed only pulls us back into that dark place from which we worked so hard to disentangle ourselves. That was before I knew the weight my actions carried.
Fair enough. It seems safer to silence shameful thoughts and experiences. But does Honesty get a voice in the conversation?
Honesty calls us to see our past actions as opportunities for victories and mistakes. The mistakes we make confirm our humanity, and humans long for connection. Speaking aloud the experiences that shame us kill the power those experiences have over us. “Shame cannot survive being spoken,” Brown assures.
Personal shame that eats away at our ability to connect with others is dangerous. Skin-color shame is a whole different, but equally dangerous can of worms. We call this contention racism, a shaming tool that started gaining a foothold on our American soil over four hundred years ago. My friend, Amy, recently recommended Deep Denial: The Persistence of White Supremacy in United States History and Life by David Billings, and it is shining light on how our deeply prejudiced history forms our current conversations about race.
I’m only in the beginning chapters of this book, but it is confirming what I believe: Jesus-seekers have a responsibility to speak about the present day consequences of years-old racism. As believers in Jesus, we must acknowledge the skin-color shame that “light skinned people” forced on black people, starting with African slaves stepping foot on the soil, this side of the Atlantic Ocean, in the early 1500s.
How can we not speak about the ramifications induced by skin-color shame that our ancestors utilized for profit and power? Much like The Hate You Give suggests, speaking the truth is the first step toward changing the world we live in. Speaking the truth frees us to love justice, seek mercy, and walk humbly with our Creator (Micah 6:8).
Does the Bible Call Us to Change?
Yes, the Gospels clearly call believers to change.
In Matthew 9, Jesus calls Matthew away from his work at the tax booth. Counting his collection for the day, Matthew is interrupted by Jesus’ command, “Follow me.” The Word narrates that Matthew didn’t question or hesitate. He simply followed Jesus to a nearby home where people, tax collectors and sinners, began to gather.
Jesus is reclining. People are chatting. The disciples are gathering. All is well. And then the Pharisees enter.
They take a quick look around the room. They want to know what the heck is going on. But they don’t ask Jesus. In voices spoken just loud enough for Jesus to hear, the Pharisees ask the disciples about why Jesus would surround himself with these people. The Pharisees question, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus, across the room, responds to the Pharisees: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Jesus’ response, I used to think, was spoken from a place of compassion for the sinners and tax collectors he was communing with that day. After all, Jesus came for the least of these, even the sinners and tax collectors.
But now I think his response was meant for the Pharisees, as well. The Pharisees were sick with discrimination in their hearts and rule-following perfectionism in their psyches. The Pharisees were in desperate need of a physician. The Pharisees needed something to change the ill-judgment pervading their condemning hearts. That is why Jesus gives them a job. Jesus commands the Pharisees, ” Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”
By instructing the Pharisees to “learn,” he is charging them to change. “Learn” comes from the Greek word, manthano, which means to “ask, study, be taught.” Jesus points out that the Pharisees are missing something huge when it comes to understanding his love for all people — whether it’s prostitutes, widows, or tax collectors. Jesus advises the Pharisees to learn about the real meaning of mercy because their hearts need to change.
If we defend ourselves against the possibility that Jesus calls us to change, we might as well put on the cloak of Phariseeical thought, deafened to Jesus’ instruction. Jesus wants all people to learn about how He loves all people generously, mercifully, and courageously. That we might change.
And isn’t change part of the every believer’s walk with God? If He is growing us, isn’t He changing us?
The conversations about body shame, whether it’s skinny shame, fat shame, or skin-color shame — none of it should scare us. These conversations are our privilege. These conversations, especially about racism, should change us.