A Dangerous Unselfishness

There are moments in my life which appear vividly in my mind, as if I have selected a blu-ray from the bookcase and placed it onto a tray which, once closed, will play in crystal clear, high definition. My father reading Where the Wild Things Are; watching Star Wars on my grandmother’s pea-green, wool carpet for the first time; receiving, at ten years old, the news of my best friend’s death; and seeing the smoke rise from the north tower as I sat, clueless, working on a fourth-grade English assignment are but a few. This past weekend added a new blu-ray memory to that collection, as I am sure it did for many – staring, in disbelief, at a tiny Twitter photo of several angry white supremacists holding torches and gathering around a statue. The picture evokes imagery from the 1800s and early 1900s, like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, not 2017. And yet, here we are.

That Sunday, I went to church. I almost slept in, but the youth group met this Sunday, and, as one of the leaders, I had an obligation. Unexpectedly, Dan, who recently became a dad, showed up. He asked whether or not the other leader and I had prepared anything. We both shook our heads. He nodded, “Good. I think we should talk about yesterday.” I asked what he wanted to do, and Dan just looked at me, troubled, “I don’t know. But we’re going to wing it.” An awful realization hit me: We had to explain all this to a group of kids.

I remember the first time I encountered racism, one of my earliest blu-ray memories. At the time, I lived in St. Louis county, about thirty minutes outside the city. Since preschool, my mom had insisted on sending me to school in the city; she preferred the quality of schools available in the city,  which specialized in math, science, and technology. For eight years, I rode a bus from my house in the county to my school in the city as part of an integration program, which St. Louis and its surrounding counties have since abandoned.

“You’re just a knobbly knob white boy.” 

In elementary school, the other kids often made fun of my skinniness (knobbly knob) or my intelligence, but the insults always came back to my whiteness. As a kid, I didn’t understand why some of the other kids treated me with disdain, or why they called me white as if it was a dirty word. I had no concept of white privilege or of anything that had happened before I was born. I was just a kid. Eventually, I transferred to my local county district for middle school. I wanted to meet kids closer to me since I ended up with relatively few friends as a result of going to school in the city. I had no idea what I would encounter.

“Why’d you want to go to school there?”

“Why would you send him out there with those people?”

Kids and parents rarely outright said it. But their questions always carried the implication – something was wrong with the people I went to school with in the city. By now, in sixth grade, I had reached an age where my worldly wisdom, coupled with numerous history lessons on our country’s sinful past, equipped me to finally understand what I had found impossible to put to words during my elementary years. I could see the disconnect between people in the city and where I lived. I felt it in the way people stared at me at my elementary school; how my grandmother celebrated my new school, a subject which she had previously criticized my mom for; or the things my friends out in the county said about the city. I realized a salient point then, something I believe fundamental if we are going to talk about what happened in Charlottesville: People are profoundly flawed and broken.

This thought came back to me as I sat, surrounded by kids and the two other youth leaders, in the small, hot room at the back of our church. My faith, Christianity, proves humanity’s irreparably flawed nature over and over again. Read any story in the Bible – Adam and Eve’s original sin, the Israelites and the golden calf, King David’s adultery with Bathsheba, or Peter’s denying Christ. And those are arguably the more “tame” sins. But, despite all those bad people, the Bible repeatedly emphasizes grace.

My pastor puts it like this: “The Bible is not the story of a bunch of good people. It’s the story of one perfect person and a bunch of bad people.” That one perfect person, Christ, came full of love to forgive and reconcile humanity’s irreparably flawed nature. All this turned over in my head as we stretched and shared, a game where you form a circle, pick a stretch everyone else has to do and share something cool from your week, with the kids. How can we possibly communicate that to these kids? We asked them to draw.

The kids started with two drawings. One had TIE fighters and X-wings from Star Wars, and the other had unicorns. We asked the kids to do a simple thing – change the drawing. Then, we explained, as each kid drew on top of the picture, how fear, anger, and hate affect the way we view people. Altering the drawing reflected how maybe a friend hurts us, but we do not talk to them and reconcile, so that fear stays deep inside of us and sows bad seeds.

Maybe the fear starts out small. We act a little colder or avoid that person. But eventually, that fear takes root and becomes anger. So we say bad things about them behind their back. Or maybe we actively try to hurt them. And after a bit of this, our anger has slowly turned into hate. Someone who started out as our friend is now a monster to us. We have become obsessed with hurting them and getting revenge.

In Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final speech, he describes “[developing] a dangerous unselfishness” before retelling Christ’s parable of the good Samaritan. In the Bible, the parable is in response to a question, “Who is my neighbor?” and tells the story of a Jewish man who is robbed and left for dead on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem. A priest and Levite (member of the religious/political order) walk by, leaving the man at the side of the road, while a Samaritan, ignoring years of racial tension and outright bigotry between his people and the Hebrews, helps the Jewish man.

The road between Jericho and Jerusalem had a reputation for its dangerousness; thieves could easily attack unseen from the hills and cliffs. King said that when the priest and Levite left the man, they each asked themselves, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” We all are asking this question in some form or another:

“If I stop attacking the president, what will happen to me?”

“If I stop defending the president, what will happen to me?” 

“If I don’t destroy the other side, what will happen to my side?” 

But these are selfish inquiries. They concern ourselves or people who think like us, not about people different from us. As much as I agree love trumps hate, love is not thinking only of ourselves or people like us. We have to think about those who are different, who disagree with us, who may even get us hurt somehow. Instead, we should question as King says the Samaritan did:

“If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

In my previous article, I wrote how, especially in today’s atmosphere, we need to get ourselves. Now, in the wake of Charlottesville, that sentiment is even more important. Reconciliation requires a dangerous unselfishness and getting over ourselves. We have to listen. We have to be willing to admit where we have been wrong and where we may have wronged others. Most and hardest of all, we have to offer grace. The Bible refers to grace as a gift several times. A gift implies nothing expected in return. So, even if someone does not deserve forgiveness, we offer it. We offer it to the anti-fascist who perpetrates senseless violence; we offer it to the neo-Nazi who misguidedly perpetuates hate, and we offer it to our neighbors who may have voted for someone different than us. Why? Because if we do not, things like Charlottesville will continue to happen. Now, to be clear, that does not mean we avoid calling evil by its name and standing up against it; but it does mean responding with love and without malice toward one another.

How does this look in practice? I point you to Daryl Davis, a black man who’s befriended many Klansmen and white supremacists over the years, causing at least twenty to renounce their ways. I know it seems nuts, but what would the world look like if each of us took the time to know them rather than shun and hate them? After all, hate begets hate. Remember, the Samaritan helped the Jewish man despite years of racial animosity between the two people groups. When we respond to hate with hate, we only confirm their worldview. If each of us could change the heart of just one of these people, I wager the world would look much different. I still remember, as a kid, continuing to play with the kids who insulted me for being white, and eventually, they did stop. If it’s so easy for kids to do, why can’t we do it?

After my youth group’s drawing activity, the kids ended up with two very different pictures. TIE fighters and X-wings became angry stick figures with big heads shouting the words fear and hate, while that unicorns died in a tragic stabbing. Those little seeds of fear, anger, and hate had completely changed what drawing we saw and ruined them. We ended the activity by asking them what they learned. Every child said we need to love each other and forgive each other no matter what, and we should not hate someone for being different than us, even if it means dying as Christ did. If children can understand a dangerous unselfishness, I think we can too. Perhaps then, one day, our blu-ray memories will be a little more pleasant.

 

steven_trebus@alumni.baylor.edu'

About Steven Trebus

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Filmmaker, bread lover, and STL native in CA. Fluent in sarcasm. Some people (myself) call me the Jerry Seinfeld of my generation. If it can be written or thought, it can be filmed.