“There’s nothing more painful to me than writing a blog,” declares my husband – somewhat hyperbolically, when I asked for ideas for my next blog post. He and I are very different individuals; and different things cause us pain. For him it’s writing, for me it’s small talk. We both experience “pain” when doing these activities and being married for X years, we know better than to dismiss each other’s pain. Pain is what’s common between us.
The last several months, the convergence of pain for me at the individual and institutional level has been intense. Personally, in my job search and personal relationships, I have experienced what I call the “double whammy” pain of racism and sexism. When I share these experiences, the reaction I get from white folks tends to be dismissiveness. “Surprised that happened to you. That hasn’t been my experience.”
At first, this dismissal takes me by surprise, and then it gradually sinks in. My pain is not their pain, and they can’t be bothered. Easiest way to respond is to ignore pain’s existence.
But when I share these experiences with people of color, immediately, my pain is validated. They have their own stories but there’s a bond in our pain. We feel it. We know it exists.
I had an ethnic minority co-worker who used to come to my office to exchange war stories. At first, we talked about common struggles that affected our work – people, process, technology. Over time, we began to share comments we’ve heard that left us wondering, “Did they say or do that because I’m…” or “This keeps happening and have you experienced the same thing?” The experiences were often interpersonal and isolated, and can be easily dismissed as a one-off, until we compared notes and traced a pattern in our workplace.
Author Viet Thanh Nguyen writes about different screams in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Sympathizer.
“One must listen to them carefully to understand that while pain is universal, it is also utterly private. We cannot know whether our pain is like anybody else’s pain until we talk about it. Once we do that, we speak in ways individual and cultural…this is how we cope with pain.”
Screams outwardly express a person and a culture’s way of coping with pain. We need to listen carefully to one other’s screams of pain to understand what’s shared and what’s distinct. This sharing, I believe, is a way we can help each other cope with pain.
Along with pain at the individual level, there’s also pain at the institutional level. For a while, I have tried to work with white Christian institutions I was a part of to prioritize racial equality and justice. When I share about the pain caused by white privilege in Christian institutions, the response from most white folks is a combination of denial, defensiveness and dismissal. “My *theology* is not white, it’s universal and therefore core. Your theology is ethnic-specific and therefore an elective.”
Theologian Amos Yong writes: “…scholarly publishers do not feature texts on Asian American evangelical theology.” [They think] “white Evangelicals write real theology…Asian American Evangelicals do history, sociology, etc.”
Just substitute *theology* for worship, leadership, etc. and a sad pattern emerges in the Church.
Your people’s pain is not my people’s pain, and we can’t be bothered. We will ignore your people’s pain.
My family and I used to attend a large, rich, predominantly white church. After the Ferguson court ruling, I noticed the pastors and staff never mentioned anything up front. Football was worth mentioning every week, but not the pain of another community. When I confronted the pastors and staff, they gave verbal assurances they cared deeply about racial justice. Months passed. Nothing. Finally, after much prayer, my family felt convicted we couldn’t stay there. So we left. We decided to join a multi-ethnic church plant led by a Black pastor.
During the week of the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, my new church held a night of mourning and prayer. It was an ethnically diverse group: Black, White, Asian American. We listened, prayed and cried for God’s help. We held each other in our grief and fear. We went to the cross together as a community.
I’m grateful Jesus doesn’t ignore our pain. He hears our screams. Through Jesus’ pain and suffering on the cross, we have hope for healing.
But we also need people who can understand the pain behind our screams. May God provide those people for us, and may we be those people for others.
Ciganek E. (2016), Ashlyn (over time), [Painting, Oil on two wood panels]. Retrieved from http://www.ericaelanciganek.com/paintings
Nguyen, Viet Thanh (2015), The Sympathizer, New York: Grove Press
Yong, Amos, (2014), The Future of Evangelical Theology: Soundings from the Asian American Diaspora, Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press