Where Have Wisdom and Compassion Gone?

I’m teaching American history at a state university this fall. That’s a first for me; I’ve only taught world history and global politics at the university level. So I’m a little nervous about this first adventure in teaching our country’s past.

I’m not nervous about my knowledge of the subject. I’m nervous because I know this subject will lead to conversations about many of today’s hot-button issues—racism, voting rights, and election integrity, for example. These conversations could be very instructive. They could also become very contentious and divisive.debaters

Part of the problem is that politicians, media, and myriad online debaters have polarized their world into two fundamental positions, one at each end of the spectrum, and many people feel compelled to pick one of those extremes. 

For some, the U.S. is awful. For others, it’s awesome. “Great in some ways but flawed in others” seems not to be an option. Polemics always narrow down our choices.

So which is it? Is the U.S. awesome or awful? Only agenda-driven minds feel compelled to choose one or the other. Real history, real human life, is more complex than that.

(As an aside, Christians do this all the time at an individual level; we recognize that we have sinned awfully while also recognizing that we are lavishly loved by God and have been redeemed and restored.)

Christians need to be able to acknowledge the complexity, especially regarding our country’s history of racism and the current debate about Critical Race Theory. 

After all, we talk often about our spiritual ancestors being under the weight of systemic, political, culturally ingrained bias for three centuries of Roman rule. We cast it in terms of “our people” and “those people.” We should be able to see today’s issues with wisdom and compassion—and, in fact, are commanded throughout scripture to do so.

Remember the Truth—and See the Red Flags

Surely we can all acknowledge the horrific institution of slavery and its extremely long-lasting effects. 

Surely we can listen to each other with open minds and hearts, even when pain and politics raise the temperature of those conversations.

And surely most of us have enough sense to recognize that “all our social structures are inherently racist” and “racism is not embedded in our social structures” are both overstatements.

As a journalist a couple of decades ago, for example, I covered a school system in which African American women regularly rose to the highest levels of administration. I often went into schools that were run by “minorities” (regionally, not necessarily in their communities) while white men taught social studies or PE. The idea that all social structures are inherently racist is a caricature that doesn’t always ring true.

That said, many of our social structures are biased toward the powerful, which historically has been men of European descent. 

That’s hardly a controversial statement. This happens in virtually every society in every place in all periods of history. Policy makers tend to make policies that don’t put them at a disadvantage, and they are often blind to the negative impact on others. 

This can be a conscious or unconscious effort. Those in power instinctively reinforce their power, often while under the illusion that they are being fair.

But there’s an enormous difference between saying systemic racism exists and saying systemic racism infects everything and everybody. Such sweeping statements should always be a red flag for historians and social scientists. The human experience is rarely so categorical.

Honest Accounts

Lost somewhere in the heated debate is a fairly obvious truth: It’s quite easy to teach U.S. history honestly, warts and all, without developing grand theories or making sweeping statements that categorize and divide people. 

And that’s where Critical Race Theory—or at least the way it is being applied in some schools and debated in the public arena—becomes a problem. It categorizes and divides. It makes those sweeping statements, grossly caricaturing complex problems.

There is no single class or race of oppressors in the world, nor of victims. And it makes no sense to say that race is a merely a social construct and then talk about people in ways that powerfully reinforce that construct. 

But to talk honestly about the ways minorities historically have been disadvantaged by public policies and structural biases? Absolutely. That’s something everyone, not just teachers, ought to embrace.

If you think about it, this is a fantastic opportunity for Christians to make ourselves known as people of wisdom, understanding, and compassion. As in any situation in which the world smothers us with an abrasive, combative, negative-obsessed culture, we can stand confidently and independently as peacemakers, truthtellers, and embodiments of divine love.

Will we be heard amid the din of debate? Maybe, maybe not. (Although in my classroom, I’m pretty sure I will be.)

But God never tells us to demonstrate his nature only when it’s noticed. This is always our calling. And in some way or another, it always makes a difference. 



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Helen Kennedy Gaines 08.11.2021 04:03  
Yes No   Thank you and God bless you!  
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Helen Kennedy Gaines 08.11.2021 04:01  
Yes No   Brother Chris, I've been following your devotionals for the past two years and have chosen a third one for 2022. I hope you can join us one morning at 6am. Thank you Dior sharing God's gift and His Word!  
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