In the aftermath of the August 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, my town held a vigil. We stood with candles in front of town hall, and pledged that we would not be silent in the face of neo-Nazi rhetoric. It was a beautiful and heartening night. As we were leaving, a young girl, no older than eight, came up to me.
“Excuse me,” she said, “What are we going to do now?”
The question shook me. We, a crowd of middle class and upper middle class people, at least ninety five percent of us white, had taken a good first step. We had refuse to turn our heads the other way when the images of hate and violence had filled our screens. But what now? How could we actually disrupt the racism, anti-Semitism, and pure evil we had seen on display the night before?
Bending down I explained, in as age-appropriate a way as possible, that now we had to keep working. We had to build a town where our friends and neighbors would always be safe and loved. We had to learn to tell the truth when people were hateful. She looked at me with confusion and said, “No, I mean, what are we doing right now? Are we all going home, or going somewhere else?”
I laughed at my earnestness, but her first question stuck with me. “What are we going to do now?” It’s good to show up to vigils, but it’s also easy to just do that and feel like you’ve done enough. In the days after Charlottesville, though, I came up with an answer. What are we going to do now? We’re going to ruin Thanksgiving dinner.
I don’t mean that literally, unless of course your family’s Thanksgiving dinner needs a little ruining. What I’m imagining, though, are all those places where we hear something said that is hateful or ignorant or dangerous, things that make us uncomfortable, but things we don’t address because we have the privilege of staying silent. I’m talking about moments like the one when your racist uncle makes an anti-Semitic joke and then passes the mashed potatoes. You sit there, wanting to say something, but knowing that if you do, Thanksgiving dinner will become an all-out argument. In short, you choose to keep a false peace rather than disrupt it.
Maybe it’s not Thanksgiving dinner for you. Maybe it’s your co-worker who passes on misinformation on her Facebook page, sharing shocking-sounding posts about the danger of immigrants. You don’t want work to be weird, so you just ignore it. Or it could be your friend who makes a comment about a woman that you just know isn’t right, but you like him and so you make excuses for him instead of calling him out.
Each of us carries certain privilege that allows us to enter comfortably into certain spaces. It might be white privilege, or male privilege, straight privilege, Christian privilege, class privilege, or any number of other things. We often enjoy the comfort of those spaces so much that we choose not to be disrupters when we should be.
Those are the times, though, when our voice matters the most. When we hear something hateful or untrue about a group of people who are not represented in the room, it is our job as people of faith to disrupt it, and to tell the truth. It may make us uncomfortable, and it may make others uncomfortable, but our momentary discomfort is nothing compared to the very real fear that others feel every day.
Every time we do this, we disrupt the soil before the seeds of hatred and intolerance can be planted. By stopping them early, we keep them from taking root and growing into the kind of weeds that choke off the life of anything they touch. Every time we fail to do this, we may as well be standing by with a hose, ready to water those seeds ourselves. It is far better to break things open before any of that can happen.
In many ways, our willingness to disrupt is correlated to our willingness to testify. Disruption is a form of telling our stories, and telling the truth. In disruption we learn how to tell the truth about unjust systems, and to unjust systems. That truth can be disruptive, and we can seem disagreeable in the telling, but it is ultimately a form of testimony, and a sign that our ultimate allegiance is to a God who would teach us to love our neighbors more than our own comfort.
If that means that sometimes we have to ruin Thanksgiving dinner, then that’s okay. Some people were never invited to the table anyway.
This is an excerpt from Emily C. Heath’s new book Courageous Faith: How to Rise and Resist in a Time of Fear