Like many, I was saddened and angered by the news of yet another hate crime targeting an Asian American. This time, a 65-year-old Filipina American woman in New York City was assaulted by a 38-year-old man as she was on her way to church. As I write, the victim, Vilma Kari, recovers in a hospital from a broken pelvis and bruising on her body including her face.
While the attack is disgusting in its own right, many were shocked because it happened with witnesses around who did nothing. This assault didn’t happen in some dark alley. Kari was attacked in broad daylight, with this man kicking and stomping upon her repeatedly while yelling anti-Asian obscenities, clearly revealing his racist intent. Surveillance footage of the assault captures security staff failing to intervene, or even to call 911. Instead, they locked up the building they were in and went about their day.
This week, Christians stop to remember another story of violence which also had its share of troubling witnesses. We don’t need to look hard for them. The disciples who can’t keep their eyes open as Jesus prays in Gethsemane. Peter repeatedly denying that he even knew Jesus shortly after Jesus had been arrested. The majority of Jesus’ disciples making themselves scarce as he is crucified. And the same most likely remaining in hiding as the women visit the tomb on Sunday morning to discover that hope had been born again.
Human beings are storytellers. We write stories and we consume them to find meaning and to interpret the world around us. As we do, we often will empathize with one or more of the characters, especially if it is a flattering comparison or perhaps one we’d like to emulate.
The gospel writers present the disciples to us as flawed characters, in part, because they knew their audience. Even as they present the model of Jesus we, to this day, aspire to follow as Christians, they knew that their communities held more sinners than saints. Often, we can relate to the disciples most authentically because of our shared flaws, rather than our shared virtues. And from these stories filled with their failings, we learn that Jesus still loves us and that grace is available for a better, second act.
And it is in storytelling where our social media processing of reality often falls flat. Unlike the gospel writers, we share the news with appropriate outrage and disgust, but often lacking adequate self-examination. We too easily imagine our role in the story poorly, especially those of us desiring to be allies, but distanced from the pain. We choose to empathize with the victim, or we might, too quickly, imagine that we would have acted differently than the security guards coming out to take this vile man on directly. And too often we confuse our bold social media proclamation of support for the same kind of bravery that would have been required to act in person in the moment.
I don’t say any of this to dismiss the disgusting lack of action by those who could have intervened in this particular situation. Instead, I only mean to draw us toward a more honest wrestling with the (potential) fragility of our witness.
On this Holy Week, I would encourage potential White allies like myself to sit long with some harder questions. As powerful and important as it can be to try to empathize with the victim of a hate crime, how much more so to consider the other roles we might play in such a story. I am no expert in this area, but here are some questions that I am wrestling with this week.
How have I been like the assailant in this sad story? Consider that violence comes in so many different forms. In what ways have I allowed my prejudice and under-explored bias to limit and harm others? How has the same limited my embrace of the wonderfully created, fantastically diverse world that God has blessed?
How have I been a failed witness? I may have been fortunate enough to have never have seen such a violent act in person, but how have I neglected to speak up and against hate and racist words and actions? When have I written myself out of responsibility and remained silent? When have I decided that there was “more to lose” in saying something? Or that it was none of my business, or just the way things are?
As followers of Jesus, God calls us to tell the good news of Christ’s resurrection – good news that continues to transform the world, and our lives, to this very day. The gospel writers did so in ways that honor the shortcomings most of us embody as flawed disciples, while also making clear that, with repentance and grace, we can do better. As we share stories today, lamenting the evil which still remains, may we sit with these difficult stories long enough that they challenge us to truly be a part of the gospel message of life for all.