"I am proud to be an American where at least I know I am free" Identity, empathy, race & freedom
Updated: Feb 3
Penned by Lee Greenwood in 1984, this iconic American song was played at the Republican National Convention that year with Ronald and Nancy Reagan in attendance. I was at the impressionable age of 12 when the song hit the charts, and as an aspiring teen looking for noble causes, I remember these words well. I loved the somewhat defiant and hopeful lyrics describing a man who had lost everything except the pride and gratefulness he felt for his country. His identity as an American seemed to give him more than citizenship. It gave him undying hope, courage, -- and most of all freedom worth defending.
What an inspirational identity. Even though we face loss and hardship, we will endure if we have a noble narrative that tells us who we are. Identity gives us energy from which to move with strength; conversely, when our identity is insecure, things get frosty. I have found this to be true in my life. Can you identify?
Once my teenager slammed the door and said, "I never want to talk to you again." While part of me wanted to break the door down and give him a piece of my mind, I noticed that my deeper feeling was, "What have I done as a parent? I really messed up this time."
The same thing happens with my wife. She doesn't slam the door on me, but I can tell when something is wrong. When I have hurt her, she goes quiet, and at that moment, I have a choice. Do I do the work of empathy by exploring what is going on for her, or do I get defensive? Am I more interested in vindicating myself in the "good husband identity," a badge I proudly wear on good days, or am I actually interested in learning about her world?
We have a choice in almost any interaction to make it about ourselves and our identity or about the other person. When I have a secure identity, I find it easier to show empathy. I notice this in everything from performance evaluations at work, to feedback after I give a talk at church, to exchanges on social media. When I feel my temperature rise and empathy fade, it is often because I am wanting to shore up my identity. The subplot of every significant conflict I have ever had says, "Lowell, you better watch out for yourself. Someone is coming for you. They don't believe in your goodness." The glowing narrative I like to live in is being threatened by a different scenario where I am the villain or perhaps irrelevant. At that moment, I no longer even notice them. I have turned completely inward and away from them and back onto my whimpering little heart, as I do a little emotional CPR.
Empathy stops when the positive narrative about my identity gets questioned.
If I am thinking about how bad of a husband I am, I am not thinking about what it must be like to feel disappointed as a wife. If I am feeling like I really messed up as a parent, I am not thinking about those swirling emotions of teenagerhood.
I find this dynamic to be particularly true in addressing race issues.
It's not hard for us White people to agree that Black people should be treated equally. After all, we are Americans, we believe that "all men are created equal." If we address racism in such a way that leaves the White American identity intact, it is an easy conversation, and no one gets blocked on Facebook. We White people would even go so far as to quote MLK and believe in his dream that all people "will not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character." We love the fact that his dream was in some ways an affirmation of the American dream.
But the conversation gets a bit harder if someone says that for most of our history "All men are created equal' actually meant that all White men were created equal because Black people only counted as 3/5 of a person in the census and not even that much when it came to counting the votes." At that point, what is being challenged is the American identity itself.
Racism is not so much about disliking Black people as it is about being wedded to a national narrative and identity, a story that we White people like to tell ourselves about ourselves, a story about equality and the American experience. The problem is that, for some, the presence of Black people threatens to challenge that narrative, so they prefer to keep Black folk segregated out of sight and out of mind. When that doesn't work, they adopt sub-plots for the American story that focuses on blaming the victim. We want the American identity of the City on a Hill, Manifest Destiny, and the one exceptional country founded by God as a beacon of freedom for the world. It's a story about benevolent police officers and a blind justice system, a land of boundless opportunity for those that play by the rules. It's about God-fearing folk sipping sweet tea on the porch and watching the fireworks in the distance. They don't really want to hear that for some really good Americans like Fredrick Douglas, July 4th means something very different as he explained here in 1852. If you challenge that identity, that's when the sparks fly, and this is where I have seen empathy disappear from the conversation about race. Our thoughts are consumed with how do I get rid of my own bad feelings about myself rather than actually taking the time to contemplate the emotions within my neighbor. As White people, the conversation on race often sparks defensiveness and we scramble to keep our positive stories in place, rather than simply empathizing and listening to the alternate story being presented.
The problem is you can't be empathetic to someone whose narrative implicates you. You may believe in empathy. You might intellectually want to empathize, but when your positive identity is incompatible with another's identity, you can't stay empathic. To use another example, we can easily talk about the first Thanksgiving and even acknowledge that the Indigenous people were the generous ones because it keeps our positive narrative in place, but how many White folk like to talk about the "trail of tears?" What would happen if we tried to make a national holiday out of that event?
It doesn't have to be this way.
The path to true freedom and empathy for us White folk is to find a new story with a new identity, one that is not threatened by the other stories of those around us. We can have an identity based on truth.
Hear this beautiful promise from John, the beloved. "If we walk in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin." (I John 1:7)
Here's a couple of steps for taking a new identity that is based on truth. It will give you the capacity for empathy and restful freedom in the process.
First, we have to believe that grace applies to corporate sin. The last phrase from I John 4:7 says, "purifies us from all sin," but sometimes we forget the "all." Sin in the Bible is described as both individual and corporate terms. It's both behavioral and a part of our inherited nature, our identity. It is something we have done and something passed down from Adam. The Amalekites in Saul's day were judged some 400 years after their forefathers did some really evil things. (I Samuel 15). This doesn't make sense except to believe that the Amalekites in Saul's day were still holding on to their national identity and in that way participating in the sins of their ancestors. Would there be a modern country of Amalek if reparations had been made a few years before Saul came on the scene? And in the classic list of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, God says that he holds people accountable for sin for up to 3 or 4 generations. In other cases, God references 10 generations (Deuteronomy 23:3). Jesus also referenced the corporate sin of a couple of towns, Chorazin and Bethsaida, (Matthew 11:20-25), and cried over Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37).
But this is not where the story ends. There is a second step.
God himself said that he would have saved the iconic evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if just 10 righteous people could be found there. The next verse after the one I referenced above (v. 5) in Exodus 20 says that grace is available to a thousand generations! Where sin is, grace is greater (Romans 5:20). When Isaiah said that he was both a man of unclean lips and part of a people of unclean lips, the angel took a lump of hot coal and purified him, and he went on to pen some of the greatest literature of all time (Isaiah 6). Moses, Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, Isaiah, and Paul identified with the sin of their people and brought grace on themselves and on their nations.
So, we have a choice. We can be like those who rejected Jesus and claimed a national identity as the sons of Abraham (John 8:39), or we could be like Paul who laid down his national identity for the sake of a new and better identity.
"If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ" (Phillipians 4:3b-9)
Paul says that he has given up his identity for the sake of Christ. "I consider it dung" the old King James Version reads. In other words, he gave up the story that told him he was special because he was an Israelite. What he got in return was a new identity based on truth and grace. He became 100% ok. He no longer had to defend the virtue of his inherited identity because his true identity is not wrapped up in the national narrative. He could even be like the prophets who spoke in horrific terms about the nature of ancient Israel while simultaneously exalting in the prospect of a bright future someday.
And Paul goes on.
"Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:11-14)
Paul's defensiveness is gone. It's as if he is saying, "Israel isn't perfect, and I am not perfect either. I am a work in progress." He sounds free.
This freedom is available to us as White American folk. We can lay down our national identity. We can fully embrace the good, bad, and ugly of ourselves and of our inherited identity. We can then live in God's extraordinary grace extended to our land, just like the grace God extended to all those other nations who were preserved by a couple of people who cried out for mercy. Then, by embracing the journey of on-going transformation as Paul did, you will find a well of empathy bubble up in your soul too. You will happily listen to other's fascinating stories without worrying about them implicating you and your story.
Lee Greenwood's song says, "because the flag still stands for freedom, and they can't take that away." Sounds inspirational, but the problem is, they actually can take that away. Who are we kidding? Kingdoms don't last forever. That freedom could be taken away and probably will be someday. I know there are White folk who saw the BLM marches in hundreds of cities across the nation and were understandably concerned. They have good reason to believe that the American vision that gives them so much comfort is changing. A different story is coming to light, a national reckoning it has been called. Whether that is a bad thing or a good thing, depends on what identity you are claiming.
Fortunately, 2020 will be totally worth it if we let the narrow American story and the identity that goes with it be consumed into a greater identity of God's plan for redeeming history. Can you chose to believe with Peter that "Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy." (I Peter 2:10). If we can accept that gift, a beautiful new identity, a better story about who we really are, we will have a freedom that really can't be taken away.