Writings by Cole Huffman


To See Behind Walls

God knows it’s not easy

Taking on the shape of someone else’s pain

                        —U2, “The Troubles”

The finest definition of empathy I’ve found has it that empathy is the ability to become a naturalized citizen of another’s world. Naturalization, however, introduces its pilgrims to internal conflicts, for to make that move into another’s world is “things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel” (as James Thurber creatively represented the Life Magazine motto in his short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty). I have to face my apathies to make that move.

One way to make that move is building friendships beyond my homogeneity. It’s hard to be apathetic toward my friends. In the wake of the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I texted with a black friend out of state, lunched with another, and made new friends at that same lunch. I knew these friends were down. I’ve learned from them and my students at MCUTS how such events make them feel as black men and as dads of black boys.

Then the Dallas attack. I’m a product of Dallas Seminary. I thought back to the two Cop Stops we enjoyably hosted in our home around Christmas, feeding lunch to a couple dozen Germantown officers, listening to their stories. That could be any of them in the line of fire someday.

I don’t aspire to telling the nation what to do about, in Walker Percy’s words, “this damnable sectional insanity” (from his 1965 essay “Mississippi: The Fallen Paradise”). Activism has never held much appeal for me. I’m not going to make a lot of noise on social media or pound on people from my pulpit. What I think I will do is what I can to facilitate more friendship between blacks and whites, for this is something there should be more of. This I can do, and it’s a better use of time and energies than doubling down reflexively on anti-gospel egocentrism.

Larry Crabb’s insight, penned years ago in Inside Out, comes to mind here, about how frustration is excellent soil for growing a demanding spirit. The frustration in America is palpable, sticky like these humid Memphis July nights, but gets exacerbated by a demanding spirit: when, for instance, a white person withholds empathy from a black person because the white person believes the black person can’t or won’t see that the guys getting shot by police are usually wrongdoers. In this scenario the white person’s demandingness is shrouded in point-of-fact argumentation, an a priori commitment to a criminal justice version of the cop is always right.

The white person doesn’t think he has a demanding spirit. He thinks he’s merely being factual. But many blacks feel whites do this (and other things like appealing to the prevalence of black-on-black crime) not out of some passion for truth, justice, and the American way, but as a way unfeeling—our avoidance of the man on the road to Jericho, turning on our heels to retreat into our safer enclaves, insulating ourselves from feeling what it’s like to fall under suspicion just because you are black. The black person intuits the message: This is your problem, buddy, not mine.

Is that any way to treat a friend? Precisely my point: You don’t treat friends this way. You treat the “other”—foes and/or people you keep calculated distance from—this way. You don’t demand anything of your friends when they’re in emotional pain. You try to understand the source. If you’re reading this and you are white, do you have any black friends? For that matter, do you have any white friends outside your class? Poor whites are in an awful cultural state at present (see J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy).

A lot of our friendships bloom from mutual affinity. It “just happens.” Like attracts like. But there is a form befriending takes that’s more like a spiritual discipline. Spiritual disciplines are by definition engagements for developing a more ordered love for God and neighbor. A spiritual discipline like fasting, for instance, develops my wakefulness and longing for Jesus’ appearing (Luke 5:35), the establishment of perfect justice then. Likewise, friendship as a spiritual discipline is for developing magnanimity, which is becoming a bigger-souled lover of great things, like reconciliation. It’s becoming a person malcontent with dividing walls of hostility.

More friendship between whites and blacks is not by itself the answer to our national troubles along racial lines. But friendship is a place to start for many of us. Ask the Lord about it in your prayers, won’t you? Ask Him to give you a friend who doesn’t look like you. Not a person in need of your help, but a person who in friendship helps you see behind walls, and in seeing to feel what he or she feels, and in feeling to face your apathies, and in facing your apathies to affirm again the truth of the gospel with skin on it: that the one who makes people holy and those made holy are of the same family, and He is not ashamed to call us His brothers and sisters (Heb. 2:11).

Posted by Cole Huffman at 3:50 PM
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