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Monday, July 4, 2011

Does 'Intent' Matter?

When someone says something hurtful, something ignorant, something that cuts to the quick...does it matter if their intentions are good?

Often good-natured words and actions have unintended consequences. The results are painful and real, regardless of the inflictor's attitude.

When I child drops the heirloom china, she didn't intend for it to shatter. But it's still in a million pieces.
When a drivers hits the brakes 2 seconds too late, he didn't intend to hit the pedestrian. But that person is still just as dead.

Often, we have no comprehension how hurtful we are being, causing great pain through our ignorance. And it doesn't matter how we intended it to sound. Our words enter this world within the context and history of a racialized society. Regardless of the our awareness of it, our words and deeds have power. Focusing on intention shifts the conversation away from the harm being done. Even if we don't intend it, there are consequences that result and wrongs that need to be righted.

On the other hand, intent does matters a great deal in how we choose to respond to a person that hurts us. Though the pain will be present regardless, 'intent' affects whether we scream out in frustration, shake our heads and walk away, or risk an in-depth discussion that could ultimately further God's Kingdom and His reconciliation. It may not soothe the sting in the moment, but knowing that a person means well can do a great deal for our own ability to continue the conversation, rather than escalating the conflict.

Ignorance is the nature of the modern racial divide and it's at the root of much of the racial pain we perpetuate. It results in a lot of ugly statements being slung at people of color. But recall what Jesus said as he hung on the cross: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." We also must forgive those that wrong us out of ignorance. White folks are dependant on sisters and brothers of color to step out in faith, if not in the good intentions of white folks, then in faith in the Christ that died for reconciliation.

We can imagine Christ's temptation to lash out in response to Peter's ignorance, Thomas's doubt, or Judas's betrayal. I envision Him biting His tongue, breathing deep sigh, counting to ten, and explaining once again to the disciples His mission on earth. He understood that if we get stuck in (legitimate) frustration with the ignorance that is exists, we will remain caught in the divide that Satan tries to perpetuate.

On the whole, I believe that white folk are genuine in their intention to reach out, but equal is our dearth of understanding about how to accomplish it, and our fear of being rejected despite our efforts. Though we may have done little to inspire trust, I implore those we hurt: be brave, be gracious, be patient, be forgiving. Be merciful, in the truest sense of it. We are sinners, but we continue to 'work out our salvation with fear and trembling.' But we are dependent on your faithfulness with us.

Meantime, white folk need to set aside fears of being chastised, and approach racial discussion with hope and humility. Let us all reward courage with patience and holy love. Let us continuously embody God's grace: unearned, unmerited, freely given--just as Christ has personified grace for us all.


  1. It doesn't help to disparage the ignorant, any more than it does to berate at a child that drops the heirloom china: it only causes fear and avoidance. Let us not discourage those that are honestly trying to educate themselves, though it may require swallowing our own frustration for a time.

  2. There are many consequences of racism for white folk, one of which
    is having to overcome the tremendous amount of misinformation that is flung at
    us on a daily basis. Though it requires repeated patience from our sisters and
    brothers, we are dependant on their grace with us as we try to cleanse
    ourselves of the pervasive racial
    smog. It sucks that we don't
    even know enough to know how to reach out properly,
    but that is the nature of the modern racial divide.

  3. In the face of my own ignorance, most POC have educated me with grace and patience. I believe that, in reality, few white folk have personally encountered vehement racial anger (can you count it on more than one hand?), especially compared to the daily racial buffeting that POC face.

    Yet, I would argue that the dread of being yelled at, whether as reality or as an imagined stereotype, is THE main barrier that white people face in entering into edifying racial discussion. We are so afraid that we will get caught up in a vicious game of pin-the-tail-on-the-racist that we avoid all conversations about race, and in doing so perpetuate our own ignorance.

  4. Of course, it is also important to examine 'intent' for the sake of self-protection. When the offending party has no desire to reconcile, it is indeed often better to simply walk away. If the situation isn't conducive for education, if someone refuses to recognize her error, or if you simply don't have the energy to have the conversation, then let it go.


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