by Dorothy Littell Greco
My husband and I have very different perspectives on how to express anger. Early on in our marriage, any conflict would result in him getting loud, super focused, and very defensive. This left me feeling like I was being prosecuted by the best defense attorney in the world. He became a rhino and in turn, I became a hedgehog, curled into a tight ball with my quills facing out. These fundamental differences have resulted in some unpleasant and unproductive fights.
In the midst of one blowup, I made a tearful plea. When I’m angry, what if you listened rather than got so defensive? What if you paused and gave me space to think? Based on his expression, this was a new concept. As soon as he put the brakes on, the tenor, severity, and duration of this and all future conflicts changed dramatically.
When he dialed down, he created a safe space for me to talk which de-escalated my anger. From his side of the equation, quieting his defensive tendencies allowed him to see that I was not imagining problems but rather responding to something real. When he was culpable and offered me an apology, it allowed us to address the actual issues rather than endlessly reacting toward one another.
This was not an easy or quick shift for us. I had to coach myself to speak up, present my side without blaming or accusing, and choose to trust him. He had to wait and face a degree of powerlessness. It took us about five years of intentionally working this dynamic before we could have healthy conflicts.
I’m not a sociologist but I wonder, is this same dynamic contributing to the racial tension that we are now experiencing in the United States?
In light of this possibility, I have a question for any white readers. When you see People of Color protesting or when you read articles that express their anger or frustration, how do you respond and what does that response reveal? For some, there is deep empathy and sorrow. For others, there is a shared anger over the injustice and inequality. But some of us feel angry—not on their behalf—but because our brothers and sisters’s words feel like a personal indictment, which then triggers our defense mechanisms.
Defensiveness is a natural response when we feel threatened. It protects us from unpleasant feelings such as shame, the pain of being misunderstood, or, as was the case for my husband, the vulnerability of powerlessness. In and of itself, defensiveness is not necessarily the problem; it’s how we respond when we feel this way that can become problematic.
If we immediately overpower others or catalogue all of the potential reasons why our spouse—or brothers and sisters—should get over it, what we’ve effectively done is invalidate their experience and their reality.
The parallel here between my husband’s defensiveness and the exposed nerve of systemic racism, is that white defensiveness does not serve People of Color and does nothing to eradicate the injustice of racism. It shuts down dialogue and prohibits us from moving toward healing. It also prevents us from exploring whether or not we might actually be culpable in perpetuating racism.
In order to push past his default response, my husband had to ask himself, What kind of marriage do I want and how can I love my wife the way Christ loves the church? Similarly, as members of the Body of Christ, we must ask ourselves, What kind of nation, neighborhood, and church do I want? Is it more important to defend my opinions and views or love like Christ loved?
Learning to love across divides is time consuming and difficult. Since day-to-day life often presents us with more challenges than we can keep up with, it might feel like the most sensible choice would be to avoid situations that might lead to conflict or discomfort. But our goal as Christians should never be valuing our own comfort over another’s pain. It’s absolutely true that racial reconciliation work is costly and difficult. Author Christena Cleveland writes in Disunity in Christ, “If reconciliation work isn’t painful, I’d venture to say that it isn’t really reconciliation work.”
Reconciliation demands a willingness to be transformed by the power of the cross—something that cannot happen without pain and sacrifice. According to Sheila Wise Rowe—a counselor, author, and unwilling participant in Boston’s forced busing of the 1970s—“Reconciliation is not only about systemic change. It’s actually about relational transformation.” In other words, real reconciliation—and the equality that should come with it—will not happen simply by changing legislation or equipping police officers with body cameras. Something much more profound is needed and that something is our willingness to be transformed into the image of Christ and to then begin caring about the things He cares about.
We will become transformed people if, as we engage with those who are different, we allow the Lord to reveal and convict us of any racial biases, pride, or attempts to hoard power. If it becomes obvious that we are indeed guilty of any of these sins, we then need to confess, ask for forgiveness, and engage in the fight for equality and justice. For some, that might mean intentionally developing cross-cultural friendships. For others, it might mean committing to hiring and promoting People of Color.
Whether it happens in a conversation between a husband and wife or two diverse people groups, defensiveness fails to further the conversation. When we allow ourselves to feel the discomfort of being confronted and then choose to lay down our rhetorical swords, God can begin the process of transformation. As He empowers us to listen well, love those who are different, and willingly share both power and privilege, perhaps we will finally find our way to true and lasting reconciliation.