There but for grace of God and circumstance…

So, a friend posted to Facebook:

What’s the best way to handle someone in conversation with you sho says overtly racist or misogynistic things? Think: taxi driver. How about someone close to you? Think family member or friend.

I had a dream about it in which mostly I just cried and then asked them to read some books I was recommending. Doesn’t seem actually effective. Would love to read y’alls thoughts.

Amid a lot of comments that aimed at commiseration, and a few enjoyable gifs like a cute kid spouting off, “that’s racist!” I responded:

One helpful phrase to keep in mind (and to get them to keep in mind, if possible) is “there but for the grace of god.” If people assume other people are mostly like them, but different because of external, historical, or other reasons, they usually do a much better job of achieving an inoffensive understanding of how the world came to be the way it is. If people don’t keep this phrase in mind, it’s not surprising that they may arrive at really offensive interpretations of the world. For one example, people who haven’t been reminded to keep “there but for the grace of god” in their minds, the default explanation for differing incarceration rates, across races, is that differences are a result of racial differences in criminal propensity.

In the same vein, there but for the grace of god, I wouldn’t have the phrase “there but for the grace of god” so nicely planted in my own brain, and so it would be me saying offensive things.

Another word for the challenge is how to cultivate sociological imagination. When we stop and think about how much of our present situation depends on forces beyond our control–good luck, or the grace of god, or whatever you call it–we tend to become more grateful and generous and forgiving.

A few days later, my friend posted this:

I hope you all take the time to read this. I don’t often write up such detailed encounters, but I think this story is so very important:

On Wednesday, as I was walking to the bus stop from my visit to Yad Vashem (the holocaust museum in Israel), I was greeted by a gentleman sitting on a bench across the street. For some reason, even though I was extremely emotionally raw, dehydrated and with low blood sugar, I decided to cross the street and engage with him. We had a brief conversation about how he’d visited Ft. Collins to speak at a church there about the ministry he runs to help poor people in Jerusalem. He said he had gone to the nearby forest to unwind. He said he liked the forest because there were no Arabs around.

Emboldened by my days of deliberation on this topic as well as my recent moving experience at Yad Vashem, I pushed back. I explained how frustrated I was with this sort of talk in Israel, that not all Arab people are bad, etc. He responded that they were dangerous. Ardent atheist that I am, I responded to this clearly religious man with [redacted name of your intrepid blogger here at briefliteraryabandon]’s phrase “there but for the grace of god.” (Aside: I personally believe in the sentiment behind the statement even if I don’t agree with the theology behind the exact phrasing.) He said that just this morning an Arab man had crossed the border and stabbed two people. I said, yes that is horrible; that is evil in this world but not all Arab people are evil. I started discussing how viewing Others in such a way is how tragedies like the holocaust occur and that I can relate because I can also catch myself doing the same thing (immediately assuming danger) in the US with our Others. But that I believe we should try to practice radical kindness if we hope to improve the world, etc.

We went back and forth like this for short while when something amazing happened: he told me I was right. That he had been wrong to say what he had said earlier; that is was mean-spirited of him. That he, a rabbi, had learned from me today. He then offered me a ride to my destination and we continued discussing a variety of interesting things along the way. He mentioned again as we neared our destination that I was blessed and that I had been his teacher during this time of repentance (we were squarely in the Ten Days of Penitence between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) and blessed him.

I have so many little stories like this (let’s call them spiritual blessings) from my time here in Israel. I sincerely hope I take the time to write more of them down so I can remember the openness and love I have felt in this time. I am writing this here now with the hopes that I can inspire at least one of my Facebook friends to keep on keeping on. Together let’s keep up the good fight for peace and love in this world even though it sometimes seems pointless. Amen.

I guess I’m recording this here, so I can point to it if anyone says nothing I wrote ever affected anyone.

Or maybe it’s because I haven’t been getting out enough lately. But, dear reader, before you judge, remember that there but for the grace of God, you too could end up consigned to advancing humanity one Facebook comment at a time.

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