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To argue or to answer

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It has been reported that the “white nationalists” are coming to town to spew racial hatred and to supposedly promote a defense of an unfairly maligned “European heritage.” Fliers posted here in Princeton have promised a march of members of an organization calling itself the “New Jersey European Heritage Association” this Saturday afternoon on the historic Palmer Square. Local law enforcement is apparently expecting a significant number of counter demonstrations from high school and university students as well as outside organizations. Many are bracing for potential conflict. In the shadows of Charlottesville, Va., I understand the passionate desire to stand up and speak out against racial hatred.

As a college student, I worked for an organization called the Center for Democratic Renewal, which was created in response to the 1979 “Greensboro Massacre” where five anti-racist demonstrators were killed by the Ku Klux Klan in a North Carolina march. In 1992, the center published a book titled “When Hate Groups Come to Town: A Handbook of Model Community Responses.” The handbook was used as a training guide for communities seeking to formulate effective and strategic responses to mobilizations and movements which can further divide communities and create the context for racial violence. Led by my faith, I find myself going back to fetch much of what I have lived and learned in the struggle for racial justice and reconciliation.

A number of my colleagues and friends have asked my opinion about what we should say and do. Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, a historic black church in Princeton, is only a few blocks from the sight where marchers will seek to argue what I consider to be a foolish defense of “white rights.” My answers have frequently leaned upon the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible. I believe that there is a time and a season for everything under the heavens. The handbook emphasizes the importance of critically understanding the premise of certain racist and anti-Semitic arguments, refusing to be manipulated in ways which only bring publicity to the haters and developing long-term strategic responses and policies which promote diversity, equality and reconciliation. The fool cannot be empowered to dictate how we respond and when. As a pastor and as an activist, there are times that I answer foolishness and there are other seasons when I do not. That being said, I never argue with a fool.

Proverbs 26:4 instructs, “Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.” Yet the very next verse, seemingly reverses this wisdom urging, “Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.” Where some may read contradiction in these two verses, I am led to consider context as well as a close reading of the actual language of the text. I am convinced that in the face of foolishness, there are contexts in which it can be wise to explain what we believe and others when it is ill-advised. Yet it is also important to note that the seemingly contradictory proverbial wisdom of the original Hebrew text is translated into English as “answer” and not “argue.”

There is a difference between answering and arguing. Mark Twain is quoted as having said, “Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.” There is wisdom in these words as well. As we move forward we must focus on answers and not arguments. Arguments that seek to defend or pit the racial heritage of one racial group against another in this country are rooted in fallacy and the wrong questions. In truth, the “racial heritages” of different people are so intertwined that it is virtually impossible to absolutely distinguish the authentic legacy of “races” of people as they have been historically defined in the U.S. If we are completely honest, all groups (of individuals as well as institutions) have plenty to be celebrate as well as legacies for which they must consider critical responsibility.  The right answers begin with the right questions. The function of a right “answer” is revelation and illumination. What we need in this country are answers that truly answer and that can lead to solutions which actually solve. More often than not, the motivation of “argument” is defeat and condemnation. 

In the era of “Make America Great Again,” there is no need to argue that very real answers need to be realized as it relates to the reality of racial injustice and conflict in this country. These answers are complicated and intersect with the complexities of religion, class, gender as well as the dynamics of personal and institutional relationships. I am encouraged by those who are seeking to organize alternative mobilizations at other locations. I am even more inspired by those who recognize that the work does not begin and end this weekend. Real eyes realize the real lies of fools. Real answers require a sustained commitment to engagement, struggle and remembrance of racialized people and institutions. 

Rev. Lukata Mjumbe
Pastor, Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church

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1 Comment

  1. In comment, America is beyond race or we must move beyond labeling individuals as either racists or not. America is so diverse and has been, let alone the world at large. I think we do an injustice to inflame race sentiments by continuing such dialogue. Identity is more than race. Personal identity are the free choices each individual makes throughout their life- regardless or race. We are free to choose each action and each action defines us. Our choices and actions then are our identity, not the color of our skin or genetic code.

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