How Do You Respond When Injustice and Racism Seem Overwhelming?

You’ve likely followed the recent news story of the remains of 215 Indigenous children found at a former residential school in Kamloops, BC. 

This week I spent a few minutes reflecting at the temporary memorial in downtown Barrie. It was moving to see family after family from our community come with their arms around each other—some were bringing children’s shoes.

I’ve read and taken enough Indigenous Studies courses to know that there are complicated elements to Canada’s relationship with indigenous communities. However, the tragic history of abuse and death at residential schools, often at the hands of Christian religious leaders, is horrific.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates that 4,100 to 6,000 children died amidst abuse and neglect while in the residential school system, which ran until 1996.

Sadly, stories of Indigenous people—especially women, teenagers, and children—disappearing, only to be found years later having been preyed upon, trafficked, or taken by suicide, continue today. 

All of this can be overwhelming enough for you to close your web browser or leave you wondering how to respond. It feels so much bigger than one person. 

Or perhaps, this story doesn’t impact you with the same emotion as it does other people, but another account of injustice will. We all face overwhelming injustice or racism that touches us deeply at different moments in our lives.

If I’m honest, what I’ve sometimes experienced when facing these types of emotionally charged big moments is to become paralyzed by the tension. I can be unsure what to do.

On the one hand, a simple social media post can sometimes come across as trite. Nobody wants to inadvertently turn a tragic, complicated, personal issue into a trendy repost just to clear their conscience.

Also, you and I don’t need to post about every justice issue that comes up. We all agree that a post in itself isn’t necessarily evidence of who is making a difference. Many world changers aren’t even on social media.

On the other hand, you feel you should act, but you are afraid of saying the wrong thing or powerless to make a difference—so, paralyzed, you end up doing or saying nothing. And what difference does that make?

But paralysis can often communicate or lead to indifference.

Indifference is dangerous. Indifference can be fertile soil for sin, whether it’s personal indifference or indifference to what’s happening around you.

Avoiding the tension and doing nothing until the story leaves the news cycle is indifference. And quiet indifference towards evil is how people get away with the type of abuse we’ve seen in residential schools.

Tanya Talaga, the author of the award-winning Seven Fallen Feathers, said,

“If you are conditioned not to care, you are conditioned to indifference, and there is a violence to that indifference.”

While this is hard to hear, it rings true. Over the last year, I’ve been learning that sometimes saying nothing is saying something.

So what can you do? Do you get on a social media soapbox to boast your opinion? My guess is many of us don’t know enough about the issue to warrant that box. There are real experts in this area. I had some fantastic Indigenous History professors in university who could run circles around me, and the Indigenous community knows their story best. It’s also very complicated for government leaders to understand and respond to well.

I think the personal place to start is modeled in the person of Jesus. Scripture describes him as full of grace and truth. He was 100% grace and 100% truth at the same time. He lived it every day and ultimately displayed it on the cross. I think grace and truth is a great goal for you in the tension of racism and injustice. 

Lean into the tension and take a first step. Ask yourself, how you can search for the truth and be honest while recognizing that you aren’t the expert on the topic at hand and are trying to learn?

Let me share a few simple steps with you that you can start today. You know you can’t change decades of history, but you can start with one step in your own heart.

1. Empathize by seeking to understand

Love and empathy should be traits of every Christ-follower, but you can’t empathize with people and problems that you don’t understand

Even Jesus, who knew everything about everyone, got to know people on roadsides, in their homes over dinner, at parties, and next to wells. He asked a lot of questions. He built relationships on multiple occasions with people of all backgrounds.

You can’t read everything that’s out there, but spend some time building relationships with those who are more experienced in the area, read some of the accounts of survivors of residential schools, or look at a few articles on this story. As a former history teacher, I can tell you that you’ll likely find something more than you learned in your grade 10 textbook. 

The more you discover the truth, the more you will be able to speak to the issue with grace.

2. Reflect to root out evil in your own life

One of the evils at the heart of this tragedy, and racism in general, is the choice people make to be blind to the true value of others. People who turn their back in indifference when they know others are being mistreated, abused, or drowning in mental illness because they subtly or overtly see that person as “less than.” Giving in to this kind of indifference is sin.

Ask God to show you who you look down upon because of their race, social status, or skill set. Be truthful with yourself.

They are valuable no matter their race, religion, or social status. Valuable because every person is made in the image of God and his desire is for them to know his love. He sent Jesus for them. The apostle Paul writes in Galatians 5 that “what matters most is faith expressing itself in love.” I don’t always get that right, but I hope I’m growing.

3. Pray

It can seem simple, but prayer can be powerful. When we pray, we tap into the power of God, and he also begins to shape our hearts. Prayer can help us align our heart with God’s heart.

I would suggest you start praying for the families of these children who have been found. Every time a child is found, it reopens a painful wound and brings grief to the surface. I’m sure some are wondering if one of these children is one their family lost. Pray for wisdom for officials and professionals who will be working on the site and making decisions.

Most of all, pray for reconciliation and healing. While our world won’t be perfect on this side of eternity, we know that God wants to make things new, and he is close to the brokenhearted. Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed.”

What would happen if you took a few moments each day to pray that God would mend broken hearts and open your heart to those around you? That would shape your heart in an incredible way.

4. Pre-decide to do something ahead of time, even something small

I’ve found this powerful for me. The actions we pre-decide are the ones we follow through on the most. When you see racism or mistreatment in front of you, it can be hard to make a decision to act in the moment, or speak up. You’ll feel tension. But if you pre-decide to act, there’s more chance you actually will. That’s change.

Pray and decide what you will do the next time you see racism, abuse, or mistreatment around you. 

Or commit to taking the time to get to know people of a different race or history whenever they cross your path. Commit that in the conversation, you will do more listening than talking and ask good questions.

What you pre-decide, you are more likely to do.

We all experience or read of overwhelming accounts of violence, pain, and injustice that impact people throughout their lives. Some touch each of us more deeply than others, depending on our experiences or past. The important thing is to approach each one with a heart to engage them with truth and grace as Jesus modeled. Choose to lean into the tension and push against the temptation of indifference. Choose to see people as made in the image of God. 

If there is one thing we know about Jesus, he never chose to be indifferent towards sin in our world. He was willing to give his own life for our sin – making us free and bringing a new kingdom where hurt, death, sin, and evil are defeated.

But Jesus said, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these children.” Matthew 19:14

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2 Comments

  1. Sandy Atkinson says, June 2, 2021 at 8:55 am

    Hi, so clearly and beautifully said as usual.
    It rips your heart out when you think that a mass genocide like that could be done in our country.
    Where is the balance?
    I come from up north, and the native children are being sent to the big city off the reserves with no idea of what they are getting into.
    The news does not tell the whole truth.

  2. Sharon Bowler says, June 6, 2021 at 11:53 am

    Nya:weh for speaking out as a “church” voice — calls for reconciliation require “church” action — calls for action require first steps and you are providing some leadership example to others within the “church” that I hope will ripple across the nation. Tears this week, tears in weeks gone by and tears in weeks to come are reflection pools that can be either discarded, disposed, garbaged away or opened to the Creator’s light not through the lens of colonialism. May our shared Creator bring us into the light with our tears — two separate paths of tears — may His wisdom be our guide as we find some way to walk together with a “Good Mind”, two paths together on Turtle Island — two paths within our Creator’s world. Prayers up, in love, in peace, in hope for reconciliation.

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