Dear White Brothers and Sisters: Let's Acknowledge Our Defensiveness and Learn From It
My tenth wedding anniversary kicked off a season of unprecedented marital strife. My husband and I were homeschooling our three sons, navigating multiple part-time jobs, and trying to manage my sudden health crisis. We were stretched thin and losing patience. Prior to this time, conflicts had not been an issue for us. We typically processed well, forgave each other quickly, and moved on. But a decade in, something shifted. And it wasn’t for the better.
In retrospect, we regressed to relational patterns from our families of origin. When angry or upset, my northern European clan withdrew from one another and stoically pretended that nothing was wrong. My husband’s Italian-American household vocalized anger operatically. Tempers flared and voices cracked; then, someone would make a joke and everyone would laugh. That dynamic worked well for them, but not for our marriage.
During one blowup, I made a tearful plea: When I’m angry, what if you listened rather than getting defensive? Based on his expression, I could tell that this was a new concept. As soon as he stopped, the severity and duration of our conflicts changed—this time for the better.
When he dialed down, he created a safe space for me to talk which validated my concerns and 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 responding to something real. When he was culpable (which was certainly not all the time) and offered me an apology, it helped both of us to calm down and allowed us to address the actual issue rather than endlessly react.
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 weather my tempest and face a degree of powerlessness. Twenty years later, we’re still learning how to do this well.
I wonder if my experience in marriage reflects a similar dynamic contributing to the racial tensions in the United States.
In light of this possibility, I have a question for Caucasian readers. When you witness People of Color protesting an act of violence against someone in their community, or when you read an honest social media post expressing raw anger or frustration, what is your response? For some, it is deep empathy and sorrow. Others resort to defensiveness.
Defensiveness is a natural response when we feel threatened. It protects us from unpleasant feelings like shame, the pain of being misunderstood, or the vulnerability of powerlessness. Defensiveness is not necessarily a problem; it’s where we go with it that can become problematic.
If we immediately dismiss the concerns or hurts of our brothers and sisters of color or encourage them to move on, we have invalidated their reality and missed an opportunity to offer empathy, admit culpability, and work toward change.
Just as my husband’s defensiveness didn’t help the two of us address the issues at hand or alleviate my frustration, defensiveness can prevent white people from exploring how they might be contributing to or perpetuating racism.
To push past his default response, my husband had to ask himself: What kind of marriage do I want? Do I want to protect myself or love my wife? Similarly, as members of the body of Christ, white folks must ask ourselves, What kind of church, neighborhood, and nation do we want? Is it more important to protect our image and status by defending ourselves, or do we want to love sacrificially and work toward making the world a more just and equitable place for everyone?
Though many Christians might want the latter in theory, Sunday mornings reveal a different story. Only 12 to 27 percent of American churches have a diversity rate of at least 20%. This is both unfortunate and understandable. Worshiping with those who have similar life experiences to us requires less effort and sacrifice. Since daily life typically presents more challenges than we can keep up with, we often opt for ease and comfort over dis-ease and potential conflict. Anyone who pursues racial reconciliation can confirm that it is costly and difficult. As author and professor 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.”
Real reconciliation demands a willingness to be changed by the power of the cross. This cannot happen without pain and sacrifice. According to Sheila Wise Rowe, author of Healing Racial Trauma, “Reconciliation is not only about systemic change. It’s about relational transformation.”
In other words, real reconciliation—and the equality that comes with it—will not happen simply by creating new legislation or equipping police officers with body cameras. Something deeper is needed: spiritual transformation.
The process of transformation includes allowing the Lord to convict us of apathy, judgment, or power-hoarding. Conviction should then move us toward actions such as confessing our sins, apologizing, and engaging in the long-term fight for equality and justice. Defensiveness can hold us back from achieving any of these goals. By allowing ourselves to sit in the discomfort of confrontation, then humbly laying down our rhetorical swords, we can partner with God to bring about true healing and lasting reconciliation.
NOTE: A version of this essay first appeared at Sojourners.
Dorothy Littell Greco spends her days thinking, praying, and writing about how to become more like Jesus. She is the author of Making Marriage Beautiful and Marriage in the Middle. You can find more of her work on her website.
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