A few weeks ago my wife sent me a picture of a Coke bottle with my name on it. “Even when away, you’re with me,” I could hear her say. There is a unique simplicity in encountering a product with your name on it. It’s a simple, short-lived experience of validation. Did Coca-Cola have me in mind when printing “Tyler” on their labels? Surely not. But when my wife came across it in the grocery store, lonely from a summer without her husband while I was away at school, those five letters represented me. The name “Tyler” on the Coke bottle flooded her memory with a love she had been missing. Five simple letters represented not a word, but a name; and not a name shared by many, but the name of one. My name. What a beautifully simple phenomenon—outside the fact that such feelings originated from a massive marketing ploy.

There’s something to be said for the individual validation that comes from seeing one’s name on the store shelf. It sends the message, “You matter. You’re important.” Coca-Cola printed over two hundred of the most popular names that represent the United States’ diverse population, but what of those whose names were not listed? (See the full list here.) Apart from the marketing aspect, there’s something to be said for the individual validation that comes from seeing one’s name on the store shelf. It sends the message, “You matter. You’re important.” That’s certainly a great way to sell a product. But with any sort of campaign designed to make people feel included, some are inevitably excluded. The outsiders. The forgotten. Those who don’t belong.

Part of being human is the conflict between how we choose to identify and how others choose to identify us. This is true for both the individual and the group. We long to see ourselves represented well on multiple levels—government, Hollywood, church leadership, education, media, etc. When we are represented in line with how we see ourselves, our identities are affirmed. But when we’re mocked, caricatured, misrepresented, or not represented at all, we can lose a sense of belonging, and with it a part of who we are. With such rejection, do we change and adapt to those from whom we seek validation, embrace life as an outsider and move to the Island of Misfit Toys, or seek solidarity with others at the margins and call for transformation?

The recent events in Ferguson, MO have spotlighted these issues for many in our nation. Based on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, many white Americans have had difficulty grasping the purpose behind the Ferguson protests. While centuries of abuse fuel the righteous anger on display, some whites have had difficulty understanding it due to a completely different experience, and thus perspective, of life in the United States—one of inclusion based on race. While the protests in Ferguson are certainly about Officer Darren Wilson killing Michael Brown, “Ferguson” has become representative of much more. Ferguson is a symbol of many African American communities across the country. Ferguson encapsulates the common lack of racial representation in law enforcement in those communities. Ferguson testifies to a shared history of abuse and murder at the hands of white authority, regardless of whether Officer Wilson was justified in his lethal force.

As a white male, I don’t regularly identify myself by my race. When all the popular movies and television shows have white casts, when everyone in authority over me is white, and when I worship alongside other white Christians, white becomes normal. I have no need to identify as such, because it doesn’t mark me as different. Race hasn’t mattered to me because I don’t wake up every morning reminded of my whiteness. I don’t get followed in the grocery store to be reminded of my whiteness. I don’t get questioned about my job qualifications as a reminder of my whiteness. I don’t get congratulated for being articulate when I speak as a reminder of my whiteness. I don’t get stopped and frisked to be reminded of my whiteness. And I most likely won’t get gunned down by the cops and left in the street while others debate my whiteness.

The protests in Ferguson are the voices of a people who refuse to accept the status quo by either adapting the norms of a white dominant society or retreating to their homes as an acceptance of exclusion and marginalization. It’s a collective call to listen, lament, and act. Brothers and sisters of color have served the body of Christ well by joining this call and testifying to communal life at the margins. In a country where politics—and race—can subversively trump our commonality in Christ, these (and many other) brothers and sisters are serving a prophetic role by exposing social sin many prefer to ignore or pretend doesn’t exist: John Perkins, Christena Cleveland, Thabiti Anyabwile, Austin Channing Brown, James Howard Hill Jr., Trillia Newbell, and Ezekiel Kweku. They have made the call. Are their white brothers and sisters ready to respond?

Because racial lines are so poignant in the United States, it can be difficult to hold on to our unity in Christ when culturally divisive events occur. Thus, many of these aforementioned voices may be dismissed or ignored because of their racial perspective, rather than valued and heard as black believers who share the same faith in the same Jesus as their white counterparts. But what if our experience is not the experience of others, even within the body of Christ? What if the way we see and interpret the world is not shared by everyone else? Who has the truer account? Whose voice bears the right to be heard?

While race may not be a primary component of how I identify, as a white Christian, faith certainly is. Consider Christianity and its misrepresentation, or lack of presence, in media and pop culture. The Christian faith is integral to our (read: Christians of all colors) identity, and as such, we long to see it represented well in our culture. To see a Christian onscreen is to see ourselves on screen. Just as recognizing one’s name on a Coke bottle brings a sense of validation, seeing good representations of Christians in film and government remind us that we matter, that we are valued, that people want to hear what we have to say.

When that’s not the case, when we’re misrepresented, excluded, or caricatured, some Christians feel a need to speak out and call for change. Some have boycotted films and television stations that disrespect Christian beliefs. Some have protested public policies contrary to Christian values. Good or bad, right or wrong, the calls persist even when a broader antagonistic community decries such foolishness. Some white Christians like myself may not fully understand the race narrative underlying the Ferguson protests, but we can understand the importance of calling for change when no one seems to listen. For such a reason, we should not be quick to dismiss the voices of those speaking from exclusion.

One shared sin of our fallen humanity is sorting people into a myriad of hierarchical categories. Whether it’s along racial, socioeconomic, genetic, or political lines, we love to mark who’s in and who’s out. We validate some as important, superior, and worthy of our time and attention, while we silence those deemed insignificant. While we all haven’t felt the weight of marginalization at the structural and institutional level as some in our country, we have at one point or another shared in exclusion. At different times and in different places we have all felt the sting of being pushed to the margins.

I am by no means saying that all marginalized experiences are equal. Living at the margins is certainly different from visiting on sporadic occasions, and being the outsider doesn’t always entail marginalization. I do, however, want to highlight one aspect of these infinitely complex issues that exhibit our common humanity. As a white person in this country I have a very limited perspective on the African American experience, the lack of racial representation in social systems, and the media’s perpetual misrepresentation of male blackness as criminal. As a male, I haven’t experienced pay discrepancies, gross sexualization, overt objectification, or exclusion from Christian service. I do not even want to pretend I can speak from such experience.

As a Christian, however, I have witnessed my faith publicly mocked on countless occasions. As the fat kid in gym, I never got picked first. As a guy who prefers video games to UFC, I’ve never met the standard for “Biblical” manhood. Not meeting that standard, I have at times questioned my sexuality and felt silenced by the church when I longed for counsel. While I can never fully relate to the experiences of others, various aspects of my identity have been questioned, mocked, caricatured, illegitimized, and misrepresented so that I’ve tasted, however small, of life as an outsider. I’ve learned to give preference to those who speak from a place of exclusion because I too have been excluded—as minimal as it may be.

I recognize the danger of attempting to compare something as small as being picked last in gym class with racist violence that has destroyed the lives, families, and communities of African Americans for centuries. Such comparison is not my intent. Rather, I am trying to highlight that even the most privileged among us has reason—and obligation—to step aside, listen, and welcome those pushed to the margins. For most of us, the longing to be affirmed and validated is inextricably tied to our identity, even if it’s just a Coke bottle on the store shelf. When this longing is denied or ruptured by someone or something outside our control, we react. This has certainly happened to many on the individual level. When tragic events occur, such as those in Ferguson, we witness this reaction by an entire community, a people who have shared in their exclusion.

And even for those who have never experienced exclusion, to claim Christ is to embrace a faith born out of the margins. Welcoming the stranger, the outsider, is commanded in the very faith we proclaim. I imagine this is so because God himself put on flesh and became one of us—one we did not recognize, but rejected and despised. Rather than listen, we called for His crucifixion. The God we serve lived fully human at the margins, a man of sorrows acquainted with grief, entirely aware that life there often leads to death—whether by a cross, a lynching tree, or a bullet.

As the people of God, the calling of Christ beckons us out of ourselves. “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” Though our politics, race, theology, and education are all part of who we are, our identity is Christ, the One who gave himself for others. Theologian Miroslav Volf, in his book Exclusion & Embrace, says, “The will to give ourselves to others and ‘welcome’ them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity.”

Too often we dehumanize others through silence and exclusion because we find our primary identities in those represented around us—whether it’s racial, socioeconomic, religious, or a myriad of other identity markers. We live in neighborhoods with those who are like ourselves. We dine with those who share our interests. We worship alongside those who proclaim our particular brand of belief. When we’re like those who surround us, we feel important and included. We may even feel entitled to what we’ve received. Such homogeneity puts us in danger of making Christ in our image rather than conforming to His. We put our identity on Christ rather than taking on His. If we ignore the voices of those on the margins, we dismiss the very place from which Jesus spoke. Beware: sometimes it’s just too easy to buy the Coke because your name is on it.

[button link=”http://read.christandpopculture.com/issue/540b4983c873d916ac2a1f70/who_are_the_outsiders?” size=”medium”]Read more in CAPC Mag Volume 2, Issue 18: Outsiders[/button]

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