The Red Robin Incident

This morning while talking about god knows what, my coworker said “did you hear what happened to the Red Robin in the south hills?” and I was like “no, did it burn down or something” and he said “no” and sent me this link.

I’ll lay out what I know using the involved persons’ first names:
Ankur was sitting at the bar on his tablet, wearing headphones. Jeffrey was seated next to him. Jeffrey started using racial slurs and said “things are different now” and “I don’t want you sitting next to me. You people.” Ankur didn’t really pay attention to this. Jeffrey then elbowed Ankur in the face and punched him. Ankur walked away with a loose tooth and a cut lip. Jeffrey was arrested, and the police said that he was staggering and smelled of alcohol.

Later, Jeffrey said “It was the alcohol,” and “I’m not that kind of person.”

(The reason for the first names– last names, especially when describing criminal events, make situations feel sterile. I think there’s a level of humanity that’s stripped when you describe someone not as their friends or parents would, but as a lawyer might.)

My first response was “Shocking. /s” (which, if you didn’t know, the ‘/s’ is an internet shorthand for “What I just said was sarcasm and if i had said it to your face you would know that by the tone of my voice.”) This is because if you look at how our culture has behaved lately in America, especially after the 2016 election, we’re seeing increases in hate crimes and generally extra hate towards brown people in general. I’m sure you can guess which president has recently lent, at the very least, tacit support of this trend.

I’m not surprised, anymore, when I hear about a hate crime. Instead, what comes to mind is more or less a “yup. Racism is on an upswing right now.”

I’m really sad that’s the case.

My guess and hope is that race based prejudice and the systemic racism is on an overall downswing, kind of like this graph, and we’re just stuck somewhere in the middle uptick.

Red robin incident

(Also, I’m aware this is a horrible quality image with shutterstock watermark AND identification tag, but when searching for a graph that pointed down, google offered a bunch of helpful filters such as “cartoon” or “stock market”, but also included a filter called “canadian flag”. It did not disappoint.)

I can’t be sure of my racism decline theory. And even if we are on an overall downswing, I’m really sad that we have to be on an uptick at all. It means more people will be abused, hurt, and killed, and there’s nothing about racism-fueled killing that’s ok.

But what’s interesting is Jeffrey’s response. “It was the alcohol.”

No it wasn’t, Jeffrey. Alcohol doesn’t really change what you want to do that much, it just lowers your inhibitions. Yeah, you might be better at bowling now that you’ve stopped overthinking that weird “1, 2, 3, Slide” motion that you’re supposed to do, but you don’t just become a cat person while drunk if you’re normally a dog person. You don’t get unusually interested in quantum physics if you’ve never cared about it before. And you don’t just spontaneously start saying the N-word after drinking. Do you?

Well, you do if it’s part of your vocabulary, and your inhibitions usually just keep you from saying it out loud.

When a white man (or really any color man or woman) spits abuse at a brown man, drunk or not, he is doing it because of deep set racism. The white man has adopted the belief that people who look Muslim, Arab, Indian, Black, etc., are on some level inferior and not worth respecting as humans. To him, people that live differently from him are just a bunch of animals. Whether he needs a little booze to act on his belief is a different story.

I said that to my coworker, but then I had to catch myself. Well, I didn’t catch myself. Some words I heard once caught me.

Joe Coffey once gave a sermon about Jonah (fabulous series, and I highly recommend it), and in it he said this:

“To take a whole race and say ‘I am better than a whole race of people’ is a very powerful thing to do. but self righteousness is kinda sneaky, and you need to know that it’s after you too. For instance. If you are racist, I just called you out. Alright? So you know now that you’re being superior and stuff? But let me ask you this, if you’re not a racist, how do you feel about racists? Heh. Do you feel superior to them? That’s the sneakiness of self-righteousness.”

In catching myself, I was reminded that I’m not better than this guy. I’m not. Maybe I haven’t battered someone because I thought I was better than they, but maybe gossiping about a girl I didn’t like is just as bad on the grand scale as this guy’s violence against a guy he doesn’t like.

C.S. Lewis writes about this in Mere Christianity, and I’m including the whole section because I like it, but if you read only the last paragraph you’ll get the general gist:

When a man makes a moral choice two things are involved. One is the act of choosing. The other is the various feelings, impulses, and so on which his psychological outfit presents him with, and which are the raw material of his choice. Now this raw material may be of two kinds. Either it may be what we would call normal: it may consist of the sort of feelings that are common to all men. Or it may consist of quite unnatural feelings due to things that have gone wrong in his subconscious. Thus fear of things that are really dangerous would be an example of the first kind: an irrational fear of cats or spiders would be an example of the second kind. The desire of a man for a woman would be of the first kind: the perverted desire of a man for a man would be of the second. Now what psychoanalysis undertakes to do is remove the abnormal feelings, that is, to give the man better raw material for his acts of choice; morality is concerned with the acts of choice themselves.

Put it this way. Imagine three men who go to a war. One has the ordinary natural fear of danger that any man has and he subdues it by moral effort and becomes a brave man. Let us suppose that the other two have, as a result of things in their subconscious, exaggerated, irrational fears, which no amount of moral effort can do anything about. Now suppose that a psychoanalyst comes along and cures these two: that is, he puts them back in the position of the first man. Well it is just then that the psychoanalytical problem is over and the moral problem begins. Because, now that they are cured, these two men might take quite different lines. The first might say, “thank goodness I’ve got rid of all those doo-dahs. Now at last I can do what I’ve always wanted to do—my duty to my country.” But the other might say, ‘well I’m very glad that I now feel moderately cool under fire, but, of course, that doesn’t alter the fact that I’m still jolly well determined to look after Number One and let the other chap do the dangerous job whenever I can. Indeed one of the good things about feeling less frightened is that I can now look after myself much more efficiently and can be much cleverer at hiding the fact from the others.’ Now this difference is a purely moral one and psychoanalysis cannot do anything about it. However much you improve the man’s raw material, you still have got something else: the real, free choice of the man, on the material presented to him, either to put his own advantage first or to put it last. And this free choice is the only thing that morality is concerned with.

The bad psychological material is not a sin but a disease. It does not need to be repented of, but cured. And by the way, that is very important. Human beings judge one another by their external actions. God judges them by their moral choices. When a neurotic who has a pathological horror of cats forces himself to pick up a cat for some good reason, it is quite possible that in God’s eyes he has shown more courage than a healthy man may have shown in winning the V.C. When a man who has been perverted from his youth and taught that cruelty is the right thing, does some tiny little kindness, or refrains from some cruelty he might have committed, and thereby, perhaps, risks being sneered at by his companions, he may, in god’s eyes, be doing more than you and I would do if we gave up life itself for a friend.

It is as well to put this the other way round. Some of us who seem quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of a good heredity and a good upbringing that we are really worse than those whom we regard as fiends. Can we be quite certain how we should have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit, and then with the bad upbringing, say, of Himmler? That is why Christians are told not to judge. We see only the results which a man’s choices make out of his raw material. But God does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it. Most of the man’s psychological makeup is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or the worst out of this material, will stand naked. All sorts of nice things which we thought our own, but which were really due to a good digestion, will fall off some of us: all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off of others. We shall then, or the first time, see every one as he really was. There will be surprises.

And that leads on to my second point. People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says “if you keep up a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.” I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part that choose, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven, that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.

That explains what always used to puzzle me about Christian writers; they seem to be so very strict at one moment and so very free and easy at another. They talk about mere sins of thoughts as if they were immensely important: and then they talk about the most frightful murders and treacheries as if you had only got to repent and all would be forgiven. But I have come to see that they are right. What they are always thinking of is the mark which the action leaves on that tiny central self which no one sees in this life but which each of us will have to endure—or enjoy—for ever. One man may be so placed that his anger sheds the blood of thousands, and another so placed that however angry he gets he will only be laughed at. But the little mark on the soul may be very much the same in both. Each has done something to himself which, unless he repents, will make it harder for him to keep out of the rage next time he is tempted, and will make the rage worse when he does fall into it. Each of them, if he seriously turns to God, can have that twist in the central man straightened out again: each is, in the long run, doomed if he will not. The bigness or smallness of the thing, seen from the outside, is not what really matters.

I find myself, when considering Jeffrey the Elbowing Man from the Red Robin Incident in tandem with this, I feel a sense of pity. It’s not the sort of “well that guy’s fucked now” pity that we feel when someone has made a stupid mistake that has excessive consequences.

No, the pity I feel is more because I know what he’s missing.

He’s missing righteousness. He’s missing the status of being right with the universe. It’s painful.

Jeffrey says “I’m not that kind of person.” But no, Jeffrey. You’re exactly that kind of person. I was that kind of person too. We’re all that kind of person.

The Bible teaches that we are all in open rebellion against God. That puts the cliche “god-shaped hole” in our hearts, which leads to idolatry, and we need God instead, and blah blah blah Sunday school words. Not the topic tonight.

But there’s another facet to it as well. Being in open rebellion against God makes us no longer right with him, with the universe. We have been weighed on the scales of being good and found wanting. This means, essentially, that the whole universe and all of reality is asking us the question of “how can you live with yourself?”

Now that we are disconnected from God, there are only two options–being right because of our self or being right because of God. Self righteousness or God-gifted Righteousness.

Humans’ unnatural defense mechanism to this is not to go back to God and seek his help, but rather to make it for ourselves. This is pride. We point to something about ourselves and twist our identity around it and say “this is how I can live with myself.” But everything we can come up with involves comparison. We point to our achievements and say “I did good work, that makes me good enough.” We point to our family life and say “I care so much for my family, that’s what makes me ok”. We point to our way of living and say “I don’t murder. See look, I’m not that bad!”

You can see it in how people introduce themselves, or talk about their lives. “Oh I’m the CFO of a company.” or “I’m a mom, that’s my Liam over there.” Their identity is wrapped up in something that makes them feel worthwhile.

One problem with all of these things is that on one level or another they are all comparisons, they are about putting ourselves on a level above everyone else. How do you know your work is good? You compare it to another’s work, preferably someone who doesn’t work as hard. How do you know you care a lot for your family? You look at another person who doesn’t care much about theirs. How do you know not murdering is special? Well, it’s really not, but there are murderers out there, so at least you’re better than that person. Right??

It’s all pride. All of it. It’s self-created rightness with the universe.

Self righteousness becomes a desperate need in every person to feel superior to someone in some way, so we can live with ourselves.

And Jeffrey is infected just like the rest of us.

Look even at how he clings to whatever his pride can grasp– “I’m not that kind of person.” Being the kind of person who drunkenly assaults other people because of their race in chain restaurants is a horribly painful identity to have, because there is no way to take pride in it. It is very rare to find someone who is worse than that guy. Those people are out there, but they’re hard to find.

Of course he’s in denial. Who would want to be faced with the reality that “oh yeah, you’re the kind of person who is so racist, they do something bad enough to get arrested for it.”

But a punishment by the legal system is not going to change his heart. When has punishment of any kind ever changed someone’s heart? It might make them think twice about doing the thing again, and overall the negative behavior may go down, but it does nothing to solve the root problem. It doesn’t touch identity.

Until his identity, the thing that makes him able to sleep at night changes, his feelings towards brown people won’t change. And even when that happens, he might turn and say “at least I’m better than women” or “at least I’m better than people who work service jobs” or “at least I’m better than the people in the government” or something.

It doesn’t matter what thing he, or any one of us for that matter, uses to live with himself. If it isn’t the right thing, it won’t work. It’s still going to keep us fully focused on ourselves and our work and our social statuses and our bodies and our items, and not on the deepest core problem for every human being: that we are disconnected from God and are hopeless without him, that without God our identities are trash.

It’s like trying to throw water and dirt at a tree that’s been cut off at the base. The problem isn’t a lack of water. The problem is that the tree itself has been cut off from the very capacity to take in those resources.

What Jeffrey needs now more than ever before is Jesus. Jeffrey, whether he knows it or not, is craving Jesus.

Because Jesus won’t scold him and say “Jeffrey, you need to shape up and stop being a racist and start going to church, and then I’ll love you and you’ll be able to live with yourself.”

No. Jesus will come and say “Jeffrey? Don’t you see? I’ve got you. You are right with me, and that means you no longer have to struggle to live with yourself. I’ve taken all consequences for you already, and now I will keep you and I will make you more like the Jeffrey I had in mind when I created you in the first place, because I want to. You are my treasure, and it’s because of me that you are treasured. Your skin, your lifestyle, your habits, your stuff, all your good deeds, that has nothing to do with it. You didn’t earn me, and that means you never have to worry about losing me or my love. I am God and I have made you right with me.” And the more Jeffrey understands this, and the more he reminds himself of this, the more free he will be to stop caring about his status, the more free he will be to show love to those who are different than he.

If Jeffrey’s identity is in the delight of the father, purchased by Jesus on the cross, then pride will have no place in his life. With Jesus, Jeffrey wouldn’t ever need to worry about elevation over others. With Jesus, Jeffrey would be completely transformed- and not just in identity. Jesus works through our lives to fix everything about us.

Make no mistake: It’s not that I want Jeffrey to have this newfound identity because I think his racism-fueled actions deserve the joy and peace and radiant love of God. God created racial diversity and intends to fill his heaven with it. Racism is not tolerated or welcomed in Christianity.

But (and get this clear) nobody deserves the joy and peace and radiant love of God. I didn’t. I don’t now. I pity Jeffrey and his lack of righteousness, but that same pity could apply to all people who don’t know God. It often does.

That pity, combined with the joy of an identity rooted in God-gifted righteousness, pushes Christians to share the gospel. As it should.

I want Jeffrey to have Jesus because to see a human, any human, even a racist one, turn back to the creator of the very fabric of our reality and begin the process of becoming what God intended that human to be is an astonishing process. We should be marveling that it’s even considered possible. An ocean of mercy is needed for even one person. But Jesus, who knows us better than anyone, and who already paid the price for every injustice, offers an ocean to every single one of us, Jeffrey included.

We should be excited to take him up on that offer, not pushing each other away from it.

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