--Random House Dictionary
It is evening. You are walking through a neighborhood in a part of town you are somewhat familiar with but do not live in. You are on the way home from the local 7-11. It’s late and you are in a hurry and it’s a bit chilly, so you pull the hooded jacket you are wearing up and over your head. You are on a street where you look very different from most of the residents so you are a stranger. This area has experienced crime as of late, so folks started a neighborhood watch, with armed civilians who patrol the streets on foot and by car, but you don’t know that. You are unarmed. A man approaches you. He points at you. He starts asking you sharp questions about who you are and why you are there and what you are doing.
Imagine this. How would you respond? Would you run away from him? Or maybe run towards him because it feels like he’s threatening you and you have to protect yourself? Or would you match his raised voice with shouts of your own? Should you call the police or knock on a door for help? Perhaps just start walking away a bit faster, praying that you’ll be home soon? Imagine you’ve experienced situations like this a lot. Folks who look at you—look at the color of your skin and your dress and your age and then judge you, draw conclusions about you, even though they don’t know you at all.
Imagine this. Five minutes later you are dead from a gunshot wound to the chest. Imagine you are 17 years old. Imagine what it will be like when your parents get a phone call from the police telling them that you have been killed. Imagine everything you could have done in your life, all you could have been, that now it won’t ever come true. Imagine it is gone now. Over. Done. Forever.
Can you imagine this happening to you? To your son or daughter? To the kid you coach on the baseball team, the young man who cuts your grass, the teen in the back row of the choir at church on Sundays, or the promising young musician you teach at the high school? Can you imagine growing up in a culture which constantly profiles you, stereotypes you, suspects you, pigeonholes you, and why? Because the pigment of your skin is not the same shade as the majority of the folks who live in the country that you call home.
President Barack Obama—he doesn’t have to imagine it. Millions of our fellow Americans—they don’t have to imagine a life like this either. They live it daily. Our neighbors, our friends, our co-workers, our families, the soldiers and cops who protect and serve us, teachers who shape our children’s minds, artists who entertain us, athletes who thrill us, clergy who move us, politicians who govern us.
As the President said last Friday, “There are very few African American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me -- at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and [there’s] a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she has a chance to get off.”
In my faith traditions, and most others, the highest moral and ethical value is love. This God given and God inspired love is never theoretical, never impersonal, never just a word or an ideal or idea, but is always given flesh and bone through compassion. This is the ability to love and honor another, especially someone “different”, by imagining life in their shoes. In their skin. In their experience. In their neighborhood. In their life.
Real love finally takes compassionate imagination. Then, instead of concluding, “I could never be like ‘them’!” we take a risk, we imagine and we wonder, “What is life like for them?” White, we imagine life as a person of color. Privileged, we imagine life as a person of few means. Male, we imagine what it is like for a woman to make her way in an often patriarchal world. Christian, we imagine what life is like for a Muslim or a Jew or a Baha’i.
Will we in the United States finally get serious about confessing to our racial divisions, talking about race relations and maybe even beginning to transform the ways we live with each another? If so it must begin with you, with me, and with all of us: in love and compassion and most important, with imagination.