Freedom is not a Zero-Sum Game

“Pay close attention to the garden. Let it teach you. Let it share with you its secrets. Pay close attention to what works in the garden because what works in the garden may one day work in the world.”

This quote takes me back to my pre-farming days. I stumbled across it in a garden in Clarkston, GA that was planted as a business enterprise for refugee women. It was so moving to me. As I looked out over the planted garden, I saw such diversity and symbiosis. Every plant, flower and vegetable, simply by being itself, served the purposes and needs of the plants and soil surrounding it. It’s an amazing phenomenon. It’s another reminder that God has knit his intentions for humankind in every crevice of creation.

In the midst of this week’s events - the deaths and losses, the protests and cultural conflicts - the biggest lie that many of us have been sold is that freedom is a zero-sum game. Unlike life in the garden, we think that if one of us lives, it means the other must die. We’ve bought into the belief that if Black lives are valued, then the lives and work of our police force are not valued. And conversely, we’ve believed that if we honor and value our police force, then Black lives must not be honored and valued. This simply isn’t the case. Freedom is not a zero-sum game. Our freedom is mutually bound up with one another’s freedom.

Freedom is not a zero-sum game. 

We have a difficult time living this way though. Its not only counter to our culture of competitive Western individualism, but its also counter to our human nature. Dr. Christena Cleveland has a great body of research on our psychological tendency to organize ourselves as “us” versus “them.” And once we’ve put someone into the “other” category, we all too easily ascribe negative character traits to them. Subsequently, when we encounter people of a group outside of our own and have an experience that feels ambiguous to us, rather than leaning in for understanding, we fill in our mental gaps with what we think we know about them. And due to how we inherently and negatively perceive “the other,” what we think we know turns into misconceptions about the group and their intentions towards us. It gets really messy. And when we factor in guns, power dynamics, racial biases that have built over centuries and the fear that comes from encountering what we don’t understand, the consequences are lethal.

So what do we do? How do we fix it?

While the fixes aren’t quick, we can make deliberate choices to live a different way.

The invitation for us today is to let go of zero-sum thinking. Interestingly, this is a uniquely Western, and especially American, paradigm. Do you feel that being pro-Black makes you anti-White or anti-police? Or vice versa? It doesn’t have to be that way. Yes, we must speak truth to the dysfunction of our criminal justice system. And yes, we must acknowledge and repent of racist systems, unjust power structures and our pro-violence inclinations. BUT, this isn’t just for one group’s freedom; its for the freedom of us all. Violence destroys the humanity of the oppressor and the oppressed. Violence undermines the spark of Divinity that is in all of us. Self-giving unity - cultivated by the tools of confession, repentance and forgiveness – is the only way forward.  

Sometimes when people talk about unity, it sounds like idealist mumbo jumbo that doesn’t take into account the painful severity of the situation. As a person of color, I feel the need to relentlessly tell the truth about the ways that white supremacy, racism and prejudice are tearing communities –my community - apart. I have to tell the truth and oftentimes I am so angry. In my anger, relating to white people becomes very difficult. But I think that we’ll only see these systems change if we work together. Black people cannot achieve freedom and justice on their own. If we could have, we would have already. So the task of the Black American reconciler is to figure out how to carry anger and pain while releasing our white brothers and sisters in forgiveness, all in hopes of building enough solidarity to turn these broken systems upside down. Or so I think.

I was on the phone with a Black pastor from Bankhead this morning. He’s in his 70s and has lived in Atlanta his entire life. He’s become a friend of mine as he visits my farm often. He asked me how I was doing and I told him that I was sad about the news and recent events. And he said, “Well, you know Bethaney, we have just got to learn how to live together.”

Simple, right? My prayer is that we would learn how to do just that. My prayer and my hope is that what works in the garden really will work itself out in our world.