Reconciliation Blues Part I: A First Look
February’s Book of the Month is Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity by Edward Gilbreath. Last week, I provided an overview, but today and for the remaining Tuesdays this month I’ll go into more detail about some of the critical issues raised in the book.
Recalling a transformative college experience, Ed shares the words of Reverend Russell Knight who said, “America is a racist nation by nature, and the American church is complicit in this sin if it continues to remain silent (pg 46).” I shared this quote during last week’s broadcast on Moody, noting, “America is a racist nation, both by nature and by nurture.” Let’s begin with the first premise, transition to the second one, and then answer the all important, “So what does this mean (specifically for the American Church)?”
America is racist by nature:
It is not my goal to provide a history lesson here. The best recommendation I can offer is, “Read.” Dr. Martin Luther King wrote, “Whites [and I submit this refers to all of us], it must frankly be said, are not putting in a mass effort to re-educate themselves out of their racial ignorance…It is an aspect of their since of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn (Reconciliation Blues, 107).” It’s important as adults (especially in the Church), that we take personal responsibility as life learners. In the past couple years, I have been strongly convicted about my lack of attention and concern for history. There is a lot of truth to the claim, “If a man doesn’t know where he came from, he doesn’t know where he is going.” We have to go beyond the limited history lessons taught in school, and seek out documentaries and historical records written and produced by nonwhite authors or white publishers who are concerned with telling the whole story of history (as best we know it) and not presenting history as they want it to be. That’s why it was so important for me to interview and research Native Americans during the Neglected Voices part of the Racial Reconciliation Series. We are all wise to listen to their stories.
I love the way Soong-Chan Rah articulated the racist nature of America his book, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from the Western Cultural Captivity. He refers to racism as “America’s original and most deeply rooted sin (68),” and he also argues that it is a sin we must all take ownership of to rightfully confess and repent from. (We can get encouragement from the confessional examples of Nehemiah, Daniel and Ezra.) Soong-Chan Rah’s explanation gets a bit theological but it is important to present. He writes, “When we use the term racism, we often see this only in individual terms…But if we use the language of corporate sin [meaning sin in which a whole community is responsible for], then we are all complicit. Anyone that has benefited from America’s original sin is guilty of that sin and bears the corporate shame of that sin (70).” All non-Native Americans benefit from the sin of racism against the original natives of this land. Many Americans continue to benefit from the sin of racism that resulted in free labor provided by free Black people who were brought to this country and enslaved.
America is racist by nurture:
In spite of the changing ethnic demographics in America, racism is still evident in personal relationships but also in systematic structures. Even people who do not consider themselves “racist” must dig deeper to ask, “Who do I allow to visit my home? What type of person am I willing to embrace in my family?” Likewise, people who have been negatively impacted by racism, must ask the question, “In what areas am I still angry or bitter? What sins do I need to confess and which people do I need to forgive?” A lot of times, the simple reality is: We don’t want to confront our own sins. We don’t want to deal with our own issues. So we say things like, “Why are we still talking about race? I don’t even see color. We are all the same in God’s eyes. We are living in a ‘post-racial America’ and race doesn’t matter anymore.” All of this is stated in an effort to get over or around discussing the present realities of race issues.
But here’s the ironic thing: In spite of the desire of some to escape the conversation, our true hearts are exposed. Our true feelings do come out at the dinner table, and among our closest friends. Our true feelings are revealed in the hearts and attitudes of our children when they interact with others at school. The reason we still need to talk about race is because racism is still being nurtured and taught in American homes today! I encourage you to watch the video of CNN’s recent child study on race relations.
So what does this mean for the American Church?
Like Rev. Knight, I do not believe we have the luxury of remaining silent on this issue. Silence concerning this sin is compliance. I am grateful that there are many in the American Church who are stepping up to intentionally confront this sin, but I would be remiss if I did not express my concern that “it’s easier to point to racial breakthroughs in secular culture than in the evangelical world (Reconciliation Blues, 76).” This is a major problem, because I believe reconciling people of any background is important to God and therefore, the Church should be leading in this area. Where possible, we should be intentionally leading racial reconciled lives in our homes, local churches, and communities.
How do you intentionally pursue racial reconciliation? What are some practical ways the Christians can lead in this area?
© Natasha Sistrunk Robinson 2013
6 thoughts on “Natasha’s Study: America’s Race Issue & Compliance of the American Church”
Natasha, I honestly don’t know how to persue racial reconciliation in my 99% white southern Baptist Church. When I was a United Methodist we were united in organization but separate in worship. I did have some meaningful conversations with black women when at retreats etc… I do think blacks are racist as well. What do you think?
Hi Donna, Since I attend a predominately white Southern Baptist Church, I have the same struggles as you. Fortunately for me, I pursue racial reconciliation simply by showing up, being honest, and fully engaged in my relationships there. I would encourage you to look for opportunities to expose different racial/ethnic perspectives with your current population. For example, rent a good quality movie featuring several non-white leading cast members and have a discussion about it. You can do the same with a book (which might be a better choice these days). If you have relationships with people of different races outside of your church, invite your church friends to participate in events with your diverse group of friends. It’s the small things, done consistently, which reap long term returns. Certainly, there are some black people who are also racist people.
Thank you. You gently speak the truth in love. I have been teaching my children American history this year, and am struck continually by the sins of nature and nurture throughout our history. The resources you opened up last year continue to impact me and my family. Please continue to bring to light the unheard voices!
I think it is important for white people not to get hung up on the question of whether we are ‘racist’. (In my opinion, we are, but I recognize the shades of racism in which we compare favorably to our ancestors.) Rather, let’s ask if we ever make preferences based on skin color or accent. Are we aware of the advantages we have both historically and currently because of our light skin? And to grow, I encourage all of us to not just look at ‘race’ but at culture. As a cross-cultural missionary, I have realized that many of the difficulties in American racial reconciliation are cultural questions. We are truly varied in color and culture, and that is how God is glorified. Can we truly respect other people’s values, study the Bible with those of different cultures, and grow into more Christ-likeness as His multi-cultural body?
Kara, I am encouraged that you are reading the resources and sharing them with your children. Wow! Yes, so much of this does have to do with our culture and I would even add socio/economic class (which I haven’t yet discussed here, but that is a large part of it). I believe you got to the core of racial reconciliation with your last question. Your question speaks to how well we value people (their experiences, culture, etc) who are different that us. More importantly, I believe we can all learn more about and grow closer to God when we ask that very important question.
Natasha, thank you for asking this question – I love your work and want to encourage you to continue pressing! I just want to add to the conversation by asking your thoughts on how to address a few things. I realize it is so important for us to understand that whenever we confront large subjects like racial reconciliation, social justice and diversity, we have to recognize there are different strategies to tackle each stage of what makes up the social definition above, but more importantly, how are we recognizing what we’re actually reconciling to? For example, addressing prejudice in individuals from a Christian perspective is going to be a different strategy than changing a law or policy in an institution that may be manifesting bias and unwanted behaviors. Both are needed in making progress toward the positives, but how do we address the individual who cognitively understands overt ‘racist’ acts as being unjust, who may even lead the charge in changing policies or structures, yet holds within and reserves themselves the right to the same type of prejudice (undetected or not) that may contribute to the unwanted outcome in the first place? These conversations aren’t easy to always ‘dig into’ because we’re all subject to prejudice, bias and the like. But I’m curious to know how you’ve addressed or would address some of these more nuanced circumstances re: reconciliation and the pursuit of. Thanks Natasha!
Hi Robyn, Thanks for reading and thanks for your ministry and pressing! I agree there are different strategies at different stages of this journey. You ask very important questions. This is a huge elephant of a problem, so of course the way to tackle this is one bite at a time. It’s simply too overwhelming to try and solve all of these problems at once. I’m a pretty simple person, so I try to break things down to the lowest level possible, process it, and then act. I believe your comments address both our individual responses to people and our individual responses to systematic structures. Whether or not we see those structures as unjust determines how we act. So for me, the main thing I try to do is educate myself and help people see what they don’t see. We all learn when we accept the possibility that we might be wrong about a particular issue. Acknowledging this possibility frees us to change the way we perceive people, circumstances, and systematic structures (especially when those structures might be working for us, but not for another person). Thoughts?