As a clergyman, I must admit that I have been highly conflicted of late, particularly as it pertains to the latest round of protests set off by yet another homicide of another person of color, this time Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland. I’ve heard the news reports. I’ve seen the videos and pictures of both nonviolent protests and videos and pictures of protests that had escalated beyond that. As a black man myself, I can see how people can become disillusioned by the growing proliferation of deaths of people of color at the hands of law enforcement. There are times where I myself get lost in the conversation somewhere between the unknown problem and the unclear solution.
But what has disturbed me the most is the way in which it appears that Americans across racial and ideological lines are retreating to their corners instead of bravely and compassionately stepping forward to listen and engage those who are different from us. Nowhere is this more visible for me than the Church. Rather than employing a nonviolent rhetorical strategy, too much of the conversation via social media and the pulpit has only restated the anger and vitriol found in the streets. People are angry. They have every right to be. Black communities have endured centuries of inhumane treatment, second-class citizenship, abuse, terror, and violence at the hands of those in power. In the most recent decades, the lack of economic and educational opportunities have drained what little glimmer of hope was alive for many found in our urban centers. Drugs have invaded. Families have been shattered. Whole generations of black boys and girls are being counted as statistics in order to determine the number prison cells to build in the burgeoning prison-industrial complex. When you throw unhealthy and too often abusive relationships between communities of color and law enforcement into the mix, you have a powder keg ready to explode at the slightest provocation. In her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander suggests that “The nature of the criminal justice system has changed. It is no longer primarily concerned with the prevention and punishment of crime, but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed.”
Communities of color, too often dispossessed, underserved, undervalued, miseducated, and disenfranchised have every right to be angry and the Church, those historically rooted in communities of color and otherwise, must find ways of faithfully addressing this anger.
My conflict arises when we discuss methods for addressing this anger as people of faith. This reflection is not an assessment of the protesters in the street, but of preachers, pastors, and prophets of the Church. I have experienced a lot of the conversation from Church and other religious leaders as either completely ignoring the gravity and existence of the problem being raised by the anger in the streets or merely echoing the anger thereof. I’ve seen lines drawn in the sand and the formulation of adversarial relationships between those pastors that have supposedly abdicated their place of prophetic leadership and those standing in the morally superior position “with the community.” Most alarmingly, I have seen the shaming of communities for being “silent” in the face of this present conflict as if the way forward was clear. It is my experience that many communities are silent because they simply not know how to present or to how speak up. Overall, there seems to be lack of willingness or ability to create rhetorical spaces for broader conversation – two or more people speaking and listening with open hearts and minds. Instead, we’ve engaged in a verbal “shock-and-awe” campaign where we try to outdo one other in our commentary and theologizing. I came across an address from a friend given at the College of William and Mary on April 12, 2015 called “No Reconciliation Without Reparations” where he sought to frame a way forward for churches and communities of faith engaging this present struggle. I do not know the immediate parameters of this address, but it is unfortunate for the broader context, those not privy to the immediate context, that he used racially-charged, and therefore isolating, language such “lynching” over and over in reference to the slaying of Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Rekia Boyd, and others (the fact that this list continues to grow is a problem), referring to law enforcement as “the contemporary heirs of… colonial slave patrols,” and even suggesting, as the name of the address outlines, that “reconciliation does not come without reparations.” This is unfortunate because for all of his intention of moving the conversation forward and to point toward the implications of the resurrection on human relationships, he gets stuck in language this is inaccessible for some would-be interlocutors. This language may be helpful for some, but it has been my experience that it is isolating to many others. It seems that we have become so adept at “diagnosing man’s sickness of sin” that we often overlook “the cure of grace.” Depending on the context, purpose, desired outcome of these conversations, this, in my opinion, is dangerous territory.
The Church must address the issues of being raised by the “Black Lives Matter” Movement. We must address policing in our communities and strive to build relationships between communities and law enforcement. We must address the immoral economic issues being raised where the miseducation of black youth too often leads to unemployment or underemployment and subsequent incarceration of black adults. We must address and name the difficult history of racism – individual, systemic, and institutional – in this country. We must say that stating “Black Lives Matter” does not preclude the reality that indeed “All Lives Matter,” only that the current conversation centers around the disproportionate oppression being faced by black communities. And as Christian people of faith we must engage this present age through a faithful framework of reconciliation.
Paul outlines this “ministry of reconciliation” given to the Church through the life, death, and resurrection Jesus Christ in 2 Corinthians. Through Christ we have been reconciled to God and are reconciled to one another. Admittedly, the Church often employs an anemic and underdeveloped definition of reconciliation, one that is too often devoid of both justice and mercy. Too often reconciliation is cheap, and the demands that reconciliation places upon the community are never spoken. The New Testament idea of “reconciliation” had less to do with the restoration of amicable or friendly relations, and more to do with a radical reformation and reconstruction of the relationship altogether. The word used in the New Testament for reconciliation is the word καταλλαγή, a combination of κατα and αλλασο. Together this word means “really change.” The ministry of Jesus Christ really changed how we relate to God and how God relates to us and how we are called to relate to one another. Each of us is really changed by being in community with one another. God was so desirous of relationship with creation that God changed the rules and came down in the flesh to meet us where we were, to throw open the doors of radical hospitality, and to articulate a theology of community fundamentally rooted in love. Any theology of reconciliation from a Christian perspective must be rooted in the radical transformation of human relationships exemplified by the ministry and work of Jesus Christ, and any work undertaken by the Church must be rooted in the ministry of reconciliation given to us by Jesus Christ.
The late Dr. Gardner C. Taylor, Pastor Emeritus of Concord Baptist Church of Christ and the so-called “dean of American preaching,” suggested that “I think the church today in America partakes of the contemporary American disease of ‘Let me alone! I want to get along, and I don’t want to be bothered with too many things.’ When a pulpit becomes an echo of the pew, it loses… almost all of its reasons for existence.” While this statement can be employed as an indictment against churches who shy away from “prophetic ministry,” the sword swings the other way as well, indicting churches too often afraid to speak about personal sin. The Church as a community gathered around the Risen Christ must constantly challenge one another towards the Kingdom of God.
I want to extend Dr. Taylor’s logic just a bit and suggest that when the pulpit becomes a mere echo of the street it loses its reasons for existence. If Christian leaders merely parrot the anger of the streets while failing to articulate the Gospel, transfigure the narrative, and raise it to level where the Kingdom of God is brought to bear in the world, we lose our reasons for existence. We are not bullhorns; we are heralds of a greater reality – the Kingdom of God. We cannot simply scream the horrors of crucifixion without also pointing to the reality of resurrection and the ministry of reconciliation that this hermeneutic arc points towards.
This ability to elevate the narrative was central to the prophetic ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King. He had an ability to name painful truth of segregation, racism, political and economic disenfranchisement, and militarism through the lens of the Gospel and in so doing constantly moved the conversation through darkness and into the light of the Kingdom of God. This is one of the reasons why Dr. Martin Luther King employed a tactic of “nonviolent direct action” (not necessarily “peaceful protest”). Love and reconciliation were at the center of this movement. King did admit in Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story that such action is a long term strategy that “does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor.” Nonviolence is an action that first changes the hearts of the oppressed. “It gives [the oppressed] new self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage that they did not know they had. Finally, it reaches the opponent and so stirs his conscience that reconciliation becomes a reality.”
Too much of the narrative of this present conflict in our society is about the need for change in other people. There is seldom a conversation about the need for change within ourselves (whoever the “self” is). If we truly want reconciliation, the radical reformation and reconstruction of humans relationships, change in a necessity on all sides.
And so I return to my original conflict – the violent rhetoric employed by too many clerical and church leaders. We must ask – what is the point? If our desire is simply to engage in an awareness campaign to bring the eyes and ears of the nation and world to the problems that plague communities of color, or if our desire is to rage against the machine, then our rhetoric can be as bombastic and heavy-handed as necessary. However, if our desire is to engage in the work of reconciliation – of building new communities from the ground of transformed relationships – we must stand in the precarious gap between communities in conflict and to point towards the reality of the Kingdom of God which radically reforms human relationship.
A visual example of this is the logo of the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity, founded in 1959, which depicts two men, one black and one white, kneeling together in front of Jesus Christ. While this image reflects the patriarchy and limited racial construct of its time, the call is still clear. Christ not only calls us to reconciliation, a radically reformed foundation for human relationship, but Christ is found in the border of differences. The Church must stand in persona Christi, “in the person of Christ,” between communities to draw them together in a world increasingly divided among lines of separation and estrangement and to pronounce God’s blessing upon the new communities being created. This is Clinical Pastoral Education 101 on a macro-level, being fully pastorally present with communities in pain while resisting the temptation of entanglement. We must use words carefully and in such a way that we both “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” and provide ways forward for the multitudes of people of good will who simply do not know how to move forward. We must refrain from using language that creates barriers and engage in the vulnerable work of community building that leaves even the most assured among us open to be changed in the process. Twitter, Facebook, and the almighty blogosphere can no longer be seen as mere words in a void, but must be engaged as intentionally as the sacred space of the pulpit in order to articulate a theology of community rooted in the ministry of reconciliation given to the Church by Jesus Christ.
True reconciliation from a Christian perspective is about change – radically changed individuals engaging in radically changed relationships. This does not deny that a change in policy is necessary to address systemic and institutional levels of this conflict; however, change on that level will only occur when communities, alliances, and coalitions are built by and among changed individuals who are serious about the work of reconciliation.
That is the difficult, Christian work of reconciliation – transformed or changed nonconformists, citizens of the heavenly commonwealth who are determined “not to be like a thermometer conforming to the temperature of… society” but to be like a “thermostat serving to transform the temperate of… society.” We must elevate the conversation by making it a conversation in the first place and not simply a rhetorical, social-media, homiletical shouting match where we talk at each other as objects and instead of to each other, even “enemies,” as sisters and brothers. We must engage in nonviolent conversation that meets even the bitterest ideological opponent through the lens of a radically transformed human relationship.
A warm cup of coffee and an open heart may be a great place to start.