Clarence Jordan, in his “Cotton Patch” version of Paul’s letters, renders Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:18 this way, “It is [God] who, through Christ, bridged the gap between himself and us, and who has planted in us his concern for getting together.”
Reconciliation, the bringing together of people long separated, is a major theme of Paul’s writings.
He was convinced that in the work of God in Jesus Christ, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, have been equally included in the oneness of the kingdom community.
As I reflect on what reconciliation means in the face of the call for racial justice, I am cautioned by the words of a Black pastor friend, “Racial reconciliation in America is not possible because reconciliation implies that there was once a relationship that needs to be restored. We were never conciled to each other. How can we be reconciled?”
The impact of his statement is a reminder that the work of fixing what has been broken for over 400 years cannot be taken lightly.
Reconciliation is hard work. If Jesus is our model for the ministry of reconciliation, we cannot avoid that conclusion.
The work of reconciliation is costly, controversial and often painful. It is, nonetheless, transformational.
With my friend’s caution in mind, I offer these thoughts on the three Rs of racial reconciliation: recognition, repentance and repair.
Recognition begins with an affirmation something is wrong in the relationship.
This requires acknowledging there is a relationship in the first place, which involves recognizing the other’s presence and worth.
It is at this point that much of the effort of racial reconciliation never gets off the ground.
Too many of us still accept the mythical doctrine of “separate but equal” that guided race relations in the Jim Crow era.
Of course, the problem is that Blacks in America have had to live in and negotiate two spaces – white and Black space – while white Americans have only had to live in and negotiate one space: white space.
The problem of recognition is compounded by the fact that Black Americans in white spaces have been invisible to white America.
White Americans must truly see our Black neighbors, not just recognize their presence.
Once we get to that point, we can begin to talk about the next phase of recognition: defining what is wrong in the relationship.
The process all too often stalls here because of the proclivity of white people to believe we are ones who have the right and the insight to define correctly the problem.
Instead, we must listen to the voices of our Black neighbors. Only out of this listening can we enter into dialogue. Together, we can define the nature of the wrong, the pain, the hurt, the injustice.
Only when we are able to define what keeps us from relating as fully human people created in God’s image can any process of reconciliation continue.
Finally, we must own the definition. We must be willing to say “yes” to what we have identified as the crucial issue or issues dividing us.
This means a willingness to accept the truth about my ancestors, my family and my own complicity.
It means accepting responsibility for my own attitudes and actions – past, present and future.
When this happens, we are ready to move to repentance.
This is more than apologizing for past wrongs, saying, “We’re sorry.” Repentance means living into a new reality, a new way of life, a new way of living in community with God and with other people.
In a recent dialogue session sponsored by Simmons College of Kentucky, Bill Leonard spoke of this as “repenting forward.”
How do we do this?
In the realm of racial reconciliation, the burden is on white Christians to own up to the reality of what we have done to maintain 11 a.m. Sunday morning as the most segregated hours of the week.
We have to repent of our blindness – spiritual, theological, social, economic, political and so on – to the plight of our Black siblings in Christ. We need to confess our sin against God, manifested in our sin against our neighbor.
If we find ourselves having difficulty with this step, perhaps we need to revisit step one.
Most of us would rather stop with repentance. But if Bill Leonard is right, repentance propels us forward to step three: repair.
Step Nine in Alcoholics Anonymous involves making amends to persons who have been harmed by our actions.
A.A. knows no healing takes place within the life of the alcoholic or their relationships unless they attempt to repair the damage they have done to others along the way.
Many white people want to stop with the apology and then assume we can go forward as if the slate were clean, acting as if we can start over as if nothing happened.
One person put the situation this way: “If you steal my car, and then you say you are sorry for stealing my car, but you still have my car, then all I have from you is an apology. I still don’t have my car.”
Apologies alone do not repair the damage or restore people to wholeness.
We have to be willing to enter into conversation with those whom we have wronged to determine what it will take to repair the damage we have inflicted.
Yes, we are talking about reparations.
White Christians in America cannot be content with apologizing for stealing the labor, dignity, wealth, opportunities and so on from Black Americans.
We cannot maintain our privileged position and think an apology is sufficient to effect reconciliation
The ministry of reconciliation is hard and costly, and it is the work to which we are called.
Do we have the spiritual depth and courage to do it?