Responses to recent instances of racial injustice seem to be moving to a different level from what we have seen in the past.
Demonstrations and protests have followed a similar pattern, as the outpouring of passion on behalf of the immediate victims and their families and communities spills over into massive calls for justice.
But there seems to be something different this time – something in addition to the clear and rightful call to address the particulars of the situation.
The visibility of blatant overreach by law enforcement has brought into high relief the practices that have been less visible in the past, exposing a dark residue of racism that long has been beneath the surface of external abuses.
Diverse groups of citizens, religious leaders and even politicians previously reluctant to step forward have joined in a chorus of voices calling for repentant attention to the presence of systemic racism and for commitments to the reconciliation of a national community too long broken by it.
We’ve been here before, of course. The history of abuse, reaction and response is too long to review here, but we know the pattern. We can hope a more lasting season of correction will be sustained this time.
This history invites us to think about the realities of communal repentance and reconciliation and to wonder why we continue to fall into the same patterns time after time.
I wonder if the tendency to seek a return to peaceful co-existence in such crises encourages what we might call “soft” repentance and “shallow” reconciliation.
Without questioning the intentions of any reaction to injustice such as what we have seen so vividly in recent days, it seems that some careful thought about both repentance and reconciliation might be in order, if positive, long-term change is to occur.
As I understand the concepts from the resources of the Christian faith tradition, “repentance” implies a “turning around” – a turning one’s back on a perspective and course of action that is contrary to what one can and should be.
It may be simply, “I’m sorry, I won’t do that anymore.”
But from its context in the biblical testimony, it means not only a turning around to face another way, it also means moving in a new direction, an active pursuit of another course of life that is a correction from the direction previously followed.
Soft repentance means one’s thinking and behavior will be improved. Hard repentance means one’s whole identity and life are being reoriented toward a different horizon.
Likewise, “reconciliation” has its shallow and deeper expressions.
There is certainly nothing wrong with accepting apologies and restoring fellowship that has been challenged by alienation.
Rodney King’s appeal from almost 30 years ago, “Why can’t we just get along?” is an earnest plea for peaceful living that is present in the hearts of all who struggle with the hostility that exists in our culture.
However, we appear to be learning amid the present crisis that there is more to reconciliation than “just getting along.”
Listening and reflecting in response to the recent tragic expressions of racial injustice are suggesting that true reconciliation is not just “getting over” conflict by taking steps that are designed to control its expression and to hold offenders accountable.
Rather, reconciliation involves engaging and identifying with the experience of the other, overcoming the chasm between individuals and communities that prevents a deep understanding of what life is like when viewed and lived from the “other” side.
I would suggest we have in our theological foundation a distinction between a shallow “transactional” concept of reconciliation and a deeper “incarnational” one.
Paul puts it this way, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself … and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
In another place, Christ “emptied himself” of his divine prerogative and took on the identity of humanity (Philippians 2).
This affirms God reconciles by entering into the experience of humanity, making it possible for humanity to enter into the experience of God by becoming partners in the process of reconciliation.
There is always risk in entering the experience of another; one’s identity and experience might be rejected rather than embraced.
But there is also the possibility that a shared and mutually understood experience can lead to a deeper level of community than would otherwise have been possible.
Soft repentance and shallow reconciliation are easier and involve less risk. They also leave the deeper cause of the alienation unresolved and likely to appear again when the veneer of peace is disrupted and the untreated infection pours forth.
The community that grows from deep repentance and reconciliation opens the possibility of new life for all, unencumbered by the legacy of a residue finally put in its place. Soft repentance and shallow reconciliation perpetuate the problem.