The natural question that comes at the end of every discussion on race is “is there any hope for reconciliation?” I wish there was some easy answer I could provide, something other than quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, or talk of us living the dream, but I fear that the road to reconciliation is a long hard one. I’d love for us to forget our pasts, the hurts, the scars, hold hands, sing Kumbaya, and love Jesus; however, no honest relationship has ever worked that way. And that’s what we are talking about: developing a new paradigm for a relationship between the races.

This strikes at the core of my faith. You see, the meta-narrative of the Bible is the story of reconciliation. This almost seems counter intuitive since God seems to do a lot of separating: the tower of Babel, the nation of Israel, the “elect” (those “called out” for a purpose). Yet, the very idea of race is a racist, man-made construct meant to divide and separate us. How does the idea of integration sit next to the reality of ghettos? Or Sunday morning worship services divided along the lines of race correspond to the mission of the church?

Still, the solution to the dilemma of race lies in a meta-narrative, a greater over-arching story, to transcend our individual interests and stories. The way I see it, there are three critical ingredients necessary in order to facilitate reconciliation: equality, forgiveness, and conversation.

For reconciliation to be done, there has to be a coming together of equals. For things to be on equal terms, there has to be a relationship not built on fear or oppression. There must be a recognizing and respecting of each other’s stories. This involves some internal and external developments: reconciliation within the black community and the lingering effects and attitudes of colonialism have to be addressed. Reconciliation has to happen within the black community. Drugs. Murder. Robbing. Poor education. These issues systematically plague the black community, symptoms of political, economic, and social bondage. We need to know ourselves and then help ourselves.

Have you noticed that in a lot of our discussion about race, we can get caught up in what “they” need to do: black people, your slavery has come to an end. Reconciliation is tied to liberation. You don’t have to revel in ghetto existence (and that’s what it is, existence, not life). White people, let go of the chains and loosen the white privilege. It might mean just listening for a while – beyond “guilty white liberal” ears (it’s kind of like the problem of women trying to talk to men: we need to learn to listen, without having to jump in and define/solve the problem).

There’s always a lot “they” need to do.

The reality is that there are lingering postcolonial effects. Enlightenment was responsible for the demarcation of society by color. The spirit of black nationalism embraces and reinforces it. So there is a continual cycle of hostility, racism, hatred – these things make it impossible to just “forget” the past. We need a tool more active than simply “forgetting.” When I look at how Jesus started the movement that eventually became the church, it’s important to note that it began by changing the hearts of a few individuals. The individuals formed impacting communities. Then the communities impacted the social order. Your identity, your individual stories, are caught up in a greater story.

There must also be a spirit of forgiveness. Whether spoken or not, it seems like the tone of the conversation about the work for reconciliation rests on the backs of black people: “Can’t you get over it?” “Can’t you forgive white people?” Would you ask these questions of a rape victim? I’m not using that analogy capriciously. More on point, when should the victims be ready to forgive?

To move on, you have to have closure. Asking forgiveness opens dialogue. It’s hard to apologize for what someone else did as if it were your fault. However, I’ve realized that you are responsible if you are continuing the attitudes and behavior of the group you are apologizing for. Basically, it reminds me of the story Donald Miller tells in Blue Like Jazz, when he and some friends decided to open a confession booth in order to confess for the sins of the church.

Forgiving, even if unasked, helps the process of healing.

Lastly comes the conversations, the slow building of relationships. Racial oppression is supported by silence. Sometimes it goes to the heart of how we communicate. Master-slave, inferior-superior, minority-majority – these things can’t be our frame of reference. There is the bridge-building underlying condition: fear. Truth can be condemning. At the same time, truth is a liberating process. Reconciliation begins with honesty. We, black folks, can’t pretend that oppression didn’t happen. We, all of us, need thick skins for frank words, however. Healing is done one relationship at a time. We need to create structures that bring us together. I would suggest three such structures are already a part of the conversation: the church, mission, and ritual.

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. “ –Ephesians 2:14-16

We’ve been reconciled as one body, yet we often don’t behave like it. Reconciliation is not a human quality. God’s mission, reconciling humanity to Himself, was His initiative. In response to this, the Christian church should be a community of people who refuse to be content with human pain and suffering. We are the answer to the problem of evil. We are the ones who believe in a gospel of liberation. We need to accept our new existence as agents of reconciliation

The church already has its mission, the missio Dei, joining in God’s mission to be a blessing to the world. We are called to a mission of reconciliation: one to another and one another to God. God’s reconciling act is centered on the cross, a gift of freedom. The resurrection is a sign that the powers have been defeated, though still active. The cross transforms our condition while also providing an example of hope. A faith with present-future components: the present reality lived in light of a future one. Being united in mission is a sanctifying process. To fight injustice and oppression; ministering to neighbors; not putting up fences or moving away develops disciplines needed for growth. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we practice Pentecost and live out the Gospel. Reconciliation touches the most hidden parts of our souls. God gave reconciliation to us as a ministry that never ends.

Which is why we need ritual. Reconciliation is much more than a one-time event by which a conflict is resolved and peace established. A ministry of reconciliat
ion goes far beyond problem solving, mediation, and peace agreements. There is not a moment in our lives without the need for reconciliation. When we dare to look at the myriad hostile feelings and thoughts in our hearts and minds, we will immediately recognize the many little and big wars in which we take part. Our enemy can be a parent, a child, a “friendly” neighbor, people with different lifestyles, people who do not think as we think, speak as we speak, or act as we act. They all can become “them.” Right there is where reconciliation is needed.

Honesty, repentance, forgiveness, action – ritual is action. Not just to do, but also to remember. Thus we have things like the Black History Months and the Nguzo Saba (Seven Principles of Kwanzaa). To get us out of our comfort zones and break down hostility as well as oppression. Put simply, it’s about starting conversations.

Reconciliation is costly and often humbling. It involves risk. And it should be what we are about.

Lord knows we need it.