Racial tensions have skyrocketed again in recent weeks. There are two more incidents of the police killing a black man. Philando Castille in Minnesota was shot during a traffic stop, and the aftermath was recorded by his girlfriend. I always preach patience for all the facts to come out, but it sure does look like the officer panic shot him for no rational reason. Castille was armed but apparently had already told the cops that he was carrying and was licensed to do so. The other man who was shot was Alton Sterling. Sterling was killed after a struggle with police, and the officers allege that he was reaching for a gun. Protesters have objected and tried to paint Sterling as a harmless man at first; others then responded by posting Sterling’s rap sheet, which showed a history of criminal acts, some violence, and even sex with a minor. The other side then furiously fired back that his criminal background was irrelevant.
Then, with all of this going on, a sniper open fired on police during a Black Lives Matter protest last Thursday in Dallas. Five officers were killed and several more were injured. The shooter, Micah Johnson, was former military and specifically said he was targeting cops, especially white cops, out of a sense of revenge. He was not directly associated with the BLM movement, but the fact that a black man gunned down cops (some of them Hispanic) in the most cowardly way did not help race relations at all. It especially did not help as many people on social media, quite stupidly, labeled him a martyr and said that his actions were justified (though of course, most people, including most in the BLM movement, denounced his actions). How killing random cops in a completely different city (a city with a black police chief at that) from where these other shootings occurred constitutes justified action is beyond me.
Emotional reactions and the need for calm objectivity
As always, people’s emotions have run wild and the blame game is rampant. Some blame the BLM movement for what happened. Some blame white people for what happened. Some have resorted to accusing others of closet racism if those people did not post denunciations of the shootings of Sterling and Castille on social media, a monumentally silly thing to do. To a certain extent, these emotional reactions are understandable; these events are upsetting, and it is obviously normal to be bothered by them. However, that doesn’t mean all of the emotions, and subsequent actions and words from those emotions, are justified or helpful. In fact, many of them can be downright counterproductive and serve to only create racial divide.
To have any hope handling this mess well, people need to come to the table with calm reasoning and not emotional accusations. They have to be willing to listen to criticism and entertain the possibility that there are parts of their position that can be wrong. Sadly, this is not typically how the conversation is conducted. There is precious little openness or willingness to face criticisms and work towards a solution. What we are seeing are battle lines drawn in silly attempts at preserving ego and tribalistic feelings, something that I discussed when I talked about the Michael Brown case. In that case, instead of both sides learning something, a lot of people just double downed on their own narratives, no matter how problematic they were.
For Christians, it will not do to simply join the fray of emotional rhetoric. We need to display wisdom and a sharp mind. Misguided notions of “love” don’t help, the kind that shields African Americans or other minorities from criticisms of their feelings, behavior, and words. On the other hand, outright dismissal of the hardships African Americans and other minorities may face doesn’t help either. We have to be willing to ask the hard questions and navigate them in a wise, biblical, and logical way. It’s the only way we have a hope in finding a solution to the divide in this country.
Racial reconciliation: What is it and what is the end game?
Racial reconciliation is a catchy phrase, but what exactly is it? It seems to mean many different things to various people. For some, it seems to mean that minorities, particularly blacks, stop complaining about things that’s really their fault and just work hard. For others, it seems to mean that white people pay reparations indefinitely and admit their white privilege for all time. These extremes may seem like caricatures, but they’re actually easy to come by.
Here’s the problem with people’s usage of “racial reconciliation”: For them, “reconciliation” means “winning,” getting payback for past wrongs, and/or silencing the opposition. This is not reconciling; this is conquering. And people tend to resist getting conquered, at least eventually, especially if they truly believe they didn’t do anything that warrants it. Small wonder why a lot of this “reconciling” isn’t working.
A lot of minorities, especially a lot of black leaders like Jesse Jackson, have to come to grips with the fact that a lot their rhetoric and tactics have proven to be counterproductive and tribalistic. Al Sharpton, for example, came out in dogged defense of the black woman in the Duke lacrosse case; however, when her story was flat proven false, he said nothing and quietly tried to pretend he did not say the things he said. These leaders and their followers make noise about justice, but what they’re often really after is superiority. This only makes race relations worse.
I have asked people who support their viewpoints: What is the goal here? What is the end game? Typically, I get a nebulous answer of “reconciliation” and “justice,” and then I ask further: What does THAT look like? What if, for example, affirmative actions runs amok and dictates that 50% of university students must be minority. Does it stop there? Have things been “reconciled” at the university? Oh wait, there needs to be more minority professors. Okay, let’s “fix” that; is that enough? Oh look, there’s a lot more white tenured professors than black ones, so we have to fix that too! And on top of that, these white professors should probably write an essay on how they got to their position through white privilege and turn it in to the public. The problem isn’t just individuals, they’ll say, but this nebulous bogeyman of an “institution” or “system” of racism, concepts they hardly bother to define or elaborate on.
This is one of the more concerning things about lot of these social justice movements regarding race: There is no end game. There is no goal. What it often looks like is an endless and indefinite accounting of past and present wrongs, real or imagined, and demands of reparation and artificial equality. As this rhetoric keeps pushing, it is natural when people start pushing back because this doesn’t look like reconciliation but rather a march to make a perceived enemy retreat. This is even more apparent when the “racist” card is thrown around carelessly in order to smear people.
On the other side, it must be said that racial reconciliation is made difficult when people don’t listen to the concerns and experiences of minorities. Most people who are minorities in this country have had some experience with racism (I certainly have), and it’s not always from white people as minority groups have proven adept at being racist towards each other. In any case, racist attitudes and actions remain a reality, and even if it is not “institutionalized” or “systemic,” as the catchwords go, that doesn’t mean it is not real and not a problem. Many of these people are quite comfortable in the status quo and have no inclination to examine it, no matter what problems that we see concerning race. They have a tendency to think that all of it is made up or at least hopelessly exaggerated, which is why many of them are just as knee-jerk in their reactions to these cop shootings as the other side is, jumping to the defense of the individual cops before facts are really known.
This too is a form of trying to win rather than reconcile. It is uncomfortable hearing, for example, that there are individual police officers that harbor racist attitudes and will unfairly target or mistreat black people. It is hard for people to swallow the fact that even people like Jeremy Lin received racial slurs over his basketball career, many of them from other minorities, and was overlooked partially due to his race. Lastly, it is difficult for people, including minorities, to admit that they may struggle with prejudicial attitudes themselves, a product of unfamiliarity with what is different, past experience, or whatever. It is then easier to pretend that racism is a minor problem that will go away if nobody talks about it.
Reconciliation: What it should be
If Christians are going to champion racial reconciliation in this country, looking to the loud noises of the larger culture or the prattling of liberation theologians probably isn’t going to help. What will help, as usual, is taking our cue from the Gospel.
In 2 Corinthians 5:11-21, Paul talks about the ministry of reconciliation that is given to Christians. I’ll just quote 16-21:
16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
There is not space here to exegete the passage fully, but there are some key aspects of this reconciliation that we can readily see:
- Though God is completely free of any wrongdoing in the break between God and man (something that is rarely, if ever, the case when two human parties are at odds), it is God who initiates reconciliation through Christ.
- Reconciliation still requires a response from the other party, or else it would be senseless for Paul to implore people to be reconciled to God (v. 20), but the response is not a bunch of reparations as payback but repentance.
- Instead of demanding punishment, Christ became sin for us (v. 21).
- God’s reconciling the world to himself in Christ involves not counting people’s sin against them (v. 19). Again, Christ instead takes that sin for us.
This is the Gospel, and this should be our model for reconciliation, racial or otherwise. In terms of racial reconciliation, Christians need to ask themselves (and others) some tough questions and be willing to lead the way for the rest of society.
For those who dislike the BLM movement and others like it, they need to ask themselves: Am I willing to acknowledge that they have experienced suffering? Even if I was not the one who hurt them, can I empathize with them as Christ empathizes with me? Am I willing to extend reconciliation even if they have often overstepped their bounds in rhetoric and action, not counting up their wrongs but wanting to have peace? The BLM movement is hardly perfect and has its fair share of idiots (as any movement will), but the responses against it are often useless. One of the more prevalent ones is “all lives matter,” which tends to cause more fighting rather than solutions. For sure, there are some BLM supporters who seem to not understand how silly it is to want to kill white cops but also yell “black lives matter,” but for the most part, I don’t think most of them are saying “black lives matter and others do not.” What many black people are arguing is that, at least in certain situations, black lives seem to matter less than others’ lives, and that’s wrong. And it is wrong indeed. The BLM movement is not immune to criticism and has made numerous mistakes, but it is surprising how many people sweep some of these police shootings under the rug that really do look bad.
For those who are in the movement or support it, they also have to ask themselves some tough questions: Am I willing to let go of past and present wrongs in order to forge ahead in peace? Do I feel entitled to some reparations and to “getting even,” or else I feel like I lost? If so, am I really after true reconciliation or am I looking to feel powerful? Do I reflexively lash out at others who are different and rail against white people, which ultimately makes me no different than the racists I’m trying to fight? Here’s the thing when minorities keep demanding reparations and special treatment due to past wrongs: They show that they have no interest in forgiveness but in payback. This is a form of power, and it is an all too human tendency to want to keep power when one has it, which is why, as I stated above, there is no discernible end game for this kind of thinking.
When there is forgiveness and reconciliation, a price is still paid, but as Christ shows, the price is paid willingly by the one who forgives. Many minorities are not willing to pay that price and instead want white people to pay it instead, even if those white people weren’t the ones who hurt them. This will never lead to reconciliation. Likewise, many white people (and minorities, actually) refuse to acknowledge racist attitudes and mistreatment. This too makes reconciliation impossible. What both sides need to do is seek to initiate reconciliation and be willing to admit wrongs and not demand that the other side constantly pay up on every perceived slight and injustice that has happened.
The reason racial reconciliation has proven so elusive is because a lot of people don’t really want reconciliation. They want to win, feel powerful, and feel vindicated. As Christians, joining this nonsense will not help one bit because we should recognize what true reconciliation is. Christ forgave past wrongs and took that penalty upon himself. It is natural for the world to not want to do that, but we who are ministers of reconciliation can show them a better way. We need to give firm critique when it is needed but also show compassion for those who are hurting. We need to stand up and say that, yes, injustices have occurred on both sides, but forgiveness and reconciliation requires a willingness to lay that aside. And through this, we can show them the Gospel, which is ultimately what truly saves.