In the wake of the no-indictment verdict in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, I noticed an avalanche of tweets, updates, and pictures from people articulating their anger, justification, theology, venom, ignorance, and sadness. In moments like these, in large part due to the ubiquitous nature of social media, everyone is given an opportunity to express ideologies pertaining to our nation's sociopolitical and religious milieu.
I appreciate the democratization of technology that we enjoy, especially via social media. But our anger, sadness, and wisdom tends to be short-lived. Our society suffers from what some have called a "continuous state of partial inattention." Consequently, issues that arise hardly get the kind of slow, thoughtful, and contemplative attention that's required for substantial change to occur in our personal lives, churches, and cities. In a few days or weeks, our anger and concern will subside. The dust will settle and we will be on our way to the next issue the media feeds us. But there is a better way.
To begin to see new communities emerge that reflect Jesus' reconciled kingdom reality, the conversation of race and class needs a comprehensive and continual strategy to keep this at the forefront of our theologies and discipleship. We need conversations on matters of race and reconciliation to be perennial dialogues that fill our churches and consequently our cities. After all, this matter is not going anywhere soon.
This is what we have endeavored to do at New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, New York, over the past 27 years. Founder Pete Scazzero, an Italian American, wanted to see a church cross barriers of race, culture, economic status, gender, and generation. Today, I have the great privilege of leading this church, which has people from over 75 nations. At New Life, conversations on race and class are not simply black and white: they are also East Asian, South Asian, Latin American, African, and European. We have had to wrestle with the complexity of race, class, and culture on a seismic level. We have made great progress in the process, yet we clearly realize the ways we have to go.
In seminary, a wise professor presented the real question we need to answer in order to break down racial barriers. He said, "When it comes to breaking barriers of race, the question isn't ‘Can I be your brother in Christ?’ Rather, the question is, ‘Can I be your brother in law?’" This question gets to the core of reconciliation. It's one thing to be in close proximity to someone who looks different than you. It's another to be in relationship with one different than you.
The former is what I call “aesthetic multiethnicity.” The quintessential image that captures this (at least in NYC) is the subway car. The subway car is a crowd of anonymous, diverse people in close proximity to each other. This image gives the impression that barriers are coming down, but it is all an illusion. The biblical image of reconciliation goes far beyond being a sanctified subway car to something much more beautiful—namely, a reconciled community.
In order to work toward a racially reconciled church community, we must first recognize that racism exists. Once we acknowledge this, as a church, we need to spend time learning and processing a theology of reconciliation. This means we must preach on it regularly as well as create space for dialogue in classes and other meetings. But most importantly, we must learn to listen deeply to each other.