After the gathering of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Americans are re-examining the country’s racial tensions, past and present. It has prompted many evangelical leaders to condemn white supremacy and recommit to combating racism.
CT reached out to a couple of African American Christian scholars to hear how the latest incident—and the surrounding conversation—might impact the church’s approach to healing racial divides.
Enough With Racial ‘Reconciliation’
By Clifton Clarke
After the events in Charlottesville, I received a call from a good friend in ministry. I knew by his voice that he was troubled by the show of force by white supremacists the night before. “I have spoken to some other ministers, black and white,” he said. “We are planning a service for God to heal our racial divide in this country, and we want you to be a part of it.”
As my friend continued speaking, I recalled the first line of Edward Gilbreath’s book, Reconciliation Blues: “I am sick and tired of racial reconciliation.” Gilbreath argues that despite political strides toward racial reconciliation since 1964, many blacks feel that nothing has really changed since Jim Crow days.
As I observed the chilling images of hate-filled protesters fueled by a history of bigotry and inflamed by wild racist and anti-Semitic passions, their blazing torches triggered haunting memories of a not-too-distant past; as I heard the chanting of Nazi slogans in 2017 America, I knew something had gone awry. A new approach to heal the racial divide is needed. Frankly, I, like many, am sick and tired of efforts devoid of intentional and strategic action to change the status quo.
There are some serious flaws with the “reconciliation project” championed by many evangelicals. The term reconciliation itself is a misnomer for race relations in America. Reconciliation implies that there was a time when blacks and whites were “conciliated” or “in agreement.” A Latin derivative, the word conveys the idea of restoration or a return to a past ideal situation. Black people in America—brought here in slave ships—have never had such an ideal with the white majority.
The contemporary notion of reconciliation does not carry with it the need for radical transformation. Humankind’s reconciliation to God warranted drastic action (Rom. 5:10). It cost Jesus his life. The social and racial reconciliation we seek—and desperately need in America—comes at a cost: crucifying the sinful self (Gal. 2:20). Racial reconciliation without such commitment merely provides a temporary Band-Aid to the problem.
Talking about reconciliation in the face of events like Charlottesville is usually the first and only thing churches do because it avoids the painful process of confronting the brutality of white privilege that continues to wreak havoc on black and brown lives. When asked if he would embrace white South Africans in a show of forgiveness during the apartheid era, a black South African remarked: “How can I embrace you, when you're standing on my head?”
Before any talk of reconciliation, according to theologian and minister Leonard Lovett, we need to begin with conciliation, the process to “overcome the distrust or hostility.” There is no precedent for racial harmony in American history; we have to begin to create a world that is not predicated on white privilege but on a common humanity.