After the killing of two African-Americans this week, followed by the murder of five Dallas police officers, one strives to find something new to say. Right now the mind is clouded and confused, and the heart is heavy, first and foremost, for the family and friends of these victims.
But the heart is also heavy because we are just so tired of our nation’s racial divide. And we’re discouraged because what we want to see is so hard to achieve. As Christians we aim for nothing less than racial reconciliation, but we know that this cannot come without racial justice. And if justice is so hard to achieve, how much harder reconciliation?
We’re tempted at such times to go in one of two directions. One part of us wants to let loose our righteous outrage and double down on our efforts. But we know that commitments made in the midst of a tragedy rarely amount to much. If we are driven by emotion, when the emotion fades, so will our commitment. Our commitment to justice and reconciliation must have a more secure footing.
Another part of us wants to just give up. So many people are working so hard on this already and things seem to be getting only worse.
But here is precisely where we can see a way forward, beginning with justice.
The shootings this week cut the legs out from under naïve hope. We Americans are habitual optimists, believing that if we just make race a priority, if we expose every act of injustice, if we make demands high and low, then justice will come and racism will evaporate, certainly within our lifetime. Facts are stubborn things, and they show us that justice is harder to achieve than we’re apt to admit. No one understands this better than the black community, and recent events have only reinforced this.
But the fact that things are getting worse is mostly a sign that we’re dealing with something monumental. When you attack any serious problem, personal or social, it’s not unusual for the Enemy to start fighting back, making our life even more chaotic for stretches. Just ask any recovering alcoholic--or read a little history. Righteousness, personal or social, does not come without set backs and suffering.
What makes our suffering more palpable today is social media, the great blessing and curse of our age. Social media makes it possible for us to expose injustice for one and all to see and feel. It also fuels defensiveness and resentment among millions of users, nurturing anger on one side and the other, even blossoming into outbursts of violence.
It shouldn’t surprise us that, in a nation that feels deeply its entrenched racial tensions, progress is going to come in fits and starts. Racism runs in the blood of American history starting in the 1600s. Why would we ever believe that we could eradicate it in a decade, or even five?
So how might we respond to the race narrative, in good times and bad? Simply: we mustn’t imagine justice is around the corner when things are going well, and we mustn’t give up when things are getting worse. We each must do what we can, given our gifts and opportunities, holding steady to the cause.
This is a special cause for us. We’ve repeatedly reported on the complexity of race in America, and we’ve editorialized on it more than once, most recently in Hope in the Face of Intractable Racism. This is one aspect of trying to make manifest, in however small a degree, the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. In the following passage, Paul speaks of what Christ has done in reconciling Jew and Gentile, but it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that the promise relates to every division we experience:
[Christ’s] purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit (Ephesians. 2:15-18).
Our vision, then, is bigger and bolder than social justice. And we pray and work not simply for reconciliation of blacks and whites, but of both, and all, to Jesus Christ. And precisely because this is a bigger and bolder vision, we must not become naively optimistic nor cynically despairing. The great American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr spent his life trying to show this nation a middle way regarding justice, one grounded in realistic hope. And he did so with these telling words in his The Irony of American History:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, could be accomplished alone; therefore, we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint; therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.
Mark Galli is editor-in-chief of Christianity Today.