As I sat down to work out my thoughts on Latasha Morrison’s excellent new book, Be The Bridge: Pursuing God’s Heart for Racial Reconciliation, my newsfeed overflowed with the appalling account of a young black medical student who was innocently playing video games in her own living room with her 8-year-old nephew when a white police officer shot her through the window. The officer was arrested and charged with murder. Since the event came only a few weeks after the trial of Amber Gieger for the murder of Botham Jean, weariness was the prevalent emotion all over social media.
As racial violence and division continue to overshadow the American experiment, the release of Be the Bridge seems providentially timed. Morrison’s work will surely strengthen those already engaged in the work of racial reconciliation and invite many more to enter for the first time. The book itself is an act of reconciliation, as Morrison reaches out across a seemingly insurmountable divide to offer hope, gospel truth, and practical action steps.
Morrison is the founder of Be The Bridge, a Christian organization that facilitates the formation and nurture of reconciling communities and trains people one by one to supersede racial divisions, especially within the church. This book (her first) is the outflow of that work and the place where she brings her expertise and experience to a wider audience.
Morrison starts by admonishing the reader to open herself to correction and adopt a posture of humility when engaging in racial reconciliation. From there the book is divided into three parts, each concluding with a liturgical rite intended to help readers and groups of readers begin the work of bridge building. The first section develops a theology of lamentation, the second a theology of confession and forgiveness, and the third focuses on restorative justice and replication.
Early on, the book catapults readers into the tragic story of Mary Turner, a pregnant black woman who, in her desperate pursuit of justice for her husband’s murder, falls prey to the mob and is brutally lynched. She is strung up in a tree and set on fire, her baby falls to the ground, and then one of the mob shoots her and the baby over and over.
Whether or not we want to acknowledge it, the specter of Mary Turner lives on in the back of the American psyche and represents every other person who was stolen, enslaved, beaten, and murdered. We should want to acknowledge her story, implores Morrison, because until she is allowed to step out, fully and completely, into America’s moral imagination, there will be no end to the racial divisions that beset our shared life.
Turner’s is not the only story that Morrison tells. She explores the race riots of 1921 and their tragic destruction of a black neighborhood in Greenwood, Oklahoma. She describes the small, intimate wounds of having your own mother wonder, as she strokes your cheek, what you would be like if your skin were lighter. She tells the personal story of a moving visit to a slave plantation-turned-museum and juxtaposes it with the humiliation of being instructed by a middle class, Southern white woman about what slavery was “really” like—a beneficial arrangement for slave and free alike, full of goodwill and mutual affection.
In other words: The author wants to remind us that racism is found not just in the dramatic history of slavery and Jim Crow oppression but everywhere. It colors our lives in ways we cannot imagine.
The reason we study slave history, says Morrison, is to build empathy that moves individuals and communities to a place of confession, repentance, and ultimately forgiveness. Here, then, is where the work of Build the Bridge comes fully into view. “Bridge builders don’t deny hurt,” she writes. “They experience it. Sit in it. Feel it. But they don’t stay in that pain. They don’t allow those who’ve wounded them to control them or constantly drive them back to anger and resentment. Instead, they allow that pain to continually push them into forgiveness.”
Confession, repentance, and forgiveness are incremental and nonlinear. They cannot be forced and are ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit, says Morrison. With that in mind, she concludes each chapter in the book with a story from a member of a Build the Bridge group whose testimony gives shape to the work of reconciliation.
The confessional testimony that stands out most dramatically is that of a white woman named Deanna whose grandfather was involved in the hunting and lynching of a black man in Alabama. He was acquitted at the trial, but as he lay dying, his guilt overpowered him and he confessed to the crime. In the wake of his death, Deanna was plagued by the horror of this discovery and forced to re-examine her family, herself, and her entire life. Be the Bridge came alongside her as she struggled through the pain and ultimately helped her to put down the burden of generational shame.
Likewise, Adora, a black member of a Be the Bridge group, began to sort through the pain of past rejections by black men, most particularly her husband, and faced a growing resentment toward white women. Morrison lets her speak in her own words: “It has been very humbling to discover my inner hypocrite—how I often judge those with traditionally white features. I can’t call others out for their discriminatory and oppressive actions if my thoughts about white women and interracial relationships are just as discriminatory.”
This very personal process of reconciliation depends on people who are willing to intersect in community, confess their shame or anger, and build of a bridge of forgiveness while still pursuing justice. This profoundly Christian work, insists Morrison, is grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ, who suffered the violence, injustice, and cruelty of men and still forgave them.
Indeed, that is why he came, to reconcile us to God when we had been alienated from him and enslaved to sin. “In other words,” she writes, “we forgive because we ourselves have been forgiven. Forgiving others is the most Christlike act we can carry out. It is costly and painful, transformative and life giving.”
While I had theological disagreements here and there, I was wholeheartedly moved by Morrison’s willingness not only to be open about her own journey of reconciliation—and those of others—but also her commitment to Jesus and his cross. By centering the work of reconciliation at the cross, Morrison locates our human work of justice within God’s divine mercy. God swallowed his own justice at the cross, offering us mercy when we did not deserve it. The only way to experience this mercy is to reckon with the full range of human injustice and sin.
We can also extend Christ-like mercy to those who don’t deserve it, as Morrison has done many times. But this call to mercy is not a call to forget about the pursuit of justice. As Dorena Williamson wrote recently in response to the Botham Jean case, “we hear calls for both forgiveness and justice,” but if we value one over the other rather than both together, “we run the risk of distorting the gospel.”
Together, then, we follow the call of Micah 6:8, to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” Ultimately, that is the outflowing work of the gospel for every Christian in every age and every time.
Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Sarcastic Devotions for Angry and Worn-Out People (Kalos Press, 2016) and blogs about current events and theological trends at Preventing Grace, a patheos.com blog.
Read CT’s past interview with Morrison here.