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October 10, 2016Culture

Race in America: Four Critical Reminders As We Move Towards Healing

Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics
Race in America: Four Critical Reminders As We Move Towards Healing

How do Christians respond to the heightened attention and attendant vexation about the crisis of race in America today? Allow me to offer at least four ideas on how we might begin.

First, reckon with the truth that history has consequences that last a long time. Although it is true that we are long past the days of slavery and at least half a century since the end of Jim Crow laws, we are mistaken if we fail to recognize the way that our society has been built with the race problem as part of our national DNA.

One of the first things necessary is the recognition that we live with the negative effects of racist aspects of our history in the same way a person born with certain genetic predispositions lives with a susceptibility to certain health challenges because of unseen problems that lie perpetually beneath the surface.

We cannot move forward if we are not aware of the ongoing effects of the past. We need to be aware of that the challenge of race is not a mere artifact from the past.

Second, churches need to care for those overwhelmed by intense exposure to racial incidents. While conversations can be had as to whether every incident we see is truly due to racial bias, one thing I have noticed is the devastating effect of the fairly constant stream of stories.

The immediacy of communication via social media operates like a powerful waterfall and overwhelms with even innocuous and ephemeral content; the torrent of stories connected to race are often heartbreaking and distressing and keep coming and coming.

Some have recently noted that the effect of this social media waterfall leads to symptoms similar or identical to PTSD. I have begun to see some of these effects in people I know who are pursuing justice and are also emotionally overwhelmed, indeed traumatized by their experience with heavy doses of the ongoing horrors of race.

In my view, it is no overstatement to call this a pastoral care emergency. There are people in our churches and communities who have been deeply wounded by personal experiences and exposure to the waterfall of stories about racial incidents. At the very least, we need pastoral presence and contexts for lament and grief.

Third, one size does not fit all. To discern the proper set of responses is one of the greatest challenges in any dire circumstance. In the face of the heightened attention to our crisis on race, there are always advocates for particular approaches to the pursuit of justice.

Should one find a march? Should one go to the location of the most recent event and join protestors? Should one focus their efforts on seeking improvements in policing? The list can be endless; however, in moments of heightened attention, the cries for justice are sometimes expressed in ways that suggest that if one isn’t a participant in certain public actions then they are not really concerned about the cause.

To be clear, in a country like the United States, forms of protest are one avenue of directing attention to great injustices. Still, protest is only one of the many vital efforts necessary for addressing the multifaceted problem of race. Just as Paul indicates in I Corinthians 12 that each member of the church has different gifts and purposes, it is important to encourage a broad range of responses (e.g., public policy, economic development, educational initiatives, legal reforms, etc.).

It is important for Christians to be willing to seek out various ways to approach this unwieldy and complicated set of problems, often in accordance with their gifts, talents, passions, resources and networks. We need protest and so much more.

Last, great patience coupled with holy impatience. I believe in miracles, but more typically, change of various kinds comes by long and difficult processes. Whether it is interpersonal relationships, institutional commitments and practices, public policies, or forms of social transformation, the path forward on race requires tremendous patience with a long view.

This is not to be confused with the type of slow progress Martin Luther King, Jr. and others heard from well-meaning members of the majority culture. While they said “don’t go too fast!” I am of the view that the faster change can come, the better.

While I hope for changes to occur at lightning speed, history suggests that deep transformative changes on race will often be hard-won and slower than one might wish.

Because Christians are called to obey the second greatest commandment (“love your neighbor as yourself”), we cannot cease from the task of seeking the flourishing of those who are harmed, thwarted, and even invisibly opposed by the destructive effects of a racialized society.

While we need to have patience because of the slow process of change, just as much we need to have a holy impatience that refuses to settle for the status quo or relent in the face of difficulty. As Paul tells us in I Corinthians 15:58, we need to be steadfast and unmovable as we do the Lord’s work. And addressing the challenges of race is surely part of God’s work for us for the foreseeable future.

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