Repairing the Truth: Race, Political Reconciliation, and America’s White Churches
Twelve months after the murder of George Floyd, The Economist argued that understanding public discourse on race and racism in America requires “grasping a set of contradictions.”1 On the one hand, racist attitudes are less prevalent and African Americans have secured significant legal and political rights since the Civil Rights era. Furthermore, there is more access to information on the history of racism and anti-racism, and public holidays like Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Juneteenth, and Black History month commemorate key figures, movements, and days on the path toward a more just common life. On the other hand, despite these improvements, poverty and wealth metrics for African Americans and Black-White segregation and health disparities have not improved significantly in the past 50 years since legal segregation and discrimination were attenuated. Additionally, the country continues to grapple with deep divisions over how to understand the history and legacy of race and racism.2
This cultural friction is not new and it points to common dilemmas communities face when confronting historic and ongoing unjust cultural and political orders. These conflicts raise important questions about how society should respond to such injustices, including how to acknowledge and remember past wrongs, whether and when to establish truth commissions, the role of public apology and forgiveness, and how to address and make amends for the harm caused to individuals and groups who have been dehumanized, stigmatized, and injured. There is also the question of engaging the ongoing effects and inequalities stemming from past wrongs and how to rectify injustices connected to former or transitioning orders.
These issues call for a comprehensive framework that can help us understand our past and present, and inform possible future actions. The need to find ways to understand, acknowledge, and rectify historical wrongs, and to examine the ongoing effects of these injustices on current society is vital in order to create a more just and loving common life.
Following the work of Daniel Philpott, this essay argues that a transitional justice framework built on an ethic of political reconciliation and its attendant practices can serve as an indispensable part of the response to the deep wounds of racism and White supremacy in America.3 More specifically, I argue that Christians ought to champion local truth commissions as part of the reparative and restorative work integral to political reconciliation.4 Such a vision of political reconciliation challenges tepid, cheap, and sentimental expressions and embodiments of reconciliation that many White Christians have settled for both historically and today.
I will make this argument in four steps. First, I'll describe how White Evangelicals have tried to address America's racial issues using Christian colorblindness, racial reconciliation, and strategic diversity and their drawbacks. Second, I'll show how truth commissions can foster political reconciliation and advance racial healing through acknowledgment. Third, I introduce why and how broad-based institutional engagement is critical to successfully implementing truth commissions and journeying toward political reconciliation. Finally, I'll summarize my argument and offer how listening can sustain White Christians on the journey towards political reconciliation.
Colorblind Christianity, Racial Reconciliation and Strategic Diversity: Common Approaches and their Pitfalls
During the Civil Rights Movement and the years that followed, public opinion within America's White churches began to shift, mirroring changes in broader American society. Many churches and their leaders, particularly in the South, continued to openly oppose the Civil Rights Movement and its gains by defending racial segregation and inequality, but as the ground shifted, colorblind and family-protection rhetoric was deployed to resist change and protect investments in White supremacy. Simultaneously, public arguments for racial superiority and segregation were increasingly met with disapproval and condemnation by some influential White Christian leaders.
White Evangelical leaders like Billy Graham integrated evangelistic events and Graham’s association recruited Howard Jones as their first Black evangelist in 1958. And Black Evangelicals, like Jones and Tom Skinner, jockeyed for racial change in the broader evangelical movement including through organizations like the National Negro Evangelistic Association (later, National Black Evangelical Association). At the same time, the non-violent resistance and civil disobedience of Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. solicited skepticism and criticism from leading White Evangelicals. For example, the day before the March on Washington for Jobs in 1963, Graham publicly declared: “I am convinced that some extremists are going too far too fast. Forced integration will never work.” Crafting an alternative vision to King’s peaceful march to change laws and policies for Black freedom, Graham touted that racism and segregation would “not be settled in the streets but it could only be settled in the hearts of man.”5 Here, Graham offered a common White Evangelical diagnosis and approach to culture change: the solution for America’s racial crisis was changing “hearts and minds” through evangelism rather than through an above-all approach that included political activism.6 Whether through interpersonal relationships or mass evangelism efforts, true racial healing was made possible through “an individualistic message of repentance and salvation,” Curtis summarizes.7 In this way, Dr. King’s civil resistance and political efforts to address segregation and inequality were regarded by most White Evangelicals as a distraction from the real heart problem at best, and a false gospel at worst.8 This emphasis on individual transformation, Curtis argues, gave rise to theologies of colorblindness and racial reconciliation.9
Colorblind ideology holds that discrimination can be eliminated by treating everyone equally, without taking race, ethnicity, culture, or history into account. It posits that racism and White supremacy stem from individual attitudes and actions, and therefore the solution is to de-emphasize race and focus on ideas like “shared humanity” and “national unity.” Proponents of colorblindness argue that society should judge individuals based on the “content of their character” rather than “the color of their skin color” in order to achieve a more just society.10
In a Christian context, colorblindness perceives racism as a problem flowing from an individual heart while simultaneously championing “unity” and “oneness” in the body of Christ (cf. Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11, 15, etc.). According to this perspective, racism can most effectively be combated through individual spiritual transformation rather than broad-based political action. The emphasis on individual transformation and shared identity in Christ minimizes racial differences, whereas "racial consciousness" is considered a sign of Christian immaturity and a threat to Christian unity, observes Curtis. In this vein, Christian colorblindness promotes a multi-ethnic and multi-racial Christianity without advocating for justice.11 As such, colorblindness may be utilized to de-emphasize race and racial issues in certain contexts, while in others it may be used to stress heart change through interpersonal relationship building, church growth, and racial reconciliation, Curtis argues.
By the 1980s, African American Evangelicals sought racial reform in White Evangelical spaces and institutions under the banner of racial reconciliation. Unlike their White counterparts, Black Evangelicals promoted a vision of reconciliation that integrated interpersonal relationship-building with justice, power, and economics.12 As such, Black Evangelicals sought to prioritize racial justice as well as unity in the body of Christ. They offered a more holistic approach to race, recognizing racism as both an individual and cultural problem. In other words, many Black Evangelicals believed that true reconciliation could only be achieved by pursuing justice.13
By the 1990s, many White Evangelicals adopted the language of racial reconciliation. One notable example of this shift was the Promise Keeper’s (PK) movement, which reached its zenith in 1997. PK was a revivalist movement that sought to cultivate authentic Christian manhood through large public events. In this context, the PK organization evolved to endorse interracial friendship and harmony as a key part of its platform in 1996-97. All 22 of PK’s stadium-packed events across the US in 1996 championed racial reconciliation through interpersonal friendships. PK events challenged White men to repent of racism and to search for a nearby Christian of color and ask for their forgiveness. In this way, PK events promoted the vision summarized by PK President Randy Philips, “the key to reconciliation is relationships – and that means one at a time.”14 While Black Evangelicals supported the good intentions of PK’s efforts, they recognized the limitations of promoting an individualistic and interpersonal approach to racial reconciliation.15 Although racial reconciliation never became widespread in Evangelical America,16 the focus on friendship across the color line would remain an enduring feature of the racial reconciliation movement as it transitioned into the multi-racial/ethnic church movement.17
In her 2019 article, sociologist Michelle Oyakawa examines the role of racial reconciliation in multiracial churches, building on Korrie Little Edwards' research from the Religious Leadership and Diversity Project. Here, Oyakawa utilizes interview research with Evangelical pastors leading multiracial churches across the United States to argue that White Evangelicals continue to frame America’s racial issues through the lens of racial reconciliation. As in the past, contemporary racial reconciliation is defined through individualistic and interpersonal frameworks that resist political, institutional, and structural solutions for racial injustice and inequalities. Instead of openly discussing and engaging issues of racial inequality, these pastors and congregations tend to avoid public conversations on race to maintain unity and avert division. This approach prioritizes so-called unity in Christ over addressing the history of racism, White supremacy, and contemporary racial inequities. When racial issues and flashpoints emerge in the news, these pastors and their congregations leverage racial reconciliation to affirm shared faith and foster transracial friendships, Oyakawa finds.
Prioritizing unity and oneness in Christ, the rhetoric and practices of racial reconciliation deter conversations about history and contemporary inequities and injustice. Structured this way, Oyakawa suggests that the logic of racial reconciliation functions as a “suppressive frame” undermining and discouraging dialogue and deliberation about justice and political engagement related to America’s racial problems, and ultimately reinforces the existing social and cultural dominance of White leadership and cultural preferences. In other words, by framing racism as an individual problem with the solution of inter-racial friendships, the racial reconciliation frame unconsciously and unintentionally relinquishes power to existing social structures and norms to preserve racial inequities already built into the fabric of society.
Additionally, the racial reconciliation paradigm portrays racial issues as one of separateness, rather than structural segregation. Paraphrasing Dr. King’s oft-quoted remark that ‘Sunday at 11 am is the most segregated hour in America’, the racial reconciliation paradigm translates the problem of segregation into separateness.18 To overcome the problem of separateness, the racial reconciliation model pursues a solution of strategic diversity and multiracial fellowship. Rooted in good intentions, this push for diversity and multiracial fellowship and unity is often built on a colorblind approach in which discussion of racial inequality and justice are viewed as “political” and as a wedge capable of dividing Christ’s body. These stories are enacted and embodied by intentional silence about racial justice and inequalities, deploying “both sides” rhetoric and applying a “neutral” approach to public racial issues or congregational race relations.19 Ultimately, this model often reinforces White cultural preferences and narratives in multiracial churches.20
Promoting interpersonal racial friendship is definitely critical to pursuing interpersonal and political reconciliation, and advocating for unity and transracial fellowship is absolutely central to the gospel; however, typical White Evangelical approaches to racial reconciliation are ineffective and undermine their goals of individual heart change, faithful discipleship, and true reconciliation and unity in Christ. In sum, these common approaches are completely incapable of resisting the cultural power of White supremacy. Structured by low-cost and sentimental discipleship, the paradigms of colorblindness, racial reconciliation, and strategic diversity require a significant overhaul and a constructive alternative.
In short, we don’t need less than the transformation of individual hearts and minds, interpersonal reconciliation, transcultural friendships, and diverse church communities, but we do need more. A transitional justice framework built on a vision of political reconciliation not only provides an essential corrective to the standard approaches described above but also provides a constructive vision for addressing the legacies of White supremacy and forging a more just and loving common life in the future.
Transitional Justice, Political Reconciliation, and the Church
Transitional justice is a crucial way for societies to confront and resolve past political injustices. One effective tool is the creation of Truth Commissions (TC) to address human rights violations, crimes, and injustices. In recent years, numerous countries have established TC, with the first wave taking place in Central and South America in the 1980s. South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), established from 1995 to 2002, set a new standard for TC with an emphasis on reconciliation. Since then, concepts of "reconciliation" and "forgiveness" have gained wider acceptance as a goal for communities recovering from political injustice and conflict.21
Despite reconciliation’s increasing prevalence and global interest, a key concern is reconciliation’s relationship to justice. In his book, Just and Unjust Peace, political scientist Daniel Philpott argues that political reconciliation should be viewed as a concept of justice that aims to transform political injustices into a condition of comprehensive right relationship.22 In other words, Philpott thinks justice and reconciliation are ultimately directed toward creating rightly ordered relationships. He identifies six practices that contribute to this goal: (1) building just institutions, (2) acknowledgment, (3) apology, (4) reparations, (5) punishment, and (6) forgiveness. Through these practices, Philpott contends, citizens implicated in unjust orders can rehabilitate and weave together comprehensive right relationships. For Philpott, “each [practice] affects reconciliation uniquely and irreplaceably. A surfeit of one practice cannot make up for a deficit of another. Were one of them absent, so would be an important dimension of the justice of reconciliation.”23 More specifically, Philpott argues that these six practices address key wounds of political injustice: violation of basic human rights and dignity, ignorance of the source and circumstances of injustice, failures to acknowledge the suffering of victims, the ongoing impact of injustice, and the self-inflicted harms, shame, and guilt of perpetrators.
Philpott’s vision of political reconciliation provides a helpful framework for responding to the legacies and evolution of racism and White supremacy in America today; however, instead of applying Philpott’s vision to statecraft, I want to build on and reframe Philpott’s paradigm for thinking about the church’s role and responsibility today.
Repairing the Truth: Pursuing Political Reconciliation through Acknowledgment
In their book, Reparations, Duke Kwon and Greg Thompson make the case that the church and Christian institutions have a responsibility to address the legacy and ongoing impact of racial injustice and the cultural order of White supremacy in the USA. First, they rightly believe that God’s story and mission should be a catalyst for the reparative and restorative work needed to heal these wounds and foster a constructive alternative.24 Second, Kwon and Thompson argue that White churches and institutions have a moral obligation and responsibility to pursue the work of repentance, lament, repair, and restoration because of past failures in embracing, justifying, and overlooking racism and White supremacy.25 Drawing on the stories of Zacchaeus (cf. Lk 19) and the Good Samaritan (cf. Lk 10) as well as historic Christian moral theology, Kwon and Thompson argue that White Christians ought to pursue repentance, repair, restitution, and restoration to address the thefts of truth, power, and wealth of African Americans.
"White churches and institutions have a moral obligation and responsibility to pursue the work of repentance, lament, repair, and restoration because of past failures in embracing, justifying, and overlooking racism and White supremacy."
Given the church’s calling and complicity, how should America’s White Christian communities respond to America’s racial injuries and harms? How might our approach to addressing racial issues change if we reframed our understanding of the USA as a context for transitional justice? I suggest that churches and Christian communities should financially support, advocate for, and implement local TC as part of the work of political reconciliation required to repair and restore the wounds, thefts, and injustices caused by racism and White supremacy.26
TC are temporary groups that investigate and report on various types of violence, human rights violations, and injustices. TC vary in their structure and mandates, but commissions typically gather and analyze documents and collect individual stories and expert testimonies.27 Beyond these basic functions, TC may pursue a broader mandate to bring about narrative change; facilitate relationship-building; create opportunities for public lament, apology, repentance, and forgiveness; provide opportunities for trauma healing and counseling services; catalyze updates to school curricula; result in legally enforced amnesty or criminal trials; require restorative justice and reparations; produce public policy recommendations to address economic inequalities and opportunity barriers, and criminal justice reforms; inspire citizen assemblies; initiate new cultural institutions, parks, and monuments both to remember victims and to forge a shared path forward. Commissions serve as a means of documenting and acknowledging past wrongs, healing historical wounds, and addressing injustices that have been committed; but they can also be authorized to develop recommendations for future action. In short, there are multiple ways to organize TC; however, TC are first and foremost best designed to practice and enable the work of acknowledgment.
The practice of acknowledgment begins with establishing a record of personal stories and history in order to pursue the truth of the past and present.28 In contexts of mass and long-standing political and cultural injustice––as in the USA––there’s often a need to identify and describe the various cases of abuse committed. In transitional communities, injustice and wrongdoing are often unknown, forgotten, ignored, suppressed, or silenced. In other cases, popular, academic, and official histories have papered over, downplayed, or simply contradicted the truth of the injuries and injustices perpetrated. In this way, acknowledgment is an important practice and response to address the theft of truth and the wounds of ignorance and willful forgetting.
Kwon and Thompson argue that the cultural order of racism and White supremacy has been established and funded by lies and forms of theft, robbing African Americans of their identity and dignity as image bearers. They argue that public and intellectual histories of race in America have romanticized and erased the truth of history—whether to justify slavery or Jim Crow or promote myths of American exceptionalism, national unification, or the Lost Cause and the tyranny of northern aggression. Many histories—popular and academic—have lied about the truth of racism in America, portraying African Americans as sub-human and ontologically inferior, dangerous, hyper-sexual, helplessly dependent, lazy, and animalistic. These demonic lies have compounded the primary injuries, wounds, and harm experienced. To respond to these lies and thefts, it is necessary to expose them to the light of truth. This is the work of acknowledgment and recognition that TC are well-suited to undertake.
Acknowledging stories of dehumanization and destruction is essential, but insufficient. African Americans were not passive agents being acted upon. Instead, these communities and their allies demonstrated resilience, fruitfulness, and thriving in the face of incredible adversity and exclusion. Acknowledging stories of courage and creativity despite dehumanizing conditions can foster narrative change and amplifies the community strengths and assets that also serve as vital resources for forging political reconciliation and building a healthy common life today.
"Truth Commissions and practices of acknowledgment and recognition are not simply integral to remembering the past but are also salutary for transforming broken interpersonal, institutional, and political relationships and building a common life with others."
Truth Commissions and practices of acknowledgment and recognition are not simply integral to remembering the past but are also salutary for transforming broken interpersonal, institutional, and political relationships and building a common life with others. If done well, such practices have the potential to foster opportunities for healing, trust, and relationship building, and to reestablish the legitimacy and credibility of institutions—like the church—after significant failures. In my view, while Christians shouldn’t simply accept every account of failure or faithfulness publicly on offer, Christians—as people of truth and repentance—should be the best at naming, describing, confessing, and lamenting our sins and failures as clearly and strongly as possible. This is not a liability, but an opportunity to relearn the Way of Jesus in public.29 This is critical to honoring victims, establishing norms for future flourishing, creating the conditions for political reconciliation, and rehabilitating the credibility and integrity of the church’s mission and witness in America today.
Truth Commissions: Broad-Based and Consociational
America’s White churches, as communities committed to pursuing truth and the beloved community in Christ, should take a proactive role in addressing the history of race in America at both local and national levels through TC;30 however, these efforts will likely encounter skepticism and opposition. The Race, Religion, and Justice Project (RRJP) survey found significant disagreement among Christians on race-related issues. For example, only 48% of White Christians agreed that the United States has been oppressive to minorities historically, compared with 78% of Black Christians.31 The yawning gap between White and Black Christians on the question of historic oppression in the United States illustrates the need for investments in repairing the truth that is both institutional and broad-based.
By “broad-based,” I mean two things. First, I suggest that White churches—local, denominational, and catholic—should work together to finance and organize a TC focused on unearthing, understanding, and documenting the history of racism and White supremacy as it relates to White Christian institutions in their local communities.32 Second, I suggest that White churches advocate for and support wider community Truth Commissions led by other institutions. These commissions might be organized by local government, civil society organizations, or even an ad hoc structure representing a wide range of institutions like religious communities, neighborhood associations, and other institutions. Either way, my argument is that White churches and Christian institutions should work with other institutions to finance and implement local TC.
By “institutional,” I am referring to organizations like churches, mosques, synagogues, neighborhood associations, businesses, non-profits, and government offices.33 Institutions are important because they are organized centers of people, power, money, and practice that create and sustain the networks, infrastructure, and ideas that foster and promote culture. Institutions often represent individuals and groups of people, and institutions are more culturally powerful than disparate individuals or groups of individuals.34 In this sense, a powerful movement for pursuing, understanding, and repairing the truth requires the collective work of institutions in advocating for, financing, and implementing TC in local communities. Churches and Christian institutions can partner with other institutions—Christian or not—in common action to repair the truth. Without broad-based institutional engagement of this kind, it’s difficult to imagine how Christian institutions will foster the conditions for political reconciliation and overcome the existing White-Black gaps described by the RRJP research noted above.
Financing and implementing a TC requires a collaborative effort between different institutions. However, such partnerships can raise concerns about how to effectively work together despite differing perspectives and beliefs. A consociational model of democratic engagement offers a solution to these challenges. This model brings together distinct institutions for a shared purpose while preserving their individual institutional identities and beliefs. A consociational model creates a federation of institutions where authority is derived from the consent of each participating institution, rather than being imposed by a majority or powerful minority. The consociational structure prioritizes identifying shared problems and solutions through collective action and encourages unity and plurality while avoiding ideological or antipolitical positions.
"Each institution brings its own unique beliefs and reasons for participating in the partnership, which is not viewed as an obstacle, but rather as motivations for their engagement."
Additionally, the consociational model allows for deep religious and philosophical convictions to be respected and incorporated into dialogue and collective action. Each institution brings its own unique beliefs and reasons for participating in the partnership, which is not viewed as an obstacle, but rather as motivations for their engagement.35 By adopting a consociational approach, Christian institutions can preserve their distinct identities and beliefs while also working together with other institutions to finance and implement a TC in order to repair the truth and pursue political reconciliation.
This essay has argued that a transitional justice framework built on an ethic of political reconciliation and its accompanying practices is a vital aspect of responding to the deep wounds of racism and White supremacy in America. The failure of White Christian institutions to effectively resist the cultural power of White supremacy has resulted in insufficient and inadequate responses such as colorblindness and racial reconciliation. A transitional justice framework based on political reconciliation provides a corrective to these deficiencies and offers a vision for addressing the legacies of White supremacy and creating a more just and loving common life.
Truth Commissions and practices of recognition and acknowledgment are essential in transforming broken relationships and restoring the credibility of institutions like America's White-led churches. Churches, as communities seeking truth, should actively participate in addressing the history of race in America through Truth Commissions at both local and national levels. Successful implementation requires broad-based and institutional partnerships between churches and other organizations, and the consociational model of democratic engagement can help overcome challenges by fostering shared goals and preserving institutional identities. By adopting this approach, Christian institutions can play a vital role in repairing truth and opening up wounds to the transfiguring work of Jesus Christ.
The work of political reconciliation, acknowledgment, and racial healing is a journey. To travel well, listening is key. In Life Together, Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes listening as an act of loving God and loving fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Part of learning to love God is through listening to God’s Word. Likewise, part of loving a brother or sister in Christ is expressed through listening to them.36 Extending Bonhoeffer’s insight, moral theologian, Luke Bretherton, argues for the work of double listening—that is, listening to God and neighbor—in pursuing a more just and loving common life with others. For Bretherton, double listening means listening to both God and neighbor simultaneously to live with faith, hope, and love in the world. By listening to Scripture and participating in worship, the Holy Spirit can open us to God’s story and reorient our engagement with the world in the way of Jesus Christ. By listening to our neighbor, we are formed and trained to discern how God God is active and present in our neighborhoods and communities, enabling our ability to identify and pursue shared goods. In other words, to love our neighbor with faith and hope, then it is important to understand what’s going on in the neighborhood. Framed this way, listening can serve as a means of learning to hear the voices and stories of our neighbors and to dig deep into the realities of our neighborhoods and communities. Framed by both Scripture and the concerns of neighbors, listening is vital for pursuing political reconciliation and racial healing through TC.
Learning to have ears to hear and eyes to see what God is doing with, through, and among our neighbors and neighborhoods is made possible through God’s grace and is a gift that we can receive and practice with the Holy Spirit’s help. Through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, God liberates us from our bondage to the forces of sin and death illustrated by our failure to listen to God and neighbor, empowering us to participate in God’s mission of reconciliation and healing our ability to listen. Jesus listened to God’s Word and listened to the cries, stories, and questions of his neighbors, teaching his disciples how to listen to, see, and engage their world. In this way, Jesus heals and enables our ability to hear and listen to God and neighbor. Will we be hearers and doers of God’s Word to us?
1. This essay focuses on African American or anti-Black racism and the Black-White polarity and its relation to White supremacy; however, many of these ideas and arguments could be extended to include Native Americans and other groups at different times as well. 2. These active contestations about the meaning and history of race and inequalities in America are clearly illustrated by the various reactions to The 1619 Project. A series of articles and educational curricula published by the New York Times Magazine, The 1619 Project aims to reframe the country's history by emphasizing the centrality of slavery. The project has generated a wide range of responses, from fact-checking and criticism to reflection on the representation and use of history in academic writing and journalism. The project has also led to counter-initiatives such as The 1776 Report, further fueling the debate and sparking numerous commentaries on the subject. These academic and journalistic arguments have spilled over into acrimonious controversies at all levels, from local school boards to state legislatures. For resources on pursuing more effective conversation on race and other divisive topics see Heterodox Academy, Livingston (2020), New Pluralists, Ideos Institute, and Resetting the Table.
3. In Reparations, Kwon and Thompson argue that racism is not simply personal prejudice, relational division, or even a particular form of institutionalized or structural injustice; instead, Kwon and Thompson rightly argue that racism in America needs to be understood culturally and spiritually. Though the term may be misunderstood, they argue it is essential to use "White supremacy" to speak truthfully about race in America. (Kwon & Thompson, 2021).
4. By “political” and “cultural” institutions, I am referring to various government structures, businesses, non-profits, civil society organizations and religious groups. As such, I am using a more generous framing of the “political” that includes and goes beyond partisan politics, statecraft, and international relations. Following Bretherton, by political, I am describing “that which shapes and structures this common life so that, as a good, it can be sustained over time” (Bretherton, 2019).
5. In contrast, Dr. King offered a different perspective by connecting the goals of reconciliation to koinonia and the beloved community. Reflecting on the lessons learned from the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott (December 1955-56), Dr. King provided a short reflection on the relationship between resistance and reconciliation: “It is true that as we struggle for freedom in America we will have to boycott at times. But we remember that as we boycott that the boycott is not an end within itself . . . [The] end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community” (cited by Marsh, 2006). 6. In their influential book, Divided by Faith, sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith argue that White Evangelical Christians in America operate in the world with a cultural toolkit with three central features: “accountable individualism,” “relationalism,” and “anti-structuralism” (Emerson & Smith, 2000). According to Emerson and Smith, “accountable individualism” often imagines individuals as largely “independent of structures and institutions” with strong appeals to freewill, personal responsibility, and hard work as critical to one’s life outcome. “Relationalism” refers to White Evangelical emphasis on interpersonal relationships between individuals as important for understanding society and social change. Undergirding these notions of individualism and relationalism is an anti-structuralist worldview. According to Emerson and Smith, average White Evangelicals tend to criticize structural definitions and solutions to society’s challenges because it shifts focus away from the accountable individual. Ultimately, Emerson and Smith conclude: “Absent from their accounts is the idea that poor relationships might be shaped by social structures, such as laws, the way institutions operate, or forms of segregation” (ibid).
Emerson and Smith’s analysis dovetails well with James Davison Hunter’s argument in To Change the World. Here, Hunter describes the dominant paradigm American Christians have pursued for changing culture and why it has failed. Hunter argues that the common American Christian view of cultural change relies on the following insufficient assumptions: (a) Idealism: ideas alone change history and culture; (b) Individualism: the myth of autonomous and rational individual; and (c) Pietism: culture is best understood as a collection of individual "hearts and minds." Operating with this common framework, Christians in America often pursue cultural change through government political power and influence and evangelism, according to Hunter. Interestingly, these were also the two main avenues Graham sought to achieve cultural influence. Although Hunter does not include race in his analysis, most—if not all—of the examples Hunter cites are of White Christians or institutions that were led by White Christians at the time of writing. 7. The Christian scriptural tradition affirms both individual and corporate responsibility. The idea of corporate responsibility is important for understanding sin and salvation in Scripture. For example, see:Romans 5; Isaiah 1, 5, 6:5; Deut. 16:18-19; Daniel 9:3-19; Revelation 18.,Jewish and Christian traditions feature corporate dimensions of sin and redemption. For example, in Romans 5, Paul describes how sin and death came into the world through one person (Adam); similarly, God’s gift of grace is offered and given to many in and through the righteous life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul summarizes: “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Romans 5:18). 8. Contestations about the primacy of evangelism and justice are frequent in 20th- and 21st-century Evangelical circles. For more on this theme see Curtis (2021), Kirkpatrick (2019), and McAlister (2018). 9. Curtis rightly argues that “Evangelical individualism” is not a “sufficient explanation of their approach to race,” underlining the importance of colorblindness and racial reconciliation for his argument. Curtis notes: “Evangelicals have selectively applied an individualist ethic primarily to social practices with which they have disagreed.” Evangelicals do not have a straightforward and general penchant for antistructuralist engagement. “Other moral concerns such as abortion energized Evangelicals and as a result became opportunities for movement building and systemic interventions in the nation’s political life,” Curtis contends. “In contrast, in racial problems, White Evangelicals tended to see a threat to their movement more than an opportunity,” Curtis judges. 10. Defenders of colorblindness often quote Dr. King's famous "I have a Dream" speech without consideration for the broader context of his activism and teachings. King’s desire for a future in which his children will “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” is misconstrued as a call for colorblindness instead as a call for freedom and justice from oppression. 11. African American and South American Evangelicals—like Tom Skinner, Clarence Hilliard, John and Vera Mae Perkins, Bill Pannell, Rene Padilla, and Samuel Escobar–challenged colorblind and evangelism vs. justice frameworks 12. Renewed calls for racial reconciliation by African American Evangelicals were influenced by the activism and writing of John and Vera Mae Perkins. Writing in Sojourners in 1976, Perkins offered a paradigm for racial reconciliation that included “relocation” and proximity to pain and poverty and economic “redistribution (cf. Curtis 2021 and Marsh 2006). 13. Writing in Christianity Today in 1993, J. Deotis Roberts, an African American theologian, stated that many Black Christians avoided the “Evangelical” label because the term had become a byword for “a one-dimensional view of Christianity – a spiritual, privatized, vertical view” that transported “the idea that race relations are expected to be based on a sentimental love without real consideration for social justice” (cited by Curtis, 2021). 14. Curtis, 2021. 15. Commenting on PK’s approach to racial reconciliation, one Black Evangelical leader, with a tone of resignation, stated: “tears and hugs and saying I’m sorry is a good first step, but for me, the question is not of changing the hearts of individuals as much as it is dealing with the systems in the structures that are devastating African-American people.” (Curtis, 2021).
16. Emerson and Smith report that less than 40% of the White Evangelicals interviewed were aware of racial reconciliation as a concept and movement (Emerson & Smith, 2000). 17. Recent research shows that multiracial/ethnic congregations grew between 1998 and 2019 by 10 points from 6% to 16%. The common definition of a multiracial/ethnic church is where no more than 80% of the church members/regular attendees identify as part of a single racial or ethnic group. 18. In contrast, theologian Jennifer Harvey and pastor David Swanson offer a vision of solidarity and costly discipleship. Harvey argues, “Separateness is merely a symptom. The real problem is what our differences represent, how they came to be historically, and what they mean materially and structurally still.” Following Harvey, Swanson believes that segregation not separation is the problem. As such, Swanson argues, “in order to address our segregation, White churches and ministries must begin with discipleship, not diversity…Our imaginations, desires, and assumptions are constantly shaped by historically rooted and socially constructed racial narratives that result in our segregation. Instead of identifying and resisting these false narratives, most of our Christian discipleship practices have ignored them, and in doing so we have told generations of White Christians that Jesus has nothing to say about racial injustice and segregation” (Swanson, 2020). 19. Oyakawa, 2019. 20. These insights are supported by RRJP data. 29% of Black practicing Christians report experiencing racial prejudice in a multiracial church and 27% agree and strongly agree that they feel pressure to give up part of their racial/ethnic identity at their multiracial churches (Barna, 2021).
Recent data shows that 76% of multiracial churches are led by White pastors and the vast majority of multiracial churches are unidirectional with people of color joining predominantly White congregations. As a result, racial reconciliation paradigms–which minimize racial justice and emphasize unity in diversity–tend to reinscribe White cultural preferences, narratives, and frameworks in majority White and multiracial churches. Reflecting on the implications of the RRJP research for multiracial churches, Emerson notes: “The path to diversity seems to be a one-way street, with people of color joining White congregations but very few Whites joining Black churches.” Emerson suggests that in order to truly address America's racial challenges, congregations must confront and challenge the historic structures that keep racial groups divided (Baylor University, 2021). 21. The testimonies of nearly 21,000 victims were captured through the TRC–including 2,000 recorded through public hearings. The TRC granted 849 amnesties to perpetrators of apartheid who detailed their crimes. 22. The use of "reconciliation" is criticized for its backward-looking connotations and implying a past when relations were healthy. Alternative terms, such as "conciliation," "healing," or "transformation," are suggested as they focus on improving conflicts and relationships without assuming positive past relations. "Reconciliation" can also be seen as a forward-looking process, creating new possibilities out of old, rather than relying on nostalgia. Additionally, "rectification" and "repair" can also be used alongside "restoration" to describe the process of reconciliation. Until Jesus Christ returns and brings to fruition the New Heavens and New Earth, reconciliation and justice will be proximate, limited, partial, and compromised. As Bretherton argues: “What is possible within the earthly city is not true justice - a perfect state of harmonious loving relations - but remedial acts of just judgment. These may be contingent and insecure, but nevertheless, they preserve the good of the creation order as recapitulated in Christ and create space for the proclamation of the eschatological order established in and through Christ. Faithful witness involves enabling just judgment and pointing to the coming eschatological order through acts of neighborliness which point to the common world established in Christ’s reconciliation of all things” (Bretherton, 2011). 23. Philpott, 2015. 24. Reconciliation is a cross-cutting theme and motif of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and God’s mission. As a concept, “reconciliation,” as a word-family shows up in the canon of Pauline letters thirteen times–most prominently in 2 Cor. 5, Romans 5, Colossians 1, and Ephesians 2. “Reconciliation” as a word does not appear in the Old Testament; nevertheless, the importance of reconciliation (katallagē in Greek) and its cognates are not reducible to a simple word study; instead, we need to understand how reconciliation relates to other concepts like shalom, justice, koinonia, etc. In this way, reconciliation is expressed through a wider group of words, ideas, images, and stories in the Old and New Testaments and in the broader Christian tradition (See Gorman 2015). In the Pauline corpus, the work of reconciliation is first and foremost the initiative of the loving triune God who created the world in love and seeks to heal, redeem, restore, liberate and renew God’s good creation which has been devastated by the powers of sin and death. As Christians, we are liberated from forces of sin and death in order to participate in God’s mission in the world serving as ambassadors of reconciliation. In these key passages, I argue that Paul’s gospel of reconciliation is: (a) centered on God’s initiative and mission in Jesus Christ in which we are called to participate in and through the Holy Spirit; (b) cosmic in scope–involving all of creation in heaven and earth, including earthly political power; (c) integrates both vertical and horizontal relationships in Jesus Christ; and (d) best understood as a gift of God’s grace, a concept of God’s loving justice, and a journey toward God’s shalom, koinonia, and Sabbath rest in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. This is a work of love that finds its end resting in God’s joy and delight. 25. America’s culturally dominant White churches are not merely implicated in this cultural order due to the troubling acts of prejudiced individuals, Kwon and Thompson believe; instead, America’s White churches and Christian institutions—represented by denominational structures, congregations, Christian organizations, prominent Christian leaders, and everyday individual Christians—have been and often continue to be blameworthy as social institutions because they have fostered, sustained, and upheld a cultural and moral order that produced thefts of truth, power, and wealth from African Americans. These were not simply sins of commission but sins of omission: these churches and institutions were and remain often unwilling or unable to exercise their moral authority to resist this cultural order and its thefts. 26. Advocating for TC in the USA is not an original or new idea. Government-led or supported commissions have been enacted at national, state, and city levels. The one national commission even led to reparations and a public apology for the forced relocation and internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Beyond government-led initiatives, The Episcopal Church has worked to investigate and apologize for its culpability for, participation in, and benefit from slavery. Similarly, Georgetown University, Princeton Theological Seminary and Virginia Theological Seminaries have launched funds and truth-telling campaigns to acknowledge their role in slavery in the USA. The Minnesota Council of Churches (MCC) instigated a 10-year project focused on “truth and reparations” in September 2020. The City of Minneapolis, where Geroge Floyd was murdered, implemented a Truth & Reconciliation Workgroup, and official sources report that the City of Minneapolis plans to organize a commission in the future. 27. National or local governments instigate most commissions, but others have been led by civil society or religious institutions like the Recovery of Historical Memory (REMHI) Project created and conducted by the Human Rights Office of the Catholic Archdiocese in Guatemala. 28. Philpott and others argue that personalism is critical to fostering a meaningful and effective Truth and Reconciliation Commission. When commissions are too bureaucratic and procedural, they can fail in being attentive to the stories, circumstances, and wounds of both individuals and groups. Additionally, TC can stir-up trauma for victims and communities. As such, providing concurrent trauma healing, counseling, and psychosocial support during TC is important for facilitating a healthy TC process. 29. God’s grace is the power source for the work of reconciliation. Truth-telling and its related practices of lament, confession, forgiveness, repentance, and repair are merely “clanging gongs and cymbals” if God’s love and grace are not permeating our work of political reconciliation. As Christians committed to loving our neighbor and pursuing God’s justice and shalom, we ought to struggle against racism, racial prejudice, and racial injustice whether interpersonal or institutional; however, as historically contingent, finite and fallen creatures, we cannot go back to a time before race. We cannot pretend to be colorblind. Instead, we need to bring all of who we are—our histories, our cultures, our stories—to God who alone can heal, transform and open-up new possibilities of intimacy, communion and belonging. This is only possible through God’s healing, transforming and reconciling work in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
30. While I argue that White churches and institutions bear a unique responsibility to join in the work of repair and restoration, this essay recognizes that this call and work builds on the historic and ongoing labor of love offered by a faithful minority of Christian communities—often led by Black and other communities of color.
31. For this study, RRJP defined “practicing Christians” as people who self-identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives, and have attended church within the past month. Although I’m only highlighting one data point here, the RRJP data demonstrate that White Christians often stand alone on their perceptions of racial questions and issues relative to other groups and the broader population. 32. Again, I think White churches have a unique responsibility here, but this work needs to build on, engage with, and participate in the ongoing efforts of Christian communities of color who have been already laboring with faith, hope, and love in the direction of political reconciliation. Overcoming historic and present theological differences will likely require cultivating and embodying virtues like hospitality, humility, and courage using tactics common in community organizing (e.g., one-to-one meetings, power and stakeholder analysis, research, and listening campaigns). 33. By “institutions,” I am referring to durable organizations rather than individuals or even more ephemeral groups of people. For more on institutions see: Bretherton (2019), Crouch (2013), Heclo (2008), Hunter (2010), Rowe (2021) and Levin (2020).
34. In To Change the World, Hunter argues institutions and networks are the foundation of culture and critical to cultural change. Institutions are composed of individuals, but they are more than the sum of their parts. Institutions have their logic and culture which is greater and goes beyond even those in the top echelons of those institutions. "In short, individuals and institutions are inseparable. Institutions cannot exist without the individuals who make them work, but individuals cannot be understood outside of the institutions that form them and frame all of their activity. That said, in the formation of culture, one should not be under the illusion that [the influence] is evenly balanced. While individuals are not powerless by any stretch of the imagination, institutions have much greater power" (Hunter, 2010). 35. Philpott calls this approach “rooted reason.” Instead of pursuing a Rawlsian “overlapping consensus” through discarding one’s tradition, Philpott and Bretherton argue for an ethic of political reconciliation and democratic engagement in which people and institutions build a common life with others using the resources, practices, and ideas of their specific tradition—whether religious (e.g, Christian) or non-religious. The “rooted reason” and consociational paradigms allow for the possibility that beliefs about justice from different traditions may have resonances and similarities. This approach carries hope for reaching an agreement on shared problems, solutions and actions—even if that agreement is held together by differing views of what is good, true, beautiful, and just. In MacTyre’s terms, this is not an act of translation; instead, this is a pragmatic “process of mutual resonance and comparison” for the sake of building a common life with others across difference (Philpott, 2015).
36. In Life Together, Bonhoeffer writes “Many people seek a sympathetic ear and do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking even when they should be listening. But Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer listen to God.” Similarly, in his epistle, James seems to closely link “being quick to listen and slow to speak” with being “doers of the word and not merely hears” (James 1:19, 22-25).
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