racism and reconciliation: why is it so hard?


Last week, I shared a post entitled “a nation of cowards” and asked if we’re indeed cowards when it comes to the conversation of racism and the continuous work towards reconciliation.

One thing that is clear to me is that the [C]hurch is quite silent.  We talk often of reconciliation that’s necessary between God and humanity but need to do keep pushing forward about how our faith informs and transforms our relationship with one another.

In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. [Galatians 3.28/the message]

Why is racism such a difficult topic and issue – including for Christians?  Well, here are some of my reasons:

  1. It’s hard work.  And people can be lazy.  And talking about racism is an exhausting conversation because it brings up some deep questions. Reconciliation is hard work.  The need for reconcilation assumes that something is broken; something is not as it was intended to be.
  2. Something called ‘Life.’  There’s lots of other things going on – umm, like the financial recession. There’s more important things going on.
  3. And how is this part of the gospel?
  4. Confusion.  People don’t like confusion.  Folks like clarity and certainty.  We like answers.
  5. Conflict. People don’t like conflict and well, the conversation of racism provokes conflict and strong opinions.
  6. Fear. People are afraid.  Afraid to consider the possibilities that we’re racist, prejudiced or implicated by our silence.  Afraid to consider that we live as victims in a ‘victimized’ mentality.  Afraid to consider that we need to “give up” something.  Afraid to “count the costs.”
  7. Apathy. People don’t care.  We’re apathetic.  And this is probably the scariest reason.
  8. What? We don’t think it exists.  What racism? What prejudice?  And this is probably as scary as #6.  
  9. How?  People don’t know how to talk about racism.  We don’t have an agreed upon framework to engage the conversation and move towards peace and reconciliation.  
  10. We want to forget the past and just “move forward.”  It’s over.  Heck, Obama is President. It’s a new day.
  11. [Insert your additional thoughts here…]

The topics of racism, prejudice, and reconciliation are  indeed painful conversations.  While I don’t necessarily believe that the answer lies exclusively with the Church, I do believe the answer lies with the Gospel.  It lies ultimately with the message of ‘shalom’ that God intended for humanity to live in fellowship with God and with one another – because we are created in the image of God.

Check out this video about one way we can engage the discussion about racism.  Far too often, we end up implicating ‘the person’ leading to lots of anger, confusion, and defensiveness.  Many times, it’s best to isolate the act and begin from there.  

37 Replies to “racism and reconciliation: why is it so hard?”

  1. I’d just like to recommend a book (even though I know you’ve probably already determined your list of 23 for the year) but it’s a fantastic book on racial reconciliation which, to me, is more of what you’re getting at. The book is called The Heart of Racial Reconciliation and it’s authored by Brenda Salter-McNeil. She actually co-authored the book but I cannot remember the guy’s name. Anyway, it’s an eye-opening read and completely worth it, especially in terms of how we help the church move towards reconciliation.

  2. #9 We just don’t know how to have the conversation. What can we say?
    What can’t we say?
    How do we say?
    I’ll sound stupid if I ask that.
    What will they think of me if I admit I have felt/thought—–?

  3. @ John M

    At Quest, they have a class that they hold yearly called Faith and Race where they create a safe space for reading/hearing/learning about the issue and where questions can be asked and objections raised. At times it feels a bit like marching into a field littered with land mines with the hopes of defusing a few and while a month’s worth of once-per-week meetings/classes can’t solve the problem, it does a great job of highlighting the problems that surround race. And that’s a start.

    Speaking for myself, I’m third generation Asian-American and I learned about how fortunate I was to have grown up in Hawaii where Asians make up a majority of the population (about 40 percent whereas Whites make up about 26 percent). It was painful to hear the stories of the other Asian-Americans in my discussion group talk about what they experienced growing up in the mainland. (I wrote more about the class here)

    Besides the Faith and Race class, Quest also does a great job of making sure that no single race dominates any aspect of the church. In particular, I know they do their best to schedule a mix of races in the especially visible parts of the service – the worship team and the people serving communion.

    And it works.

    I don’t have stats on the racial makeup of the church but we are a pretty diverse group.

  4. Why must we have a “conversation” about racism? The best way to end racism isn’t to talk about it, it’s to stop being racist.

    When I was a kid growing up in my lower middle class blue collar home, my dad effectively ended racism in our family by not acting like a racist. That means we had people of every color, culture and ethnicity in our home, and every status from the “important” to the lowest. They were all treated the same, with grace, love and unqualified acceptance.

    If we as kids at any time didn’t treat people with that respect, we were corrected. No discussion, just a quick education on respect and how God sees us all. Of course, in my old school Italian family, that didn’t come as a lecture 😉

    So, again to the point. We don’t need a conversation about racism, we need to stop being racist. It doesn’t require lots of words, it doesn’t require ascension of the mind – it requires us getting the mind of Christ. There isn’t need for discussion, there’s a need for seeking the Lord in prayer and being willing to be changed from the inside out by HIS love.

    Of course, if someone isn’t a Christian (which I wasn’t when I was a kid, though I was a church-goer) then it’s still as simple as making the decision. Don’t talk about it, change your mind – the rest will follow.

  5. @Phillip

    Well said. How do our day-to-day actions “speak” against racism, and affirm the worth of everyone? That’s what counts. There’s a place for conversations. Yet I feel that conversations must edify, encourage and inspire faith to act justly and live humbly before God. Otherwise, what’s the point of simply having more “talk”?

  6. p.e.: I appreciate your list of ten reasons why we don’t talk about race. Your tone in this post suggests that this might be a new topic to you but we know that you’ve dealt with this issue head-on for a very long time.

    I think the comments on this post are also some good examples of why it’s so hard to talk about racism. From my perspective it seems like it’s a lack of well-defined goals in the conversation. Are we trying to just stop racist actions? Or are we trying to remove the walls of identity groups that give particular cultures their unique history? Are we trying to build friendships between people across ethnic lines? Or are we just trying to get a multicolor church to be a place of less discomfort (or more discomfort?)?

    I feel like I’ve been involved in so many of these conversations that I should have some sort of certification (“associates degree of shutting the hell up for a while” seems appropriate). But whenever the topic comes up I’m sad to find that I’m still a white guy who’s first instinct is to make excuses for racist behavior, to steer the conversation toward the ideas of race and away from the people and events involved, and I always grow weary of the conversation too quickly.

    Your list is excellent. But the reason I have trouble talking about race is that I’m ashamed of how little I’ve accomplished in all the previous conversations. I still can’t see the world very well through Korean eyes. I still can’t quite picture growing up Chinese-American. I still don’t understand what it means to be African American without relying on examples from film and music. I have virtually no concept of what it means to be an American Indian, an Muslim, a Hindu, or a refugee in Seattle.

    I want to love my brothers and sisters better so when the topic is brought up I try to engage. But I’m caught in the paradox of just how large this problem is: I need encouragement and help for every pathetic step I take in the direction of empathy. But for others to recognize those tiny steps as if they were progress would trivialize and minimize their wounds.

    Thanks for never giving up on this topic Eugene.

  7. I’ve been in many conversations about racism over the past several years and one consistency that I’ve noticed is that people need some type of incentive or reason to care about this discourse; which is understandable, I think. If you attempt to engage me in dialogue about astronomy (or any analogous subject of which I have no interest), I’d probably give you about five minutes to tell me ‘why I should care’ before I completely turn a deaf ear to you. The church often points to scripture as to ‘why’ one should care, but I think most church folks often dismiss the hermeneutical case with this thought; “I love Jesus, I love my neighbors, and I am not a racist.” I think the real question is what is the incentive for God fearing, neighbor-loving, non-racist, church going folks to engage in discourse about racism.

    @ Phillip—
    I understand the intent of your argument, but I also think there is great value in offering a prophetic voice against injustice and in this case, against racism. Many children do not have parents that are willing to show them how “not act like a racist,” therefore I think the church could be the conscience that is missing from the home. MLK’s discourse raised the conscience of our nation. Can you imagine how many people had to confront their own racism after hearing I Have a Dream? I agree that actions are important, but it is often through conversation and public rhetoric that we are challenged to behave differently. I will also add that even if we could change the hearts of individuals we still have to deal with institutional and systematic racism, which is often combated via public discourse.

  8. Ok, this pulls me out of lurking. I’m the only white member at a black church outside Washington DC, so my perspective on this may be skewed.

    I think the video is great, but only at the “brown belt” level because it still allows the intervener to feel superior. For two flavors of a black belt approach, I suggest a book about a black musician who busted up several KKK cells here in the East by walking in to them, sitting down with a notepad and saying, “Now explain to me…why is it you believe biracial marriage should be outlawed?” and then listening patiently and asking probing questions (as reviewed at my blog Transcend and Include.

    The other approach employed by my favorite fundamentalist pastor is humor that is over the top and down the other side, as in his sermon on the Obama inauguration.

    And by the way, I was Google-snared into this blog by its title and then by the hip/humble spaciousness of “Why I blog.” I like the feeling here.

  9. Have you ever heard of people who were instantly healed of terrible diseases, drug addictions or whatever? Something sort of like that happened to me. I did not want to treat anyone different because of race (and several other things). I asked God to help me with that, and now I cannot see a person’s race when I look at them. I know that some of my neighbors and people we associate with are of various races, because sometimes my wife or someone else tells me. But I usually can’t remember who. Different, huh? But it’s fine by me.

    I don’t mention this to people I know because I don’t think they believe me. But it’s the way I am now, and I hope to always be this way. I don’t know if there is anyone else like this or not.

  10. Neglecting talk and assuming that if you try to ignore thoughts that may come into your head, fears or anger, and to put up a facade so that you are not “acting racist” will not end racism. That discussion must happen no matter how weary and tired and hurt you get. If you truly are a follower of Jesus than you should be committed to the journey, which is a very long road.

    The prejudices and racism still live within us, even in our multicultural lives and we must deal with it, no matter what race you are. In the right spirit, and if we are HONEST in our conversations, do not stay on the surface, as many of these conversations can truly stay at, the we as Christians can began to honestly live as God intends us to.

    Do we want to be as Christians? Then do not ignore what we should be doing and hide behind other causes, treating them as more important or too “time-consuming”. They are all connected, in some way and you are going to have to address the systems and institutions in place and question the hows and whys. If we want change, the church should be leading it.

    p.s. Some of the God-fearing, non-racist church folks- they are racist.

  11. For [insert additional reasons], I would insert Pride. At least, I would say that is true of me. It’s easy to slip into a mindset of: But I’m a good, progressive person; I couldn’t possibly say or do anything racist. Being confronted by your racism is pretty humbling.

  12. @ Sam,
    I think when God looks at people He see
    s there race because He made them that way. I don’t think God is “color blind” because He created and celebrateds race and sent His Son to die for a “colorful bride.” Rev. 5:9

    I think that we should see color and not ignore but celebrate it. Color blindness to me is a subtle way of not dealing with racist tendancies. I want you to see my color and then in turn worship the one who made me different than you (and vice versa).

    Just my thoughts!

  13. Interesting post… it touched on a couple of issues that are dear to me.

    I believe that it is an issue that exists today, and it is an issue that the church should not be timid about discussing.

    Since I have been researching this issue for a book I am writing, my eyes have been opened…

  14. Excellent post, Eugene. I think the video makes a very important distinction – after all, we know teachers by their fruits, and we do want to make it a point to evaluate the behaviour without judging the person.


  15. I understand what you are trying to say, but we also must watch trivializing issues of race and culture. Fore example, a few years ago the Seattle City Schools on its website had definitions of “cultural racism,” and while it did not name Christianity by name, it basically said that a belief system like that of Christianity was “racist.”

    (In fact, on your church’s website, the “What We Believe” section would have been deemed racist by the government in your city, something to think about in the future.) Obviously, we had a situation in which someone was trying to find racism where it did not exist, and that is a real problem when we say we want to “dialog” on racism.

    I was involved with what is called the Duke lacrosse case, and I can tell you that the young men were indicted precisely for racial reasons. In fact, one of the students at the mostly-black North Carolina Central University in Durham told Newsweek that there should be trials and convictions even if the lacrosse players had not done anything only because they were white.

    That case was an eye-opener for me, for I saw some of the old “stalwarts” of the Civil Rights movement doing and saying things that would have been the norm in Scottsboro, Alabama, during the Scottsboro Boys case. It made me realize that the typical “dialog” that is being demanded really is no dialog at all, but just a monologue.

    I strongly believe that we need to address issues of racism today, but we have to be realistic and not trivialize things. What happened in Seattle in my view actually made things worse.

  16. @randall: thanks for sharing what that looks like at quest.

    one more thing i’d add is that we try to engage these topics as they come up in the scriptures from the pulpit. i think that’s important that we’re not afraid to share how faith informs and transforms us, life, and culture from the pulpit

    @jack danger canty: thanks.

  17. At this stage of my life I guess I’m more interested in hearing people’s stories.

    What’s our story among those of us who feel so strongly about racism?

    What’s our story among those of us who feel less strongly?

    What’s your story, Eugene?

    Obviously, I don’t expect those kinds of stories on this string, but maybe that’s another way to approach such a loaded topic.

    Part of my experience was many years living as ‘white guy and family’ (whatever that may mean) among very poor Latinos and blacks (whatever those terms may mean) in inner city settings in LA.

    Many of us in those neighborhoods learned, eventually, that telling stories and listening to stories get you a lot further along the road to ‘racial’ reconciliation than ideology and abstract discussions of racism.

    I have a long term weakness for abstractions, so I continue to think that abstractly discussing/arguing/bashing each other over the head re ‘race’ will get us somewhere. But my experience tells me different.

  18. This is a great post, thank you! I’ve been musing over a very similiar list of reasons for racial apathy. I think one was illustrated in a comment above: the belief that if we don’t talk about it, it will go away.

    As a transracially adoptive family, this is a topic that is important to me, and I do think the church has been silent. I love my church very much, but I am constantly discouraged that our services do not relfect our community racially. Church remains very segreated, in all cities in America. It’s time to talk about why.

  19. also, our faith often looks at “sin” in terms of humanity’s schism with God, but to consider sin as something social often becomes suspect, usually reserved for the more progressive theological thinkers. But the orthodox are often afraid to touch it, lest we be labeled “social gospel”. Unfortunately sin is perceived too individualistically today. We need to talk about racism as well as act against it.

    I love how one Latin American theologian calls this understanding of “sin that is social” = the hamartiosphere.

  20. Where are the opportunities????????????

    This is YESTERDAY’s topic so I doubt anyone will read it today or tomorrow but an opportunity (and they are rare) is J2M.

    The conference “Journey to Mosaic”.

    What are some other real chances to communicate, mingle and understand?

  21. because there is no end point to the discussion. When will we know that we’ve arrived? When will people be satisfied? What is it we’re aiming for as it relates to this issue? Within the church the goal is a community of grace and shalom under gird by the spirit of God, and yet that is only possible because of the presence of the Holy Spirit. What can we expect from the unredeemed world outside the purview of the rule of grace?

    We cannot ever expect the world to be a place of grace. Light and darkness have nothing to do with one another and when we expect or seek to impose the principles or morality of the kingdom apart from the grace of God, we end in totalitarianism.

  22. I can also attest to the effectiveness of Journey to Mosaic. I haven’t been on the J2M journey yet myself but I did something similar at North Park called the Sankofa… and yes, it was very humbling and transformative.

    and by the way, thanks for posting that illdoctrine video… that thing was OFF THE HOOK!!! Loved the way Jay Smooth articulated that. Focus on the What You Did conversation, not the What You Are conversation.

  23. I agree with most of your points. The “racism” issue is one that is often pushed under the rug because it is such an emotional issue.Yes, most people are afraid to even bring up the subject while others simply ignore the scars that racism has left, as if it doesnt exist. As Christians, the Church must be the leader in this issue. For me, the first question I would like to ask in a dialogue such as this is, “How do we, the Church set an example for the world, when many of our churches remain segregated?”

  24. Sorry to come in so late again but it seems important.

    @elderj–I agree that we can’t ever expect the world to be a place of grace and light.

    But what do you do when the U.S. church–in any meaningful specific sense–is more segregated by class, culture, and race–I list those factors in the order of importance I think they have today as agents of segregation–than almost any other important institution in US society?

    When ‘the world’ kicks our supposedly righteous butts, maybe it’s time to stop talking and start jumping :^)

  25. @Tom – the world doesn’t, in my view, “kick our butts” because the world operates in the realm of law and not grace. The institutions of secular society are integrated by force, not by choice, with all the attendant self righteousness that entails, particularly on university campuses which fancy themselves modern day temples, with professors and provosts as high priest of our secular faith.

    Another issue which we ignore is that the “church” is not confined to the local congregation, which is necessarily differentiated if for no other reason that that everyone cannot attend one church. If one takes all the churches in a city, one would find that the church in that city is more diverse in every dimension than any comparable institution. Unfortunately we tend to look at any one local congregation and assume from the demographics of that group that the church is somehow behind the curve.

    I do not mean though that there are no places of growth or challenge for us. There are. Besides, I think people would be pretty unnerved if every church perfectly reflected the demographics of their local community.

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