How the Church can Foster Healing and Reconciliation
“Now in spite of the fact that I’m worried about America, I always maintain hope… And if there is any one thing that the church must do is to keep the flame of hope burning. The church is something of the custodian of hopefulness. And when everybody else loses hope, when other institutions lose hope, the church is that one institution that must keep hope alive.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., The Meaning of Hope (04/10/67)
It’s been said that America’s original sin is racism. Indeed, the parchment upon which America’s history has been written is stained by its treatment of people of color for more than 400 years. Despite taking many great steps forward in the past century, racial tensions remain and have often boiled over – resulting in the violence, even death, that continue to plague our communities today. Eight years ago, Americans elected then-Senator Barack Obama to be the 44th President of the United States, and pointed to that historic moment as a symbol of America’s biggest step into a post-racial era in American history. Nevertheless, as the last four years have demonstrated, the road toward racial healing remains long and arduous.
The reality here is that racial tensions in the United States of America have been the subject of conversation for many years. Most recently, media reports of police brutality, along with beliefs of worsening systemic issues impacting minority communities, have sparked intense demonstrations, even violent riots, in cities across this nation. The tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Missouri, Philando Castile in Minnesota, and many others have acted as salt on a very old wound that has remained unhealed for generations. In all, the cry for change remains the same, and grows louder each passing day.
For our young people in particular, the sense that things are not right, and that they must not remain the same, have resulted in the rise of groups like #BlackLivesMatter. Many of these young people expressly hold Christian communities at an unhealthy distance thanks mainly to their skepticism of what positive contribution the “Church” might actually bring to this dire issue. For example, according to research from American Bible Society, when asked about their perceptions concerning the Bible, many people used terms like “racially oppressive” and “dangerous” to describe the Scriptures – even highlighting how the Bible has been used in the past to support racial injustice.
Still, there remains a bright opportunity to help reframe the current narrative around race in this country, while also demonstrating for those who are skeptical of the role of the Church/Bible that it has something positive to offer to this critical issue. And for those who work with our young people, there is a great opportunity here to help this generation see the relevance and essential responsibility the Church has to play in fostering healing and reconciliation in our communities.
Here are some tips:
Courageous Conversations Matter
Young people are looking for Christians, and by extension our communities, to lean into the big issues that are framing their worldview – i.e. race, sexuality, politics, etc. As 1 Peter 3:15 teaches us, we should always be prepared to help others understand the hope that we have, despite the trying times we find ourselves living in. We can only do that if we’re endeavoring to wrestle right alongside our young people with these big issues. In doing so, not only will we find that young people are more open to engaging the Scriptures and our Christian communities around issues like race, but we’ll also find opportunities to equip our young people to leverage the Bible and their faith to advance positive change in their communities.
Gracious Spaces Are Healing Spaces
At a time where tolerance has become synonymous with intolerance, the need for spaces that allow for divergent opinions to engage in constructive and civil ways are all the more important if we hope to undo the fraying of our society. Luke 6:31 reminds us that we are to treat others as we would want them to treat us. And as our different cultural experiences come into greater proximity to one another, the need to extend grace to those whose views and experiences seem foreign to us is all the more critical. For young people especially, we must both provide spaces for them to wrestle with opinions, ideas and viewpoints that may differ from ours and their peers, while also equipping them to create these same spaces in their own lives as they go out into a world where their cultural and racial experiences will inevitably conflict with those of others.
Lead with Compassionate Conviction
Far too often we start with the wrong question, wrestling with whether or not our actions or answers should compromise to accommodate culture, or hold to what we know to be “true.” And while our core biblical values should guide all that we do, there is a model in Scripture that should prompt us to move beyond empathy toward compassion, while still being obedient to God. The model of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) demonstrates for us what it looks like to see beyond our own implicit biases – or those of others – and to be moved by compassion to meet people at the point of their needs. It is essential that we help our young people to identify and overcome their implicit biases, and to develop their ability to both empathize and be compassionate towards those who look different and/or have different experiences then their own.
However, this isn’t some either-or scenario. Demonstrating compassion does not mean that we must compromise our convictions. On the contrary, our core convictions, when rooted in our faith in Jesus, should lead us to live as he did, loving others and pointing them back to the Father in all we say and do. Our task then must be to help our young people to develop a faith so deeply rooted in God and His Word, that their compassionate callings to be God’s hands and feet are never seen to conflict with their core convictions.
Indeed, race may well in fact be the most important issue of our time. It is without question that the historical challenges between racial minorities and the racial majority continue to exist today, though their outward expressions have changed thanks in no small part to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. Positive systemic changes have been made since that time, though darkness persists in the hearts of all people. The good news here is that there is growing universal agreement that not only is race still a problem in America (84% of Americans agree), but also that Christian communities have a critical role to play in advancing healing and change (73% of Americans say so). But the question remains: what is it that fueled the success of Civil Rights legends like Dr. King, and that enabled them to stand in the face of what seemed like insurmountable odds? Dr. King spoke of this fuel in his sermon to the congregation of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1967 – pointing to something that seems so simple, yet so elusive in divisive times like ours… Hope.
One of our greatest responsibilities as leaders tasked with engaging, equipping and serving a generation of young people, will be to help them maintain and leverage hope as the catalyst to transforming their world and overcoming the racial divisions that increasingly tear at their communities. Fortunately, as Christians, we hold fast to the greatest hope of all – Jesus. And as his followers, our task is to usher that hope into all of creation so that all may experience that “Kingdom-come” that Jesus instructed us to pray consistently for. Dr. King may have captured this the best in that same sermon he gave in 1967:
“And this is what Jesus meant when he said one day, ‘Don’t wait for the kingdom in some distant tomorrow.’… You don’t need to wait until a hundred years from now for the kingdom. Get in the kingdom now. Whenever you love, the kingdom is present. Whenever you love truth, whenever you love justice, whenever you do right, the kingdom is present. The kingdom of God is in you. And realistic hope recognizes that that which is hoped-for, is already here to a degree in the sense that it is in the person as a power that drives him (or her) to bring into being the object of their hope.”
Arthur L. Satterwhite III serves as a Senior Manager at American Bible Society, where he currently oversees efforts to reach and serve national Protestant communities. He has a B.S. in Business/Marketing from Monmouth University and an M.A. in Religious Education from New York Theological Seminary. He has nearly a decade of experience in church leadership and is working on his doctorate in strategic leadership with a focus on organizational change/development and intergenerational leadership. For more information on American Bible Society, visit: http://american.bible/
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.