Messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention’s recently concluded annual meeting in Phoenix found themselves on an unexpected hot seat.
The source of the heat was their handling of a proposed resolution that said, among other things, “there has arisen in the United States a growing menace to political order and justice that seeks to reignite social animosities, reverse improvements in race relations, divide our people, and foment hatred, classism, and ethnic cleansing.” The proposed resolution, submitted by Dwight McKissic, a “prominent black pastor in Texas,” also named names: “white nationalism” and the “Alt-Right.”
After an initial refusal to consider the resolution, the messengers overwhelmingly voted for an alternative resolution, drafted with the assistance of Russell Moore, that condemned the “Alt-Right”—but not before, as The Atlantic’s Emma Green, who broke the story, put it, “all Hell broke loose.”
The irruption from Hades was escalated by a tweet by white supremacist “leader” Richard Spencer that read, “So apparently the Southern Baptists Convention *didn’t* denounce the Alt-Right after all. Interesting development!” (When the SBC adopted a resolution condemning white supremacy, Spencer replied, “Jesus never complained about racism.”)
Since knowing that the SBC calls delegates “messengers” just about exhausts my knowledge about the denomination’s procedures and politics, I’ll leave it to others to explain and comment on what happened from the perspective of Southern Baptists.
But there is one aspect of the story that you don’t need to be a Southern Baptist to understand: the limits and pitfalls of “racial reconciliation.”
Yes, those are scare quotes. They’re necessary, at least this one time, because what is called “reconciliation” in this context isn’t, despite the best of intentions, really reconciliation. What’s more, “reconciliation” is probably the wrong word for what we should be after in the area of race relations.
For most people, “reconciliation” means, as Webster’s defines it, “to restore to friendship or harmony.” For example: Two people, whom I’ll call Charlie and Jason, used to be friends until they had a falling out. At that point they are estranged, which comes from the Old French estranger and the Latin extraneare “to treat as a stranger,” i.e., someone who does not belong to your family.
At some point, Charlie, Jason, or both, decide to patch things up. One or the other, or even both, apologize for the offense that caused the estrangement; they exchange forgiveness and commit to restoring their friendship. At that point they are reconciled to one another.
The problem with using the word “reconciliation” is that it defines the problem of race relations in the Church as one of bad feelings: hurt, anger, resentment, etc.. Thus, the solution is to bring the parties together, exchange apologies, and commit to working on the relationship.
This, in turn, assumes a pre-existing friendship or harmony that never really existed.
For four centuries, white American Christianity and African-American Christianity have operated on parallel tracks—tracks that were laid by white American Christians. This was most obvious in the antebellum period, when, by way of defending slavery, slave-owners closely monitored, and often prohibited altogether, the practice of Christianity among enslaved African-Americans.
This laying down of separate tracks didn’t end with Emancipation. Jim Crow laws ensured that Sunday was just as segregated as, if not more segregated than, Monday through Saturday. (Actually more so, since whites and African-Americans had more chance of interacting in the marketplace or the domestic sphere than they did in church.)
While Jim Crow laws didn’t make explicit references to religion, they were passed by people who called themselves “Christians,” and, if nothing else, acquiesced to and even defended by other Christians.
Saying that white and African-American Christians have been estranged, and thus, in need of reconciliation, ignores history. African Americans Christians have always been treated as strangers.
If “reconciliation” is the wrong word, then what is the right one? I’d like to suggest “reckoning.”
The cover story of the June 2014 issue of the Atlantic was “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Now, the word “reparations” is enough to scare most people off. What comes to mind are questions such as “Who owes what to whom?” “How much?” and other questions about logistics and fairness, including the complicity of people whose families only recently arrived in the United States.
Try to set aside those questions and just read the article for the story it tells about one neighborhood in Chicago. Then multiply that story times countless other communities. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to disagree with Coates when he says, “The wealth gap [between whites and African-Americans] merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say—that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution.”
Coates continues, “What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”
“Reckoning” comes from an Old English word which means “to explain, relate, recount, arrange in order.” In the case of race relations, this reckoning would include an honest coming to terms with our history and, just as important, the ways that it continues to shape the present.
It’s commendable that many Christians, most notably the Southern Baptist Convention, are acknowledging the ways that their ancestors failed their African-American brethren. It’s not enough. While slavery, Jim Crow, and terroristic violence are, thankfully in the past, their effects endure. And anyone who thinks that discrimination against African-Americans in areas such as housing, employment, and the criminal justice system has ceased is simply wrong.
As long as we talk about “reconciliation” we will never understand or acknowledge the ongoing impact of past injustices. We will continue to look at the problems in some African-American communities and simply ascribe them to some deficiency in “culture,” as if living in a society where government officials were indifferent to a toxic chemical in your drinking water doesn’t make a difference.
We won’t ask ourselves why it is that while whites are more likely to deal drugs, blacks are more likely to be arrested for it. We will assume that there’s nothing to see here.
Of course, there is something to see, and our brethren spend a lot of their lives looking at it. Until we acknowledge this fact, the tracks will continue to run parallel to each other.
Image courtesy of Yurich84 at iStock by Getty Images. Illustration designed by Heidi Allums.
Roberto Rivera is senior fellow at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. For nearly 20 years he has been chief writer for the BreakPoint Radio commentary program. His “Internally Displaced Person” is a mostly regular column at BreakPoint.org. His writings have appeared in Touchstone, First Things, and Sojourners. He lives with his son in Alexandria, Virginia.