THE BLOG
09/05/2014 11:16 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2014

No More 'Reconciliation' Talk

This post is mostly for other white Christians.

It's not about what we should all be doing today in response to what's happening in #ferguson and dozens of other cities today. Nearly two weeks into this spreading eruption, there's so much powerful and precise writing out there now on that, that not a one among us can possibly say again, "I'm so upset and outraged, but I just don't know what a white person's to do."

Find something. Do it. Right now.

But this post is about the longer haul, when the tear gas canisters are finally empty. It's for those of us who love to talk about "racial reconciliation." About "welcome" and "inclusion."

I'd bet a lot of money that if you're a liberal white Christian, you recognize these concepts very well.

Racial reconciliation.

It's the official way we justice-loving, liberal (white) Protestants have talked about how we should respond to racism since the civil rights era came to a close. It's the most persistent path we've chosen in our pursuit of the interracial healing and togetherness we seem to know (or think) we need.

And that's what this long-haul post is about.

We white Christians who love to talk about reconciliation need to stop.

However else we respond to this most recent explosion of violence, it's my earnest prayer that those of us who believe love and justice is at the heart of the gospel will finally recognize this:

  • That reconciliation isn't enough;
  • That white Christians don't get to use that word anymore.

Reconciliation can't begin to get us into the kind of responses that the death of Michael Brown -- one among a relentless many (every 28 hours in the U.S.; see the ever powerful and brilliant Mia McKenzie on this) -- demands of those of us who claim we justice, love and Jesus.

Reconciliation can't begin to get us into a place of dealing with the actual depth of racial alienation and black oppression in the United States that Ferguson reveals still exist these 50 years after the civil rights movement that white Christians (like me) love to wax eloquent about.

Ferguson is hard-core confirmation of what a failure our 50 years of reconciliation-talk in (still) white Protestant churches and denominations has been.

Nothing about this is a surprise. And the demand to stop talking about reconciliation isn't new.

What's happening in Ferguson is no surprise to most African Americans in the United States. It's an atrocity. It's a horror and an outrage. But it's not a surprise.

Those of us who are surprised just haven't been listening very closely.

But the reality is that liberal white Christians -- including those who had become allies in the civil rights movement -- stopped listening to black Christians by end of the 1960s.

Ferguson demands we white Christians stop talking about reconciliation and start telling the truth about our own history. Or, it may be we need to learn our own history for the first time.

By the end of the 1960s many black Christians starting advocating the same analyses the larger Black Power movement was insistent on. Black Christians started saying that visions of "beloved community" would not be enough to disrupt the cycles of police violence, economic deprivation, disenfranchisement the black community contended with every day.

Black Christians started saying that reconciliation was not enough! Instead, they said, white Christians needed to start with two other more obvious "R's."

Repentance.

Repair.

When black Christians started saying that? White Christians fled the scene.

There's a much longer story to be told here. But the point is that Ferguson is one more moment when we can see that our (mostly) white choice to continue down the "reconciliation" path back then (black Christians' voices be damned) was a failure in the face of prescient, incisive, and prophetic analysis of black clergy and laity engaged with Black Power. Black Christians said then -- and many have continued saying since -- that without white repentance and active, concrete material repair of social structures and inequity... well, as much as appearances might change, the more things stay the same.

So please, for the long haul, this time as I listen to white siblings speak up a bit more than we usually do about the atrocities and realities of race in this nation in the ongoing eruption of Ferguson?

  • A moratorium on the word "reconciliation" leaving the lips white Christians;
  • We have no right to utter anything other than the words "repentance" and "repair" and to engage in the actions that must accompany such words to give them any meaning for a long time to come.

Earlier this week I sat proofing text from my forthcoming book Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Reconciliation amid the swirl of outrage, grief, despair, and many other feelings I (like many of you) am being consumed by.

And I read this passage I wrote a year ago:

White Christians today are much less familiar with the Black Power movement than they are with civil rights. This lack of familiarity is not an historical accidental. While many northern, white Christians were eventually converted to the cause and vision of the Civil Rights Movement, they overwhelmingly rejected Black Power. . .

[But] the way in which we remember the Civil Rights Movement, which typically involves telling a triumphant tale of successful social transformation, is deeply inaccurate. By the end of the 1960s many Black Americans--including Black Christians--were not hailing civil rights as the success we hail it today. In contrast, the end of the 1960s found many African Americans in a state of despair and outrage. Such despair and outrage was less a response to innate weaknesses of the movement itself than to the persistence of white intransigence and the ongoing Black suffering such intransigence ensured despite the brilliance, longevity and human cost of the movement.

When we misremember civil rights we forget and ignore the analysis of civil rights African Americans rendered at the time, as well as the festering and deepening racial alienation that marked its end. Simply put, neither within nor outside the church did we leave the civil rights movement a relatively unified collective needing merely to complete the unfinished vision articulated by King and so many others.

We left the movement with Blacks increasingly persuaded that key assumptions of the movement were not viable: that, at their core, liberal whites were not interested in a deeply transformed social and economic order despite what they claimed, that the witness of nonviolent suffering would not ultimately trigger a humane response among more recalcitrant whites despite the power of nonviolent civil disobedience, that the primary analysis, interpretations and responses of the Civil Rights Movement had not put us on essentially the right national path for realizing racial justice. In short, though one might not now it when we listen to our public recollections today, we did not come to the end of civil rights with most Black Americans embracing the movement having been a widely realized success.

The more things appear to change, the more the stay the same.

Were we interested in a deeply transformed social and economic order then? Are we interested in it now?

Ferguson will reveal much more about the state of the white Christian soul than it already has.

So please, no more reconciliation talk fellow white Christians. If/when the tear gas stops raining down in Missouri, it's past time we confine ourselves to the prayers and activities of repentance and repair.