Justice, then Reconciliation

Photo by Anna J. Yoder. Click through to view her portfolio.

Photo by Anna J. Yoder. Click through to view her portfolio.

We use the language of reconciliation fairly often in Christian social justice circles. Sometimes we offer ourselves synonyms like diversity or multiculturalism, but I think it's really important for us to explore the realities of practicing reconciliation. The fact that there is no singular definition of racial reconciliation, practically speaking, has created a situation where we are not entirely sure when we're doing it and when we are failing miserably at it. So let's explore the requirements for reconciliation to take place.

Heres what many think reconciliation looks like:

1. Having friends of color
2. Having diverse congregations
3. Serving in justice ministries
4. Hiring a person of color

I know this is going to be a little disheartening, so I am just going to say it. None of these things fall under the umbrella of reconciliation without one very large precondition: Justice.

Thats right. You could have an Asian friend, attend a diverse church, read to Latino children after school, and hire a Black speaker for the conference you're planning--- and still you may not actually be practicing reconciliation in your life. Why? Because none of these things require the presence of justice, equality, shared power.

Reconciliation is what we practice after we have chosen justice.

Reconciliation requires far more than hugs, small talk, and coffee dates. Being nice is well... nice, but it is not reconciliation. Reconciliation is what we do as we listen to hard truths from the marginalized among us. As our friends point out how troubling our words have been, how hurtful our actions have been, it's our reaction that determines whether or not we are practicing reconciliation. Drinking in the words. Sitting in the pain. Committing to understanding. Committing to doing better. Desiring the hard truths because they lead to growth. These are the sign posts on the path of reconciliation. It's spending time in each other's spaces- physical space, head space, heart space. And it's creating shared spaces where both can breathe freely.

Reconciliation requires more than a rainbow of skin-tones at the 11:00 o'clock service. Diversity without justice is assimilation. And assimilation makes clear whose culture is the favored one, the good one, the right one, the holy one. If your culture is the standard for rightness, you have found the Imago Dei in others to be insufficient. It is the definition of racism- the assumed superiority of your race, your culture, your way of being. We can discuss who is assimilating into what, how and why, but a pound of diversity without an ounce of justice, is not reconciliation. Reconciliation is how we respond after being told we are racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, agist, ableist congregation hiding behind platitudes of love rather than acting justly. Reconciliation is having our hearts broken that people are experiencing these things, not having our feelings hurt for being called out on it. Reconciliation is staying in relationship until all these are cast out and love reigns.

Reconciliation requires more than hiring a person of color. Reconciliation is when we cheer for decisions to implement new, just policies and processes. Reconciliation is our commitment to stay in organizations that restructure leadership positions and add co-positions in order to place marginalized voices front and center. If your leadership (or speaker line-up or authors or cabinet or board of directors or elders or management) is monocultural, you should ask yourself whether or not you have bought into the lie- that whiteness is preferable. Could it be that your leadership reflects a belief (conscious or not) that leaders must be like you? Act like you. Speak like you. Dress like you. Think like you. If you have a negative reaction to sharing power, raising up new leaders, adding decision-makers who embody diverse experiences, you're not ready for the work of reconciliation.

Reconciliation requires more than serving people of color. Reconciliation is what we do while we confess the ways folks have been excluded, left out, cast aside, downgraded, and treated only as recipients of paternalistic spirituality. If you only encounter "the other" through participation in a clear hierarchy of power and therefore value, it might be service, but it is not reconciliation. Are you in a position of equality or subordination to those you "serve"? Are you just the feet to the plan created by those experiencing homelessness? Are you advocating according to the instructions of those who eat at your food pantry? Are you learning the Scriptures from those who are imprisoned? Are you so valuing the innate human dignity of the marginalized that you are willing to share power or even submit your will to the oppressed? If so you might be moving from service work to reconciliation work.

I believe each if these can be on-ramps to the work of reconciliation. I do not believe one of these is better or more impactful than another. They each have the ability to open us wide, to challenge us beyond measure, to make us better people. They have a tendency to bleed into one another. When you've grappled with one, it's impossible to turn away from the others. They chase after one another desiring the fullness of the Kingdom. It's not easy work. The internal work and external effort can be gut wrenching. And yet. And yet there is no experience like working toward justice and watching reconciliation unfold.