Parallel Tracks

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSON

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.


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  • jason taylor

    Could the Normans then pay reparations to the Saxons?

  • jason taylor

    And how is “recompence for past injustices” whatever the heck that might mean different in essence from hush money. It is not justice, as it neither punishes the ones responsible nor helps the ones actually harmed. Doling it out from the government is no more a sacrifice for those responsible then any other government project. And it is not clear why it will do any more good for the recipients then any dole already in existence. And are the recipients supposed to be identified by a genetic test for their “blackness”? And should not the UK and France and Spain share in the reparations(come to think of it the tax for reparations in UK should be weighted heavily against Tories as the chief demand for slaves came from defeated Royalists). In essence the whole idea is one of the state judging people by their ancestry and therefore not a moral advance. At bottom reparations are shorthand for,”Attending to dead people’s sins is easier then attending to my own.”

  • Joel Stucki

    AMEN, brother! We don’t take the nature of the problem and our role in it seriously enough. And we tend to ignore corporate responsibility when it’s convenient.

    Now if Breakpoint would just do the same thing here for the Jewish community and Messianic Jews… One group at a time, I suppose. But I am shocked and dismayed that Messianic Judaism has been completely ignored by Breakpoint.

    • jason taylor

      I suppose the reason for that is that Breakpoint has not gotten around to it. It is not the business of the Church any more then it is the business of the State to dole out favors for groups whether monetary or emotional. Nor is it conducive to the dignity of said groups to compete by nagging rather then by working and studying hard. It is not clear to me that anyone here has anything against Messianics and I should think Judaism, Messianic or not means more then any past corporate grudge. This is America. It is not Albania.

      • Joel Stucki

        Do you think the Church should sweep all history of racism, antisemitism, or the like under the rug, or pretend it’s all over now and we’re fine?

        I’m not sure what you’re talking about, unless you’re referring to the author’s vague and offhand reference to reparations, which I also think are silly, but which I considered to be very far from the point of the article.

        And I’m not asking for “favors” for anyone. I was talking about Breakpoint, not the State, and I was referring to the fact that a major movement of believers is getting totally ignored. The existence and growth of Messianic Judaism has tremendous theological ramifications for the body of believers in general, and I’m surprised that Breakpoint has never once commented on it at all. I didn’t accuse anyone of opposing it, just ignoring it. But that alone is pretty shocking to me. Talking about it isn’t a “favor,” it’s just theologically and ecclesiastically responsible.

  • Joseph

    Roberto,

    This is easily one of the best pieces I have ever read on this website. Time and again you put yourself far above the rest with your thoughtfulness and by shining a light on important issues that too often go unacknowledged.

    Your critique of “reconciliation” is really important, because as you say, this assumes an interracial harmony that never existed. As we hear cries to “make America great again,” it must be asked “‘Great again’ for whom?” Certainly not minorities. I would also add (and I think you allude to this) that “reconciliation” is problematic because it implies a comparable amount of harm done by both parties, when that is clearly not the case here.

    I am glad to see your acknowledgement of Flint, Michigan, drug disparities, and ongoing racial discrimination in housing, employment, and the criminal justice system. You do a good job countering the arguments of those who will likely ignore this article, misinterpret it, or fail to heed its message.

    I hope white readers of this website will seek out Ta-Nehisi Coates and other black writers, if only to hear a different perspective. It never ceases to amaze me how so many Christians who rarely interact with people of other races can nevertheless be confident (and arrogant) enough to judge and lecture them about deficiencies in “culture.”

    The horrific legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, anti-black terrorism, and institutional racism is one that white Americans need to atone for. Not with cheap apologies or cop-outs like saying, “Well I never owned a slave…” or “That was all in the past” (spoiler alert: it wasn’t), but real action that addresses the longstanding harm done to the black community, and recognizes that these harms still exist today, and that our unwillingness to recognize those harms cements them into our society, which, yes, becomes our legacy. We will never fulfill the promises of this country until we do so.

    Thank you for writing this piece. I think it is very important.