Violence and pain erupted and sent shock waves out across the United States last week revealing racial tensions that, if left unaddressed, will not go away. As someone who ministers cross-culturally, I seek to know and understand people in another part of the world by honoring them, respecting their history and dreams, and seeking to see things from their perspective as I learn from their stories. Three elements must be present to be effective.
Proximity. Compassion. And reconciliation.
As I watched events unfold last week, I saw how the same principles of transformation are essential to crossing the racial divide in this nation. In churches across the country this past Sunday, many pastors and leaders preached powerful messages on reconciliation, repentance, and healing. I watched people pray eloquent, moving prayers at the ethnically diverse church we attended against the backdrop image of praying hands, one black and one white. I hugged my African American friends, told them I loved them, and asked how they were doing. I realized that I had never asked them what it’s like to grow up black in America, so I asked some of them that question over the past week as I offered to meet for coffee or lunch. I listened. I know that others are doing the same. I started to read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander to better understand what is happening in our nation. She wrote,
“I understood the problems plaguing poor communities of color, including problems associated with crime and rising incarceration rates, to be a function of poverty and lack of access to quality education— the continuing legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Never did I seriously consider the possibility that a new racial caste system was operating in this country. The new system had been developed and implemented swiftly, and it was largely invisible, even to people, like me, who spent most of their waking hours fighting for justice.”
I recommend that Americans read this book because many white Americans find it difficult to see that, for the black community, these recent acts of violence reverberate from a history of state-sanctioned violence.
Talking and listening require proximity. If it’s before our eyes and touches the people we know and love, we are more likely to seek out solutions. Proximity often leads to compassion.
The Greek word for compassion in the New Testament means to be moved from deep within in the same way that the Samaritan in the well-known parable was moved when he saw a man who had been beaten, robbed, and left for dead by the side of the road. Although it wasn’t convenient, he felt compelled to care for the man.
When a person tells us that they have suffered, and we quip back, “Well, everyone suffers” and change the subject, we have just swept the entire history of their pain under the carpet. We have communicated that they don’t matter to us. At least, not deeply. We need to listen and embrace them in their pain in such a way that they feel it. Compassion moves us to reach out, but not in a way that condescends. It moves us to humbly accept our part of the problem as we seek for solutions.
The Church has a message of reconciliation, hope, forgiveness, and new life that sends us on a trajectory to chart a new course, not just for individuals and families, but for communities who can live out reconciliation with one another, even after a traumatic history.
From a Christian perspective, the foundation for reconciling tensions between people is reconciliation to God through Jesus Christ who emptied Himself to enter our lost and broken world, suffered, and died for our sin. While we are all God’s image-bearers with inherent dignity and worth, we also stand equally before Him in need of reconciliation through the grace that He alone offers.
Jesus crossed the divide for us on the cross. Now, we can cross the divide to others.
After the viral videos have passed, we need to continue down the difficult path to reconciliation and change. But the richness of building relationships with people who are different from us and working together towards solutions is of immeasurable worth.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-19)