These words scroll endlessly down my screen as I read my Ugandan and Rwandan students’ essay submissions from this month’s Spiritual Formation unit. They have been asked to write about the people they find it the hardest to forgive and about situations in which they need to take steps towards reconciliation. My screen is full of stories of betrayal, slander, violence, and theft. But many of these stories are not just about individuals; they involve whole tribes or communities who carry complicated, time-accrued grudges towards each other.
I can sit at my less-than-tidy desk miles away from East Africa and try to mentally untangle the cause-and-effect web of historic animosity between these conflicting groups, but one thing is abundantly clear. At some point, someone from one of the groups has to stop pointing the finger and start admitting where their people have been wrong. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. And leaving it as it is will only result in further segregation, mistrust, and retaliation.
It’s crazy what I can see so clearly in someone else’s country but am blind to in my own! As I read the headlines about ongoing race conflicts in the U.S., I am struck with the fact that the same dynamic is at work. As a white member of the American middle-class, I am wired to think individualistically, to think of my status as something that I alone determine and am responsible for. But my individualistic mindset has blinded me to the fact that I am part of a race, a group of people from whom, for better or for worse, I have inherited my appearance, my social position, my identity, and my worldview. I may not be overly conscious of my race (looking for the Caucasian box on application forms always strikes me as a bit odd), but that is more a testimony to my having grown up with my race being the dominant one than it is to my being color-blind. I can afford the luxury of not thinking about it!
But for American blacks, especially in my beloved South, race is something they are never allowed to forget. The days of slavery and legal segregation may be past, but (often not-so-subtle) snubs, derogatory comments, and biased treatment from people of my color serve as daily reminders that they are not only different but also despised. Media-coverage of incidents of unfair police treatment and spiteful hate-crimes has only recently brought to white awareness what has been the ongoing reality for American blacks: that they are still treated as second-class citizens in their own country, and that even the “nice” whites hold pre-judged assumptions about the intentions and moral character of the black race of which they are presumed guilty until proven otherwise.
I could throw up my hands in defense and exclaim: “I’m not a racist!” But even if I could honestly claim that I have never avoided the seat next to a black stranger in a subway or clicked my automatic-lock button as I drove by a hooded black man at night, the inescapable fact is that people of my color have perpetuated the ongoing divide between whites and blacks. I may not condone their actions, but they still represent my “kind.” And until enough people from my race go out of their way to demonstrate a message to the contrary, their message of hatred, mistrust, and division will stand as a representative banner over us all.
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, …then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
As uncomfortable as it is for me to suddenly discover myself on the side of needing forgiveness rather than being the one asked to give it, I recognize that this is exactly the position I need to adopt if true reconciliation is ever to take place. If a few people can represent my race with their hateful comments and violent actions, then can I not step into the gap they have created and verbally acknowledge the wrongs of my people, both past and present? I may not be guilty, but we are. And beyond guilt, I feel a profound shame over this aspect of my cultural inheritance.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, …. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge… As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Ephesians 2:14-16; 3:17-4:3
So it’s my turn to practice what I teach. Lay aside my rights. Promote others’ interests over defending my own. Take up Christ’s ministry of reconciliation and humbly do what it takes to break down the barriers of hostility between groups of people for whom He died. If that means listening sympathetically to the hurt and frustration of my black brother, then I consider it a privilege that he would be willing to open his heart to me. If it means confessing the ways in which racist assumptions have influenced the way I think and asking my black friends to help me see life through their experience, then I can only pray that they will find me worthy of their trust.
Confession. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Trust.
We’ve got long way to go. But thanks be to God, we’ve got a great Mediator already on the job. May His Spirit reign in all our hearts, bringing peace that defies history and love that surpasses human understanding.