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Racial Reconciliation: No Handholding Kumbaya

There are many times where an injury is more bearable than the surgery needed to heal it. Racism is in that category.

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. [2 Corinthians 5:18]

The work of racial reconciliation is a process, one that is often painful and difficult. After working to pursue racial reconciliation in local church settings with lots of pushback, I was once asked by a superior if I could continue to raise the issue of racism and pursue racial reconciliation without it hurting. The answer is: I can't. That task is an impossible one. With something as deeply ingrained as racism, freeing ourselves from it always comes with pain.

The Six Step Process of Reconciliation:

Consider the task of a surgeon who identifies a problem inside of a patient and must go in to do the careful work required to repair the damage. The surgeon must make an incision to get inside of the patient. With an incision comes pain and recovery time. The path to healing is often painful. The same is true of racial reconciliation. Healing the wounds of racism is hard and painful work. The mindset that it can be done without pain should be abandoned. Taking steps to work through the pain leads to healing community.

Admitting that the process will be painful does not mean that we should seek to inflict more pain than is necessary. Rather, we are revealing the illness and disease already present and then working a process of healing that often includes certain "surgeries" that will "hurt," but are necessary to bring about healing. Such is the work of racial reconciliation.

The first task of racial reconciliation is appropriately defining what reconciliation is and what it is not. Most often I hear the word "reconciliation" used in ways that make my blood boil. "We need to pray for reconciliation," says the white pastor of a large, affluent, white church that is home to local political and community leaders. Racial reconciliation to them is something the powerful can only pray for as if it requires no work from them and is something that only God can do: "Kumbaya, my Lord, Kumbaya."

Or, people use reconciliation when they want the oppressed to just forgive. This allows those who benefit from the racial injustice to confess nothing, change nothing, pay nothing and concede nothing. To them, reconciliation means negating the injustices of the past (even if it was five minutes ago) and those ongoing. It doesn't seek to correct any injustice at all. Allan Boesak and Curtiss DeYoung[1] call this "deceitful reconciliation." In short, this false reconciliation seeks to accommodate injustice and oppression. It never addresses the injustice, inequities or assaults on the humanity and dignity of those who endure the injustice. I have no interest in participating in this practice.

Instead, I — and the church — must pursue a reconciliation that addresses the root cause of the injustice and lays a new foundation that leads to community. Therefore, in my work in the North Georgia Conference as the chair of the Conference Commission on Religion and Race, I have defined racial reconciliation as a spiritual and political process that seeks to restore broken relationships after any form of racial injustice. It is not a singular act. It is a process by which the participants with injustice and the endurers of injustice come together to do the work of bringing about restoration of the relationship with God and with one another.

That process includes at least the following:

  1. Resistance – that those who endure injustice and those who stand with them stand firm in resisting powers of injustice and any forms of oppression that work against the kingdom of God. For the oppressed, resistance is a refusal to play along with the injustice.
  2. Recognition – that those who have participated in perpetuating injustice must acknowledge the injustice and their complicity.
  3. Repentance (and forgiveness) – that the participants in injustice repent to God and to those who have endured the injustice, while the endurers work to forgive.
  4. Repair (and/or repay, replace, restitute) – that the participants in injustice must work to repair damage, repay what was lost, replace what was taken, or restitute for harms committed.
  5. Reconstruction – that there is no true reconciliation when the structure does not change. A new structure should be sought in a way that dismantles the power structure and rebuilds a structure that is just and equitable.
  6. Restored Relationship – that relationships are restored and nurtured in a way that (a) shows a commitment to never allowing the injustice to return and (b) allows the relationship to be evaluated continuously by revisiting the reconciliation process.

If the process of reconciliation ever ends, the injustice will return and reconciliation fails. Reconciliation must always be pursued in a working relationship. Therefore, justice should never be the goal. Justice is the means to the goal. The goal is community. When I use the word "reconciliation," this is what I mean. Reconciliation is not something we hold hands and pray for God to do — no Kumbaya. It is work that God has given to us to do. I pray that you will join me on the journey to restoring relationship.

The Rev. Brian A. Tillman serves as the chair of the Commission on Religion and Race in the North Georgia Conference of the UMC and also serves as an associate pastor at Ben Hill UMC in Atlanta. He often hashtags to: #ResistToReconcile


[1] Boesak, A. A., & DeYoung, C. P. (2012). Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism. MaryKnoll, NY: Orbis Books.

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