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Reconstruct to Reconcile

I was at a conference recently and the facilitator put us in groups to do a project where we had to use 20 uncooked strings of spaghetti, a yard of string, a yard of masking tape, and one marshmallow to build the tallest structure which would hold a marshmallow at the top. Each team had 15 minutes to build the structure and the team with the highest structure won. My team got to work putting our structure together. We had lots of bright ideas. In the end, we put our marshmallow on top and the structure came tumbling down. Somehow, the distribution of the weight of the marshmallow was not evenly shared through the structure so it tumbled to one side. Our structure needed reconstructing in a more balanced way. Such is the case with race in America. The American systems have failed persons of color. The power is unjustly distributed, and reconstruction is needed.

The Six Step Process of Reconciliation:

In prior writings about the process of reconciliation, I presented four of the six phases — resistance, recognition, repentance, and repair. The fifth phase is reconstruction — there is no true reconciliation when the structure does not change. A new structure must be sought in a way that dismantles the racist and oppressive power structure and rebuilds a power structure rooted in justice. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that without a significant power adjustment, we only "end up with solutions that don't solve, answers that don't answer, and explanations that don't explain."1 Reconstruction is an intentional process and is admittedly painful for the dominant group because their unfair power advantage must be corrected. It is the phase that gives the most evidence to the non-dominant group that reconciliation is genuine. It lays the foundation for trust to be built and the dream of true racial reconciliation to be fulfilled.

Dr. King defined power as "the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic changes. In this sense, power is not only desirable, but necessary to implement the demands of love and justice."2 Reconstruction is specifically the reconstruction of the allocation of power. King wrote, "It will be power infused with love and justice that will change dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows, and lift us from the fatigue of despair to buoyancy of hope."3 Power is not a negative thing; money is similar. It's what you do with them that makes the difference. Power in the hands of an abuser is reckless. Power in the hands of a compassionate lover of justice, righteousness, grace, and mercy is Christ-like.

Because the power has been placed in the hands of persons bent towards oppression, systemic racism, and white supremacy, persons of color have separated themselves from as much of the oppressive system as possible. It is important to distinguish between separation and segregation.4 Segregation is something demanded by the oppressor of the oppressed. Separation is chosen by the oppressed to avoid the oppression of the oppressors. If the racism in America is rooted in the problem of white supremacy and privilege, then it is understandable that persons of color would separate themselves from the oppressive systems that are the white church, white institutions, universities, etc. Separation by the oppressed is sane. Segregation by the oppressors is racism. This may be a hard truth, but it is truth nonetheless. The structure of power must change to bring about the healing required to show persons of color that separation is no longer necessary for their survival. This does not mean that those institutions previously setup by the oppressed to separate should be closed up or shut down. Instead, these institutions must serve as the conduit to reconstruction and to heal the sickness of racism and white privilege infesting white Americans. Those who are members of the dominant culture must see their healing in these places where they are no longer in the seat of power. White Americans rarely come to institutions setup by persons of color, instead they invite persons of color to the comfortable confines of "Injusticeville" to give lip service to reconciliation. They invite persons of color to places that have been segregated and where white people still hold the power. "Often whites want to engage in reconciliation on their own terms. They want people of color to come to them in places where they feel comfortable and in control."5 Those with privilege should go to the places where they do not hold privilege. They need to go to the churches where the evidence of their participation with injustice is front and center. Without the reversal of power, no reconciliation can be sought.

Perhaps it would be helpful to remember why Mary, the mother of Jesus, magnified God with the coming of Christ. Mary says, "He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."6 It is the reallocation of power that was a major focus of her praise. It was not that there would be improvement. It was a total reconstruction of the plight of many on the margins, who were poor, who were oppressed, and who were without advocacy. It was because God sent Jesus to preach the good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and that the oppressed would go free.7

Consider a woman who walks into the office of an organization and the man sitting at the head of the table gets up, walks over to her, and then slaps her across the face 99 days in a row. On that 99th day, he apologizes and vows never to do it again. He even writes it on a piece of paper and signs it. On day 100, the same woman walks into that same office, sees the same head table in the same location, sees the same man seated at the head of that table, and then the same man gets up and walks towards her just as he did the previous 99 days. Should this woman trust that her face will not get smacked again? Without a structural change and a shifting of power, this woman cannot trust the organization or those who work in it.

Without a structural change, reconciliation cannot be trusted. Reconstruction is not an optional phase of reconciliation. There is no reconciliation without reconstructing the power allotment. We must not settle for improvement. We cannot end our resistance until justice prevails and until the seats at the heads of the tables of power have changed and are equitably filled with members of the oppressed groups. Resist to reconstruct. Resist to reconcile.

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] Martin Luther King, J. (1968). Where Do We Go From Here?. Boston: Beacon Press, 61.

[2] King, 37

[3] King, 69.

[4] Harvey, J. (2014). Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 36.

[5] Boesak, A. A., & DeYoung, C. P. (2012). Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism. MaryKnoll, NY: Orbis Books, 88.

[6] Luke 1:46-55.

[7] Luke 4:18.

[Posted January 9, 2018]

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