Racial Reconciliation and the Church: Same Song, New Response

The following post comes from Janetta Oni, the Summit’s director of communications. She recently joined Pastor J.D. and Pastor Bryan Loritts for a conversation about race and the church’s part in racial reconciliation. You can watch the full conversation here.

While what is happening in our nation isn’t a new song—the African American community knows the choreography to this dance—it does feel like a unique moment in history.

This is a compounded trauma. I use the word “trauma” because I want Black people to know that the trauma they feel is a real thing. This trauma operates in three ways.

First, there’s the historical trauma, which a friend likened to a mother who’s lost three generations of children: during slavery, during Jim Crow, and now, at the hands of police brutality.

Second, we also have the trauma of our own experience, and that scar tissue starts to itch when it brings up our own individual racial trauma.

Last, there’s the vicarious trauma of watching, for instance, an eight-minute and 46-second video of a Black man being mercilessly killed. We are all deeply disturbed by the video of George Floyd’s death. But for the Black community, it strikes differently. We think, “Wait. I’m Breonna. I’m Ahmaud. I’m George Floyd.” We felt our bodies screaming, “Is this us? Am I next?”

I wish all of that was rare or new. It’s not. But something about our present moment is new. When you juxtapose racial tension with a pandemic that keeps us from worshiping or going to work to distract ourselves—that is a big straw that seems to have broken the camel’s back.

Now the church is being called to lead in mourning, in lament, in solidarity, and in a renewed commitment to racial justice. Many of my White brothers and sisters are wrestling with this process in a fresh way, wondering how they connect to centuries-old sins like slavery. They are beginning to grapple with their role in the racial disparities of our society today. They are asking about white supremacy—what it means and how we might dismantle it.

Like others in the church, I build my worldview based on what Christ has done in me. But I’m also an American, and I’m also a Black woman. I’m a product of my mother and my mother’s mother and the mothers that came before her. The legacy they have left for me is something I can’t ignore. I’m a product of my family’s history.

As are you. As are we all.

If America has built something purposefully, whether it’s a law or just a cultural norm, then we also, as Americans, have to dismantle it purposefully.

Racial reconciliation is a gospel issue. When Jesus was asked what the greatest law was, he said it is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength—and, though they didn’t ask for a second one, he told them anyway that you are to love your neighbor as yourself. We say that as a blanket statement that has no nuance to it. How do I love someone as myself? I’ve got to figure out what’s going on in their life, and I also have to look at my own life and how I love myself. If we don’t do that as the church, then people won’t trust us. If people feel like they can’t trust us with their body and their melanin, then they won’t trust us with their soul, either.

If people feel like they can’t trust the church with their body and their melanin, then they won’t trust us with their soul, either.

If we want to move this conversation from the national spotlight into ongoing gospel community, we have to recognize that this is a discipleship issue as much as it is a gospel issue.

We simply cannot sit back and wait for another violent public event to tell the church how it should respond. For the church—the people within it—our discipleship should present us mature in a way that we know that we are to love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength—and love our neighbor as ourselves. So when these things come, we’re not scrambling to put together a statement; it’s not a new hashtag; it’s not new theology. It’s walking out our faith from what we’ve been learning in the Word and in the church.

We need to have the same view as Isaiah when he said, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips”—knowing that, as we confess together, God will take that coal and put it on our lips. He will forgive us if we come together and walk together, are sanctified and discipled together, and bear this sin together.

Sanctification is slow, and there is no “done.” That’s the posture we should take with racial justice and reconciliation. We are being sanctified together as the church in the United States, and we shouldn’t jump to solutions any more than we should jump to “three ways to quick sanctification.”

What I’m talking about here isn’t about complacency, but about pace. Just because the journey is a slow one does not mean it’s an optional one. I have faith that I will see my God offer to us this far-off solution in the land of the living. But, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, I declare that “even if he does not,” I will engage the church in racial discipleship with eternal hope.

When we commit to the long haul of repentance and reconciliation and acknowledge God in all our ways, then he will make our paths straight.