Yesterday I had the privilege of traveling down to the Pleasant Green Baptist Church on Jefferson Street to hear Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove share reflections from his new book, “Free to Be Bound: Church Beyond The Color Line” (Navpress). Pleasant Green is a historically black congregation located in the heart of what has been traditionally the center of African American life in Nashville, just down the street from both Fisk and Tennessee State University. It was a great lunch gathering of church leaders, both black and white, talking over chicken, macaroni and cheese, and green beans with the ham hock still present. And we were blessed by Jonathan’s sharing, for it isn’t often that a geeky looking white boy is so articulate about the issue of race in our country.
Toward the end of the gathering one of the participants asked Jonathan to lead us in a time of repentance for the division that still haunts us. Jonathan wisely noted that he couldn’t lead anyone into repentance, for we all have to come before God and repent of our own unique circumstances.
As I sit here tonight, reflection on the time yesterday, I find myself wondering is repentance really enough in helping the church to move beyond the color line.
Before you rise up in anger at my asking this let me say at the beginning that repentance is a first step. Repentance as we all know means to turn around, to head in a different direction, and certainly we must decide to live in a different way if we want to cast aside the vestiges of racism that follow us.
Services of repentance have become the norm for denominations dealing with their histories of racism. “We repent of our sins,” these services say, “acknowledging our wrongdoing and pledging to move in a new direction.” These services are heartfelt, for I believe that most who are deeply involved in the life of the church recognize the evil that is racism and want to move beyond it. Yet, sometimes these services seem to be the end of the conversation, as if those who have repented think that it’s a one time deal that doesn’t require anything more. These services aren’t unlike the “once saved, always saved” mentality that sometimes infects our church culture, believing that one act of walking down an aisle is the ending point of our walk with God, not the beginning.
So, is repentance really enough? Yes, it’s necessary, but there has to be more to the ministry of reconciliation than repentance.
Some might suggest that the next step is restoration, that is, the restoration of the relationships that have been broken. Unfortunately, restoration isn’t possible with regards to race relations in America for there is no earlier state of equality, hope, and respect upon which something can be restored. Our story is filled with hatred and oppression from the very beginning of the relationship between white and black, and to “restore” ourselves to an earlier state only means that we continue in the evil and unhealthy patterns of relationship that have been a part of us since the beginning of our relationship.
One of the popular concepts among some is the notion of reparation. “Reparation” is the attempt to make right a wrong, usually through some sort of financial payment or some other action to make amends with the wronged party. In many cases the services of repentance I mentioned above function as a form of reparation, an attempt to engage in an action that recognizes the wrong that has been done and make amends. However, while reparation is symbolically important, providing some means by which to sooth the hurts of the oppressed, reparation rarely leads to complete reconciliation. Reparation leads the powerful to sacrifice in their wrongdoing, but it does nothing to heal the relationship. It may indeed be a part of the healing process (as is repentance) but it is not and end unto itself.
What is needed in the racial divide that continues to exist in this country is re-creation. In this I draw on the original Latin root, recreare, which means “to create anew.” Re-creation draws on the Christian understanding of the new covenant as an example for the healing of the nations that must occur in our world today. That understanding recognizes Jesus as the “new Adam” coming into the world to re-create that which had been broken in creation. It is the power of the redeeming and re-creating Christ that offers us the possibility of re-creating the relationship between white and black, in essence the possibility of a do-over in which we get things right this time.
I am not suggesting that we ignore the history of oppression that exists. Sin always bears scars, and the scars from racism and slavery will never leave us. Yet, in the same way that grace offers us forgiveness of sin in the face of those scars, grace also offers us the opportunity to get things right this time in the face of our history.
Part of this re-creation involves the theological concept of redemption, that is, to make right what has been lost or broken. As I have gotten older and studied the scriptures, and as I have seen the redemption story played out in the world, I continue to be amazed at how God regularly takes bad things and redeems them for the good. There are too many stories of God taking something that looks horrible on the surface and transforms it into something of beauty or goodness. How is it that God can take our story of oppression and hatred and redeem it into something good? How is it that God can see our division and say, “I can work with that…” creating great art through God’s loving embrace?
These are questions that we all must ask, for if we don’t, then we have little hope of seeing the reality of God’s kingdom come to fruition in our lifetime.