Rod Dreher and the problem of doing racial reconciliation in church

Dear Rebecca:

A painful truth about the Church is that it is one of the most segregated institutions in American life. A second painful truth is that Rod Dreher’s writing these days tends to get my goat.

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The most segregated hour in American life?

And so it is today with his post on doing racial reconciliation in the church. He’s concerned that white people are going to feel too defensive.

Talking across racial lines about issues of race and racial conflict will never, ever be easy, but if the church isn’t a place we can do this productively, where is? To do it productively requires humility on all sides. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If you want people to change, you have to show them mercy and grace. A white Evangelical friend of mine dropped out of a racial reconciliation group in his city — a group he joined because he’s serious about it — because it turned into a weekly ritual denunciation of Whiteness™.

And then:

If that’s what the encounter in church between blacks and whites comes down to, then there will never, ever be racial reconciliation. If facing the legacy of racism in the church in a healing way can only be done by whites hating themselves for being white, then all you will get is bitterness and defensiveness.

Here’s what’s crazy-making about this:

• Yes, it’s true that “all have sinned etc etc,” but when it comes to matters of race in America, it’s inescapably true that white people have sinned — or, more passively, reaped the rewards of that sin — much, much, much more than black people. “All have sinned” feels like a way to spread responsibility for sin when, as a matter of historical fact, the sinning is pretty localized. To white people.

(Note to critics: I do not deny black people can be prejudiced. But. There is no comparing the suffering of white people at the hands of blacks to the suffering of black people at the hands of whites. There will always be exceptions, but this is the rule.)

• In fact, Dreher offers no guidance to doing racial reconciliation in the church except this: Don’t make white people feel bad. But I’m not sure how racial reconciliation is done in the church if white people don’t feel bad. If white people can’t recognize the sins they’ve committed or how they’ve probably benefitted from the racial sins of others — even if it’s something as simple as having somebody, classwise, to feel superior to even if you’re at the bottom of the heap — if they can’t repent of this, how are our African-American brothers and sisters supposed to take us seriously?

• What Dreher’s formulation does, then, is put the work — emotional and otherwise — of racial reconciliation on the people to whom we need to be reconciled. There might be something Godly about that, but it’s also a bit superhuman, and it’s not fair for white people to expect that.

How to do racial reconciliation in the church, then? I don’t know. But I’d suggest:

• Listening.

• Being willing to accept one’s own responsibility for sin.

• To disregard the deep human need to offset one’s own sin by pointing out the sins of others.

• To pray a lot.

• And listen some more.

We’re going to have to practice humility. We are, on occasion, going to feel bad.

And no. I’ve not done nearly enough of this kind of work as I should.

Sadly, Joel

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