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Why racial justice is distinctly different than racial reconciliation. And why it matters

As racial division widens, the Church must shift from solely talking about racial reconciliation and incorporating racial justice discussions. If COVID-19 has taught us anything; it is that that we have ignored the apparent disparities that persons of color have faced in the U.S. and the Church has been divided on these discussions.

Courtesy Terence Lester

Black history and black struggle have been left out of the White American evangelical story in many ways. Most white churches have little or no understanding of the ways black and brown people have turned to their faith and churches in times of significant racial discrimination and suffering. According to a recent study, the Barna Group revealed “a significant increase in the percentage of practicing Christians who say race is 'not at all' a problem in the U.S. (19%, up from 11% in 2019).”[1]

I believe the disconnect and breakdown stems from inappropriately conflating two distinct conversations in a way that prohibits understanding and progress: racial justice and racial reconciliation.

Over the past years, the white evangelical Church has engaged in safe conversations surrounding racial reconciliation, using the gospel as its primary source to carry this conversation forward. Often, these conversations are led by white men, who pastor significantly large churches who invite black and brown people into these spaces to talk about how we all need to come together and forgive another because of the sins of racism that has created division and disunity in the Church and the world.

Many of these conversations are well-meaning and even encourage believers that unity is possible. I have even been a part of many of these conversations. However, most white churches forget there is a long line of systemic, oppressive, and marginalizing structures that have disadvantaged black and brown people disproportionately in economics, employment, healthcare, housing, wage income, and even clean water in cities like Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey.

Moreover, while forgiveness is what we need, the racial reconciliation conversation leaves out how a White supremacist system created the oppressive structures that disadvantaged people of color, who have had to overcome and are still overcoming to this very day. This is where the racial reconciliation and racial justice conversations differ. Simply because you can't forgive yourself out of oppression, you must be liberated from it.

Societal issues cannot be solved through peace, unity, and racial reconciliation conversations alone. We must deploy thoughtful racial justice, love, mercy, and solidarity. The Church holds an advantageous position in the conversation about racial justice and racial reconciliation because it can embody both to achieve liberation and a sense of togetherness. The Church universal has every nation, tongue, and tribe in it as John writes about in the book of Revelation.

We need to see the gospel as empowering us to forgive one another and also pushing us show up like Jesus on the frontlines having good news for the poor, weary and oppressed.

Jesus said, "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, (Luke 4:18)

What if the Church modeled how to be about both forgiveness and liberation of the oppressed? It was the great Howard Thurman in his book Jesus and The Disinherited that reminded us that Jesus himself identified with those who were minorities and under oppression.[2]

Reconciliation without justice to correct the systems that created the injustices and separation is a form of racial trauma and even abuse. It asks for the person who had been disproportionately affected by racism, white supremacy, and other forms of psychological and emotional trauma to forget what they have experienced and forgive the system that was designed for their failure, without correction.

Our focus for the near future should be on racial justice, rather than skipping steps to rush to racial reconciliation. Many White Christians think that racial reconciliation solves many of the injustices that persons of color face. I think there needs to be a robust education of the differences between the two because they are not the same. Making the distinction between the two is vital because reconciliation and progress cannot organically come without first acknowledging and rectifying the historical systems that have disadvantaged black and brown people. There can be no forgiveness without lament and repentance. When overlooked or hastened as a way to assuage guilt, this can result in more significant harm through putting a superficial Band-Aid on issues that require more extensive surgery to achieve long-term change.

While the racial reconciliation conversation is an important one to have, it cannot happen while ignoring the injustices that affect black and brown people in communities across the country. One conversation cannot happen apart from the other. Both are needed.

It is my hope and desire to see brothers and sisters walk together in the garment of destiny that MLK Jr. spoke about, and it is also my deep desire for the Church to lead this charge.

The responsibility for this lack of awareness sits with the Church. As one holding Good News, the Church must lead the conversation of both faith in a God of forgiveness and justice for God's children who are oppressed. It was James Cone that eloquently penned in his book, God of the Oppressed, “The scandal is that the gospel means liberation, that this liberation comes to the poor, and that it gives them the strength and the courage to break the conditions of servitude.”

God honors all stories of creation equally, including black and brown stories that systems have oppressed. When Jesus entered the world, he did not do it for a specific group; his purpose and salvation were incorporated into each group of the world.

Jesus himself modeled what it meant to be proximate and engage in stories and conversations untraditional to a Jewish Rabbi. He demonstrated this many times by taking longer routes on his way to Galilee to connect with the Samaritan woman at the well, breaking social norms to bring healing and salvation to a woman who was an outsider. Like Jesus, the Church must listen, stand in solidarity with the oppressed, go out of its way to embrace the marginalized, and take on the responsibility of educating its majority members on how to do this wholly.

The Church must be about reconciling, with justice in mind. What better way to honor God during black history month than to lean in and embrace the full stories of those who have a hue that matches the skin of Jesus.

[1] “White Christians Have Become Even Less Motivated to Address Racial Injustice.” Barna Group. Accessed February 14, 2021.

[2] Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1996. 

Terence Lester is the founder of Love Beyond Walls, a nonprofit organization focused on poverty awareness and community mobilization. He is the author of I See You and the forthcoming title When We Stand.

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