Charleston: A Painful Call to Change the Conversation

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not in any way reflect the official policy or position of anyone my institution, its affiliates, partners, departments, donors or alumni. They are mine, and mine alone. Disagree? Feel free to contact me! (ONLY me)

It’s time for a conversation. Not more talk, but a conversation.

There is a massive gap between these two related items. “Talk” is plentiful and abundant. It is the stuff of comment sections and social media and message boards. It is about convincing others of how right I am and how wrong they are. It often deteriorates into bitterness and rage.

While talk is something we do at each other, conversation is something we engage with each other. Listening is critical to a conversation, perhaps more so than talking. It allows us to get to know the other, to engage and gather more information about the other’s point of view rather than just trumpeting our own.

It’s well beyond time that we have this conversation around the issue of race. And it is time for the church to take a leading role in it. When I use the term “church” here, I am talking about the individuals who make up the Body of Christ as well as the institution.

Several issues keep us from even getting to the starting line for this conversation. Even churches and pastors who desire to engage the difficult topic of racism are crippled because they do not know where to begin. Then there is the issue of creating space for a balanced conversation. Church is still a largely segregated entity, so how do we create a starting point that includes a variety of perspectives?

As a minister and a teacher, I have to confess my own sin here. I have avoided numerous opportunities to have, lead, or create these essential conversations. This sometimes came from fear of offending others, or losing friends, or even losing my job. But more often than not, I just could not find the starting line, and was unsure of how to create one.

In reflecting on the events in Charleston over the last week, I am still not sure where to start. But it is clear that we are well past the time of need for it, and we have to find the starting line as soon as possible.

This is a chance to shift the narrative, and to engage issues that we have long avoided. The shooting at Emanuel AME Church, and certainly the church’s response to it, can provide us with a starting point for a new conversation.

While the magnificent show of solidarity on the Ravenel Bridge also helps to create the starting line, much more preparation needs to begin before we truly begin to move in a deeper and more meaningful direction. It is a long race, and we can do several things to help us get off to a good start.

We can begin this preparation by dropping the “We vs. They” language. In regard to race issues, I too often hear people refer to “they” and “those people” and “their kind.” Worst of all is this sentence: “Well I don’t have any problem with black people, but those are just n——.”

And yes, the actual term is used.

The problem is that the call to discipleship is the call to look at what I/we need to do, not what you/they need to do. How can I, as a white person, speak to what any black person should think or feel or do when I have rarely had any meaningful conversation on the issue of race with a black person?

Christ calls us to fellowship and unity that allows us to know Him—and ourselves—much better by understanding others. The conversation cannot start by saying what “those people” should be doing. Why not begin by creating space to better understand and empathize with “those people,” because they are first and foremost God’s people?

At the same time, we would do well to drop our “What about them?” mentality when we get to the starting line. Have you ever tried to walk or run or drive a car while looking sideways? You usually do not get very far with that technique.

We cannot begin this journey by looking sideways. Pointing out the flaws of others is accusation, not conversation. This is a long and difficult path that requires us to look directly at ourselves. We cannot relieve our own responsibility by trying to point out the racism that we see in someone else.

Finally, we must begin this journey with a posture of confession. Racism is real, racism exists, and that includes churches and Christians. I have personally witnessed it. We cannot be a prophetic voice on the issue by denying it.

I have also witnessed many Christians and churches that are willing to take on this issue. This began when people started a listening conversation that led to dialogue, and dialogue that led to thoughtful and well-designed action.

It is easy for us to sit back and say that this is “not the time” to have a discussion about race or flags or social justice. I fear that is the same attitude that will keep us away from the starting line of a meaningful conversation. This is the perfect time to have those conversations, as a path to better understanding those who live a far different experience than I have ever endured.

The Christian world cannot avoid these hard conversations in the name of peace and unity among believers. What kind of “unity” have we achieved if it comes at the expense of taking on the challenges of our society? Can we claim any type of prophetic voice in the world if we avoid the hard conversations for the sake of ourselves?

If peace must come at the expense of sober judgment that can create change in our own collective life together, then we lose the ability to be a voice for goodness and justice anywhere else.

Let us begin a conversation that forces us to look more deeply at the root of the problem—and lead us to confess and repent when we find those roots growing around our own hearts.

With that in mind, I welcome your responses: Comments, emails, phone calls etc. But I ask you to keep in mind the parameters that I suggest as we engage.