In this interview, Dr. Robin Johnston, editor in chief and publisher for the United Pentecostal Church International, discusses racial reconciliation and how the church addresses this issue.
C. S. Lewis said forgiveness sounds like a great idea until you have something to forgive. Some leaders have suggested reconciliation may be so difficult that we lose people along the way. What are steps toward reconciliation?
A: First we have to own our past, and there seems to be resistance to this.
[W]e must first seek to understand.
As stated in my previous blog post, we must first seek to understand. Part of the difficulty with seeking to understand is we like to paint people with a broad brush. Perhaps there is a fear that if we acknowledge our failings with racial issues in the 1920s, we will be painted as racist and won’t be able to escape that label. And that’s part of the challenge of owning the past. Until we are willing to recognize our mistakes, we can’t resolve them.
When it comes to organizational change, if we could just say, “Here, follow these seven clear steps for change,” it would be simple. But the difficulty is compounded because there aren’t seven clear steps. We end up doing something with the right motive but end up with a wrong result. And that’s where we lose people along the way to racial reconciliation and they begin to question whether it is worth the struggle.
Racial Reconciliation Has Value
When we ask people to confront the past, we know that it may be painful. Some people need to be motivated
We must help others see that when we call for racial reconciliation, we are doing the work of God.
that it’s worth it, that there’s value to reconciliation. We must help others see that when we call for racial reconciliation, we are doing the work of God. It’s not always self-evident in the midst of the struggle, but what we are doing is actually worth the fight. The key might be for the church and its leaders to help people see clearly what they can’t see. In this case, it’s to help people see that racial reconciliation, though difficult, is worth it.
An Inclusive Mindset
I can think of times past when I said something that was insensitive but didn’t know it was. There were times I hurt people because I didn’t know what I was doing was hurtful. I was ignorant about the issues, but I certainly didn’t intend to hurt people. Consequently, there’s a tendency to retreat to more firm footing. Moving into new territory to change our culture to be more inclusive can be overwhelming, which can lead people to either retreat or to become angry. The key is for leaders to help us see the value in this process and help us navigate this new journey in ways that won’t be emotionally destructive.So we must overcome our fear to make this journey, and we must be willing to make the journey even if it is fraught with complex emotions. #RacialReconciliation Click To Tweet
I lived on Vancouver Island for thirteen years, and where I lived was separated from the rest of the island by a mountain called the Malahat. To go north on the island, you had to cross the Malahat. Southern Vancouver Island has a Mediterranean climate, even though it’s Canada. We rarely had snow, but if we did, it was wet and slick. As I was coming down the Malahat in slippery conditions and my kids were along, I was afraid I would slip off the side of the mountain. So naturally, I was tense. And if the kids acted like they normally acted—maybe arguing over a candy bar—under the circumstances, I didn’t have patience with them. I didn’t express the fear of slipping off the mountain; I expressed anger.
Because we don’t know our way around racial reconciliation,
Yet sometimes we are so blind, we don’t even understand that choice of retreating is itself offensive.
we often are fearful of doing the wrong thing. I think some people don’t wade into the waters of reconciliation because they don’t understand the complex currents and the path forward doesn’t feel like safe ground. They’d rather stay on solid ground and stay with people similar to them.
On both sides, the attempt at doing something in good faith often gets thrown back at you because you were unintentionally offensive. Yet sometimes we are so blind, we don’t even understand that choice of retreating is itself offensive. So we must overcome our fear to make this journey, and we must be willing to make the journey even if it is fraught with complex emotions.
Our Cultures Are Deeply Ingrained
If Canada and the US are playing hockey for the gold in the Olympics, I don’t have to tell myself to cheer for Canada, it’s just going to happen. Despite my affection for the US—having lived here twenty-six years, marrying an American, having children who see themselves first as Americans—my instinctive loyalty is to my home. There is a tribalism that is built within humans.
We must make a conscious effort to move beyond our tribe. The church must promote that move and insist there is a new tribe: the church. The church is every tribe and every nation. We have a loyalty to be Christians before we’re anything else, and that should help us to remove the tribalism. It will take concerted, consistent effort. Leadership must help people see more clearly.
What other perspectives from Scripture can help us with reconciliation?
People from different cultures than our own help to expose our blind spots. There are some fascinating passages in Exodus and Leviticus about how we treat strangers. The gift of the stranger among us helps us realize the world is not as we perceive it.
Ultimately we must resist cultural trends and look to Scripture and brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. Together we can address our blind spots and do the vital work of reconciliation.
Resources and Links by Dr. Johnston
Handbook on the Book of Acts (Also available in Spanish)
Howard A. Goss: A Pentecostal Life
Spiritual Disciplines: Essential Practices of the Christian Life
The Art of Pastoring: Essays in Honor of Timothy A. Dugas