When my children were young and feeling puny for some blunder, I tried to help them separate the problem from the person. I’d make a big circle with my arms and a smaller circle at the edge with my fingers. “You are the big circle and your mess is the little one. Do not look so closely at the small one that you start to think it is the big one,” I reminded them.
The big circle of American culture has been described well as a melting pot. “A more perfect union” simmers on low over time, not nuked in a microwave. Some seasons show how far we have come. This past year of protest shows how far we have to go. Like an “identified patient,” lingering pain of unfinished business in a family can find expression through just one of its members.
Is it only about power?
Describing this unfinished business only as groups with and without power has consequences. Stalinist Russia resulted from pitting oppressed against oppressor with no winsome vision for the whole. Reducing history to power ignores massive sacrifices that can inspire people to further reform (750,000 men died during the Civil War). Labeling the majority culture only in terms of privilege puts people on the defensive, too threatened to hear the pain under the anger we have seen in the streets this year.
Gaining power for the part with no larger vision for the whole wins battles but not peace. We must heed Nietzsche’s warning in pursuit of justice, taking care not to become the dragon we are fighting. How can we achieve both justice and reconciliation for the sake of the parts and the whole? We have three options. Two are win-lose quick fixes. The third option is a lengthier win-win approach, dealing with problems without letting them define us.
Quick Fix 1: Justice without reconciliation
After the L.A. Riots in the 90’s, Rodney King famously asked, “Can’t we all just get along?” Thirty years later, you have your answer. The hurt we have seen expressed as anger this past year reveals a lingering sense of injustice among people of color. National events bring personal experiences of injustice to the surface. A hunger for justice can grow without much appetite for reconciliation. Add to that the rhetoric needed to sustain attention and justice gets confused with vengeance—us vs. them.
Martin Luther King, Jr. understood that reconciliation falters when we do not recognize a big enough us. He said: “There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” It’s well documented that black culture has stronger group identity than western culture in general. What happens to one happens to us. Justice without reconciliation neglects the chance to help Americans become a bigger “us.”
Quick Fix 2: Reconciliation without justice.
Nevertheless, healing does require truth telling. Any plan for reconciliation apart from truth does not achieve lasting unity. To some black leaders, reconciliation without truth telling feels like Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the football. Each time Charlie tries to kick the ball, Lucy pulls it away at just the last second. In the past, bridges of reconciliation have seemed to lead no where. Seasons pass with little change. They hear this option as a call to overlook our past or “just move on.” As one black pastor recently said, “We can’t just hug it out and sing Kum Bay Ya.”
Telling the truth involves some personal risk. If we are going to have a melting pot with increasing cross-cultural identity, then communication cannot remain only at the level of news, sports, and weather. Without permission to have some difficult discussions about unfinished business, marginalized people may feel they are enabling the status quo. So what does it look like to pursue reconciliation with justice—to be full of grace and truth?
Option 3: Reconciliation through Justice
Option three admits both how far we have come and how far we have to go. It has a future focus without ignoring past and present. A focus on the next generation puts us on common ground for the common good. Again, MLK said, “We may have come here on different boats, but we are all in the same boat now.” He had a vision for a more perfect union, not just an agenda for part of it. We can elevate the part without neglecting a vision for the whole.
How? A future focus benefitting the next generation helps us see past ourselves, including our biases. A defensive majority, reluctant to own up to remaining inequality can become conciliatory. A marginalized minority reluctant to trust can begin to forgive without feeling as though they are compromising hard truths of past and present. All can become less selective about the parts of our past we wish to emphasize. A future focus seeks opportunities for next generations rather that outcomes for present ones. That emphasis puts us shoulder to shoulder. Hence, reconciliation through justice.
Three keys to making the option three work:
- Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
History should not be selective, whether considering how far we have come or how far we have to go. We need to see both the great suffering and great sacrifice that has brought us to our cultural moment. Telling the truth is not always safe. Although truth telling about past and present should take place within a growing current of trust and relationship, it will often require courage.
2. Keep forgiveness on the table. God is at work as we go, not after we achieve some preconceived outcome. That means each person is being formed spiritually by the manner in which we pursue justice and mercy. In light of being formed, sometimes as iron sharpens iron, we should bear in mind these words from Miroslav Volf, a Yale professor from Croatia who survived severe interrogations during the Balkan wars:
“Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.
3. Sacrifice for others locally rather than seeking retribution nationally.
Common good puts people side by side rather than on opposing sides.
A leader I know and admire in Haiti recognizes that their broken culture needs a future focus which brings opportunity to children in a way that brings redemption to the past. His energy is paid forward. As a result, he is able to deal with the brutal facts of past and present with unwavering faith and gratitude for each step of progress.
“Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly…” (Micah 6:8).