Thursday, March 27, 2008
Confronting Racism: We've got to handle the truth!
One of my favorite movie clips of all time comes from the military drama, "A Few Good Men." The clip is pulled from the climatic scene of the movie where a highly decorated and supremely respected Marine Corps Colonel, played by Jack Nicholson, is confronted by a newly commissioned Naval Officer attorney, played by Tom Cruise, regarding the harshness of the discipline within the ranks of the elite unit the Colonel commands. When the young attorney presses the Colonel for information and demands the truth with respect to the training and discipline which has led to the death of a Marine, the Colonel responds with intense ferocity by explaining the harsh facts of the "Tip of the Sword" view of national defense and punctuates his remarks with the charge, "You can't HANDLE the truth!" I sometimes feel as if this phrase applies all too frequently in discussions of race in the United States and further believe the the inability to deal effectively with racial matters has particular and serious implications for the christian community within this nation.
As someone who came of age during the cresting of the US Civil rights movement, and who has ministered in two major American metropolitan areas with racially charged histories, I have viewed many of the highs and lows of race relations in some extremely tense situations. I have also witnessed first-hand the enormous complexities of dealing with racial conflicts and of attempting to bring about healing and understanding in situations where hope sometimes seemed all but lost. I have been reminded of this complexity as I have watched the development of Detroit's Mayoral crisis and have seen the history of race subtly and cleverly used as a shield to avert responsibility and buy credibility in a situation that really stems from a lack of personal integrity and professional accountability. I have been further reminded of the complexity of race through the highly polarized reactions to the comments of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose public and inflammatory comments I personally criticized in earlier entries, by people of every hue who profess sincere faith in Jesus Christ. How can people who follow the same Lord, see things so an issue so differently and why have we not made more progress in finding common ground in the issue of race through faith in Jesus on a grass roots level?
I believe the answer is identical to the retort of the aforementioned Marine Corps Colonel - "We can't HANDLE the truth!" Or perhaps I should adjust the charge and say, we don't really WANT to! It is easy to make superficial and symbolic gestures towards dealing with racism - we can sing songs, we can hold rallies, and we can even preach sermons from any vantage point one might choose, with rhetoric that either forces us to deny that painful events ever occurred or with alternative rhetoric that forces us to reopen old wounds with no possibility for healing in sight. How do we address the seemingly endless one step forward, two steps back approach to race and racism as people of the cross? I believe that Scripture shows us that "Handling the truth" means being able to face the reality of events too painful to remember, but too important to forget with courage, with candor and with complete faith in Jesus Christ. This is a faith that enables every Christian believer to say, "There's nothing that I have faced, nothing that I am facing, or nothing that I will face, that my Lord Jesus isn't aware of and can't work for my good and the good of others."
When it comes to dealing with racial matters, the pivotal point of this process is a willingness to discuss divergent historical viewpoints with honesty in a safe environment where hurts can be candidly shared, while forgiveness is graciously offered and received. A dear friend who has dedicated her life to reconciliation ministries throughout the world, recently told a group she addressed that people often try to reconcile "by building the roof of a house before they lay the foundation." In other words, they want to get to the end of the reconciliation project, without doing the hard work of confessing, repenting and forgiving. In our own communities and spheres of influence, we must create atmospheres where people can share their experiences and be heard with a willingness to allow them to expose their pain with an end towards healing their wounds. We must also be mindful of the unshakable demand our faith places upon us to take responsibility for own responses to the wrongs done to us and to exemplify Jesus Christ in the way we react to any injuries we suffer during the course of our lives. For this reason, we must lovingly challenge the wounded to keep moving forward and to allow the Lord to use their experiences not to incite others to hostility, but to motivate others to reconciliation. We must all display compassion and follow the way of the Cross, led by the Word of God, living bold and courageous lives that take on hate and overcome it with the love and forgiveness that was most powerfully demonstrated on the Hill of Golgotha by Jesus Himself.
The continuing challenge of this work of racial healing, is the willingness to get up and do it again every day until the Lord calls us home. Anyone who tries to deal with this issue, will have to be willing to hear similar stories and deal with familiar problems over and over again. Tenacity is necessary in addressing all human problems and must be applied in the trenches, one person at a time, day in and day out for as long as life endures. It takes tenacity to confront racism, with the understanding that our own continent's history with this problem is almost 400 years old and will not be quickly undone. As time rolls on, controversies will continue to emerge and people will continue to make racially charged statements that we find totally perplexing. Nevertheless, we must not throw our hands in the air in hopelessness, or dive into self-serving rants that make us feel good for the moment. As followers of Jesus Christ, we must instead seek to understand and seek to bring understanding to our nation's most persistently troubling issue - an issue that will continue to divide us and confound us until we have the courage to speak and live in the truth. Remember, Jesus said, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life." In Him, we can handle racism and whatever problems people may throw at us, because He is our life. With faith in Christ, we can handle the truth about racism and the truth of how to confront it. Because of Jesus' call on our lives as peacemakers, we've got to! Until next time...