As I read through the Bible, I often find myself drawn to the prophets, those proclaiming the word of the Lord and calling the people of Israel back to holy and righteous and just living.
In the first chapter of Isaiah, the word of the Lord comes to him, describing a scene that does not look much different from our own world today: sinful people who have turned their backs on God. The people still go to worship, making sacrifices and burnt offerings, but what good are they when the people’s hearts are hard? For the people have rejected the Lord and his commands. They are doing evil—instead of seeking justice, rebuking the oppressor, defending the orphans, and caring for the widows. But in the midst of describing the wickedness of the land and the degeneration of the city, the Lord speaks these words:
“‘Come now, and let us reason together,’
Says the Lord,
‘Though your sins are like scarlet,
They shall be as white as snow;
Though they are red like crimson,
They shall be as wool’” (Isaiah 1:18)
I believe today, God is calling us to come and reason together. In a land marked by the sins of racism, sexism, and all the other –isms, where we can’t disagree without also hating one another, it is time to have some meaningful dialogue. It is time for a new conversation.
But don’t get me wrong. This is not an easy task. This is not just about getting a bunch of people in a room and drinking coffee together.
We need to have conversations that acknowledge the deep hurt we are feeling, the depth of our sins, and our serious need for forgiveness. Up until now, our conversation has been too light; we’ve been trying to treat cancer with Tylenol.
A Conversation Among Equals
But before our dialogue even begins, we need to ask some questions about what brought us to the conversation in the first place. If we are to come together, we have to come as equals. We live in a nation that is supposedly built upon the greatest statement of human dignity ever written—that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal and are given the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet we have failed again and again to live up to this promise.
Abraham Lincoln said our nation cannot endure half slave and half free, and though slavery is technically illegal, it is easy to see that there are still the oppressed and the oppressor right outside our very doors. How do we expect to have meaningful conversation when there is a clear power dynamic already present?
Starting in the Public Sphere: Equality, History, and Justice
We need to start in the public sphere of America, with the great promise of liberty and justice for all. Those of us in the church cannot expect every citizen of the United States to believe that all people are created in the image of God or that we are called to love because God loved us first. But we can hold them to that promise: that we are all created equal.
It is bigger than just acknowledging equality, though. We all come to these conversations with some sort of baggage, and it’s important to recognize what that is. Are we bringing anger and resentment? Are we bringing fear? Am I coming with a gun in my hand?
Anywhere we go, we bring our history with us. Failing to remember this is why we keep missing each other today, why we keep talking past each other. As I look at the important conversations happening now, in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York City and other black boys across the nation, white folks and black folks aren’t having the same conversation.
“It is time for a new conversation. But don’t get me wrong. This is not an easy task. This is not just about getting a bunch of people in a room and drinking coffee together.”
We’re not approaching each other with humility, but rather, we are wounded and angry. The whites think the reaction is too strong, the burning of the buildings and the rioting, or they condemn the stealing of cigars and the walking in the streets. But black folks are crying out that we have been oppressed for so long, we were held in slavery for years, and this is the only way we know how to act. The police are trying to protect, but come with the need to control, because of training that teaches them to be violent and fearful first.
We seek to condemn rather than understand. And in the midst of it all, the black woman is weeping for her son, and while we’re going around in circles having all the wrong conversations, we should be weeping together. We should be crying with the mother, because she lost her son, but we’re too busy talking past each other to actually feel someone else’s pain.
Peace Without Justice?: A Stewardship Thing
Almost everyone will claim that they want peace, but it is a limited peace, peace that does not include justice. After the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves, we supposedly had peace, we got our freedom, but it was without justice.
Now, I believe justice is a stewardship issue. It is not just teaching a man to fish that will allow him to eat for a lifetime; in the end, it comes down to who owns the pond. I learned this lesson the hard way when I was a boy and went to work all day for a white man down the road and walked away with only 15 cents in my hand. I had expected at least a dollar as a fair wage for the work I had done, but I only walked a way with a few buffalo nickels. I had no bargaining power in that conversation. He owned the land, the hay, the mules, and all I had was my labor and my desire to make some money. I was being exploited, my dignity was being taking away, but I knew if I said anything, I would just be labeled a “smart nigger,” which was not a label any black in Jim Crow Mississippi wanted.
“I think people expect me to have it all together as a Christian leader, but in my old age I find myself even more aware of my sin, my own need for forgiveness, and how difficult it can be to humble myself before God and others.”
I was still young at the time, but I think that is when I began to realize that I needed to get my own wagon and mules if I was ever going to make it in this society. If there had truly been peace with justice after the Civil War, we all would have been given 40 acres and a mule, because we needed some resources, we needed some bargaining power to be a part of the national dialogue. But instead, we stayed sharecroppers—its own form of slavery—and despite the progress that has been made, we continue to see the effects of this today.
The Christian’s Call to Listen, Pray, and Confess
As Christians, our calling to listen to each other is even deeper. I often say that prayer is listening to God and when we pray together, we are listening for God. We are listening for some insight, for his word, and for his voice to move us forward and to pull us together. But when we come together in prayer, we also need to be listening to each other, because this is the time that we begin to confess. When we confess our sins to God, he says he will be faithful and just to forgive them, yet we often do not apply this same principle to our relationships with one another. We are slow to confess and we are slow to forgive, yet how can we expect real forgiveness, real reconciliation, unless we start having some real confession? “But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15).
This is what happened in South Africa. They had to have the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a place where they learned to listen and face each other and gain true empathy for those once considered enemies. It was a place where the oppressors were forced to listen to the pain and hurt of the oppressed, but it also became a time where people offered sincere confession and where real forgiveness was given. I long to see these same types of gatherings happening today.
Humility is Hard
“If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14). This is God’s command for his people, but humility is hard. I often feel like the centurion crying out to Jesus, saying, “Lord, I believe, but help my unbelief.”
I think people expect me to have it all together as a Christian leader, but in my old age I find myself even more aware of my sin, my own need for forgiveness, and how difficult it can be to humble myself before God and others. But it is when we humble ourselves that we acknowledge the brokenness of all people and that even really good people, have probably benefitted from the systems of oppression and slavery. When we humble ourselves, we begin to identify with the pain and suffering of others. And this is when God says that he will hear us. This is when we are able to reason together and our worship becomes something that is pleasing to God, rather than the futile, hypocritical worship described earlier Isaiah 1.
Christian Character in Conversation
Our problem today is that we are making people Christians without discipling them. We have them say a nice prayer, but then we jut leave it there. They never learn what a Christian is supposed to look like—someone marked by the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If our gatherings were marked by these characteristics, think of how much better our conversation would be.
Paul tells us in Romans 14 that the Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but a place of justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Instead of arguing over the trivialities of what we are eating and drinking, we need to look towards our end goal: a Kingdom of peace and justice. I’m asking us to start looking for something greater, to start seeking this goal. Then maybe we can find love that’s bigger than our disagreement, humility that’s bigger than our pride, and grace that is bigger than our hate.