A large part of reconciliation needs to be along racial lines. To help, let’s return to the story of Joseph and his brothers as described above. The Israelite family was torn by the evil act of the ten brothers against Joseph – selling him into slavery and deceiving their father. As long as that act was unresolved, starting with the admission of guilt by the brothers, and proceeding to complete reconciliation, the family bore a huge scar, and the peace between the family members was jeopardized.
The same is true in American Christianity. The division, rooted in dysfunctional racial relations, not initiated by the Church but contracted like an infectious disease from colonial attitudes and perpetuated by systemic racism, now fully infects American politics, preventing unity and peace. How can this breach in the Church be healed, and what affect would such healing be upon the nation?
I propose that we look to the word of God for answers.
Some of this nation’s tensest times have been times of confrontation with racial issues. Violence has been the usual outcome. Accusations are met with denials. Intractable positions are taken. The Civil War erupted, nearly tearing apart the world’s first democracy. One hundred years later, the Civil Rights movement swept the South and major metropolitan areas, again tearing at the fabric of American society. Before these two major eruptions and between them, there were other confrontations, and it did not end in the 60s. One reason for the repetition of confrontations is the reluctance or refusal to admit wrongdoing, and consequently, the continuance and even invention of new wrongs.
Most recently, the Black Lives Matter movement arose to counteract police brutality against African Americans. Some answered with “All lives matter.” Yes, indeed all lives matter, but how does that response address the issue of racially-focused brutality, repeatedly caught on camera? Correct as it sounds, the phrase only serves to shout over the complaint, refusing to listen, thereby concocting another denial!
Jesus said, “if your brother sins against you, rebuke him.” Confrontation is essential, but it has never been well received. If there is to be progress, there must be admission of wrongdoing and remorse.
To the credit of the victims of oppression, the confrontations have not been the type of violent retaliations seen in other countries. There have been no coup attempts and no organized terrorism. The primary reason that confrontation has been vocal and non-violent is that minority victims of oppression still consider themselves citizens of the United States of America. They do not want to destroy this nation that they love, and they do not want to see the demise of their fellow American citizens. In that sense, the victims of oppression are a bit like Joseph, who saw himself as a son of Israel even after his rejection by his brothers.
Dr. Martin Luther King was like a prophet of confrontation to this nation, and the Civil-Rights movement that he led served as a national conscience, reminding us repeatedly of America’s failure to live up to its platitudes. As the prophets of ancient Israel were persecuted, so was he and those who served with him. So have prophetic voices since.
However, when we consider the lesson of Joseph, we see that he was extremely clever and discreet in his confrontation, hoping that it would produce favorable results. As Dr. King insisted on non-violent methods, so must confronters today. Riots, assaults, destruction of property, and violence against opposition are not effective means of confrontation.
Consider also Joseph’s patience. He did not hurry the outcome or become frustrated that the favorable result was not early forthcoming. He trusted in God to exercise justice and correct the wrongs, and his patience paid off. So must confrontation patiently persist today. Hearts are not easily or quickly reached, but God is on the side of the afflicted who trust in Him.
Retribution is the normal response of a human who has been wronged toward the wrongdoer. The “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” principle runs through not only many legal systems but through most human rationale. For that reason, Joseph’s brothers expected retribution from him, as Genesis 50:15 says: When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” This seems to be the fear and dread of some if not many people of European descent as they see the non-European population of the United States steadily increasing toward an inevitable majority; they expect racial retaliation.
They may be surprised to find that most members of minority racial groups have no such intentions. Joseph’s brothers asked him to forgive them, saying: “Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father” (Genesis 50:17). His answer gave them tremendous relief as he reassured them and spoke kindly to them (Genesis 50:21).
Not only did Joseph forgive them but so did their father Jacob. In his prophetic pronouncements of their future, although he mentioned some of their serious sins in the context of consequences, he did not mention their act against their brother and their lies to him. This family had gone through wrenching experiences that could have destroyed their relationships, but these acts of forgiveness led to peace.
The same can apply in the Church in the United States, and if such peace settles upon the Church, “the salt of the earth” in Jesus’ words, the nation itself will be greatly helped toward racial reconciliation.
Some might object and insist on justice and retribution. I hope these objections do not come from followers of Jesus Christ. For them, forgiveness from the heart is required by the Lord (Matthew 18:35), who promised believers that retribution belonged to God (Romans 12:19).