I read Reconciliation Blues to better understand the tension between the races that exists in the American Church. I had the blues. After reading this book, I feel even more blue.
I’ve been wanting to read this book since it first came out in 2006. Since it is 7 years old, some of the material is a bit outdated. But many of the issues still ring true- progress is so slow as Edward Gilbreath notes late in the book.
As one chapter notes, the barriers still exist on “Christian radio”. He brings up an interview with Nicole Mullen, whose award winning music was not played much on “Christian radio.” Neither was GRITS, whose member Teron Carter said, “They feel safer with a white face promoting that kind of music than with a black face.” Christian radio still struggles with this. You will hear Toby Mac, but not Lecrae. The names have changed, but not the circumstances.
He knows the blues of being often misunderstood, left out, dismissed and more. He knows the frustration of being the “first black.” Many of the people he interviewed or discusses were older and experienced the bitter sting of racism (hearing white students at school cheering when Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered). Many other stories seem more mundane, unless you are in their shoes of course.
“… it took me awhile to shake the white off I got there- the stiffness, the narrow theological perspectives.” Chris Williamson
There was a provocative chapter on Jesse Jackson. He is a polarizing figure on the national landscape. Gilbreath himself wrestles with how to understand Jackson, as do many black evangelicals.
Much of the book frustrated me, honestly. I felt misunderstood because he (and those he quoted) refer to “whiteness”. It is a subject I struggle with. If whites voted as a block like blacks, I could see this “white mentality”. Even among evangelicals, there is a fair amount of disagreement on issues theological, social and cultural. I more understand what it means to be white by what it means to not be black. And that isn’t very helpful.
“I grew up around whites. I know how they think …” Chanel Graham
How I think and act has been shaped by a number of factors: my family of origin, the neighborhood I grew up in, the nominal Catholicism of my youth, socio-economic background, my conversion to Christ and subsequent studies, how I’ve sinned, been sinned against and a whole lot more. There are a number of things that make me, me. I don’t really know what the white part is- though I’ve been called a greasy haired Italian, a WOP a guinea etc.
I want to understand, but saying I’m white doesn’t help me understand. And I hesitate to “go there” with black friends because it may get ugly. Perhaps I’m a coward.
I recall going to see Amistad with a friend. I’m not sure why she went with me. When it was over, the emotions running around in her were so strong she couldn’t talk to me. It hit her in a way it didn’t hit me, though I was outraged by the horrible sins portrayed, particularly on the slave ship.
Maybe that is part of the problem: I can never understand, but I am expected to (by some). Just as they can’t understand what being white means (though they might think they do).
It really feels like those days when you and your spouse can’t seem to communicate. You know, like you think you’re speaking English but apparently aren’t. Or there is a babblefish in their ear confusing it all up instead of interpreting it.
This is the tension of the book. He uses stories, which can be powerful and stir up many emotions. But if you want to understand “it”, a bunch of stories isn’t very helpful. They are by nature non-linear, and lack a meta-narrative. It isn’t like Scripture in which there is a meta-narrative that ties all the stories (and letters) together. Well, the meta-narrative is racial tension but the point in individual stories seems lost or disjointed. At times I felt there was an over-generalization which tends to be a part of prejudice. I felt lumped in, whether rightly or wrongly. (Yeah, I’m still trying to process this.)
Gilbreath does include a chapter on other minorities which is quite good. While this nation is a melting pot, the ingredients don’t seem to mix well together all the time. Whomever is different, or someone feels threatened by, gets the shaft. Many groups have felt that sting. But some have felt it worse than others: blacks & native Americans. It is important to remember that. This book can help those of us in the “temporary” majority to be sensitive to that.
“The Spirit of God strongly desires racial barriers between people to be surmounted.” Tim Keller
As a pastor, I want to see a diverse congregation. I can’t make it happen. I know that someone has to be the first, but they get so tired of the reconciliation blues that it doesn’t happen. I want to see an increasingly diverse denomination. That will entail entrusting true responsibility and leadership roles to people from other ethnic backgrounds as a denomination. But I see people in power not wanting to give some up. This is part of my reconciliation blues.
It wasn’t until the last two chapters that I really had a sense of understanding & hope. Finally he clearly articulated a problem with most evangelical theology: individualism. Yes, most evangelical theology is infected by this and it does cripple evangelicalism. The church needs to learn that while we are saved individually, we are saved into the body of Christ (which is comprised of people from every nation, tribe, tongue and language). We do need to turn to those passages that talk about corporate sins, confessing the sins of the “fathers”, and that justice is individual and societal. I suspect we’ll have to meet in the middle on this, but evangelicalism does need to correct this faulty understanding, and repent of the harm it has done with it.
Gilbreath makes a powerful statement in the epilogue with a story of his son who refused to walk away when some other kids refused to play with him. “The social construct of race meant nothing to him.” Too often we make everything about race, even things that are about other stuff. But he continued:
“But I also know that one of the things that we often lack in our attempts at racial unity and reconciliation is a demeanor of grace. … we forget what it means to die to ourselves and live out the truth of Christ’s love. It’s often easier to leave the playground in a huff.”
Few are the people who will graciously hang in there during this process. We don’t need angry people antagonizing each other. We need people who really want to understand, to listen and speak gracefully to one another.
He ends the book with some words by Dr. John Perkins that we should all take to heart:
“What is God telling us? I feel he’s telling us Philippians 1:6- ‘He who began this good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.’ It is God who gave us this ministry and he will be the one to fulfill it. We just need to continue to give our hearts and souls to loving others…”
And loving others sometimes means asking them what they need and how they feel. As well as how you might help.
Here’s The Sound (John M. Perkin’s Blues)