Friday, September 26, 2014

Reflections from CCDA – Is Racial Reconciliation Possible?

One of the central values of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) and central topics of discussion at this year’s conference is racial reconciliation. On Thursday, I participated in an “action tank” whose task it was to make recommendations to the organization on how to make CCDA’s central value of reconciliation more of a reality.  However, as we dialogued, I openly questioned whether racial reconciliation is really possible in the current economic and political context. Moreover, I felt there were a number of other steps that needed to be taken before we could realistically talk about authentic reconciliation.

It just so happened that at the same time we were meeting, U.S. Atty. General Eric Holder was a announcing his resignation. Of all the senior officials in Pres. Obama's administration, Holder has been the one most outspoken on the underlying causes of racial and economic inequity in the country. His recent statements in support of a lawsuit against the state of New York for not providing sufficient funds for poor folks’ legal defense, and his public outrage at law enforcement’s mishandling of the tension in Ferguson are only two most recent examples of his willingness to speak the truth as he saw it.

As a result Holder has been a controversial figure to many and that controversy is symptomatic of the unwillingness and inability of U.S.  leaders and citizens alike to come to grips with the underlying causes of racial disparity that currently exist in our country. If we as citizens are ever to approach true racial reconciliation, there are several underlying concerns that must be acknowledged and addressed such as:

  • the continual use of racial code words in political life, 
  • the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, 
  • the unjust Supreme Court decisions giving corporations and wealthy PACs undue influence over political decisions, 
  • the unwillingness of state governments to provide the funds necessary for equitable public education, 
  • the amnesia Americans tend to have about the atrocities of our history in relation to indigenous people, African Americans, Mexican Americans and other peoples of color.

And the list goes on.

Individuals may develop meaningful cross-racial/ethnic relationships and this is significant. However, unless underlying systemic injustices are addressed, those relationships will have a limited effect. As Camryn Smith, a community organizer from Durham, NC put it this week: Racism in this country is not just about the fish getting along with each other, but also the fact that the lake we are swimming in is polluted.[my paraphrase]

So I began thinking of some pre-steps to reconciliation and I came up with a preliminary list; they all start with “R”. Before we talk about reconciliation it seems to me we need to address the following:

  • A Recognition of the way in which power and resources in this nation are distributed along racial and class lines. When the struggles of Native Americans, blacks, Hispanics, gays, women and other historically marginalized groups are only incidentally noted in the U.S. history books, we have not come to grips with the reality that the "land of the free and the home of the brave" is also the land where there was much brutality and avarice in the pursuit of power and control of the land. Moreover, with that misdistribution of resources also came an equally skewed distribution of power.
  • We need to talk about Reparations. Ta'Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic Monthly  has recently revived the discussion about reparations for the black community, which is not just in terms of money, but also making efforts to address the inequities that have resulted because of the history of oppression we have failed to recognize and admit.
  • We need get to work at Restructuring the guiding institutions of our society. Racism is not just an interpersonal issue but also a systemic and institutional issue, and concerted efforts need to be made to change laws, policies and practices that give advantage the wealthy and the white over against the poor and the persons of color. For example, when the criminal justice system has a plurality of people of color in prison, even though the crime rate is roughly equal between whites and people of color, the system needs to be change. Or, when poor school districts like School District of Philadelphia struggle financially while the wealthy suburbs just outside city lines have twice the amount of resources per student, the way education funding is done needs to be change. Without restructuring there will be no justice, and without justice there can be no reconciliation.
  • Finally there needs to be Repentance, not in the Billy Graham "come to the front of the church" style, but in the original meaning of metanoia, the New Testament Greek word for repentance. Literally, metanoia means to turn around one's mind or perspective, or worldview. Perhaps the greatest perspective needs to be in seeing that all of us, regardless of our race or ethnicity, are in this struggle together. We need to move from seeing people of other racial/ethnic groups as the “other”, to seeing “them” as "us." As Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us decades ago: "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny." Current political polarities and economic policies leave us to be a nation of "winners" and "losers", haves and have-nots, but the fact is in the long run if there only some winners, we all lose in the end. Disparity and injustice only lead to the frustration and desperation (what Cornel refers to as nihilism) we see these days on the streets of Ferguson, and many of our low income communities.

I doubt that in my lifetime I will see these barriers to reconciliation fully dismantled, but being here at CCDA has helped me become even more committed to addressing the inequities that exist through recognition, reparations, restructuring and repentance, in the hopes that future generations might actually approach the reality of "liberty and justice for ALL." Then perhaps we can talk about reconciliation.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


I am attending the annual conference of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) in Raleigh, NC for the next few days. I came here not knowing what to expect, except for using the time to network with other urban studies programs and like-minded individuals in the field of community development. The best part of most conferences for me is not in the formal program but in the relationships that are built.

However, I was struck by the opening night theme at CCDA: Lament. Often at conferences like this, especially when the crowd like at CCDA is comprised of mostly young religiously-oriented activists, the focus tends to be on pumping people up to go out and change the world. However CCDA director Neil Castellanos began the night talking about the pain in the world (Ferguson, Gaza, Central American kids at the border, violence in our streets, war in the Middle East, etc.), and called individuals in the crowd to acknowledge the world’s pain as well as their own frustration and shared pain as a result of the way the world seems to have gone wrong.

Interestingly, I had just been talking with my Christ and the City class about lament, saying that the ability to pour out our frustration, anger, hurt, grief and other emotions at God is a sign of ultimate trust. The Biblical book of Lamentations pictures a man, presumably the prophet Jeremiah, weeping and crying over the destruction of his beloved city of Jerusalem. The prophet Habakkuk complains openly to God about how Israel’s enemies are getting the best of them. Psalm 13 asks how long it is going to take God to act while God’s people languish in pain. The book of Job shows an innocent man pleading his case before God for his intense suffering and calling on God to act in his defense. All of these laments are not only directed to God, but are in effect blaming God for inaction, struggle and suffering. Yet in the genius of Hebrew poetry there is an understanding that God can take it, that we need to get our negative emotions out, and that in doing so our relationship to God is strengthened not weakened. Too often super-religious folks think getting angry at God will get you zapped. Just the opposite is true – we draw closer to God who can take our negative stuff, because God’s love surrounds us when we cry out our deepest anguish.

As I think about my efforts with POWER to bring fair funding to public schools in Pennsylvania and my efforts with Heeding God’s Call to reduce gun violence I am thankful for lament. As I see my feeble attempts to build relationships across lines of race, culture and class; as I see the injustices and inequities in our society along racial lines and income differentials; as I see the cruelty of our government toward desperate immigrant children and their families; as I wonder about this new war with ISIS/ISIL, and the conflict between Israel and Gaza, and so much more - I am glad for lament. I am glad I can feel hopeless and frustrated and powerless to change things, and even ask God why these things go on. I am glad there is a place in our faith for letting it out, then picking ourselves up, moving ahead, and trusting God to be with us in the ongoing struggle.

[Picture - Jeremiah lamenting is from Wikimedia Commons]