PASTOR’S PERSPECTIVE—An Honest Conversation on Race

By on August 10, 2015
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MCL: Despite years of using the term “racial reconciliation,” it seems that racial tension in this country is more intense than ever. From your perspective, where do we even begin to have a meaningful conversation that can move us forward, not backwards.

Martha Alexander: As Christians, I think we need to begin with an examination of our moral conscience against what God requires of us. As a former parish pastor, I made every effort to live out my understanding of what the Bible commanded (versus just talking about what “thus sayeth the Lord”) of me as a Christian so I could preach/teach and live faithfully. Irrespective of the critics, where that moral conscience examination begins depends upon whom one serves and desires to commune with spiritually.

For instance, when I heard the news of the Charleston, South Carolina, shooting, having just had eye surgery, my prayers for physical sight led to a cry for spiritual “insight” regarding the shooter, Dylan Roof. God’s spirit led me to Ephesians 4. I saw myself blurry-eyed from the surgery and shooting, yet confident that God was still in control despite that horrific ordeal involving a church community.

Racial tension across this county makes me see Christians, the nation, the church, and politicians as morally distanced from God’s ways, Word, and will for God’s people, and God’s redemption of this broken world. Our moral understanding and reasoning have been corrupted and darkened by the ways and practices of this “anything goes culture” such that we have alienated ourselves from the God of the Bible. So the Dylan Roof shooting, for me, was just another instance in which we Christians, collectively, failed to discern the brokenness and darkness in our midst.

Someone in the Body of Christ should have had spiritual eyes to “see” this young man (and the countless other young people who have committed or been victims of violent crimes recently) and helped him—yet, no one did! Perhaps, one reason is that the people of God have become so acculturated—influenced by the ways of the culture in which we live—that we have become blinded to the Spirit of God in our midst. The inculturation of God’s Spirit in this broken world is seemingly a thing of the past in the home, church, school—you name it. So sin is having her way, for now!

Until we reconcile our moral conscience against the will and Word of God, I guess all we will effectively do is just continue to “talk about talking racial reconciliation.” A sincere selfless moral-conscience examination will help us regain our boldness for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Then we will not only talk about racial reconciliation, we will be able to come to terms with how reconciliation to God reconciles us to one another, irrespective of race, political, or religious affiliation. Spiritual reconciliation to God will empower us to boldly inculturate God’s Spirit in this broken world.

MCL: How has the church per se dropped the ball on this issue, and what needs to happen to change the church’s role in bringing the races into real engagement with each other?

MA: I assume you mean race relations. Historically, the church, especially the African-American church has been at the center of what was good and right “for African-American people.” Most, if not all, aspects of the cultural practices and the development of some major institutions were given birth and/or nurtured in the womb of the African-American church. Historically, the African-American church played the strongest and greatest role in shaping and influencing the culture—thoughts, behaviors, economics, etc.—of the African-American community. Some white churches help facilitate change as well (I can only talk best about what I know firsthand). Nonetheless, when I look around the country at African-American communities, I see, for the most part, an impotent church, a church that behaves like Gomer, the wife of Hosea the prophet (Hosea 2). This impotence is evidenced by the state of affairs in education, politics, and the home—almost every sphere of society. For the most part, the church follows the ways of the world instead of the world following the ways of the church. From my up close and personal experience, I am hard pressed to differentiate between the politics of the church and the politics of the world. There is as much, if not more, political wheeling and dealing in the church than in the political arenas. Furthermore, if in 2015, there still exists white churches and black churches in most denominations, is it any surprise that we just talk about racial reconciliation?

These are the kinds of issues we discuss at Leadership Next-Generation Plus and no one is ostracized or criticized for expressing his/her opinion.

MCL: What do you consider the major issues that we are going to have to talk about and how do we get to an honest discussion without inciting anger and conflict?

MA: The major issue for Christians is: Who is our God? The God of creation or the many idol gods of this world? Do we follow the commands of the God of creation or the idol gods of politics? When we can decide unequivocally who is our God? (Matthew 22:21f). We will without a doubt know what the God of creation requires of us, irrespective of the issue—the state flag, race relations, same-sex marriage, the poor, public education—and we will not be afraid to discuss these issues.

Basically, my perception is that we do not do the right thing for the right reason at the right time because we tend to have a stronger allegiance to politics than we do to the God of all creation. Christians ought to (morally speaking) be able to talk about anything with anybody, without allowing anger and conflict to have the last word—people get angry and conflict can be instrumental in promoting healthy change. The bottom line is that God gets the last word when we seek to do God’s will. Romans 8:26-30 affirms this if we can believe the word of God! If we step outside or ourselves and desire to honestly face those hurtful issues that cloak race relations in Mississippi, God will help us rise above our fears and weaknesses. If we do our best to be open and honest, God will do the rest.

Leadership Next-Generation Plus uses a process called Structured Engagement to facilitate open and honest communications about complex, sensitive, and difficult issues such as race, sexuality, religion, and youth-adult generational problems in order to have an equitable social exchange that brings about “sustained change” in perspectives and ultimately in one’s behavior. Participants in these sessions learn how to: 1) Communicate their fears, beliefs, emotions, etc. without shame. They learn how to talk (talking is a process that requires thinking) to and with one another about difficult issues; 2) Listen to and hear themselves and others (there is a difference between listening and hearing); and 3) Interrogate one another’s perspectives, feelings, beliefs, etc. through critical thinking, truth-based reasoning, fact-analyzing and fact-understanding, empathy, truth with love, restating, and role transference, just to name a few of the terms of engagement.

Structured engagement is a progressive process of discussing issues under terms of engagement established by the discussants. Participants are taught how to think critically in order to arrive at amicable terms of engagement in their communications/conversation. As a result, the possibility for triggering and inciting anger and resistance is minimized, thereby allowing discussants to build trust bonds that will facilitate additional conversation and openness among and between themselves.

When people feel like they are forced to do something, their first reaction is often to resist! Resistance can take many forms—the most frequently observed form in most interactions between the races and/or between generations is denial!

MCL: You recently began the Leadership Next-Generation Plus, Inc. initiative. Tell us what it is and why you believe in it.

MA: Leadership Next-Generation (LNGP), for me, is ministry—ministry that allows us to inculturate God’s spirit in leadership in all spheres of life in Mississippi and beyond. Like parish ministry, everything we do depends upon God’s grace and God’s timing. We incorporated around young, economically disadvantaged people in middle and high school, but we cannot effectively work with young people without working with their whole family and ultimately the whole community. So we are a wholistic leadership-development ministry committed to improving the quality of life for the people by the people who want to see change for the common good. Next-generations leaders cannot behave like our current generation of leaders because God’s young people are perishing too quickly, in so many ways.

I believe in LNGP because I believe God’s word about abundant life as promised in John10:10. Too few of us enjoy God’s abundant life because we have gotten out of step with God’s will (1 Corinthians 13:11-13). LNGP’s work is one way we seek to reconnect faithfully and responsibly with God and God’s people; and we are called to love one another as God has loved us (John 15:12-13). How can we love one another if we do not seek to understand one another?

MCL: What is your desired outcome for the project? How will you measure success?

MA: The desired outcome is to change the status quo in leadership! We need to shift the paradigm on what we do and how we do it. Leadership in the schoolhouse, statehouse, church, etc. ought to be for the common good of the people and not just for the few. So, our programming focus is always to let the people tell us what they want and we help them develop a system of support, skills, knowledge, and spiritual zeal to achieve those outcomes in God’s timing and in God’s way. That’s hard stuff compared to what politicians do (LOL)!

Seriously, we put options and possibilities before our participants and we help them develop plans of action to achieve what they see for themselves and others that are essential to achieving their plans. To do this requires lots of capacity building and prayer. We have been doing both this past year. We seek out supporters, partners and volunteers who believe in the God of creation and seek to do God’s will—no matter what.

Contact LNGP at www.leadershipnextgeneration.org

Martha A. Alexander is a retired ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, Mississippi Conference. A social justice activist, Alexander holds a doctorate in education administration and master’s degrees in divinity and speech communications. Martha is a mother, grandmother, education and management consultant, team-builder, and spiritual life-coach.