Racial Reconciliation: Misnomer, Myth or Mirage

Leonard Lovett, Ph. D

 For nearly two and a half decades I have been out-voted on the use of the term “racial reconciliation” especially by my colleagues who hang out with professional scholarly societies and similar organizations. I presented a paper circa. 1977 titled, Liberation and the Holy Spirit, at a Society gathering and was labeled from that point forward. By then I had introduced a couple more brothers to the gathering and their presence deflected much of the negative critique intended for yours truly. I used the term liberation in a Society for Pentecostal Studies Conference in Vancouver – 1980 and was nearly booed off the floor and labeled a Marxist. We were just a decade from the emergence of Black Theology as a developing intellectual enterprise to be reckoned with and assumed that our white colleagues would have shared our excitement equally. As we come to the demise of white Christian America as we have known it during our life-time, I see no better time than now to take the wraps off and engage in a real conversation about racism.

The “uncritical acceptance” of the term “racial reconciliation”began at the 1994 Pentecostal Fellowship of North America Conference, later dubbed as “The Memphis Miracle” during a period of intense excitement. Denominational leaders washed each other’s feet as a sign that the Holy Spirit had invaded the hearts of a significant number of participants. I led in the writing of a “racial manifesto” with the goal of tying participants to covenant. God honors covenant. The fruits of a spiritual outpouring are manifested in fruit-bearing beyond the walls of a conference when you return to your place of residence. For months we waited for testimonies that never evolved. When no structural change takes place in staid denominations and people return to business as usual, what was dubbed as a miracle may have been reduced to a mirage. Jesus Christ candidly states that “By their fruits you shall know them.”

My banter is with those well meaning Conservative Pentecostals-Charismatics and Evangelicals who needed a seemingly respectable way to feel good about themselves as participants in the demise of the blatant and latent manifestations of racism within the Faith Community. With the media in focus and the glaring lights of TV blinking the moment of redemption had come. I honestly believe their hearts were in the right place, but their probing minds did not critically engage in a historical theological critique of the implication of the “freighted terminology of racial reconciliation.”

Allow me to tamper with a premise that requires immediate adjustment. From the standpoint of plain logic if your premise is flawed, your conclusion can never be correct. If you have bought into the notion that “racial reconciliation” is the goal for the Faith Community in order to deal a final blow to racism you are fighting the wrong battle and destined to lose the war.

In the 1994 PFNA Conference I presented a paper titled, Racism in the Pentecostal-Charismatic Movement. The respondent was Dr. Robert Franklin, former President of Morehouse College who gave a spirited response to my paper. Being reductionist his response was that my paper was a full indictment of many well- meaning people who were in fact not the norm and that I leaned too heavily on repentance as a key to resolution to the problem of racism. My point was that repentance should be the starting point and not the solution.

Racial Reconciliation presupposes that we were once united as a people. If so, when? The very term as it is currently espoused is a misnomer and should be eliminated from our conversation. Ethnicity is ancient, but race as we know it, is a modern sociological phenomenon.  I argued that racism is a consequence of original sin and brokenness as a result of the Fall. After a serious descriptive analysis of racism with the intent of being more provocative than exhaustive, I concluded that racism is fundamentally a spiritual problem with social and psychological tentacles. (see George Kelsey, Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man) Racism exists when a person or group intentionally or unintentionally refuses to share power and resources and subjugate persons on the basis of skin color. It is prejudice linked with power. At a time when racial groups are attempting to legitimize their existence (Alt-Right, et al), we must name the names of the “demons of racism” and exorcize them in the name of Jesus who is the Christ.

Dr. William (Bill] Pannell, a devout evangelical with roots in the Plymouth Brethren Church, wrote a book challenging at that time, My Friend the Enemy. In view of the Rodney King debacle Pannell wrote a more radical challenge in his, The Coming Race Wars, A Cry for Reconciliation. Pannell was correct then and more correct now, for God’s ideal is to “bring all things together.” That is the true meaning of biblical reconciliation, but that is not the starting point. I knew the heart of Dr. PannelI. I worked as his Assistant in building the Black Ministries program at Fuller Seminary from 5 to 55 students in a short time. As a young Evangelist he preached in “sundowner towns” (Blacks were not to be on the streets after sundown]. He formed a ministry with the late Evangelist Tom Skinner whose demise was premature. Skinner was the radical and Pannell was the moderate who knew from experience that racism was just as subtle and pervasive among white Evangelicals as I discovered it was among white Pentecostals. However, I take umbrage with other scholars who leap frog over repentance and attempt to force fit their personal agenda into the scheme of things which is tantamount to forcing a square screw into a round fitting.

In 2009, with Amazon Kindle as an E-Reader, titled Kingdom Beyond Color Re-Examining the Phenomenon of Racism. The book was written exclusively to challenge the Faith Community to lead the way to racial liberation. Dean Liston Pope, Yale Divinity School, wrote a book titled, Kingdom Beyond Caste. Since color was the defining norm for race during the nineteenth-twentieth centuries,(Dubois), my book was written to challenge the Faith Community to repentance.

Racial Conciliation, not “racial reconciliation” should be the target to liberate us from this horrible morass of racism in American culture.  If repentance is your starting point you can work your way back to a tenable conclusion that includes “racial conciliation the prelude to liberation and biblical reconciliation.  The schematic in my heart should begin with repentance for the Faith Community. The same people must submit to liberation by the Holy Spirit who has the power to free us from personal and cultural bigotry and racism. Once we are free from the vestiges of racism we are ready to enter the phase of biblical reconciliation because the barriers are down.

The inherent challenge is that people do not want to be disturbed.  The late Dr. Paul Sherer a salient significant voice in Protestant preaching during the twentieth century candidly reminds us that for the most part “people do not change unless they are disturbed.”  (see his book- The Word God Sent). The Gospel is an offense because it is dynamite, not sachet powder.  I have discovered that the worst racial bigotry conceals itself in religious conclaves where people  would rather be entertained than challenged, consoled and comforted rather than rebuked. They would rather taste honey than vinegar. Please understand that racism dwells in lion country, and this is no place for the faint of heart.  That is why it is mandatory that the Faith Community submit to the reign of the only Kingdom that not only will not be shaken, but cannot be moved.

 

Leonard Lovett, Ph. D, public theologian-ethicist, ecumenist      Follow me on my web/blog at www.theagora.net    a marketplace of ideas

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