By Greg Jarrell
The author, who leads an intentional Christian community in Charlotte, N.C., attended the recent annual national conference of the Christian Community Development Association, a network of Christians committed to wholistic restoration for communities spiritually, emotionally, physically, economically and socially. This is the second of several reflections by him on the event.
Learning to name truthfully the condition of the world around us — and the conditions of the world within us — is the first step of the prophetic vocation. We practice discernment in part so that God and neighbor can help us to name the reality of sin in its many forms: racism, militarism, greed, usury, every form of domination that keeps God’s creation from flourishing, relationships with God and each other.
But the conviction that the world is not right is not the fullness of the prophetic task. Being able to name something “slavery” is of little use unless it leads to setting captives free. The next step after naming sin and voicing our lament is repentance.
The original sin of America is named racism. Race-based oppression is woven deeply into the fabric of our society. Our founding documents take the race-based system as a presupposition, despite the claim that “all men are created equal.” At various moments in history, we have made progress in eliminating some of the injustice built into this system. Emancipation was an essential move forward. The civil rights movement made important gains. But those movements are still incomplete. Systemic racism is more hidden now than it was 50 years ago, but the effects are just as devastating. In terms of educational outcomes, health disparities, overall wealth and countless other categories, we have made surprisingly little change since the civil rights movement. There is still work of repentance and reconciliation to do.
Repentance includes saying “I’m sorry,” but it is not only saying “I’m sorry.” It requires action. John Perkins, civil rights veteran and founder of the Christian Community Development Association, pointed out during the recent CCDA National Conference that repentance has two movements. One is the movement of God to us, dwelling in us and reconciling us to himself. The second is our response to God’s forgiveness. This is not simply a mental response. It is a response we make with our bodies as we learn to be reconciled with one another.
“Christian is a behavior,” he exclaimed, which means that for Christian conviction to be worth anything, it must be embodied in specific practices. Thus, in Perkins’s words, “Christian life is the out-living of the indwelling Christ.”
CCDA has long advocated some specific practices for embodying Christian life, including their Three Rs: relocation, reconciliation and redistribution. Redistribution in particular is a difficult but essential practice in the way of repentance.
CCDA Conference speaker Marshall Hatch stated the challenge this way: “Repentance is never a word you say; it is a life you live. Repentance will cost you. Reparations are necessary for repentance, and redistribution is necessary for repentance.”
It will not be enough to acknowledge our sin, whether it was intentional or unintentional, personal or systemic or both. We will have to move toward undoing our sin and its effects to the furthest extent we can. We will have to lift up those we have sinned against. We will need to change the structures that helped make our individual and corporate sins easier to commit. This is no easy task, especially for those like me who have usually benefitted from the power structures of our culture.
Our race-based system is persistent and quite thorough. All of our institutions are affected by it, though those of us in the majority culture often fail to notice it. In this context, redistribution is not first about economics, though it must quickly be about economics. But first, we address redistribution in terms of power.
One person that needs help learning this lesson is me. My little community and ministry group, QC Family Tree, has been serving in a cross-racial context for almost a decade. We live and work in a place where we cannot help but see the racial disparities between ourselves — mostly white — and our neighbors — mostly black. Yet only recently have we begun including neighbors on our board of directors. Our youth group is full of strong young people who are significant leaders in their families, in their schools and in our neighborhood. Still, sometimes we just plan things for them instead of with them.
We don’t intend to be dense or mean. But we are often dense, and meaning well is not the same as doing good. Thankfully, a whole bunch of folks in Enderly Park love us and keep teaching us how to do better. They are more patient than we deserve.
It turns out that one good model for subverting the reality of systemic racism is actually the Church — the earliest church, followers of The Way. The ancient Near East was a mash-up of ethnicities. Various tribes and nations moved from place to place by processes of military defeat, or urbanization, or seeking food during famine. Romans and Greeks moved widely across the region, making their languages the languages of trade and wielding the power of imperial force in the establishment of a social order benefitting themselves.
Some of these colonizers heard Good News in the stories of Jesus and wanted to join the local gatherings of believers, most often meeting in the homes of Jewish members. Faced with potential ethnic division as the Good News spread across the region, the early church made a clear response. For Romans and Greeks to join the Jesus Movement, they would not start their own congregations. Rather, they were to join the local Jewish-led gathering and submit to its leadership.
Christianity was a movement of an oppressed ethnic group — the Jews. To join from the dominant culture — the Romans and Greeks — required submission to the leadership of the church. That leadership was Jewish. Questions of ethnicity and power were resolved by honoring the voices of those occupying the lower rungs of the social structure. The oppressed were set free to create new ways of being in community while living under imperial rule. Those who benefitted from imperial rule came listening to and learning from those on the underside.
By seeing this remarkable movement of togetherness under the Spirit at Antioch, whereby divisions were healed and peopled dwelled together in unity, “a great many people were brought to the Lord” (Acts 11:24).