Time for courageous conversation

As we drove home recently, our conversation shifted from a wonderful dinner and visit to recent news of Shirley Sherrod, and the political and media firestorm over a speech she delivered in 1986 that resulted in her firing.

Race and racism are at the center of the firestorm. In a matter of a few days, apologies and retractions were added to the finger-pointing, as the full content and context of her speech was reviewed.

As Secretary of USDA Tom Vilsack extended an offer for Ms. Sherrod to return to a job at the Department of Agriculture, the spotlight shifted from our daily tracking of the oil spill to the volcanic nature of racial bias—and how social media has become a factor in our conversations on race. 

Political posturing—void of any pursuit of truth and understanding—has often polluted such conversations. Our conversations must have less blame and shame and more guts and grace.

My wife, Racelder, reminded me that we have been involved in conversations over race relations and multi-cultural understanding for well over 30 years. Whether it was a PTO (Parent Teacher Organization)-sponsored event at a high school or a community gathering at a local library, or as part of our life and leadership in the United Methodist Church, we have been talking about race, racism and tolerance (a word we do not find very helpful) for all of our married life, and before. 

 Notwithstanding the election of President Barack Obama and the recent appointment of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the mood and tone in American discourse would suggest we have not yet arrived at the “post-racial society” some have claimed. Race still matters.

Racism is sin, in part, because it infects human relationships with notions of superiority and prejudicial behavior that each violates God’s intention for humanity. Sin is real, and there is enough evidence that the sinful nature of racism cannot be dismissed by constitutionally sound laws or poetic benedictions.

In his 2010 “Letter to Martin,” retired United Methodist Bishop Woodie White writes to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The battle to end racial division is not yet over. We still have much to do to replace walls of separation and prejudice with communities of love and justice.”

I want to focus on the “we” in the mandate. Racism and bigotry of all flavors cannot be talked away. Courageous conversation, however, that includes self–examination and a pursuit of truth, respect and reconciliation is a good down payment on an ever-improving world.

As a bishop in the church, I am appalled at how easily we Christians shrink from the task of lighting a candle of hope, love and justice in the face of darkness characterized by fear and mistrust. Certainly, the current economic conditions, unresolved immigration debate and post-9/11 terrorism threats have many anxious about the future.

But there is an alternative to our propensity toward pessimism when it comes to racial understanding.

We can choose to invest in community-building, characterized by courageous conversations and intentional relationships. We can begin conversations—again and again—with a goal of investing in a zero tolerance for injustice based on race.

We can celebrate progress without lowering the bar of friendship, so that our conversations result in our being co-laborers in the fight against racism and injustice as we pursue a multi-racial society that is characterized by love, not labels.

In the words of author and professor Cornel West, “a fully functional multi-racial society cannot be achieved without a sense of history and open, honest dialogue.” We can agree to acknowledge and address ignorance, including our own, while we decry bigotry and conscientious stupidity.

Racial understanding and the “beloved community” was something Dr. King believed had to be created by those who love life and profess to love God. We must engage in creative conversations.

We have at our disposal the most durable power in the universe: love. For those of us who are Christians, it is exemplified in Jesus Christ.

Tough love for the rugged road of honest dialogue. Tender love for the grace filled path to better understanding and deeper relationships.

Let’s talk!


3 comments so far

  1. Bill Daylong on

    Well said, Bishop. In the wake of threats of burning of Korans, hateful comments by talk show hosts against public officials, and even investigations of our own Wesley Foundation’s activities, it’s easy for people in the pews to conclude that it’s not safe to say or do anything anymore. Courageous conversation, bathed in prayer, is precisely the investment in hope we are called to make. Thanks for your encouragement. Be encouraged.

  2. nate nims on

    It’s sad that we need to be reminded these days to talk with one another rather than yell at one another. Honest dialogue can be difficult but we, as Christians, should strive to love one another nevertheless while continuing to strive towards the beloved community and witnessing to the Kingdom of God.

  3. Diane McClanahan on

    Your words of encouragement are perfectly timed for me as I am sitting in the airport in San Antonio on the way home from a General Board of Global Ministries Consultation on Multi-Cultural, Multi-Ethnic, Multi-Racial Congregational Development. There was a deep sense of loss as each of us was brought to the airport and sent off in our own separate directions after being together for the past three days. Together we had a clear understanding that following Jesus means crossing boundaries of all kinds that “we may all be one.” Honoring the distinctions and celebrating unity in the midst of diversity was the norm for the past few days. Would that be so in the rest of our church, nation, world….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: