In the Wake of Charlottesville, How to Lead Broken Communities
Where do we go from here?
With the events of last weekend in Charlottesville still fresh in our minds, many of us are wrestling with the same question: Where do we go from here?
People are looking to us for direction—emotional guidance in this time of inner turmoil, spiritual wisdom to deal with community tension, and biblical insights as they wonder how to respond. If you're like me, especially with issues of this gravity, it's hard to know where to begin. And, if we're honest, the burden of getting it right can be paralyzing.
Far too often the racial divisions within our communities leave us unable to connect with the experiences, realities, and worldviews of those who do not look like us. When situations like those over the weekend arise, we decry the injustice and immediately cry for unity, or we do nothing and argue that to address the hate would be to give it power. Might I suggest that both responses fall short of Christ's urgent message in Matthew 25:31-46 to serve others as if in service of him.
In his acclaimed work, Generous Justice: How God's Grace Makes Us Just, Pastor Timothy Keller offered:
We instinctively tend to limit for whom we exert ourselves. We do it for people like us, and for people whom we like. Jesus will have none of that. By depicting a Samaritan helping a Jew, Jesus could not have found a more forceful way to say that anyone at all in need - regardless of race, politics, class, and religion - is your neighbor. Not everyone is your brother or sister in faith, but everyone is your neighbor, and you must love your neighbor.
Whatever our response, we are doing something or nothing for God. As faith leaders struggling to lead broken communities, there are a few things we are uniquely called to do:
We all have biases that, left unchecked, can undermine the very good works that our hearts call us to do. Dr. Christena Cleveland spoke to this in her celebrated work Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart. "The biases we hold against other groups have the ability to wreak havoc on our cross-cultural interactions. Before we enter into such interactions, we must do the difficult work of addressing our biases and blind spots." Honest and open self-reflection will help us to uncover the unconscious biases that prevent us from seeing, appreciating, and lamenting the disparity in experiences between members of different racial groups within our care.
"Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!" (Psalm 139:23-24 ESV).
2. Lead with Humility
We have unconscious biases that often shape our interpretation of situations and people. Thus, we would do well to assume that we don't know what we don't know. As we engage with others of different racial backgrounds, let us be open and humble enough to consider the truth of their pain, the reality of their experience, and the certainty of the injustice they face. In doing so, we may find that our humility unlocks opportunity for us to understand better and address the needs of the diverse groups within our communities.
"I, therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:1-3 ESV).
3. Respond with Grace
Inevitably, we're going to get it wrong, and we're going to offend others. Not because we don't have the right heart. But because we're endeavoring to step outside of our comfort zones and into the pain and experiences of others we may not fully understand. Thus, when our best intentions are not favorably received, our response must always be laced with the grace of Christ. Remember, we're dealing with deep-rooted hurt and long-standing injustice. It won't be pretty. However, just as God's grace made a way for us to be reconciled with him, God has called us to be stewards of that same grace.
"As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace" (1 Peter 4:10 ESV).
4. Courageously Engage
When we step out on this ledge; when we endeavor to step into the dissonance between ourselves and others, it is a risky affair. And still God has called us to be God's hands and feet (1 Corinthians 12:27), salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16) to a world in need of God's hope and love. Our task is not to shy away from the danger but to courageously engage even when every bone in our body demands that we return to the safety of what's familiar. This means having conversations that will cut us to our core. This means listening to those whose words are washed with the pain of their experience. This means making ourselves vulnerable to those whom God has called us to serve, all for God's kingdom and glory. Pastor Bill Hybels spoke to this in Courageous Leadership:
There is nothing like the local church when it's working right. Its beauty is indescribable. Its power is breathtaking. Its potential is unlimited. It comforts the grieving and heals the broken in the context of community. It builds bridges to seekers and offers truth to the confused. It provides resources for those in need and opens its arms to the forgotten, the downtrodden, the disillusioned. It breaks the chains of addiction, frees the oppressed, and offers belonging to the marginalized of this world. Whatever the capacity for human suffering, the church has a greater capacity for healing and wholeness.
"Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go" (Joshua 1:9 ESV).
5. Bear Hope
The body of Christ has a critical role to play in moments like this. As we work through yet another pivotal point in the history of our nation, our Christian communities are called to play the part God intended for God's people to play all along—hope-bearers.
Why? So that through our actions, others might be shown the way "out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9 ESV). As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it:
Now in spite of the fact that I'm worried about America, I always maintain hope… And if there is any one thing that the church must do, it is to keep the flame of hope burning. The church is something of the custodian of hopefulness. And when everybody else loses hope, when other institutions lose hope, the church is that one institution that must keep hope alive.
In doing this, we become the conveyors of what Dr. Evelyn Parker coined, "emancipatory hope." We own our personal agency in stewarding God's vision for human equality.
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