I was speaking with a man (we’ll call him Bob) from Jackson, Mississippi a few weeks ago. Bob told me a simple story that he intended as a neat anecdote, but he actually provided a tremendously valuable illustration of an important aspect of reconciliation. However, before I dive into the main components of reconciliation, here is Bob’s story.
Bob just left his house in Jackson, Mississippi to run some errands. He drove to a gas station to fill up and pulled up beside a car, as Bob described, that had two African American passengers with tattoos up and down their arms, windows down and rap music blaring with lots of “eff this and eff thats.” Bob is an elderly white man, long-time resident of Jackson in the deep south and says he loves Fox News and can’t get enough Joel Osteen. Needless to say, Bob is not a huge fan of rap.
Bob looked at one of the guys in the car and got their attention. Bob then said jokingly with a smile on his face, “Hey that’s pretty tough music there. Better watch out or it might bite-chyuh.” At this point in hearing the story, I was a little apprehensive, because I was thinking this might not end well, but then Bob let out a huge laugh like he was Kevin Hart dropping his key punch line (or maybe Ron White would be a better comparison to use). Bob then continued the story and said both young men in the car looked at him and started belly laughing. They small talked for a few minutes then one of the young men said half jokingly, “Hey, I like your car. Will you sell it to me?” As it turned out, Bob was thinking about selling his car. They all got out, exchanged names and numbers and they told Bob to give them a call if he ever decided to sell it.
I don’t remember why Bob started telling me that story, and he didn’t make any profound statements after telling it to me. He just found it to be an amusing story. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that his quick anecdote is an incredible illustration of taking the first step in reconciliation. Don’t get me wrong, Bob and the two guys in the car were not reconciled. After hundreds of years worth of racism, reconciliation does not occur simply by making a joke and having a cordial conversation for more than two minutes. But it is a good example of what a small step towards reconciliation looks like.
We are creatures of habit. We get into our routines, talk to the same people, do the same activities, eat the same food, then go to sleep, wake up and do it all over again.
Break that routine.
Approach someone who is very different from you with a smile on your face and say hello. You would be amazed at how a simple nice comment mixed with a smile can turn into a longer conversation. I guy came up to me in Kroger last week and said he liked my shoes. We ended up talking for ten minutes about all kinds of stuff from changes in what business casual means to sports to how to create passive income. I’m telling you. Smile, say hello and say something nice, especially to people who are different from you. Sometimes it may end up in nothing. Other times, it may be that one step God was waiting for you to take before opening up a completely new chapter of your life.
I want to point out one other aspect of Bob’s story. Bob, an elderly white man, approached two younger black men. The majority moved toward the minority. This is not an insignificant act. Now, let me pause, and make this clear. I am not applauding Bob for not being racist. Not being racist is the starting point; it’s not a finish line. The reason I want to emphasize the importance of the majority moving towards the minority is because it is very common when people talk about reconciliation (especially in the church) that they talk about reconciling in a way where everyone meets in the middle. Let’s make sure we grasp this: reconciliation rarely involves meeting in the middle.
For example… Let’s say John gets really upset at his wife Candice and starts yelling, screaming and cussing at her and storms out of the room. After John cools off, he comes back and tells Candice he’s sorry and that his behavior was not acceptable. Candice then says she forgives him but still feels very uneasy saying anything that John might take the wrong way. In a sense, they met in the middle. John came towards Candice to apologize. She came towards John by accepting the apology. This is forgiveness but this is not reconciliation.
It is important to recognize that the ingredients of reconciliation are forgiveness AND justice. Justice says, “the wrong has been made right.” Forgiveness says, “Your debt has been paid.” Reconciliation is a combination of the two that blazes a different path that cannot be walked with justice or forgiveness alone.
Reconciliation between John and Candice might look something like this… John apologizes to Candice, but then says that he is going to speak to a counselor about his anger problem. John goes to the counselor for several months, gets practical steps to manage his anger and shows tons of improvement. Not only has John lived out his apology but now, Candice is no longer scared to be truthful with John for fear of him losing his temper. The lyrics from a Lecrae song called “Facts” describes it this way, “Reconciliation requires defrauded parties to be made whole, not just apologizing for the offense.”
Now back to the majority/minority discussion… As a member of the majority (myself included) it is our job to move towards the minority. You might be thinking to yourself, “Why do I need to move the furthest? I’m not racist (sexist, homophobic, xenophobic). I haven’t done anything to contribute to these problems.” That might be true (there’s also a longer discussion we could have regarding implicit bias and complicity through inaction but we’ll save that for another time), but here are a few questions to ask yourself:
Have members of your race ever been owned by another human being?
Have members of you or members of your family ever been prevented from voting because of your race or gender?
Were any of your ancestors violently removed from land that was rightfully theirs and forced to march across the country?
Have you or members of your family ever been prevented from obtaining a loan, buying a home or moving into a certain neighborhood purely due to your race or skin color?
Have you or any of your family members ever been prevented from entering a country purely because that country rejects immigrants from your homeland?
Have your rights ever been threatened due to your sexual orientation?
If you answered no to these questions, that is why it is our job to do the majority of the moving towards people who live on the margins. I do not want to digress too much, but hopefully we are in agreement that racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia are real problems that have real life impacts on people every single day in the United States and around the world.
Once again, let’s return to Bob’s story.
Bob, an elderly, southern white man, approached two younger African American men who were listening to rap by telling a joke about their music. The two men could have quickly snapped back, writing Bob quickly off as a racist, but that’s not what they did. The conversation ended with smiles and an exchange of names and numbers. That’s an interaction that doesn’t always end up in similar fashion, especially in the Deep South.
I have no idea who the two guys in the car were. I do not know their story and do not want to even pretend to know enough to explain the experiences of being black in America. Maybe they have never had a negative interaction with a white person their entire lives, but my sense is that a white face with a genuine smile may have been just different enough from the norm that they wanted to know more.
I do know that for me, and for many people I speak with, we are quick to retreat into our bubble of sameness, quick to surround ourselves with conversations and environments that are familiar and comfortable.
Let’s break that habit.
Be the initiator of a conversation with someone who is different from you. Ask that coworker who is from a different country if he or she would like to grab lunch. Strike up a conversation with that person you see all the time who speaks some English but not as a first language. If you know what their first language is, learn a short phrase in that language, like “hello, how are you” and say it to them. You will be surprised at how appreciative people will be when you choose to make an effort to speak their native tongue.
Fore warning, it’s going to be uncomfortable. It’s going to be hard. Like our friend Aundre Larrow points out in Episode 3 of our Seeking Peace Podcast, sometimes you’re going to say the wrong thing or not know what to say at all. But that’s part of doing the hard work of reconciliation. It’s not quick; it’s not easy, but I know it’s worth it.