Filling in the GAPS: Relationships
- Heather Hedlund
- Scripture and Justice
In our last newsletter, we looked at Pastor Scott Dudley's model for personal reconciliation, GAPS, and we applied it to racial reconciliation. Today, let's flesh out that first step. The G in GAPS stands for "Go to the person you're in conflict with." In the context of racial reconciliation, this means we need to be in relationship with people of races and ethnicities different from our own. Let's look first at why this is important and then at how to do it.
In Roadmap to Reconciliation, Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil lays out the theology of "the cultural mandate." She explains that when God gave the command to fill the earth (Genesis 1:28), he was ordaining difference. As people encountered different environments, they would develop cultures that adapted to those environments and those cultures would be different. McNeil explains, "no one culture, people or language can adequately reflect the splendor of God." However, our sinful natures were quickly revealed at the Tower of Babel. Dr. McNeil argues that in Genesis 11, "They refused to fill the earth with the imago Dei. They chose instead to disregard the diversifying process and hold fast to their own homogeneity." This reflects our tendencies today. When given the choice, we tend to associate with people who are like us rather than with people who have differences – differences in appearance, language, class, and political viewpoints, to name just a few. At Pentecost, God reaffirmed his commitment to diversity by waiting to send the Holy Spirit until people from all nations were gathered together to receive him. Acts 2:5 says, "Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven." This is the crowd that Peter preached to when he received the Holy Spirit, and three thousand were baptized that day. God quickly expanded the gospel mandate to Gentiles as well as Jews through a vision to Peter (Acts 10) and then by calling Paul to be an apostle to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:8). God intends for his kingdom to include people of all races and ethnicities, working together as one body. "Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God's people and also members of his household." (Ephesians 2:19)
When we give in to our natural inclination to group together with people who are like us, we expose ourselves to some dangers. In Disunity in Christ, Dr. Christena Cleveland delves into the group dynamics that tend to keep us separated. She writes, "Unfortunately, the more we spend time with people who are essentially identical to us, the more we become convinced that our way of relating to both Jesus and the world is the correct way… In the absence of diverse influences, homogenous group members tend to adopt more extreme and narrow-minded thinking as time passes." Michael Emerson explores the implications of these tendencies on our views of racism through surveys and extensive interviews in his book, Divided by Faith. He notes that because many white evangelicals do not directly witness prejudice, they tend to think the race problem is overblown. However, white evangelicals who are not as racially isolated "view racial problems and tensions as real and significant." What's the difference? When white people are in mutual relationships with people of other races, they are more likely to hear about and even witness the frequent instances of racism experienced by someone they trust and care for. We've been focusing on race and ethnicity for the purposes of this discussion of racial reconciliation, but the same pitfalls exist whenever we isolate ourselves based on difference, whether those differences are religious views, political views, or even what type of job we hold.
So how do we break free from the traps caused by social segregation? One way is to actively seek relationships with people of different races and ethnicities. People of Color tend to already have a diverse set of relationships simply because they are often a smaller percentage of the population. White people usually need to be more proactive about forming relationships. Look for opportunities in your church, workplace, or neighborhood to develop friendships across racial and ethnic lines. Seek out opportunities to interact with a different set of people than you usually encounter. A good example would be to attend the City of Bellevue's Cultural Conversations event where you can meet new people during the small group discussion. Find a cause you care about and volunteer with an organization that has a diverse staff and volunteer base. When you volunteer, look for peer relationships rather than relationships where you are the rescuer. Relationships that are not of equal status can lead to greater conflict and prejudice. Instead, if you are working together for a common purpose, you'll tend to build solidarity in the relationship.
In these days of social isolation due to COVID, it may seem really difficult to form new relationships, especially diverse ones. Beyond personal relationships, there are also the relationships we have with the people who inform our thoughts and values. Have you ever had an author or speaker or actor who you feel like you know personally even though you've never met them, because you've consumed so much of their content? Who are these people in your life? In his book White Awake, Pastor Daniel Hill suggests taking an inventory of the primary voices that shape your thoughts and values. Comprehensively list them and take note of the cultural backgrounds they represent. Daniel started with his friendship circle and mentors. Then he listed the preachers, teachers, and theologians he listened to. Lastly, he catalogued the authors he read. At the end of the exercise, he realized that the voices shaping him were overwhelmingly white. After reading his account several years ago, I did the same exercise and came to the same realization. I keep track of every book I read on Goodreads, and I can tell exactly when this happened because the authors in my catalogue suddenly became much more diverse, not just by race, but by lots of other categories as well.
Just as you can't reconcile a personal relationship by yourself, we can't reconcile group relationships in isolation either. We must be willing to step out of our comfortable, homogenous environments and as Dr. McNeil says start "building reconciling communities of racial, ethnic, class and gender diversity." With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can begin to reflect the glory of God in all his diversity.
- Roadmap to Reconciliation by Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil
- White Awake by Daniel Hill
- Disunity in Christ by Dr. Christena Cleveland
- Divided by Faith by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith