"All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful."—Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being
After 17 years of intense church-based racial justice and reconciliation ministry in Mississippi, my gospel had largely become a matter of trying harder and doing more. And things I held dear began to fall apart.
At the same time that my African American colleague, Spencer Perkins, and I were traveling the nation preaching about reconciliation, we could hardly sit at the same dinner table at home, where our families shared daily life in an intentional Christian community called Antioch. The long friendship and partnership that we had forged in Reconcilers Fellowship, the national ministry we co-founded, was on the verge of breaking up.
While Reconcilers Fellowship was vibrant, in my eyes the Antioch community had shriveled up inside. We were riddled by unresolved relational difficulties, financial stress, and constant and intensifying busyness. I could no longer live with joy and excitement in one sphere and discouragement and hopelessness in the other. Nor could my wife, Donna. I was striving to make a national impact, but that wasn't enough anymore.
I didn't know it at the time, but I needed to be born again—again. This is how it happened.
Interrupted by Jesus
In 1997, Donna and I decided we had to tell the Antioch members what we saw and felt. But could we reveal our deepest concerns and have them received with compassion?
We took the plunge, sharing in a letter at an Antioch meeting what had become an unbearable contradiction. To our great surprise, a number of others responded positively. "That letter could have come from me," one said.
For Spencer, though, any talk that sounded like leaving was betrayal. What hurt me even more was that he threw down the race card. "Why do only white folks make ultimatums like this?" he asked. My anger, and his, escalated. This was the final straw, Spencer accusing me of being a deserter of the cause.
We asked two mentors to fly in for a last-ditch attempt to save us from a split-up. John and Judy Alexander had spent many years in Christian justice ministry. John had been the editor of The Other Side, the leading prophetic evangelical magazine at the time, alongside Sojourners. Now they were part of a small church in San Francisco.
John and Judy talked to Spencer, to me, and to Antioch members. A couple days later, we all gathered. I was on the edge of my seat when John gave his diagnosis of our problem.
"Which does the Bible speak more of, loving God or loving your neighbor?"
I thought it was a trick question. How can you separate the two? Jesus didn't! (Matt. 22:36-40).
After watching us squirm, John laughed. "I'm a very anal person," he admitted. He described how once he had actually counted all the Bible verses about loving God and loving neighbor. They were innumerable, of course; the latter included many about loving the poor that had profoundly shaped my work with Spencer.
But John said he had made a discovery: Far more than verses about loving God or loving the poor were stories about God's love for us. The most important truth in the world, said John, is not our trying harder to love God or others, but God's acts of love for us. "If you don't get God's love into your bones, you will become very dangerous people," he warned. "Especially activists like you. The most important person in this community is not Spencer, or Chris, or any of you, or the people in the neighborhood. The most important person in any community is Jesus. Your life has to keep Jesus at the center."
Afterward, John and Judy met with Spencer and me to see if we could resolve our differences. But the more we talked, the angrier I grew.
Our old wounds spilled back into the room—the painful residue of renegotiating leadership roles, our very different styles, the constant submitting to each other. My long struggle with being jealous of Spencer was always a card he could play. We each held tightly to our "lists": "You did this to me"; "Well, you did that to me." John said the problem between me and Spencer was mostly about me. I didn't want to hear that. My list about Spencer was too long, too full of truth. I was tired of such an intense life together. Tired of living in a culture of demanding so much from myself and others. Tired of being tired. And all I wanted to do was to win.
Over the next two days, John and Judy failed to get me and Spencer to forgive each other. But when human efforts fail—when we come to the end of our own resources and somehow let go to God—the Spirit intercedes.
On October 18, 1997, Spencer and I were interrupted by grace. In the last meeting before John and Judy were to leave, still on the verge of splitting up, somehow the love of God that John had spoken of began to work itself into our bones.
Spencer somehow gave me grace to leave Antioch. "I want Chris and Donna to be happy," he said, "even if it means them leaving."
I somehow found the grace to stay.
And we gave each other the grace to make a new beginning.
Spencer told how he had responded to John:
"Yeah, yeah, I know all about grace, I thought. I could quote John 3:16 when I was knee high to a duck. Grace is God's love demonstrated to us, even though we don't deserve it. But in all my 43 years of evangelical teaching, I never understood until now that God intended grace to be a way of life for his followers. Maybe I'm the only one who missed it, but judging by the way that we all get along, I don't think so. Sure, I knew that we were supposed to love one another as Christ loved us. But somehow it was much easier for me to swallow the lofty untested notion of dying for each other than simply giving grace to brothers and sisters on a daily basis, the way God gives us grace. Maybe I'm dense, but I just never got it.
"At our relationship's weakest moment, Chris and I saw, as clearly as we had ever seen anything, that only by giving each other grace could we find healing and restoration. We could either hold on to our grievances, demanding that all our hurts be redressed, or we could follow God's example, give each other grace, and trust God for the lack. We chose grace."
Going Back to Kindergarten
A new reality demolished our lists, and the interruption shook our life at Antioch to the core.
We decided to replace a culture of demands with a culture of grace. Spencer said it felt like going back to kindergarten—learning a new language and new practices. For us, "telling the truth" had come to mean telling the church and each other how they needed to change. But now we saw that the greatest truth was telling and showing each other how much God loves us. Our paradigm for daily life had shifted to John's mantra: "Caring for each other, forgiving each other, and keeping the dishes washed. We are forgiven. All the rest is details."
Grace's ripple effects spread further. Spencer had seen his father, John Perkins, the morning after John's bloody beating in a Mississippi jail cell in 1970. Ever since, Spencer had been on a long journey to understand the power of racial strongholds in American Christianity.
Three months after the October breakthrough, during the closing message of a conference we hosted in Jackson, Spencer told the story of our friendship being restored. Speaking on "Playing the Grace Card," Spencer translated that breakthrough for the church's racial challenge in America.
"Nothing that I have been learning about grace and forgiveness diminishes my belief in Christians working for justice," he clarified, "especially on behalf of the poor and oppressed."
But how we work for this justice must change, Spencer said. "Although we must continue to speak on behalf of those who are oppressed and warn oppressors, my willingness to forgive them is not dependent on how they respond. Being able to extend grace and to forgive sets us free. We no longer need to spend precious emotional energy thinking about the day oppressors will get what they deserve.
"What I am learning about grace lifts a weight from my shoulders, which is nothing short of invigorating. When we can forgive and accept those who refuse to listen to God's command to do justice, it allows them to hear God's judgment without feeling a personal judgment from us. In the end, this gives our message more integrity. The ability to give grace while preaching justice makes our witness even more effective."
Spencer's words that night were not received with thunderous applause. But just three days later, at age 44, Spencer died of a heart attack. Afterward, many told me they were now taking his words very seriously.
Getting Love into the Bones
During the 12 years since being born again—again—I have sought to create more room for grace from God and with others. I used to live as if the psalmist had written, "Be busy, and know that I am God" (Ps. 46:10). I hope I have become as radical about receiving the gift of Sabbath as I am about pursuing justice. I remain deeply committed to being shaped by Jesus' story of the Samaritan who crosses social and racial divides to offer hospitality to the other (Luke 10:25-37). Yet I have also sought to be like Mary of Bethany in the story that immediately follows: She "wasted time" listening at Jesus' feet ("the one thing needful," he said) while her sister, Martha, slaved away doing good deeds in a world of ever-pressing needs (vv. 38-42). I hope I increasingly embody the difference between trying to be a minister and trying to be a messiah.
What does it mean to pursue racial reconciliation in and through grace?
First, it means to recognize that reconciliation is God's gift; it does not begin with our activism. The language of sociology, marketing, and rights often dominates our talk: "America is changing demographically; therefore, the church must change. Everyone should share in power. Now let's go out and make it happen."
Such visions don't say enough about God's desires and God's power. Second Corinthians 5 offers a far more beautiful and radical vision: God's "new creation" in Christ, and our becoming his ambassadors of reconciliation (vv. 16-21). Reconciliation has already begun with the work of Christ. And God invites us on the journey of reconciliation, the same journey that the early church was on: a journey that includes interruptions (Pentecost, Acts 2), a reconciliation among social divides (Peter's discovery that the gospel is for Gentiles, Acts 10), dismantling discrimination (against Greek widows, Acts 6:1-6), a new intimacy (the church in Antioch, Acts 11:19-26), speaking to injustice (Paul confronting Peter, Gal. 2:11-14) and, especially, the Holy Spirit—not Peter or Paul—being the central actor.
Second, it means working for justice with a spirit of mercy. Even during the grip of apartheid, with no guarantee that justice would win, Desmond Tutu preached "no future without forgiveness." And Nelson Mandela, from his imprisonment through his presidency, strove for a future of blacks and whites living together. Different ethnic communities have different captivities, and all are in need of the conversion that grace and the new creation make possible.
But bitterness can blind an African American from imagining why her church should bother building relationships with whites who "don't get it." Legalism can prevent a white Christian from listening to the painful story of a Mexican who crossed the border illegally to feed his family. In everyday situations like these, a lack of grace is tearing Christians apart.
At the same time, a major challenge in post-civil rights era America is seeing the depth of racial brokenness. Ethnic communities continue to be segregated, as witnessed in school cafeterias, the faculties of Christian colleges and seminaries, and at 11 a.m. every Sunday morning. But rather than starting with activism—"What should we do?"—grace calls us first to slow down and start with God's gift of lament: to see, name, and feel the brokenness. Only when we experience lament, feel helpless, and let go of control can we open up to our need for God and God's gifts—the only things that can rescue us from our alienation. Getting God's love into our bones gives us a holy boldness and mercy to take the time to see what's going on in our communities and institutions—the residue, the powers, and the imaginations that exclude others or lead to self-sufficiency.
Third, conversion by grace takes time and does not leave us standing complacently where we are. Fourteen years before the breakthrough, our church nearly split over a racial crisis. Yet a spirit of grace kept both blacks and whites at the table long enough for the whites to see the power and privilege we held tightly to, and for African Americans to see their spirit of unforgiveness. This first breakthrough of grace taught us about the continuing power of race, the later breakthrough years about the power of God's love. Both were necessary; both altered people at their very core. So grace not only takes time but gives us time to pursue reconciliation, not with desperation but by embracing long-term practices and disciplines that in the light of God's love become "graces" through which we and our institutions can be converted.
Finally, pursuing racial reconciliation in grace means to journey toward holiness. As my friend Glen Kehrein once said, "I believe in racial reconciliation because it's the best way I know of for a white male to die to self."
Spencer wasn't always the friend I wanted, but he was surely the friend I needed; I don't know who I would be without him, or who he would have been without me. What is at stake is far more than solving the race problem; it's about the renewal of the church—becoming and being a new people. We are deprived and impoverished without one another. Reconciliation is not an event or achievement but a journey that forms the fruits of the Holy Spirit in us—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Grace insists that segregation in the intimate places of our lives is not normal, inevitable, or acceptable—and that reconciliation is beautiful. When knit and transformed together in visible friendship and common mission for the sake of the gospel, we become not only like Christ, we are also joined into Christ.
Terrifying, Beautiful Grace
In 1997, we at Antioch declared every October 18 "Grace Day"—a day to remember God's wondrous interruption into our lives. It's a day to remember that if the gospel we live and the social change we seek come to be mostly about trying harder and doing more, it is not good news. It's a day to remember that how we choose to care, forgive, and advocate for a new reality in this world matters greatly—all the while not taking ourselves too seriously. It's a day to remember, as the old folks used to say in Jackson, that "God might not come when you want him, but he's always right on time."
For the good news of the gospel is that it is God's timing, not ours, that matters. We are not the central actors in saving the world's brokenness. In the life and resurrection of the crucified Christ now living in heaven, God has given us everything we need to live well in a broken world through the Holy Spirit. God has already changed everything through the power of a grace we do not deserve.
Flannery O'Connor was right: To receive this kind of grace is a bit terrifying. We and our churches and institutions will surely be changed in ways we'd rather not be changed. It is painful to give up our lists about others—and ourselves—for this other way. Grace is not safe or tame. But it is beautiful. If we receive this gift of God deeply into our bones, and speak it into the bones of those both near and far, everything changes about who we are in the midst of a world wracked by injustice and death. Every Grace Day, I celebrate that.
Chris Rice is co-director of the Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation. He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. He writes regularly at the Reconcilers blog (reconcilers.wordpress.com).
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Go to ChristianBibleStudies.com for "Service Rooted in Grace," a Bible study based on this article.
Previous Christianity Today articles on racial reconciliation include:
Are Evangelicals Doing a Good Job at Racial Integration? | Church leaders and observers weigh in on a current debate. (February 25, 2010)
More Free, At Least | Racial Reconciliation is making some unexpected demands on me. (November 12, 2007)
Exit Interviews | Why blacks are leaving evangelical ministries. (January 15, 2007)
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