More Than Beer-Bottle Diplomacy

By Edward Gilbreath 08-13-2009

It has now been a couple of weeks since President Obama convened what was infamously dubbed the "Beer Summit." You know the story by now. After Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s arrest and Obama's subsequent words about the Cambridge, Mass., police acting "stupidly," the lid was blown off of the already tense and awkward national conversation we were having about race, class, and justice in America. The controversy culminated with that somewhat anticlimactic scene of Gates, Sergeant Crowley, President Obama, and Vice President Biden (thrown in for good measure) chatting and drinking cold ones in the backyard of the White House.

The air was cleared, but did the nation really gain any deeper insight into the various issues surrounding "Gates-gate"? Probably not. We all just became more entrenched in our preexisting opinions. Even Gates and Crowley said they would simply agree to disagree. By then, the whole saga had seemed to devolve into a reality-TV farce, with the snobbish professor, the tough cop, and the busybody president. But what were the ultimate lessons?

People wanted to make the Gates arrest and ensuing ruckus a parable about a lot of things -- the prevalence of racial profiling, Ivy League elitism, disrespect for law enforcement, racism, classism, black rage, white privilege. The episode may have had shades of all those things. But the truth is always more complicated and multi-layered than the pre-wrapped boxes in which we're inclined to deposit racial events.

So, what's the takeaway? In my role as editor of UrbanFaith.com, I asked several prominent Christian leaders to respond to the question: What is the real lesson of the Gates-Crowley-Obama drama? The panel of seven included William Pannell, Cheryl Sanders, Glenn Loury, Vashti Murphy McKenzie, Curtiss Paul DeYoung, Arturo Lucero, and Tali Hairston -- an accomplished group of scholars, clergy, and community activists. And what they shared was anything but predictable.

"The real message?" said Glenn Loury, the respected social critic and professor of economics at Brown University. "I think it's that the president must do a better job managing the 'race' issue. I recognize that this issue is pretty far down the list of things he has to worry about, and rightly so. But, as the principal public official now in the position of framing the national discourse on race-related matters, he has an awesome responsibility to get it right."

"Reconciliation requires more than beer-bottle diplomacy," added Cheryl Sanders, pastor of Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C., and a professor at the Howard University divinity school. "There must be transparency and truth-telling with the intention of actually changing the way we relate to each other."

Tali Hairston, the director of the John Perkins Center of Reconciliation at Seattle Pacific University, observed: "What we clearly lack is strategic engagement and the intentional effort needed to truly address race in America. This leaves us with two basic options, which were regularly demonstrated in this situation. We either choose to ignore the issue of race, believing that if we do so racism will fix itself. Or, we wait until the next race-based conflict and react vociferously with insight and passion, hoping to change someone's mind or, at best, give them a piece of ours."

Arturo Lucero, president and founder of Multi Cultural Ministry based in Southern California, suggested that forgiveness and grace need to take a more central role in incidents like the Gates affair. "As long as people of all ethnicities perpetuate the injustices of the past and their grievances toward other ethnicities, the wound will never heal," he said.

But Curtiss Paul DeYoung, professor of reconciliation at Bethel University and author of books such as Living Faith, insisted that we not forget the honest and thoughtful application of justice to situations like this one. "Until our best minds and most committed healers focus on the deeper levels of bigotry and systemic injustice, and implement a process for transformation, we will continue to experience the symptoms of this entrenched reality."

William Pannell, the veteran Fuller Seminary scholar and author of such classic books as The Coming Race Wars?, spared neither Gates, Crowley, or Obama in his blistering assessment of the controversy. But he also called for understanding and practical solutions to the tensions between police and minority communities. "What we need is a series of regular backyard conversations between police and neighborhoods in an attempt to develop 'communities of discourse,' climates where trust can be developed," he said. "The most promising centers for such discourse could be local congregations, but better in someone's backyard. The barbecue tastes better there."

Listening to this array of wise but unsentimental voices, I'm convinced that there's hope -- if we're willing to tackle the race issue in America with honesty, compassion, and persistence. I encourage you to read the entire forum at UrbanFaith.com.

Racially charged events like the Gates incident will happen again. The question is, can America learn to approach them not as occasions for further division, but as opportunities for transformation?

Edward Gilbreath is editor of UrbanFaith.com, and the author of Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianityhttp://www.assoc-amazon.com/e/ir?t=sojo_blog-20&l=as2&o=1&a=0830833625. He blogs at Reconciliation Blog.

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