Brenda Salter McNeil Knows Why We’re Fed Up With ‘Racial Reconciliation’ | Sojourners

Brenda Salter McNeil Knows Why We’re Fed Up With ‘Racial Reconciliation’

Brenda Salter McNeil. Graphic by Candace Sanders/Sojourners.

This interview is part of The Reconstruct, a weekly newsletter from Sojourners. In a world where so much needs to change, Mitchell Atencio and Josiah R. Daniels interview people who have faith in a new future and are working toward repair. Subscribe here.

Once, while attending a predominantly Black church on the West Side of Chicago, the preacher started his sermon with a provocative question: “Why is it that Black people are always expected to forgive, huh?” To be honest, I don’t remember the rest of the sermon. But I’ve continued meditating on that question.

I grew up in the evangelical, multicultural church movement, and there was always talk about “racial reconciliation.” Ultimately, in this context, racial reconciliation amounted to an expectation that Black and brown people would offer a no-strings-attached forgiveness to white people for the sins of individual and systemic racism. It was popular, during the early stages of Barack Obama’s first presidential term, for the Christians I knew to cite Obama’s election as evidence that racism was a thing of the past. We were encouraged to “let go of the past and stop being bitter.”

But during Obama’s second term, as the Black Lives Matter movement emerged, it became obvious to more Christians that the racism of the past was, in fact, a very clear and present danger. Conversations about racialized policing took center stage on social media, in political discourse, and at churches. When the racial reconciliation conversation would come up, some would respond by suggesting that reconciliation was predicated on reparations.

Many people — including me — have largely abandoned the popular “racial reconciliation” framework because it’s not focused, first and foremost, on repairing our society. I’ve also found this framework’s focus on race often comes at the expense of a more intersectional approach which would seek to repair discrimination based on gender, sex, and class.

Brenda Salter McNeil is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church, associate professor of reconciliation studies at Seattle Pacific University, and the author of multiple books on the topic of racial reconciliation. McNeil is acutely aware of critical attitudes toward racial reconciliation and is seeking to emphasize the importance of reparations and intersectionality in her new book, Empowered to Repair. I sat down with McNeil to talk about reconciliation, Obama, and Black support for former president Donald J. Trump.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Josiah R. Daniels, Sojourners: Tell me a little bit about your newest book, Empowered to Repair.

Brenda Salter McNeil: This one was hard. And it was hard because I don’t write books just to get my name on a cover or something like that; I write out of a sense of necessity. [I write as a] college professor and a person who’s called to empower and inspire the next generation of Christian leaders who are coming behind me. I feel an obligation to try to address the issues they are facing right now. One of the things that I came to understand is that this generation is giving up on reconciliation. They have watched my generation, and those prior to me, talk about reconciliation ad infinitum and they’ve not seen any social-political change resulting from it.

It almost seems like reconciliation has been devalued into more of a relational conversation. It looks like a kumbaya club.

And so, for me, this book was about arguing that, just because we have weakened what reconciliation means, does not mean that word was intended to be [exclusively] a relational word. I believe that reconciliation was always supposed to be married to reparations. They’re two sides of the same coin.

You are thinking of the millennial generation and younger, right?

Yes, your generation and those coming behind you.

When I look at the political landscape and the pervasiveness of disinformation, I think on the Christian side we have got to step up our game and emphasize the relevance of the message that we have been given. I know people who just want to throw reconciliation away and I had to wrestle with that.

Maybe there’s a better [way to frame this], but the Bible says we have been entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation. So we can’t just walk away and say, “I’m not doing this anymore.” We have been entrusted with something that has been weakened. And now I think it’s our job to reclaim it.

How would you define reconciliation? I should be more specific than that: How do you define racial reconciliation?

I don’t have a specific definition for racial reconciliation. But let me tell you this: I was at a conference some time ago with Christian reconciliation leaders from all over the country. I was astounded at that conference to discover that none of us had a common definition of reconciliation. Not one. And it is very difficult to pursue something that you cannot define. I wrote my previous book, Roadmap to Reconciliation, to address what reconciliation is, what I mean by it, and the process that gets us there.

My definition of reconciliation is this: Reconciliation is the ongoing spiritual process that involves forgiveness, repentance, and justice, that transforms broken relationships and systems to reflect God’s original intention for all creation to flourish. Period.

When it comes to race, I talk about systemic and relational. So, racial reconciliation is inherent in this restoration, repentance, forgiveness, and justice that addresses the relational breaches that have been focused on racial injustice. We can’t say, “Hey I’m just going to look at systems and not look at the racial implication of those systems.” In this country — and around the world, if the truth be told — this notion of a hierarchy of human difference has caused race to be a constant part of this work for reconciliation.

It’s interesting that you have a broad definition of reconciliation that obviously applies to addressing racial disparities but can also be applied to addressing other disparities that are caused by social constructs. Gender is one of these constructs too, right? Sexuality is another, and so on. Can your definition of reconciliation also be applied to class differences? How might you think about repairing the systems of exploitation that breed class inequality?

Yeah, I think when I talk about the end of that definition “so that all creation can flourish,” I mean that when we look at the various ways that life is diminished, that is not the intention of God. It is not the intention of God that certain people flourish and other people do not. It’s not God’s intention that human beings rape the earth and use all of the resources of the environment and kill it. Nothing of that reflects the heart of God. I believe flourishing and thriving is the aim of the creator God.

I’m coming at the question of racism, specifically racial difference, more so from a framework of the Black radical tradition. That tradition talks about the phenomenon of racism as something that’s deeply connected to capitalism. They talk about it as “racial capitalism” and argue that’s what’s breeding inequality. In that critique, both racism and the economy are being addressed. This framework begins with people like W.E.B. Du Bois and is represented currently by someone like Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò.

This really does raise the issue that we live in a racialized society. There’s no way that we can talk about social justice, capitalism, health care — there’s no system that hasn’t been infiltrated with this diabolical belief system in the hierarchy of human difference. We see it economically, politically — you name a system. This notion of who thrives and who does not, who’s in charge and who is not, is so interconnected that it’s hard to know where one starts and the other ends.

I want to say something I’ve never said aloud before: What we’re experiencing right now in the political system of the United States — democracy is really in the balance right now. I’ve been on this planet for a minute, and I’ve never seen it like this. The willingness to tear apart the very fabric of democracy has scared the heck out of me.

This started after Barack Obama was our president. It seems like the backlash of whiteness in response to someone of color being the President of the United States has put us in such a horrible position. I don’t even know how to describe it. I have never seen this much blatant injustice.

One thing that I always bring up to people, because I am part of the millennial generation that came to consciousness during Obama’s presidency, and then I’m also part of the generation who has been deeply impacted by the Black Lives Matter movement, is that the Black Lives Matter movement started during Obama.


During [Obama’s] presidency, many churches were promoting this shallow view of multiculturalism and racial reconciliation. But after Obama, it seems like some churches just started opting out of these conversations altogether. Why do you think that is?

Because they were afraid. People started leaving their churches. I watched this thing like a hawk. There were certain places that I would get invited to speak, and during that time that you just described, I would get a little bit of, “Hey, maybe don’t say this.” So, I stopped speaking as much. It was mostly white churches asking, “Can we pull this back a little bit, we want to talk about this, but on our terms.” [I just said]: “No, I'm not coming.”

Economically, when you start losing people from your church and attendance begins to decline, [when] the people who have been giving, especially the more conservative folks who have been giving, start withdrawing their financial support, pastors — and in my experience white pastors — get a sense of, “I don’t want to push them out. So, how do I keep some integrity about this issue without losing too many folks from my church? Especially the ones who give.”

I grew up in an evangelical, multicultural church. It seems obvious to me that this movement was really just about pacifying Black and brown Christians and placating the egos of white pastors, specifically white men, who viewed themselves as “visionaries” and “bridge builders.”

I agree.

Reconciliation was often just spoken about as forgiveness, moving on. When people specifically started to ask questions about systems and the church’s culpability in creating the society that we now find ourselves in, that’s when I think it went from a little bit of pushback to direct opposition to anything revolving around racism. What do we do about that?

That’s exactly what happened. I’m trusting that there are people who are reading this, who really do want to do something different, who really do want change.

The truth is what you just described. When this thing got to a place where it wasn’t just about coming together and [it wasn’t enough to just] acknowledge the racial injustice that happened — “Yes, it’s a shame what happened to Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, let’s just name them.” There’s a sense of “I’m so sorry that happened.” — when we started pushing into this place that you just described, I think people [got scared.]

So, you’re willing to put your neck out a bit, but you don’t want to lose all your friends. You don’t want to lose your connection to your community. You don’t want to be perceived as a person who’s political.

If what you’re trying to do is stay safe and not cause anybody to leave you or dislike you, that’s just not the road that Jesus has called us to follow. If your church feels the way it always feels and it doesn’t change, that ain’t the road less traveled. And this time that we’re living in is demanding that we get on that road. And it’s not going to be highly populated.

One of the things that stands out to me when it comes to conversations around race and racism is not just the resistance of white evangelical Christians to these conversations, but also the fact that they seem to be drawing in Black and brown factions. For example, a poll from March shows that 17 percent of Black voters would vote for Donald J. Trump for president, which is twice the number that voted for Trump in 2016. There are other figures, popular figures like commentator Candace Owens or Mark Robinson, a Trump supporter running for governor in North Carolina. What is your reaction to this?

Everything you just said, I see it too. And it breaks my heart. But it brings us back to where we began: We [live in a] racialized society. And that racialized society tells us what the standard of excellence is. To aspire to have a certain kind of a church [or a certain type of job], it’s going to require a certain type of being. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we have been socialized in that belief system. You have to acclimate yourself to whiteness. I think, either consciously or unconsciously, there is a pervasive understanding that the standard that we are held to is defined by white masks. [For Black and brown] people who are Christian, the narrative from whiteness says, “If you believe in abortion, that’s liberal [and] not of God.”

[The narrative says] I’ve got to check the “Black thing” and “the poverty thing.” That’s the kind of theological brain that whiteness has brought to us, this dichotomized belief system that the spiritual part of me is more relevant than the physical part of me. I’m not dealing with physical, social, or political realities. And I think there are lots of Black and brown people who have bought into that belief system.

Whiteness has historically framed the narrative of what it looks like to be “godly” or to be a Christian. That is still pervasive and I think there’s a lot of people who may not even realize how much they drank the Kool-Aid.