Online Conversation | Justice, Mercy, and Overcoming Racial Division with Bishop Claude Alexander and Dr. Mac Pier
What is required of people of faith in addressing racial divisions in the church and in society?
In Required: God’s Call to Justice, Mercy, and Humility to Overcome Racial Division, theologians Bishop Claude Alexander and Dr. Mac Pier discuss how Christians can contribute to healing racial divides in both the church and society.
On Friday, November 5th, The Trinity Forum hosted an Online Conversation with Bishop Alexander and Mac Pier to understand how to cultivate and invigorate efforts toward a faithful vision of justice expressed through a Church united across racial, ethnic, and tribal lines.
Transcript of Justice, Mercy, and Overcoming Racial Division with Bishop Claude Alexander and Dr. Mac Pier
Cherie Harder: Good afternoon, and welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation on justice, mercy, and overcoming racial division. I’m Cherie Harder, the president of the Trinity Forum, and we’re so glad that you’ve joined us this afternoon and just really appreciate the honor of your time and attention. I’d also like to thank the John Stiger Ferry Foundation, whose grant has helped support this work and make it possible. If you are new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space and resources to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith and to offer programs like our Online Conversation today to do so and to come to better know the Author of the answers. We hope today’s conversation will be a small taste of just that.
The topic that we are engaging today is one that we’ve heard from many of you that you’d really like to delve into. Yet it’s one that’s also subject to significant differences, both of opinion, but also of perception. For example, just earlier this year, a Gallup poll found that over 70 percent of Americans are both worried about and deeply dissatisfied with the racial tensions and divisions in the country. And yet, when you broke down those numbers a little bit more, one found that around a third of white Americans considered race to be a significant problem in the country, compared to around three quarters of African-Americans and nearly 60 percent of Latinos. Within the church itself, the differences were even more stark, with a smaller number of white Christians thinking race was a significant problem, but higher numbers of black Christians and Latino Christians. So given those differences, both of perception, as well as the many differences of opinion that are embedded in it, how do we understand and live out the biblical mandate to love our neighbor? How do we seek justice and flourishing, or shalom, for all in the midst of inflamed racial tensions and deepening tribal divides, and at a time when our technologies enable us to ever more selectively tailor our interactions to those who look, act, and think like us? How do we learn to know and love our neighbor across difference? And finally, how can we, in our various spheres and stations, help heal divides, overcome injustice, and create new places of mercy and flourishing?
These are obviously deep and thorny questions, and to help us wrestle with them, we are so pleased to welcome two guests who are themselves wise and experienced wrestlers in just such this area, having dedicated much of their lives and their vocations to the task, Bishop Claude Alexander and Dr. Mac Pier.
Bishop Claude Alexander has served as the senior pastor of the Park Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, for more than three decades, where it’s grown from one small local congregation of around six hundred members to a global ministry of thousands with three locations in a weekly international reach. Claude is also the past president of the Hampton University Minister Conference, the oldest and largest interdenominational gathering of African-American clergy in the country, the author of the book Necessary Christianity, the chairman of the board of Gordon-Cornwell Seminary, as well as serving as a trustee on the board of many worthy organizations, including Charlotte City Partners, Christianity Today, Mission America Coalition, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and, I am quite proud to say, as of two months ago, the Trinity Forum.
He’ll be joined by Dr. Mac Pier. Mack is an author, theologian, and movement catalyst. He co-founded the Church Multiplication Alliance with Rev. Tim Keller, co-founded the Concerts of Prayer Movement, and served as the Catalyst for Cities at the Lausanne Conference. He also co-founded the New York City Leadership Center, which was then subsequently renamed Movement.org, and is the author of many books, including A Disruptive Gospel, A Disruptive Generosity, A Disruptive God, and of course, his most recent work Required: God’s Call to Justice, Mercy, and Humility to Overcome Racial Division, which he coauthored with Bishop Claude Alexander, and which we’ve invited them both here today to discuss.
Claude and Mac, welcome.
Claude Alexander: Thank you, Cherie.
Cherie Harder: It’s really good to have you both here. So I need to ask: you began this book, Required, by saying that overcoming racial divisions necessarily requires “knowing ourselves, knowing each other, and knowing our stories,” so I figured it was only appropriate to start off by asking you about your own stories and how those stories intersected to eventually wind up with you coauthoring this book together. And Claude, maybe we can start with you.
Claude Alexander: Well, thank you. It’s a delight to be here. In terms of my story, when I think about it, being born African-American in 1964. Right? Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, during the period of desegregation. Being raised by a family who brought their faith to bear in terms of the service that they rendered, particularly through medicine and civil rights. My father is John Perkins’ physician. When John Perkins spoke about being beaten and bloodied in that jail, my dad was the physician who attended to him, and he helped desegregate the American Medical Association. So there was this family ethos in terms of community engagement as well as faith. And then this call to Christ that I received and the call to the gospel and the call to the city and the world. It was that last call that put me in connection with Mac in Bangalore, India, and started a relationship that caused us to realize we’re called to each other, as well as being called to cities. And the call to each other drives us to this work.
Mac Pier: I grew up in South Dakota. My family has owned a bank since the early 1900s, and we grew up 16 miles away from a Native American reservation. And the town closest to us, Wagner, South Dakota, when I was in high school, had 80 percent unemployment. It was the highest unemployment in the country. And my mother grew up in South Carolina, in the city of Kingstree in Williamsburg County, which was about two thirds African-American. So growing up, I had the opportunity to observe the dynamics, both with Native Americans and African-Americans. And noticing the interactions among both communities, I began to develop a mistrust, just based on the people that I grew up with, the conversations that we had. And then in 1984, I moved to New York City without a place to live. And the first family that brought us into their home was an African-American family. And that was very transformative to see people who look past my skin color and really invited us into their homes and their lives. And it’s really been a 37-year journey living in New York City, living in a neighborhood that speaks 100 languages, a church that speaks 16 languages, and really getting this sense that God really has a passion for the whole church to work together. Met Claude in Bangalore in India, and really has been a transformational journey just to learn more about, not only his experience and journey, but the broader African-American experience in America, and just the need to bring white communities, African-American communities together to be the church together in the cities in which we live.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Fascinating. So it seems like, in many ways, the central point of your book, and of course, feel free to jump in and clarify if this reader has misread it, but that the biblical injunction to do justice is something that is required of Christians. And an essential part of that injunction is to heal and bridge divides. And of course, within the church, as well as outside of it, terms like “justice” or “social justice” have become freighted with all sorts of meanings that certainly kind of complicate that appeal. So I’d love to hear from both of you—and maybe, Mac, we can start with you—your conception of justice and why you believe it is required of Christians.
Mac Pier: It’s a really important word when you study the Old Testament; the word “justice” is listed 28 times. And even when you look at the great messianic prophecy of Isaiah 9, this idea of a Messiah coming and bringing justice is at the forefront of what God’s plan in the world is. And from my vantage point, justice is making right that which is wrong. And when we look at our own national history, one of the things that’s been very consequential for me is thinking about the historical entry point of Africans into America in 1619 and then civil rights not being approved until 1964. And you basically had seventeen generations of inequity, and the historic weight of that is so significant and it manifests itself in so many ways that create so many disadvantages. It’s really important for those of us that have had opportunities to really think about what is our role in making things right in that regard and God’s commitment to that. And just as God met our need for justice on the cross, he invites us to meet the need for justice in community with one another.
Claude Alexander: So you know, this notion of justice being the upholding of what is right. The upholding of what is right. The provision of fairness. Whether it’s individual or institutional. And when we think of the Bible and its usage of the word “justice,” there is no adjective that is used in front of it. It’s just justice. Justice. And so this call that God is making is the call towards the establishment, the upholding, of what is right and fair, both as it relates to individuals and institutions. And it cuts across all aspects of life. We tend to put adjectives: “social,” “racial,” “environmental.” But when God says “justice,” God means that in all aspects, right? And this call is to do it. It’s not to speak it; it’s to be found doing justice.
Cherie Harder: Just to follow up on that, Claude, of course, part of the challenge is not just doing justice, but discerning justice. And certainly throughout our history, people have had many different conceptions of what justice is. And you talk quite a bit in the book, using Micah 6:8 as a guide, and essentially humility and mercy being guides in that. And I would love to kind of ask you—we can start with you, at least—kind of how that sort of teases out. You draw a connection between humility, mercy, awareness, and ownership. And would love to hear more about how those all relate in helping us to discern as well as do what is just.
Claude Alexander: Sure. So when we talk about this notion of awareness, coming to a knowledge of, that by necessity, when one comes to awareness, should produce humility. Right? So when Isaiah comes to the awareness of God, the first thing he cries out is “woe is me.” He is humbled. When Jeremiah— no, when Daniel comes to realize this notion of their existence in the exile being tied to the wrongs of previous generations, he is humbled. And with that awareness, he then moves to taking ownership. Mercy, which is the ability to enter into someone else’s experience and feel what they feel—the woundedness—it prompts one to ownership. That’s what happens with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan, seeing what he sees, is moved with compassion, right, another word for mercy. And what does he do? He takes ownership. He bandages the man’s wounds, puts him on his donkey, and then takes him to an inn. But with ownership and one saying, “I’ve got to do something,” then there is agency. And there are five aspects of agency: personal, who we are; practical, what we choose to do; positional, the positions that we occupy; political, how we choose to advocate; and pecuniary, how we spend our money. That moves to justice. Because when I am touched and I’m humbled because I’m aware, and I’ve entered into that experience with the person and I take ownership, then I move to exercise agency, which moves me towards the establishment of what is right and fair. That is justice.
Cherie Harder: Mac, you look like you had something to add there.
Mac Pier: The one thing I would say, I think one of the really, maybe one of the most important contributions of the book is Claude’s chapter entitled “A Necessary Conversation,” in which Claude really outlines what it has meant to be an African-American in America. And what’s really important in this journey as we talk about awareness is a deep conviction that we can only love that which we know. And part of our commitment is to really help people from diverse ethnic backgrounds really gain an understanding of each other’s journey. And this is really built around a model of friendship. And as we think about these challenges, particularly inside the church, we want to adopt this idea that people of faith, regardless of their ethnic background, are family, and that we want to engage in the hearts and minds of people that are part of the same family, even though they’re very different, so that we can be the church together.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s great. You mentioned love, Mac, and I’d like to ask you about the role of love in all of this because, of course, tied up with the mandate for justice is the mandate to love your neighbor, love our neighbor. And you mentioned at one point in the book, and this sort of grabbed my attention, you said, “The most powerful thing this side of heaven is being radically loved by someone radically different.” And I’d love to hear more about what you mean by that, as well as, kind of relatedly, how do we love well people who are quite different from us, knowing that there may be communication gaps in the relating?
Mac Pier: Yeah, the genesis of that realization was in our story of moving into New York when the Caesar family took us into their home. And that’s really where we had that experience. And part of my journey in New York, the faith community in New York is 90 percent either minority or international. And so really, I was a minority, as it were, but yet people embraced me, loved me unconditionally. And when we talk about loving people, the invitation really is to be present to people that are different from us, taking the initiative, showing great intention. I think the best antidote to the challenges that we face is simply showing up, and there’s just no substitute to being in person with people that are different from us, really studying what their needs are and how we can contribute and benefit as well. And it’s a radically powerful thing when we become enveloped relationally and affectionately by people that are different from ourselves.
Claude Alexander: You know, the other part of that, Cherie, is the fact that all of us who claim to be Christian have experienced radical love by someone totally different than us, being God. And that experience of being radically loved by one who is wholly other is a powerful thing. How— Please excuse that telephone in the background.
Cherie Harder: Life intrudes.
Claude Alexander: But that notion of an intentional decision and act, right? The Caesars were intentional. And what they demonstrated to Mac, as God has been intentional in us. And so it starts with this notion of intention. Of intention. And being able to demonstrate that intention in very, very practical ways.
Cherie Harder: You know, I imagine there’s probably many people listening and thinking, you know, that really, that sounds so exciting, inspiring, appealing. But there’s, at the same time, a fear of misunderstanding. You know, one of the challenges of bridging any division, or even just caring for those who are different, is the fear. And there’s at times real reason for it, of being misunderstood or having your actions misinterpreted, you know, or we might inadvertently blunder in our sincere efforts. And we’re at a time when there’s a lot of tension already and social media can be both ruthless and hair trigger, so would be interested in what counsel both of you have—and we can maybe even start with you, Mac—about those who might be interested in this work but are hesitant to enter what can seem like a minefield.
Mac Pier: Well, there will inevitably be conflict just because of the cultural differences. And I would say two things: as I said earlier, just the importance of showing up, and if in a church or a city, there’s a small group of people that really have this desire and even something as simple as identifying a Martin Luther King celebration coming up in a few weeks and visiting a church or a gathering where they can just begin to meet people. That’s a really simple and practical next step. Many cities have various expressions of prayer movements, different kinds of conferences and events that bring diverse people together. Just taking the initiative and showing up if a person doesn’t already have a place to get started.
And the other thing that I’ve learned over the last 40 years working cross-culturally is that when conflict happens, and it will happen, conflict is a gift because on the other side of conflict, as it’s worked through, there becomes a depth of understanding and empathy that creates friendship. All three of my children have married internationally: Indian, Filipino, and Brazilian. And what I’ve noticed from these marriages, because they’ve required extra work, there’s a specialness in the relationship because of the amount of work that is required. It’s almost magical. And to have those kinds of relationships, the relationship I’ve enjoyed with Claude and so many other friends coming out of New York, have been very life-giving and meaningful.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Claude, anything to add.
Claude Alexander: No, I think Mac said it all in that. Well— There is risk involved in any relationship. OK? And so one takes the risk believing that what’s on the other side of it is worth it. And if I believe that what can come from this is worth the risk, I’m willing to take it, knowing that I have a risk of being rejected or misunderstood. I think the second thing is this is where humility comes in. Right? And the notion of seeking the good of the other, even when misunderstood.
Mac Pier: Yeah. And I would just add, as I think about the dynamics of this, one of the things that I really benefited from in a New York City context is understanding and studying the impact of the African-American church in New York. It’s just absolutely magnificent. Tremendous leaders making enormous difference. Really, in many ways, the epicenter of the city. At the same time, the value of walking through a neighborhood in South Dallas, being told by the African-American pastor that the percentage of children living in single parent homes is 97 percent and recognizing that on the other side of the city that people have no idea of that reality. So we really want to make the effort to come to know just the ways that God is powerfully using churches of different ethnic backgrounds, but also wrestling with the gravity of the need in our respective—and the need is across the racial landscape—but really becoming a student of the places where we are citizens.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, well, let’s talk about the church for just a second. You know, as mentioned earlier, the perception gap in terms of racial division is, by some measures, actually greater in the church in terms of just a difference in how it’s perceived than even outside of it. I would be interested in why you think that is and why the church has not led more when it comes to overcoming racial divisions. But then, relatedly, the church has divisions over this very subject. You know, we have an entire denomination right now that is fighting itself over matters related to race. We have a lot of young people leaving the church entirely, and this is one reason. So I would be interested in both of your thoughts—and, Claude, maybe we can start with you—about what is going on with the church, how the church can and should respond for greater coherence, but also to lead in the area of loving one’s neighbor well.
Claude Alexander: Well, I think this is where an understanding of history helps us understand where we are and what we’re continuing to see. And that is that the church was impacted by racialization just as the nation was impacted by racialization. And we’re talking about a 400-year reality. And within that, parts of the church provided a religious rationale for the institution of slavery and the mistreatment of persons of African descent. And churches split over that issue. Right? And that split never healed. There’s a term called “southernization,” and by southernization we mean the influence of southern values, which include male dominance, intolerance, racialism. That hasn’t gone away. Now, having said that, we also know that much of the gains that have been made have also been powered by segments of the church. So what is true in America is also what is true of the church in America. Now what that bespeaks is where we haven’t gone deep enough in our discipleship, in our spiritual formation. Sadly, also, even in the training that clergy receive, who will lead the church. Right? It’s in all of those areas.
Mac Pier: And I would comment to one of the things that’s been really helpful talking with Claude is understanding the difference between having a personal faith, which all of us do, but not limiting our personal faith to just being private, that we are, in our discipleship, we are invited to give expression to our faith in public ways. Sometimes it’s a verbal witness, but in other ways it’s also taking stands around issues of justice that really impact other people. And I really think that’s the moment that we’re being called into today is that this is a real opportunity for African-American, white churches, Hispanic churches, Asian churches to work together, city by city, to really demonstrate the fact that people of faith actually have more in common with one another than they do with their own ethnic group if people are outside faith. So we really want to demonstrate that, manifest that, and bring about pragmatic solutions into cities.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Before we go to questions from our viewers, I think the obvious question is what then can be done? And I want to ask that of both of you. And maybe we can start with you, Claude. Your book is very practical, and it does set out lots of concrete suggestions. But I also want to pick up on something you just said, Claude, a minute or so ago, having to do with discipleship and formation, in that when we’re talking about loving, when we’re talking about knowing others, we’re talking largely about what we attend to and how we prioritize our love. So I’d love to hear both your practical suggestions, but also your suggestions as it pertains to discipleship and formation in terms of thinking about but also living out this wisely and well.
Claude Alexander: Well, when we’re talking about our discipleship, it can go to, first of all, how we read the Bible. Just basic, you know, when you read the Bible, Genesis 1, and you see this creation, you see a very distinct difference. And that is when it talks about the creation of the animals, and there’s this “each according to its own kind.” Right? But when it comes to human beings, it’s “in the image and likeness of God.” And there’s a crucial recognition that God is seeking to make when it comes to us, that each of us are connected to each other as image bearers. Not according to our own kind. No. That’s mallards, that’s egrets, that storks, right? And they don’t interact even though they’re in the same pond. No, we’re in the same pond as image bearers created to interact with each other. That’s one. So from creation.
The second thing is, again, our being called to Christ is also our being called to each other. And when I realized that I’m called to my brother and sister who may be racially or ethnically different, that we’re in the same family, then there is a responsibility that I have, an accountability that I have, an expectation from me and to me. So that’s the second piece.
I think the third piece is recognizing that we have agency. We have the ability to influence just by who we are and what we choose to do. How different will our invitations to a Christmas party be? Right? Are we inclusive in that? Are we intentional in that? Practical steps.
Mac Pier: For me, I would— a couple of practical things. One is simply the value of reading the book because it gives language and historical understanding, and we found that having common language is really important in having conversation. Every movement has what we call “semantic currency.” And in the book, there are three really practical examples. One is Jack Alexander, who lives in Atlanta, a successful businessman. He’s been a mentor to a number of minority young people. He helps board chair a group called One Race, which is very powerful in Atlanta. Second is a story of a group of leaders in churches in Virginia working together, and they’ve accelerated 15 initiatives in what’s called the 757. And the third is an early-stage economic initiative, which is really about job creation because so much of the disparity is economic. And we talk about the need to be civil, empathic, and pragmatic. So those are ways to kind of get started, and we are inviting people into conversations within their own city so that there can be a critical mass of people who can make practical steps together.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. We’re going to turn to questions from our viewers. And as mentioned earlier, you can not only ask a question, but you can also “like” a question, and that helps us get a sense of what some of the most popular questions are. We’ll start with a question from Brenda Berman, and Brenda asks, “Can you recommend some guidelines for how to act and speak with genuine curiosity, e.g. conveying a desire to know and love someone radically different, without crossing the line towards burdening the ‘other’ with the responsibility to ‘educate us’?” Claude, maybe you can start that one.
Claude Alexander: So, Brenda, first of all it happens in the context of authentic relationship, right? And so everything starts there. And where there is authentic relationship, then the matter of curiosity, such as “How would you feel? Or how did you feel?” That’s one way. “Describe for me an instance.” That’s another way. And then being able and willing to exegete your own history. And being willing to share that. And your own history may be an absence of, right? And if that is so, that’s what that is. But being able and willing to share that.
Mac Pier: One of the things that’s been helpful for the team in Virginia that’s been meeting, they work through a book called One Blood by John Perkins, and they’ve done it as a biracial group, and that’s really given them entree into each other’s stories. And a lot of times when I meet somebody who’s different, I just invite them, particularly over a meal, to tell me, tell me their journey, tell me their stories of family and where they came from. And that’s just been a tremendously simple and helpful way to be interested in the other.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So I’m going to combine two somewhat related questions. We have an anonymous attendee who asked, “How do you respond when people you know say that talking about racial divides actually makes things more divisive and worse?” And then there is another anonymous attendee who asked that they’d like to hear more about where they think the fear of learning about racism past and present, CRT and the like, comes from in Christian brothers and sisters and the resistance to reckoning. So, Claude, start with you?
Claude Alexander: Well, first of all, I think that one of the things that we must recognize is how undereducated we have been when it comes to basic history. There are just things that we’re not taught, have not been taught for generations, multiple generations. And so when you have multiple generations that have not been taught basic things, you layer on to that the possibility of their not having certain experiences with or with people who have had those experiences, and then you start bringing what is just basic history, there’s a dissonance, right? Because “I wasn’t taught that, my mama wasn’t taught that, my grandparents weren’t taught that, our pastor hasn’t dealt with this. And now this is. And that can’t be true because…” Of what was not taught or told before. Right. And so I think it starts there. And so where there is a lack of knowledge and there is a fear of the other, when those two things come together, then then we see some of the things that we’re seeing now. Going to the Bible, in Exodus Chapter 1, it says, “There arose a new pharaoh who did not know Joseph.” And this new pharaoh who did not know Joseph sees the Hebrews multiplying and makes an assumption out of not knowing Joseph, not knowing Joseph’s people, not knowing the background. And this fear. And that’s often what happens.
Mac Pier: And to pick up on the fear comment, fear is usually the absence of understanding and the absence of relationship. And one of the things that Claude and I talk about is it’s important to stay away, in my opinion, from words that are unnecessarily grenades. And we really believe that stereotyping is the enemy of conversation and that every solution begins with a conversation. And the role, particularly the role of white Christians, I believe, is to really take the initiative to learn, to become almost subject-matter experts, on the history of how we got to where we are. And that knowledge really creates a sense of empathy. And it’ll take time. There’s a lot of mistrust that’s been developed over a long period of time. One of the things that Claude has talked about has been very helpful for me is that for a lot of African-Americans, because there’s been so much distrust for so long based on real-life experiences, that there is a form of PTSD that many persons experience. And so there needs to be enormous patience and long-suffering. And sometimes it takes years, and sometimes it’s even taken decades to build the trust of persons that instinctively don’t desire to trust each other. It is really helpful to find these neutral environments where people can meet each other, who have a hunger to connect and talk about their story but also how they can make a difference together.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. So our next question comes from Richard Miles, and Richard asks, “Could you comment on the difference between the 1960s Civil Rights movement, which was predominantly led by black Christian pastors and explicitly grounded in the faith, and the current array of mostly secular civil rights organizations?”
Claude Alexander: Well, I would say a couple of things. One, even in the 1960’s Civil Rights movement, it wasn’t just the church that was involved in that. And so that’s number one. There’s this sense that now it’s secular. And but before it was just spiritual. No, you had a multiplicity back in the 60s. It’s just that the actions, such as the marches, where church led. So that’s number one. And number two, even now, while it seems as if secular—and by secular, I would gather Richard means the Black Lives Matter movement—seems to be out front, they are not the only ones. In fact, just this past week there have been, there were pastors arrested in Washington, DC, because of their seeking to champion voting rights. So it’s never been either/or; it’s always been both/and.
Mac Pier: And I think one thing would be helpful, Claude has really helped me understand one of the differences culturally is that oftentimes in the white community, we view these conversations as in the political space. That we tend to compartmentalize what’s political, what’s faith. But for the African-American, there’s not the ability to compartmentalize because the consequences are so great. You want to comment on that, Claude?
Claude Alexander: Yeah. So, for instance, you know, when one talks about voting rights, right? Well, it can be a topic of discussion when you’ve always had the right to vote and when there have been no impediments to voting. But when you haven’t had the right to vote and when you’ve been subject to impediments, it’s not a political discussion. It’s life. It’s life. People gave their lives for that right to be achieved and to be protected. When we talk about white supremacy, right? It can be a discussion for the white community, right? But for people of color, it’s not just a conversation; it’s an existential threat. A shooting at Charleston, Mother Emanuel, that was by a white supremacist. Or the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. That was a white supremacist. It’s not a topic for discussion. It’s existence, and so oftentimes when we bring blacks and whites or whites and people of color to discuss these matters, they’re being discussed from two totally different places. And if we do not at least acknowledge that they’re being discussed from two totally different places, one in the realm of concept and the other in the realm of existence, then we don’t understand both what is said and how it’s being said.
Mac Pier: Thirty years ago, I did a research project where I interviewed five hundred people of faith, African-Americans and whites, and one of the questions I asked white Christians was, “What are the greatest contributions to culture of African-Americans?” And it was interesting, out of several options, which included medicine, education, science, all kinds of options, the only two things that white Christians could identify was sports and music. And it was as though we had this relationship with the African-American community that was really one of kind of an entertainment dynamic, and it betrayed a superficiality of understanding the enormous contributions of people in the African-American community and all that it’s meant to the fabric of our society and the fabric of our cities. And that’s why growing in our appreciation of this really important historical reality is quite significant in our journey.
Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from Mark Osborne, and he addresses this to Claude and says, “Bishop Alexander, you mentioned that we must confront the matter of race and I agree wholeheartedly. In my own attempts to do this with some of my close colleagues, they often ask, ‘Why can’t we just move on from the past?’ How do you suggest that I, as a Christian African-American man, deal with this statement?”
Claude Alexander: Well, I think, first of all, the reason why we’re having to have these discussions is because it’s not just past, its present. And in order for us to understand what we’re seeing in the present, we have to understand the past. When you go into the doctor, right, and you start talking about symptoms, one of the things that the doctor will do is your medical history. Talk about your past to be able to understand, better understand, what might or might not be going on. And because we don’t understand certain things in history, we don’t understand present things.
So I’ll give you one example. For 350 years, the official role of law enforcement was to keep people of color in their place. By any and all means necessary. To keep them in their place. If a slave escaped, go back and get them, bring them back. During Jim Crow, keep them from using, you know, the white restroom. Keep them in their place. That was the official role of law enforcement for 350 years. Now, if that is the case for 350 years, that’s been the official role, do we think that that sense and sensibility will just magically disappear in 50 years? It’s being able to understand what’s past affects what’s present.
Pete Scazzero has this saying, “Jesus may be in your heart, but grandpa is in your bones.” And so it’s seeing what’s in the bones, right, what’s in the bones, what’s in the ground, that helps us understand common contemporary manifestations. In Charlotte, North Carolina, right, when people drive down highway 77 or 85, they just drive down. But they do not understand that those highways cut through intact black communities and disrupted a whole ecosystem, economically. Businesses. So when we talk about what we’re seeing in certain communities, not having certain things, well, they had them. But it was disrupted, by decisions that were made. That’s why knowing history is important.
Mac Pier: And I would add to that, four days ago, Claude and I were in Norfolk, and we were getting a tour with some local leaders and we visited a neighborhood that we think has the highest percentage of young people that become incarcerated. We were there. We were being told the history that the reason that the people were in that community were because of historical unjust housing laws, economic disparity. And then the next day, after we left, there was a shooting that killed three people. And it’s very real when you see the gravity of the need and the violence, and that really informs the way people feel about things. And that’s why the past really does affect the present.
Cherie Harder: It makes sense. So we have several questions about justice. I’ll combine a couple of them. Devin Fisher asks, “I have trouble discerning when to extend mercy and grace and when to seek justice. Can you speak to this?” And then we have an anonymous attendee who asked, somewhat relatedly, “Is there a difference in understanding what justice is between the black church and the white church in America?”
Claude Alexander: Well. One’s understanding of justice is shaped and influenced by where one sits and lives. So when one has been conferred rights and privileges simply based upon their birth, right, then justice becomes the protection of those rights and privileges and the punishing of anyone who seeks to disrupt those rights and privileges. And so “law and order” can often be the term that is used by those individuals for whom rights and privileges have always been conferred. “Protecting me.” But when you’ve been denied rights and privileges simply because of what was conferred upon you by birth, justice takes a different, a different look. Justice becomes the acquiring of rights and privileges, the gaining, and the penalizing of anyone who frustrates that process. So it very much is informed by where you sit. Either protection. Or acquisition. And the thing is, it’s not either/or. It’s both/and.
Cherie Harder: Makes sense. So our next question comes from Tim Griffy, and Tim asks, “How does humility inform the tension that might exist between justice and mercy?” Mac, you want to start with that one?
Mac Pier: Yeah. One of the things that we write about in the book, we talk about humility, is to look at Philippians Chapter 2, and in that great hymn, the first hymn of the early church, Jesus is described as someone who humiliated himself and really died a criminal’s death, that we might gain a relationship with God. And it’s this idea that Jesus, in fact, he enslaved himself to our need, and what he invites us to do is to enslave ourselves to the needs of others in order to— And that’s an enormous act of mercy, but with a just outcome. And that’s part of our assignment in our own spiritual journey is to understand in our context, how does that practically live itself out? When we worked on the book, I got to know someone I write about in the book, Cari Bridgewater. And having been familiar with the economic disadvantage of many persons of color, my role in terms of agency and justice was to open up my Rolodex to introduce Cari into leaders in Dallas, Norfolk, Charlotte, and across the United States. Because this is a way for Cari to use the gifts that God has given him to make an enormous difference. And that’s, for those of us that have contacts, assets, resources, it’s a way of using our agency toward a just outcome.
Claude Alexander: The other the other part that I would that I would add to that is that humility shifts the expectation from me and the focus from me to the other. And what mercy does is it keeps the victim from becoming the victimizer. Right? Mercy puts restraint on our anger. And keeps us from being self-destructive or destructive of others.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So I’ll take one more question, and, Mac, we’ll start with you on this. This is from an anonymous viewer who said, “What is one step every Christian can take towards healing our racial divides when we feel overwhelmed by the problem?”
Mac Pier: I think a one step, a first step, is to pray that God would lead you to that next right person to have the conversation with. And then, as God discloses that, is to take the initiative and show intention toward that relationship. It always begins with one person in one conversation.
Cherie Harder: Claude?
Claude Alexander: The call and claim of God in Christ Jesus brings us to a reconciling relationship with him that he then seeks to issue through us to each other. And just as he takes the risk of rejection for our good so must we take that risk for the good of another.
Cherie Harder: Claude and Mac, this has been fascinating and really rich. Finally, look forward to hearing the last word from Mac and from Claude. So Mac, maybe we can start with you.
Mac Pier: My last word simply would be an invitation to take this conversation to your city or your community. We’ve put on Facebook what’s called the Trinity Forum Required Challenge, and if that’s something that’s of interest to you, you can let us know. And we set up some conversation opportunities during the week of Martin Luther King holiday, January 17th, and we’d love to learn more about what’s happening in your city and to take advantage of the book at Requiredbook.com.
Claude Alexander: The thing that I would raise is there are those who would say, who would de-value the power of conversation, of talking. And yet the Christian experience is that of our response to what is spoken. And so there is power in what you speak and the relationships that you develop that serve as a context for you to speak. So never underestimate that power.
Cherie Harder: Claude, Mac, it has been a real honor and pleasure to conversate with you today. Thank you so much for joining us.
Mac Pier: Thank you for having us.
Cherie Harder: And thank you to each of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.