Why Reconciliation Needs Justice

This past weekend, I attended a fascinating and excellent talk that Andy Crouch gave on art, faith and culture at Art House North. At the start of his presentation, Andy showed two very similar Thomas Kinkade paintings. Even though both paintings depict the water tower in Chicago, they differ in important ways. When Andy asked the audience to comment on the differences, one man responded, “In the painting on the left, it looks like good is obviously winning.”

kinkadeIndeed, the painting on the left is triumphant in a happy-go-lucky sort of way. It’s clearer, cheerier, brighter – Andy the Art Critic says it’s unrealistically bright – and all in all not very sophisticated. However, the painting on the right shows the contrast of light and dark in a murky, but realistic and dynamic way. While the painting on the right is less happy-go-lucky, it speaks to the human experience in a more authentic way because it illustrates the constant battle between darkness and light, good and evil.  And even to an art novice like me, the painting on the right is clearly the better painting.

Nevertheless, it didn’t surprise me when Andy mentioned that the happy-go-lucky painting on the left is much more popular (in terms of sales) than the more realistic and technically superior one on the right. People love it when “good is obviously winning.” We love it when the battle has been won and we can just relish the victory and the goodness that it brings. We are relieved when the conflict has subsided, evil has been defeated, and all is at peace. We love the victory, but we don’t really love the battle.

Therein lies the problem: so many of us want a reconciliation that looks like a happy-go-lucky Kinkade painting. We want a reconciliation that is tidy, cheery, uncomplicated and unrealistically bright. We want oppressed people to forgive us for a history of wrongs but we don’t want to pay for that forgiveness. (We just want forgiveness to magically happen because, like, grace covers a multitude of sins, right?) We want a reconciliation that skips over the painful, costly battle between good and evil, and goes straight to the glorious victory parade. We want oppressed people to come to our privileged spaces, learn to speak our language, spend time on our turf, assimilate to our culture, never speak out against our oppressive ways, and all the while be super grateful that we’re Christ-like enough to even let them hang around. We want to believe that we’re the good guys fighting evil even though we haven’t addressed the very real evil of oppression that lurks in our churches and organizations. In short, many of us want reconciliation without justice, much like we want the resurrection without the crucifixion.

In pursuit of “reconciliation,” many churches and Christian organizations actively recruit diverse people (and even publicize statistics that suggest that they’re making good headway in this area), but they often do so in ways that bypass justice. On the surface (e.g., in the glossy brochure) everything looks cheery and bright –unrealistically bright, Christena the Social Critic says. People of all backgrounds are smiling and communing together, and all seems to be at peace. “Mission accomplished,” majority-culture people proclaim. But the structural inequalities that caused the division in the first place remain unnoticed and untouched. As a result, people of color often report that their experience at Christian organizations is marked by feelings of disempowerment, loneliness, marginalization, exclusion and misunderstanding — what Miroslav Volf calls psychological homelessness.* They feel out of place, on the edge of the circle, silenced, and disconnected from the life-giving heartbeat of the community.

Reconciliation without justice is simply oppression disguised.

True reconciliation can only take place if both groups enjoy equal status. But many divisions in our society occur between groups (e.g., racial groups) that do not share equal status. In fact, in many cases, the divisions are the result of the higher-status group systemically oppressing the lower-status group.

For example, many traditional African American churches are segregated from predominantly white churches because for many years (and continuing today) many white church people have explicitly and implicitly oppressed African Americans and in doing so have perpetuated status differences between blacks and whites that have given rise to racial divisions in the church. The segregated black church is an outcome of centuries of ongoing oppression from higher-status Christians, namely white Christians. In order to achieve true unity between blacks and whites, the status differences and historical and on-going oppression must be addressed and reversed. Simply recruiting black people to participate in predominantly-white Christian conferences, colleges, churches and organizations is not only inadequate — it’s oppressive.

If issues of status, privilege and power are not effectively addressed prior to reconciliation, existing divisions deepen and the image of God in diverse people is dishonored. A good amount of research** suggests that diversity has negative consequences, particularly when minority group members do not have equal status with other group members and do not feel that they are valued members of the group. When this is the case, crosscultural groups often perform worse than homogenous groups, especially when the group work requires that group members depend on each other’s skills and performance. In addition, crosscultural group members tend to communicate with each other less and react to each other with more emotional negativity. Perhaps the most troubling finding: while cultural diversity might be uncomfortable for all group members, low-status minorities often bear the brunt of the discomfort; they are less satisfied with the group, experience less psychological closeness to the organization, perceive less supervisor support and experience less procedural justice within the organization. These experiences defeat the purpose of reconciliation!

Reconcilers must be drawn to a reconciliation that looks like the Kinkade painting on the right. Reconcilers must accept a reconciliation process that is full of light and darkness. Reconcilers must be attracted to the nitty-gritty, uncomfortable and painful aspects of reconciliation because only when we acknowledge and deal with the divisive evil among us will we be ready to make peace with long-estranged groups.

Wanna know what real reconciliation looks like? Check out this Reconciliation Litmus Test.


*Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, p. 184.

**Stangor, C. (2004). Social groups in action and interaction. New York: Psychology Press.;  Timmerman, T. (2000). Racial diversity, age diversity, interdependence, and team performance. Small Group Research, 31, 592-606.; Hoffman, E. (1985). The effect of race-ration composition on the frequency of organizational communication. Social Psychology Quarterly, 48, 17-26.;  Mueller, C., Finley, A., Iverson, R., & Price, J. (1999). The effects of group racial composition on job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and career commitment: The case of teachers. Work and Occupations, 26, 187-219.; Tsui, A. S., Egan, T. D., & O’Reilly, C. A. (1992). Being different: Relational demography and organizational attachment. Administrative Science Quarterly, 37, 547-79.;  Jeanquart-Barone, S. (1996). Implications of racial diversity in the supervisor-subordinate relationshipJournal of Applied Social Psychology, 26, 935-44.

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