Reconciliation Blues by Edward Gilbreath achieves something more powerful than mere “balance” in addressing issues of race and reconciliation within the American evangelical church. [ht to DJ for highlighting this book on his blog]  Gilbreath confronts the reality of racism in the American church (whether those in the majority culture choose to acknowledge it or not) with dignity and strength, while also offers a compelling vision for reconciliation — a rare feat in this polarized age of sound bites and pundits.

Gilbreath is interested in much more than simply “playing the race card” or doing a Geraldo-style undercover expose of how African American people get hassled at the mall (although this is still a shameful reality in our nation).  In the prologue, Gilbreath introduces macro ideas about racism, “For many people, ‘institutional racism’ is now the term invoked to describe the unnamable brand of discrimination we experience today… sociologist James Jones provided the most concise definition in his book Prejudice and Racism when he described it as ‘those established laws, customs, and practices which systematically reflect and produce racial inequities in American society.'”

Perhaps taking a cue from chic-onomics tomes such as Freakonomics and The World is Flat, Gilbreath peppers his big-picture take on race, faith and reconciliation with a variety of powerful anecdotes throughout the book.  I had to read this particular passage several times — I was at once outraged and stunned that such a thing actually happened in our nation’s recent past:

As Dolphus (Weary, national speaker and executive director of Mission Mississippi) left the library on April 4, 1968, a white student approached him and said, “Did you hear? Martin Luther King got shot.”

“I remember running to my room, flipping on the radio and listening to the news report,” he recalls. A rifle bullet had ripped into King’s neck as he stood on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.  The civil rights leader was rushed to a hospital in serious condition. “I was devastated,” Dolphus says.

As he sat on his bed holding back the tears, he could hear the voices down the hall: white students talking about King’s shooting. but Dolphus quickly realized that they were not just talking; they were laughing.

“I couldn’t understand what I was hearing,” he says. “These Christian kids were glad that Dr. King — my hero — had been shot. I wanted to run out there and confront them.” Instead, he steeled his nerves and lay prostrate on his bed. Finally, as the newscaster delivered the awful update — “Martin Luther King has died in a Memphis hospital” — Dolphus could hear the white voices down the hall let out a cheer.”

I can barely type out these words without feeling my heart both ache and begin to boil over.  But this is where the power of this book becomes clear.  If we are to move forward into genuine reconciliation, then we must honestly address the ugliness of both personal prejudice and systemic racism. Otherwise, we achieve little more than photo-ops and temporary guilt relief.

As an insider for many years in “white” evangelical Christian circles, Gilbreath has a unique ability to shed light on something many white Christians may have never considered.  Though they might not be perpetrators of hate crimes, many of these well-meaning people do not realize that the white, male, Western perspective on Christianity is not normative for all believers. In fact, that very worldview has often been the reason the church has shamefully lagged behind the world in terms of race.  About his life within the white evangelical world, Gilbreath writes:

But it has also meant living within a religious movement that takes for granted its cultural superiority. It has meant disregarding the occasional stray epithet or ingoring shortsighted comments that beg for a retort. You’ve heard them, perhaps said them: “I don’t even think of you as black,” or “Why do black people need to have their own beauty pageants and magazines and colleges? If whites did that, we’d be called racists.”

If, by chance, you found yourself saying “Yeah, why do they need all that stuff?” I highly recommend that you read this book, along with Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum.

Gilbreath acknowledges the difficulty of moving toward reconciliation, sharing personal stories with candor. And yet his voice remains hopeful throughout the book — not a false cheer that turns a blind eye to racism and prejudice, but one that confronts its paralyzing effects with the Gospel of Christ for all nations.  He shares examples of real church communities who are working through these issues together, including both successes and failures. I am particularly thankful for Chapter Ten, “The ‘Other’ Others,” in which Gilbreath thoughtfully addresses issues that other racial/ethnic cultures face in the American church — including Native American, Latino and Asian Christians.  Even without this chapter, I would have heartily endorsed this book — its inclusion only deepens my respect for the author.

I hope this important book makes it into the hands (and hearts and minds) of many readers, especially those who might not ordinarily be inclined to take on issues of race and reconciliation.

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