July 23, 2020

Building Spiritual Resilience for Racial Justice and Healing

“Love God. Love your neighbor. Change the world.” In my diocese, we all know this catchphrase by heart. I thought of it again as the grief, anger, and frustration of the black community erupted after the senseless death of George Floyd. As a seemingly unending video reel of protest, violence, and outrage played on social media, I felt more and more isolated and frustrated as a woman of color—not only in the world, but particularly in the church. I love God. I love my neighbor. But can the world actually change?

Our faith says yes. The world can change if we change it. Doing so requires us to be open to times like these – transformative spaces of immense spiritual growth that have the potential to change us forever. If we are able to be resilient in those times, we can adapt to the stressors of spiritual growth constructively, remaining grounded yet responsive, open to all potential possibilities. When we emerge from these times of intense spiritual growth, our transformation strengthens our discipleship and changes how we encounter the world. I am interested in how best to equip lay and ordained leaders for this kind of transformation by providing trauma- and psychologically-informed support, grounded in spiritual practice, that encourages us to be resilient as we transform.

We are now in a transformative space in which many white Christians are experiencing raised consciousness about racial justice and healing. Many are responding by reading, protesting, watching documentaries and movies, and listening to the voices of Black, Indigenous, people of Color (BIPOC). And some of us are realizing that after years of trainings and workshops, nothing has really changed. We seem to be in the midst of recognizing that white liberal performative allyship and superficial relationships must transform into discipleship rooted in true kenosis. This kind of transformation is long and difficult. Not only does it require us to educate our minds and unlearn our behavioral patterns, but it also requires us to grow in our capacity to be intimate with God and vulnerable with oursevles and neighbors in a way that might make some uncomfortable. We seem willing to be transformed. But do we have the psychological and spiritual resilience to sustain the transformation we desire?

The integrative approach to racial justice work that I offer is based on a liberative ethic of care (see figure A), which means that our moral actions center on our relationships and that an act of care is an act of justice. These caring acts of justice lead us through reconciliation to liberation. But in many of the ways the church currently addresses racial justice, reconciliation is the destination. And this view is one of the reasons why our collective work seems so unsustainable.

Reconciliation implies that two parties were once in right relationship, one party inflicted harm on the other, and, after acknowledgement of that harm, both parties worked to reconcile the relationship back to health. However, if we are honest about our church’s history of race relations and the experiences of BIPOC in the church today, it seems clear that the church has never been in right relationship with BIPOC. We lack the foundation of an original right relationship, and so any reconciliation we undertake is reduced to a simple acknowledgement of harm and a return to the only relationship we have ever known, one rooted in systemic racism and oppression.

The unconscious narrative at play is that a white person is entitled to the forgiveness of a BIPOC without having to take real responsibility or change behavior. The church’s privileged obsession in making reconciliation, not liberation, the destination results from white fragility, which implicitly seeks to exert power and control to not only comfort white Christians with the illusion that they are living faithfully, but encourage BIPOC communities to “get over it” and participate in the perpetuation of an unhealthy relationship for the sake of love of neighbor and church unity.

While many white Christians have a well-intentioned willingness to engage racial reconciliation, the church does not provide the necessary support and encouragement to change their behavior, which is extremely difficult and frustrating, particularly for BIPOC. This is one reason why white liberals are one of the most harmful groups to BIPOC[1]. White liberals often believe they are educated on racial justice issues and stand against systemic racism, yet too often, they continue to embody harmful narratives because a lack of resilience and stamina is a barrier to work that makes them uncomfortable. In the end, attempts at reconciliation reinforce unconscious narratives about race, potentially retraumatize BIPOC, and can perpetuate resentment not only between the parties, but also towards the church.

Instead, we need to acknowledge that the first step of the church, as a collective body and institution, is not to reconcile itself to BIPOC but rather to learn how to be in right relationship with them. And we need to reimagine a new understanding of the role reconciliation plays in the work of racial justice and healing.

I want to stop for a moment. Is there anything stirring inside of you? Does it feel positive, negative, or neutral? I invite you to acknowledge your feelings and name them. Hold on to them, write them down if you need to. Take a breath. We will revisit these feelings soon.

Within a liberative ethic of care, reconciliation serves as a bridge between two very different realities: our current reality, influenced by the dominate narrative of society, and the other, which is the counter-narrative of the gospel. The first step towards the bridge of reconciliation is building our capacity for redemptive relationships. For me, redemptive relationships are manifestations of our belief that the more intimately we know our truest selves, the more we are opened to experiencing and embodying God’s redeeming power in the world. And when we embody this power, we are empowered to undertake acts of care as justice. In doing this work, it is important to unlearn what the world has told us to believe about ourselves in order to remember who we are and whose we are. This is self-care as an act of justice.

Redemptive relationship-building requires mutuality, with whites constructively processing their internalized superiority and BIPOC their internalized oppression. If these internal unconscious narratives persist undisrupted, we remain blindly reactive to the world around us. However, in disrupting them, we gain the self-awareness to choose to encounter the world differently. Because this requires us to dive deep into ourselves, it is even more important for formation, trainings, and conversations to be trauma-informed and facilitated through the lens of socialization. This helps us become aware of our patterns of unconscious narrative, gain better consciousness of how we encounter the world, and learn how to reconnect to our spiritual center when we face feelings of shame, guilt, anger, fear, and frustration, which often discourages us from continuing the work.

Now, remember those feelings? I invite you to take a moment to reconnect with them, or with whatever you are feeling now. Can you identify which of your core values feels threatened or inspired? When we can name our emotional responses and consciously connect them to a core value, we gain entry points to what researchers call our “cycle of socialization,” or the way we have been socialized to uphold systems of oppression. As we understand our cycle, we can better identify the possible barriers that keep us from recognizing possibilities to believe and do something differently. And when we know our individual and collective barriers, we can tailor our learning to better understand and break down what keeps us from moving towards compassionate, empathetic, right relationship.

But when we dismantle our world view, we disrupt our spiritual center. One way to foster greater resiliency for long-term transformation is a long-term commitment to spiritual practice that can help us be realistic about the fact that even though we might want transformation to happen quickly, this work is slow and steady. It is not helpful to think that you can go to one training, have one conversation, read one book, or pass one resolution and then expect your work to be done. This opportunity for transformation is not just another trendy moment. The work of liberation requires a spiritual life that fosters deep intimacy with God and relies on God’s overabundant love and grace. It is difficult, and most of our learning occurs when we are being challenged or making mistakes. This is part of the fuel for long-term transformation.

At Seminary of the Southwest, we recently held a powerful vigil of vision, witness, and justice organized by three Black seminarians. During the vigil, each of us made a commitment to God, each other, and the world in writing and placed the papers, one-by-one, on the altar to symbolize that our commitments call us to sacrifice our old ways of being, knowing, and doing. Our commitments now hang in our sacristy, facing a display of the names of those who have died at the hands of racialized violence, to remind us that our commitments must lead us to embody our discipleship differently.

We are doing what we can, even though that means starting small. I love God. I love my neighbor. And, with God’s help, the world will change, if we have the spirituality, resiliency, and stamina to commit to changing it.

[1] To learn more, read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.