How to Actually Fight for Racial Reconciliation

5 steps to becoming a racial reconciler.

These days, as people around the nation become more aware of racial injustice, many young Christians of all races are eager to be part of the solution.

That’s great news; we need every available hand on deck! But since so many of us have grown up in racially isolated communities, many of us don’t know what racial reconciliation looks like, what it requires of us, or how to work toward it. If we’re not careful, our lack of understanding can 1) paralyze us, preventing us from taking steps toward reconciliation, or 2) cause us to jump onto the racial reconciliation bandwagon without any direction or intentionality.

The good news is there’s a third option. Just about anyone can be a racial reconciler, and it’s never too late to start. But it takes effort, sacrifice and a whole lot of heart. Here’s where I suggest you begin:

Know the Truth.

It’s tempting to think that reconciliation is a pie-in-the-sky multiracial kumbaya sing-along in which people of all colors croon together in perfect harmony. That would make a fabulous Broadway number, but that’s not racial reconciliation.

Thankfully, reconciliation is much more profound and beautiful. In the Greek, reconciliation is katallassō which literally means “to change, or exchange; to effect a change.” The word katallassō is often used by the apostle Paul to describe the restoration that can occur after two groups have been at odds (e.g., Romans 5:1-11).

Through the process of reconciliation, two groups that were once alienated from each other begin to identify with each other and stand in solidarity. This is a tall order! In a world that is plagued by racial division and inequality, reconciliation requires a profound change in the way we interact with each other. Groups (e.g., black and whites) that are accustomed to having little firsthand knowledge of each other must learn to not only know each other, but identify with each other. Groups that are accustomed to being at odds with each other must acknowledge the grievances and then do what it takes to make peace.

We’re not meant to ignore our racial differences; we’re meant to identify and embrace them so that we can know how our identities uniquely contribute to the larger puzzle of the family of God.

Reconciliation is not for the faint of heart—but when it actually occurs, it is truly spectacular and well worth the effort.

Embrace Your Racial Identity.

Many people wrongly believe it’s easier to achieve racial reconciliation if we ignore our racial identities. In other words, we think “not seeing color” is the best pathway to racial harmony. But to take this approach would be a huge mistake because God created us with different skin color, physical features and family lineages. So racial reconcilers must engage in courageous self-examination:

  • What does it mean for me to be white, black, Asian and/or Hispanic?
  • What is my racial heritage and history?
  • What is my racial culture and how is it expressed?
  • What are the common experiences of my race?
  • What does society say about my race? What does God say? Which one do I believe?
  • What does it mean for me to genuinely express my racial identity?
  • How does God want to use my white, black, Asian and/or Hispanic identity to reconcile people to each other and to God?
  • We’re not meant to ignore our racial differences; we’re meant to identify and embrace them so that we can know how our identities uniquely contribute to the larger puzzle of the family of God. We don’t need identical puzzle pieces; we need unique ones.

    Confront Your Privilege and/or Oppression.

    Reconciliation begins with the acknowledgment that we live in a broken world, one that is plagued by racial inequality. In our society, whites are privileged; whites are accommodated while non-whites are alienated.

    One example of this is the well-known Jamal and Lakisha study, in which researchers sent identical résumés to numerous companies all over the U.S. The only thing they changed on the résumé was the name. They used common “white” names (e.g., Greg and Emily) or common “black” names (Jamal and Lakisha). The researchers found that when name on the résumé was Emily or Greg, the hiring managers at the company were significantly more likely to invite Emily or Greg in for an interview than when the résumé name was Jamal or Lakisha. This study is simply one of many studies that demonstrates the existence of white privilege.

    Racial reconciliation isn’t a goal; it’s a way of life. The way of the reconciler requires constant self-sacrifice and self-giving.

    As racial reconcilers, we must not only see inequality in the abstract, we must also see how inequality affects us personally. This means that whites must examine and acknowledge the ways in which society privileges them, and non-whites must examine and acknowledge the ways in which society oppresses them, to varying degrees. Both whites and non-whites must recognize the ways in which their advancement through life (e.g., getting into college, avoiding the penal system, getting promoted, earning money, etc.) is propelled by racial privilege and/or thwarted by racial oppression.

    This is crucial; when we see how racial inequality personally affects us, we are better able to fight for equality.

    Count the Cost.

    Everybody desires racial reconciliation, but few people are willing to pay for it. Reconciliation work is costly because it is the work of the Cross. We kid ourselves if we think we can enjoy restored relationships without paying the price for them.

    Jesus our Great Reconciler knew this all too well. His pursuit of reconciliation led to His death, so we could enjoy relationship with God. Reconcilers have the honor of following in Jesus’ footsteps, but we also must recognize that reconciliation will lead to our own deaths. We may not experience physical death as reconcilers (although that is possible), but we will certainly experience other forms of death: death of cultural idolatry, comfort, individualism, narrow-minded perspectives, personal- or group-based power, control, ethnocentricity, certainty and more. I’m not going to lie. I can tell you from experience that these deaths can be excruciating.

    Racial reconciliation isn’t a goal; it’s a way of life. The way of the reconciler requires constant self-sacrifice and self-giving. It leads to places and experiences that will stun you in both terrifying and beautiful ways. Reconciliation costs everything but, like the Cross, it also offers everything. I’ve never known more freedom, joy and intimacy with God and others than I’ve known in the midst of the excruciating and magnificent work of reconciliation. It truly is what we were created to do.

    Leave Your Turf and Join the Movement.

    Find a group in your region, listen, learn and follow the leadership.

    Jesus began his journey of reconciliation by leaving the comfort and familiarity of the Trinity, embarking on a cross-cultural mission to Earth, identifying with us and making the burdens of humanity His own. We begin our journeys of reconciliation by doing the same—by leaving the comfort and familiarity of our racially isolated worlds, engaging across racial lines, identifying with people of other races and making their burdens our own.

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    How this specifically plays out will vary from person to person. Depending on your racial identity, geographic location, social status and individual characteristics, God will call you to different tasks as a reconciler. The good news is that Christians, particularly people of color, have been doing racial reconciliation work for years. Find a group in your region, listen, learn and follow the leadership. There is much work to be done and much peace to be made!

    Recommended Reading:

    Radical Reconciliation by Allan Boesak and Curtiss DeYoung

    Overrated: Are We More in Love with the Idea of Changing the World than Actually Changing the World? By Eugene Cho

    Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart by Christena Cleveland

    The Heart of Racial Justice by Brenda Salter-McNeil

    The Post-Black and Post-White Church: Becoming the Beloved Community in a Multi-Ethnic World by Efrem Smith

    Top Comments

    Dorothy Greco


    Dorothy Greco replied to William Dave Powers's comment

    William, I don't think we have moved beyond this. There's still lots of work to be done, hence this encouraging and thoughtful article by Christena, who happens to not be white BTW.

    Dorothy Greco


    Dorothy Greco commented…

    Thanks you for this Christena. I just finished reading your book last night and was challenged and encouraged by it. Blessings.


    lynda t


    lynda t commented…

    Without seeing the name or the picture of the author, I knew this was not a white person who was writing the article. From the comments regarding white people as privileged to nonwhites as oppressed; and the part of the article talking about embracing your racial identity; and the further reiteration that you need to look at how whites are privileged, and how nonwhites need to look at how they are oppressed.
    Any white person can tell you that we are not allowed to embrace our racial identity. If we do, we are calling ourselves privileged, we are taking pride in the fact that we are white. In fact, the only group of people that are not allowed to take any public aknowledgement of who they are is white people, and white males less than white females.
    I was hoping this article would give me some insight into some ways that society, especially Christians, can help bridge the gap between races. But I must say I still stand by what I believe. As a Christian, I believe there are really only two groups. They are Christians - born-again people who have accepted Christ as Lord and Savior of their life and there are unbelievers - who have not accepted Christ as Lord and Savior of their life. As Christians, we do not need to look at skin color. Or name or ethnicity or country they were born in. Because we are all one family. The other issue I have with embracing your racial identity, is that there are more and more children born who are of mixed races. This creates even more of a problem of taking pride in your racial identity, especially when their grandparents are mixed races also. One day we will be more of a homogenous society and taking pride in your ethnicity to me just sound prideful. You have no choice what color you were born, what family you were born into, even what country.
    I am white. I do not embrace my European ancestry or even my American Indian ancestry. I am an American, I am a born-again Christian. Who happens to be white. I don't take pride in my color. Compared to a poor person living in Russia, or a black person living in America, most people would consider a black person living in America as much richer, and having a lot more privilege. So it's all relative.
    Racism is this when it'll group of people consider themselves having the right to more privilege then another group of people, or consider themselves better by the simple fact of the color of their skin. And honestly, I see racism equally both ways. I see groups of people rising up saying that they deserve special consideration because the color of their skin, and currently that is not white people. When we can start seeing people as people, regardless of their name, ethnicity, we can start accepting people and not expecting anybody to have any special consideration. Yet in truth, I don't ever see this happening. Because we live in a fallen society plagues by sin. And the devil loves to use old wounds and hurts to keep people down and oppressed.
    The answer I see is salvation. And with salvation actually submitting to the Holy Spirit and making Christ Lord and Savior of your life. At that point, He can heal old wounds and hurts. If Christians started to realize that their enemy is the devil, and that he will use anything and everything including lies to make people oppressed, poor, disgruntled, hurt, angry, resentful, vengeful.
    In other words, take the focus off of people. Whether a group, or an individual. The enemy is the devil. The word says we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers and rulers in dark places. we need to pray, stand on scripture and do all we can to bring people to the realization that they need a Savior.



    campwebb12 replied to lynda t's comment

    I think that humanity is richer for all of the cultures that we come from. And where we come from (which determines the color of our skin) DOES matter. It tells the story of who came before us, it tells much of what people think of us today, because yes, people can see and judge others by the color of our skin.
    I, too, am 'white', though I don't think white is a race, any more than being brown or yellow or purple is. I say I'm German on the census form, because if I am to acknowledge where I come from, the traditions of my ancestors, that is what it is. 'White' encompasses everything that isn't something else. If you look at census data from 100 years ago, 'white' wasn't an option, it was English, German, Italian, Polish, we were all acknowledged for where we came from (and trying to root out the minorities of the time - whoever the newcomers were). Now we are all white? That's kind of silly.
    Our 'melting pot' has tried to make us all the same, and for some it has, and I guess some want everyone else to become the same too. God created us in different places and cultures, and we should celebrate the diversity of places and traditions we all come from, because they DO matter. The color of our skin is part of that.

    I suggest that you read "White Privilege" by Peggy McIntosh, to see that society itself claims more privilege for whites. The devil is using us whites as part of the oppressor if we say that right now its 'they are asking too much because of the color of their skin.'

    lynda t


    lynda t replied to campwebb12's comment

    I disagree with parts of your comment. People do see and judge others by the color of their skin. However, color and ethnicity are two completely different things. For most Americans, African American refers to black people. Yet, African-American is a person from Africa who has become an American citizen. I have friends who are African Americans and they are white. They were born and raised in Africa, became American citizens. If not African Americans, how would you describe them? Culture again is a seperate thing from color and ethnicity. culture refers to the way you dress, the types of food you eat. Culture and ethnicity in our time is more intertwined, though.
    I do not believe the devil uses whites as oppressors or part of the oppressors. This was not true in the past, with laws and segregation, but today, to say that whites are part of the oppressor, then you have to say that whites are causing the problem. And, honestly, when I look at society, I don't see that. I see the devil using poverty, anger, people's feelings, usually perceived, as the weapon. I do not see white people treating blacks differently. I don't see whites claiming white pride, saying support your own color by hiring those who are white. Yet I often will hear blacks and Hispanics have leagues, organizations, groups and clubs that have one agenda - advance the 'insert color or ethnicity here' cause. I see this as the problem. Instead of wanting to help people because they need it, it's help someone because of color, gender or ethnic.
    Do you follow the traditions of your ancestors? Personally, I don't. I don't worship the gods of my American Indian heritage. I don't follow the traditions of hating blacks, blaming communists, making moonshine or chewing tobacco. Although He gave us diversity in color, culture and language, He made Adam and Eve only one race. Personally, I don't care what color it was, what language it was (although I'm positive it wasn't english), their facial structure. When God created man, He created one race. Not until the sin of Babel was there different races and languages. And, why did He do this? To break that bond. It tore husband and wife apart, mother and child, neighbors. And He scattered them across the earth. genesis 11
    As christians, if we keep our eyes on Christ, seek His kingdom, the rest doesn't matter other than preference (language, foods, clothing). I would rather sit with a person who loves the Lord like I do and talk about how much we love Christ, than sit and talk about race or prejudice. Yet, these issues need to be discussed. and, most people are not christians, so they look for a secular answer, with laws.
    But, honestly, when I look at the news and all this strife, I see the devil dancing and laughing with glee. he has taken people to disrespect our police and continue to cause dissent. When I hear Jackson and quannel, I don't hear unity, I hear more dissent and lawsuits, and anger. Fuel for the fire. And I see the devil skipping around that fire whispering in the ears of all colors, casting blame, making people feel guilty
    I am proud to be a child of God. But that pride is not in me. It is pride that my God, in his perfect righteousness, has chosen each of us to be His children, seeing our flaws and hurts, the wounds we cause others, and still sending Christ for us. My pride is in Him.

    Christan Perona


    Christan Perona commented…

    Excellent article, Christena. "We begin our journeys of reconciliation by doing the same—by leaving the comfort and familiarity of our racially isolated worlds, engaging across racial lines, identifying with people of other races and making their burdens our own." I so appreciate you addressing our comfort idol. Because all races bear God's image and because Christ is our ultimate example, He gives us the grace to make others' burdens our own. Thanks for this article.

    Lauren McDermott


    Lauren McDermott commented…

    Thank you for this helpful article! I think two things are still missing however:
    Acknowledgement of the native voices in our nation. I didn't see any mention of that underlying history that is a backdrop to this entire story.
    Part of this racial reconciliation involves healing for the white/European community as well, as I think some of this comments make clear. I'm hoping that can be integrated as we move further down this path together!

    Carlene Byron


    Carlene Byron commented…

    I'm not the best example of what it means to listen well, but I have learned that until you've spent a great deal of time with "black" Americans, you really don't get why there's need for us to listen. I had a colleague from Barbados whose senior thesis at MIT, 40 years ago, was to make an Apple computer talk to a PC. No one had done that before. And before he lived in Cambridge, he'd never experienced being spreadeagled by the police because they didn't think he "belonged" on the street where he was walking from the college library to his apartment at night. I've been walking in the evening with two African-American friends and had one say to the other, with a sly nod toward me, "At least no one can claim they didn't see us." My own African-American pastor opened a sermon about God's family (how we are united by Jesus' spiritual paternal DNA) with the comment: "We've all heard a lot about DNA lately. DNA is what they use to put you away." And you and I both know that sermon would have opened differently in a "white" church. But 40% of US prison inmates are black -- more than 3x their share of the population. And it just doesn't hit home until you've had a member of your board arrive at a meeting upset because he's just been pulled over for DWB (driving while black), or read news accounts within days of a white college student whose DUI killed 3 people (and he's out on bail) while a black woman who didn't put out her cigarette when told to by police dies a suicide on her 3rd day of custody.

    I do want to speak briefly to the person who said white people aren't allowed to take pride in our "racial" identity. The people who identify as "African-American" descend from those who arrived here during the slave trade. Just having black skin, even if you're from Barbados or Brazil or a more recent African immigrant, can subject you to some of the same indignities, as my colleague found. But "African-American" is a cultural identity at least as much as a racial identity. Likewise, the "white race" identity tends to be a cultural identity. In this part of the country, at least, the "white race" celebrates itself with Confederate flags, armed militia organizations, and complaints about the "workers" it lost after "the war." (Yes, I'm entirely serious: I have actually heard that.) To people whose heritage includes serving as owned "workers" before "the war," that white racial identity is different from the cultural identities that some other white people enjoy. I don't think anyone is upset to see a Greek festival or a Gaelic mod or and Italian saints festival or a polka party at the Polish-American citizens club as these "white" Americans celebrate their "racial" heritage and traditions.

    The hard thing about trying to take pride in any of our human identities is, of course, that they are all marred by sin. So while I'm white and come from the North, it turns out that a (Cherokee) ancestor owned slaves. One of my white female ancestors -- who appears in a newspaper photo of an interdenominational Bible study in 1923 -- also appears to have been among the women who helped "defend" white Tulsa during the white-generated race riot that destroyed that city's black middle class. So as little as I myself want to be complicit in the injuries that people have suffered, I carry this in the same way I bear original sin. It's part of my own DNA.

    Which is why listening becomes so important. I've met so many really gracious African-Americans who readily forgive my stumbling and bumbling through their lives. The more I talk, the less I know. And as you can tell, from this long message, I tend to talk a lot!

    Blessings to all.

    Raymond Dix Jr.


    Raymond Dix Jr. commented…

    The study on names could simply mean people go with what is familiar. White privilege is an invention of those who do not have faith in a sovereign God who directs all things.

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