Change Font Size:   A A A

Jul 26, 2013 | The Rev. Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee

Lee: Why I Don't Want Racial Reconciliation

racial reconciliationIn the winter of 1976, Hyeon-Kon Lee immigrated to suburban Washington D.C. from his native Gochang, Korea; and shortly thereafter, met and fell in love with Gail Sue Wright.  It was, in his own words, “love at first sight.”  Yet there was a problem.  The Virginia church where Gail attended did not believe in interracial marriage, and would not wed a white woman to a Korean man.  So, she and “H.K.” were forced to say their vows elsewhere.


Two years later, I was born.  Gail, who is my mother, had by that time returned to the church that refused to marry her and my father.  So I was a raised in a church that believed that my biracial identity was a sign of apostasy.  My mother did this, I should say, under the conviction that the practice of forgiveness is at the center of the Christian faith.  And she is right.  Reconciliation is the ground floor of Christian community.  I am thankful to have the story of my life woven so intricately into the actual performance of Christian reconciliation.  I am thankful, in other words, that from a young age I was able to learn to welcome – even to love and cherish – those who were never fully able to welcome me.


But reconciliation is a complex phenomenon.  I’ve had the occasion to think about this a lot in the midst of the backlash from the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial.  As media outlets exploded with commentary on the case, I found myself (like so many others) torn on how best to respond.  I think my strongest reaction to the case was a sort of horror at the way in which both Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin had become abstracted, turned into types, and then politicized––that is, deployed rhetorically toward partisan logics that were determined long before Trayvon was shot and killed.  There have been many layers of tragedy to this drama, but few have been more tragic than the instrumentalization of the two lives that stand at its center.


I also found myself, true to my history, looking for ways to foster forgiveness along the racial lines that were quickly drawn.  I wanted, at least initially, to help promote peace between those who felt wounded by the verdict, and those who felt that they were wrongfully incriminated by those wounds.  Yet as the days passed, and as I made appeals along these lines, I found that my desire for reconciliation was strangely half-hearted in this particular case.  I found myself, to put it more baldly, not sure that reconciliation was really what I wanted.


At least, not yet.


St. Augustine described the effect of sin as a sort of “curving inward on oneself.”  In this image, he is elaborating upon the traditional Christian belief that human beings are created with a natural desire for God.  Sin, in this view, is when we choose against our natural desires––toward baser and more selfish desires.  Augustine’s insight is that, when we settle for these desires, our desire gets reoriented. We start craving these things rather than God, and turning our eyes toward them.


Thus, over time, we get curved inward on ourselves.  We get to the point where we have trained ourselves to see these desires as natural and normal.  And we can no longer see their perversion.  Augustine also believed that this was something that was socially reinforced (hence his famous “pear story”).  Having come to see the world in a certain way, we surround ourselves with people who share our worldview, and help convince us that our perversion is just the way things really are.


This is why reconciliation, which is indeed the end of Christian life, is still that: an end.  Put differently, Christians have always believed that the sacrament of reconciliation is a process, which begins necessarily with at least two other steps.  The first is conversion.  The second is confession.  Reconciliation without conversion and confession is no reconciliation at all.


Conversion is necessary because sin has changed our orientation.  Having been turned inward on ourselves, we need to be turned back toward God.  Having been blinded, we need to again be able to see.  And confession is necessary to make this conversion public.  Sin that is socially reinforced must be dealt with by a repentance that is tapped into the deepest resources of our communities.


In the days since the George Zimmerman verdict, I have been convinced that ours is not (yet) the hour for reconciliation.  Ours is the hour for confession, and for some of us, perhaps even conversion.  For despite all the talk about “multiculturalism” and “post-racialism” in our society today – indeed, embedded in just such language – we are a people curved inward on ourselves.  In many ways, of course, but in few ways more than on the issue of race and racism.


We can no longer see how race and racism have permeated our culture, not only at the superficial level of prejudice and stereotyping, but on a structural level––constructing entire social technologies, and organizing comprehensive social performances.  In the days since the verdict, many have chafed at the idea that racism might be embedded within the legal codes of this country.  As if the three-fifths compromise wasn’t a constitutional amendment; as if the lynchings of five thousand black bodies in this country weren’t declared legal by our federal government; as if those martialed against my parents’ marriage weren’t backed by a history of anti-miscegenation laws; as if we had never seen “Black Codes,” or “Jim Crow Laws,” or the “War on Drugs,” or “Stop and Frisk” policies, or any of the other ways in which racial profiling continues to be inscribed in and enabled by the political and legal structures of our nation.


The deeper level to this tragedy is that Trayvon Martin is by no means exceptional.  In 2012, he was only one of 136 unarmed black men and women who were killed by vigilantes, security guards, or police officers (at least 25 were killed by vigilantes).  In almost 10 percent of these cases, the killers were not even charged with a crime.*  And in almost every case, those who were charged either escaped conviction or had their charges reduced by pleading guilty––just like George Zimmerman.


And the deepest level to this tragedy?  That we live in a world in which many can either pretend this doesn’t happen, or that it doesn’t mean anything.


In such a world, what we need, more than anything, is to confess.  To confess that we have not yet to come fully to terms with our racial history.  To confess, in fact, that many of the ways in which we have ostensibly come to terms with this history are (at best) superficial, and have actually served to hide how racism endures at a systemic level.  To confess, in other words, that in treating the symptoms, we have allowed the disease to mutate, bury itself, and so become more insidious than ever.


- Lee is curate at Holy Spirit, Waco and a graduate assistant in the Department of Religion at Baylor University.


* source: