Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. (Matthew 5:9)
In 1994, over eight hundred thousand people were slaughtered in Rwanda. Members of the Tutsi tribe, together with those who sympathized with them, were brutally killed by members of the Hutu ethnic majority. Genocide has long been a part of our world’s troubling story, but what made this incident particularly heart-wrenching was that these killings took place at the hands of neighbours, relatives, and friends. Like something out of a horror movie, the government incited people to kill each other—and they responded while everyone watched.
In the ancient world, tribes served an important function. Holding fast to the safety and security of a group meant the difference between life and death. Animals roam in packs to this day. In some ways we do too, finding safety and meaning in our identification with ethnicity, religion, political party, and favourite sports teams. Modern governance has us organized by country, state, city, and town, and within and across those boundaries we create tribes—uptown versus downtown, north versus south, black versus white, urban versus rural. Much of this is human—shared experience and finding meaning in group distinction. Our anthropological DNA wants to preserve history, cultivate cultural pride, and seek connection with others.
The problem with DNA, however, is that it manifests in all sorts of unpredictable ways. Its invisible depths can give birth to diseases of mind and body that we didn’t know were lying in wait to cripple us and stop us from reaching our full potential. Our tendency toward tribalism is like that—we can’t see it, but it is there preventing us from connecting with people who we perceive to be outside of our tribes—people who can help us, love us, and support us.
In any injury, the top layer of skin heals before deep healing takes place in the muscles and bones.
During the Trump-Clinton presidential race of 2016, the covers were thrown off our deeply embedded differences as Americans to reveal that tribalism was alive and well. The festering wounds of slavery and the Jim Crow era hadn’t healed after all—we awoke to learn that it was as feverish and ugly as ever, though we had enjoyed many years of “peace.” What happened? Where had we gone wrong? Barack Obama had just been elected president—twice. Wasn’t that evidence that we had changed?
In any injury, the top layer of skin heals before deep healing takes place in the muscles and bones. Tribalism’s uglier excesses had ensnared us once again because we hadn’t learned to love and appreciate each other; we had simply learned that it was unacceptable to express that we didn’t, with systems some took for granted reinforcing a false hierarchy of human value. As Christ taught, this is the fundamental problem with the law: it trains but doesn’t sanctify. Not the way a changed heart does.
In his farewell address, George Washington warned of artificial separations and “the danger of parties in the State”:
This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy. It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.
His words were eerily prophetic.
Racism is a sin problem, a tool of the enemy designed to destroy us. When we begin to understand this, we can proceed against the sin and not the sinner. This is what Martin Luther King believed when he began his journey to nonviolence. We must first realize that our tendency toward tribalism and bias is in direct conflict with who God called us to be. All of us look through a glass darkly and struggle to think purified thoughts. As King wrote in his classic essay “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” “I also came to see that liberalism’s superficial optimism concerning human nature caused it to overlook the fact that reason is darkened by sin. The more I thought about human nature the more I saw how our tragic inclination for sin causes us to use our minds to rationalize our actions. Liberalism failed to see that reason by itself is little more than an instrument to justify man’s defensive ways of thinking. Reason, devoid of the purifying power of faith, can never free itself from distortions and rationalizations.”
Racism is a sin problem, a tool of the enemy designed to destroy us.
King knew that we wouldn’t win by fighting each other. We would win by fighting the enemy, confronting wrong thinking, and moving forward as one. Peacemaking is active—almost violent—in its determination to confront wrongdoing and stand in the face of hatred. It is not doing nothing, ignoring wrong, or making people happy. It is not tending more toward party or country or race than love and light. It is walking in grace and forgiveness no matter what personal harm may come—being like Christ, led like a lamb to slaughter to stop evil. It is recognizing the uncanny ability of the enemy to infiltrate our hearts, our systems, our particular heritage, and step by step discerning the way of resistance, of surrender, of atonement, healing, and reconciliation. And all of this goes against our natural tendencies toward pride and tribe.
King knew that the struggle would be long and arduous. Christ bled and died for love. He wept in the garden and was separated from the Father. “I do not want to give the impression that nonviolence will work miracles overnight,” King wrote.
Men are not easily moved from their mental ruts or purged of their prejudiced and irrational feelings. When the underprivileged demand freedom, the privileged first react with bitterness and resistance. Even when the demands are couched in nonviolent terms, the initial response is the same. I am sure that many of our white brothers in Montgomery and across the south are still bitter toward Negro leaders, even though these leaders have sought to follow a way of love and nonviolence. So the nonviolent approach does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor. It first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage that they did not know they had. Finally, it reaches the opponent and so stirs his conscience that reconciliation becomes a reality.
When individuals, groups, organizations, and countries decide to work towards this—to celebrate the best in each other and see the worst in each other and commit to love anyway—change is possible. This is how we “make peace,” by cherishing what is good about each of us (and our tribes), confronting what is evil, and forcefully, courageously resisting the plan of the enemy to use tribe to divide us instead of preserve us as it was originally intended to do. The civil rights movement under King’s banner of love was successful. Change did come to the masses even as we lost many to lynchings, hatred, and violence. Integration came to our schools, businesses, neighbourhoods, sports teams, and government—slowly and painfully.
But, even in the light of all that hard-won progress, we are still bitter and angry—to deny that fact any longer would cause our collective disease to continue to fester. For African Americans, the evils of slavery and the Jim Crow era feel unforgiveable. What civilized people would stand by and watch babies ripped from their mother’s arms on an auction block, women raped repeatedly, and young men hung from trees?
My own family traced its roots back to a plantation, and I can only imagine what my ancestors endured because, like many African Americans, there is scant evidence of their existence. When we learn this, we often go searching, and my search led me to Ghana. Walking through the slave fortress was an experience I’ll never forget. The aching sadness still hung in the air. I can still remember standing in the “Door of No Return.” It was a known fact that once an enslaved African passed through it they would never see home again. I shuddered at the trap door in the master suite where the captain would have his chosen slave girl brought to him. Who could devise such evil? The Africans in Ghana embraced and welcomed me but marveled at how different I looked and sounded from them. “You’re so light. Which one of your parents is white?” they’d ask me. “Neither.” In the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness. . . . One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro, two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals, in one dark body.”
Peacemaking is active—almost violent—in its determination to confront wrongdoing and stand in the face of hatred.
Yes, we are crippled by these deep and real wounds. How do we know? When we stood up on our fragile foundation and tried to walk as “post-racial America,” we collapsed right back into our original state and the truth came out. We didn’t heal—we “played hurt.” African Americans have learned to do this well to survive, but I suspect that my white brothers and sisters do it too. My friends and colleagues have shared the fear they feel when discussing race. The mere mention of it is uncomfortable because their views are so often misunderstood and attacked. Unfortunately, a stigma of racism has attached itself to certain businesses, organizations, positions, professions, and political parties. Caucasian Americans fear the conversation because one stray comment can easily leave them branded as “racists.” If I could hazard a guess, I would assume they would want to ask, “How long should a group have to suffer for the sins of their forefathers? How do you prove that you mean no harm?
So much of what we currently understand about each other is based on misunderstanding. In my hometown of St. Louis, the impact of generations of racism, bigotry, and a huge and widening wealth gap continue to affect people of all races. Unemployment, poverty, and loneliness consume communities as factories close and once-lucrative jobs become automated. The place where Dred Scott lost his freedom became the place where Sergeant Mike King and Michael Brown lost their lives to tragic assumptions about race that never died.
Tribalism feels easy there, even safe. But a series of conversations and experiences changed all that for me. Meeting fellow students from the University of Missouri who admitted they had never even met a black person, making friends of different races through the university’s Summer Welcome program, talking across racial lines about our collective issues through Focus St. Louis, and finding The Oaks Academy when I moved to Indianapolis—the first school where I had seen black and white people want to be together—were all incredibly healing. These institutions and people aren’t perfect, but tribal lines can begin to dissolve when you see familiar faces on the other side and realize that we all want the same things and that we won’t heal by seeing other human beings suffer. Taking time to hear each other’s opinions with patience, compassion, and presumed positive intent—even if we don’t agree—goes a long way toward diffusing the anger that moves into unforgiveness and unhealthy tribalism. This is what King understood. Love dignifies us and lifts us all to the highest versions of ourselves.
“Liberalism failed to see that reason by itself is little more than an instrument to justify man’s defensive ways of thinking. Reason, devoid of the purifying power of faith, can never free itself from distortions and rationalizations.”
—Martin Luther King Jr.
Yes, we smile at each other, but inside we are hurting and angry. We can all hide our true feelings for a while, but the genocide in Rwanda teaches us why this is dangerous. The tribal discord between the Hutus and the Tutsis had existed for years and was manipulated and twisted by human nature and colonialism until it exploded into bloody civil war.
The citizens of Rwanda are working toward peace. Tensions are still high in some areas and wounds are still not fully healed, but they are trying. Courts were established to bring the most egregious perpetrators to justice, and neighbours sought forgiveness for the neighbours they had wronged during the worst of the conflict. Felix Kanamugire, a man who killed his neighbour, sought forgiveness from his victim’s wife, which, through a process of time and conversation and healing, she eventually granted. While forgiven, Felix and his neighbour continue the work of healing and forgiveness with weekly meetings and conversations in Peace Clubs that have been established there.
Perhaps that is where we failed as a nation: we stopped healing. We quit rehab before we were ready to return to the field. The courts and the legislature took the first step in creating laws to protect the oppressed in America after numerous lengthy physical and legal battles, but failed to put the healing balm of Gilead on the wound. We stopped confronting and started pretending and learned the hard way that you can’t legislate forgiveness—it comes from a changed heart and repentant spirit toward which God himself won’t even force us. It takes time, trust, and tenderness. We must willingly participate in our sanctification and our healing, see our own roles in our current conflicts, and choose to embrace, confront, and love our neighbours. To effect healing as a nation we must work individually on our own hearts and prepare the way for forgiveness by working tirelessly toward healing and deciding that we will not take up offense as we work toward the collective goal of forgiveness and reconciliation. We must lay down our arms and not be so busy removing the speck from our neighbour’s eye that we forget the plank in our own.
Martin Luther King’s “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” and George Washington’s final address are as relevant and instructive for the times in which we now find ourselves as they were when they were first penned. They hold the secrets to our way forward, although I quote them haltingly as I am aware of the criticism both bring. Nevertheless, as Christians we must commit to living according to God’s Word—even when that’s hard. No one is good but God, and he uses whomever he wills.
So I urge us all to love ourselves and our tribes but to never let it take precedence over our love of God and our neighbour, for “there is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:31 NIV). We may always battle our human tendency toward, tribalism, but, in the words of our first president, “From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.”