Reactivity, Reconciliation and a Better Way Forward

Several years ago, a friend shared a tragic story with me. When his sister, whom I’ll call Lisa, was young, she was abused by a family member. As all abuse clearly is, it was a shocking and horrifying experience for Lisa. That the abuser was a family member made it all the more difficult for everyone. And the deleterious effects of the abuse were not limited to the young lady. The entire family’s integrity (by this I mean its capacity to remain and function in a healthy way) was greatly challenged by the boundary-crossing abuser.

The family began to break down the moment the abuse first took place, but it was further compromised by the way the extended family reacted when my friend’s father took initiative to protect Lisa. The father turned in the abuser (again, he was a family member) by calling the authorities. Clearly this was a healthy response, for my friend’s father’s first priority was and is to protect his daughter from further abuse. However, upon his doing this, some seriously integrity-compromising actions were taken by members of the family.

The grandmother of the family, in the interest of shaming and punishing my friend’s father for breaking up the family, chose to permanently cut off my friend’s side of the family from the broader extended family. My friend’s family was shocked. How could the grandmother ignore the granddaughter and protect the abuser? What are we to make of this?

Well, according to Ed Friedman, author of A Failure of Nerve, this sort of situation is pervasive across the greater American landscape, not only in families but also in churches, synagogues, governments, businesses, and other organizations. Like my friend’s family, our nation’s institutions are increasingly exhibiting reactivity, blame displacement, herding for togetherness, and quick-fix solutions to problems. Consequently, two things are important to note. First, in such systems, people will endure much to keep things “together.” Second, people who act in such systems often do so to their own peril. The question becomes, therefore, what is one to do when compelled to act on a conviction that cuts against the system’s grain? For, if the above theory is correct, to choose to “cut against the grain” in such systems comes at a significant cost to the individual(s) who act(s).

Well, for our part at Res Publica, we chose to act a few months back by challenging what we perceived to be problematic conventional thinking on a number of topics, including social justice, as is currently manifested in secular culture. Our goal was simple. We wanted to begin a dialogue around admittedly sensitive topics, knowing full well that resistance could be a part of acting.

Importantly, we certainly did not anticipate it would cause such a stir, nor did we act simply to get a reactive response. Further, the abuse analogy is not a perfect analogy as no analogy is. We were not completely cut off from our community as was my friend’s family, nor are we claiming that adhering to a specific perspective on social justice can in any way be equated with supporting abuse of any kind. Rather, the point to be made is that if Friedman is right, standing up in American systems costs something and those who act should be prepared for the consequences.

And so, we acted, though not perfectly, to remind our community to remember our orthodox Christian principles as we engage these and other topics. Simply put, we felt that the Lord was calling us to do as much. We believed (and still do believe) that pursuing the vision of seeing a Christian community engage in sensitive issues differently than the world was worth the price of acting, for the church can provide solutions that no political system can and our current polarized culture is in definite need of better solutions.

Such a solution was presented to us in chapel by Dr. Cunningham. Dr. Cunningham’s chapel address on April 30th concluded with a CBS video that powerfully displayed the very thing we have been longing to see. That video, featuring the remarkable reconciliation of the wrongfully accused black man, Jamel McGee, and the corrupt white police officer, was inspiring. It was no small thing that Steve Hartman, the CBS reporter, mentioned Mr. McGee’s Christian faith as the motivator for his willingness to forgive. The humility of the officer to apologize, though we all know that doesn’t come close to righting his wrong, was encouraging. But the courage, generosity, and grace Mr. McGee displayed by forgiving the racist deceit of that police officer was simply breathtaking. The net result? Among other things, the two are now friends!

Indeed, this story stands as a beautiful one of repentance and forgiveness in a country currently filled with division and discord. We as a Christian community can and should pursue such ends as we further engage one another in the months and years to come. For our part, we hope and desire to contribute to that effort in ways similar to Jamel and his new found friend.

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Drew Swing 
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