Fresh off his experience at the Christian Scholars' Conference, Preston Shipp, a lawyer for the Board of Professional Responsibility of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, reflects on Tokens 18 and visiting Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, TN. At the “Tokens: Tales of Reconciliation” show on June 7, Attorney Fred Gray, who represented Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., discussed how the civil rights movement had been successful in tearing down the legal structures that sanctioned racial segregation. However, he also noted that despite the substantial strides made during the civil rights era, much work in the arena of racial reconciliation remains to be done almost half a century later. Gray challenged the audience, which, from my seat in the balcony, appeared to be mostly white and upper middle class, saying that as long as the people around us in our churches, our neighborhoods, our schools, and our places of business look like we do, there is much reconciliation left to be realized.
It is one thing to read and talk about reconciliation, as we did for three days at the Christian Scholars’ Conference. It is quite another to be ambassadors or ministers of reconciliation, no longer regarding anyone from a human point of view, and making no distinction between people based on race, gender, nationality, socio-economic status, criminal history, educational level, sexual orientation, etc. After all, the worldly categories by which people discriminate against each other do not pass away lightly. Mr. Gray was essentially challenging the church to repent and start being the church, rather than a social (or country) club with religious language appended.
I was also reminded over dinner just before the Tokens show that when people from a dominant culture speak of reconciliation, they often mean, perhaps unconsciously, that people from the minority culture should integrate themselves or even allow themselves to be assimilated into the dominant culture. For example, Christians from the dominant group might assume that to effect racial reconciliation, they need to devise a scheme whereby members of the minority will start attending and conform to the practices of the church of the dominant group. This approach to reconciliation, which smacks of paternalism and colonialism, is doomed to fail because it does not result in a new creation in which old things are gone and everything becomes new. Reconciliation requires a deeper expression of repentance than simply asking the victim of racial oppression to take a subordinate seat at the table hosted, overseen, and controlled by the dominant group.
Years ago, my friend David Woodard taught me that this kind of deep repentance, or turning, is often more of a process, as opposed to a one-time event. Folks who are traveling in one direction have a hard time all of a sudden spinning on their heels to head in the opposite direction. But when it becomes clear that we are heading in the wrong direction, as it should have for the Tokens audience upon hearing the prophetic words of Mr. Gray, we must change, even if we can only muster the courage to make one small degree of change at a time.
Therefore, on the Saturday morning of the Christian Scholars’ Conference, Richard Goode led a small group of people in an attempt to make one degree of change. He convened a session entitled “A Community of Reconciliation: Hope in a Retributive Context” at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. There, Richard and friends have for years been seeking to incarnate reconciliation among people who live on different sides of prison walls, people who are separated not only by razor-wire fences but by the labels the world attaches to them, such as “convicted felon,” “Lipscomb student,” “ murderer,” “professor,” “sex offender,” and “chaplain.” Richard caught a vision of an experiment in gospel that he is working hard to share with others.
During the session at Riverbend, we heard different tales of reconciliation. We heard how people who had grown accustomed to being despised and forsaken among men have been raised to new life through concrete acts of love, acceptance, and authentic communal practices. Like weeds that are capable of growing through asphalt, we saw how grace had sprung forth in a culture stripped of grace, to quote the subtitle of one of Miroslav Volf’s books. We were reminded that it is good news indeed to proclaim freedom to captives and to make no distinctions as to bond and free. We caught a glimpse of a token of reconciliation.
We should not expect such tokens to come without cost, however. Like a treasure hidden in a field or a pearl of great value, we must be willing to sacrifice lesser things to lay hold of true reconciliation. If we are unwilling to leave the luxury of our suburban homes; if we are too fearful to enter a prison; if we refuse to interact with people who think and act differently; if we persist in our attempt to serve both God and money; if we would rather criminalize sleeping in public than look into the eyes of a homeless individual; if we insist on insulating ourselves inside extravagant church buildings that resemble resorts where everyone is of the same race and class week after week after week; and if we stubbornly resist the gospel call to lay aside human categories and instead continue to define ourselves over and against others and marginalize people that do not look, act, or believe like we do, then we may never experience the holy reality of being reconciled to God and each other.
Lee’s interview of Fred Gray served as a reminder that the church of today is failing as did the church of yesterday. Although the law may be different, our congregations and our very hearts remain racially segregated. As Ched Meyers has said, the divine reality of reconciliation is waiting to be realized in our lives. This is a difficult task that will require intentional acts that move us outside of our comfort zones. But God forgive us if the church values its own comfort more than the beloved community of the kingdom of God.
Preston Shipp lives in Nashville with his wife Sherisse and their three children, Lila, Ruby, and Levi. They and their friends are attempting to embody a different way of being in the world that conforms to the countercultural teachings of Jesus. Thus, they are attempting to unlearn what they have learned, to borrow language from Jedi Master Yoda. Preston works as a lawyer for the Board of Professional Responsibility of the Supreme Court of Tennessee and serves as an adjunct professor in the Department of History, Politics and Philosophy of Lipscomb University.