The Tool We Need
Our journey [with seeking racial harmony] began with a familiar refrain: “I want the church to look more like heaven.” I don’t know any Christians who think the future, heavenly vision of ethnic unity in Revelation 7 is a bad idea. In fact, I don’t think you can claim to be a follower of Jesus and object to that vision. The issue, however, relates to what steps we can take now. This is where tension, misunderstanding, and missteps close the door quickly. Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, in Divided by Faith, summarize the problem well: “Evangelicals desire to end racial division and inequality, and attempt to think and act accordingly. But, in the process, they likely do more to perpetuate the racial divide than they do to tear it down.”1In other words, most Christians are not sure what to do. Sure, there are some whose hearts are sinfully closed and hardened. But I think most Christians simply lack the tools. Dhati Lewis says, “We know something is wrong, but we don’t feel we have the means necessary to bring change.”2
Lament has the potential to move Christians of different ethnicities toward harmony. Instead of our cultural narratives, political talking points, and arguments about history, the biblical prayer language of lament strikes a different posture and tone. Lament is flexible and fluid enough for both minority and majority Christians.Lament can be helpful for majority-culture Christians as we empathize, end our silence, and repent where necessary. Lament serves minority Christians as they lovingly protest the evil, redeem their hurt, and dare to hope for change. As we love, listen, lament, learn, and leverage together, lament can be a turning point in the racial-reconciliation process. Lament isn’t a silver bullet. It doesn’t solve all problems. In the same way that there are fears and a sense of inadequacy when helping a friend who is grieving a loss, the nature of this pain might cause you to distance yourself or jump in too quickly with unhelpful solutions.
What’s true in grief is also true in racial reconciliation: lament helps.
It’s a tool—a step in the right direction.
Even though we come from different experiences and emotions, the biblical language of processing pain (turning, complaining, asking, and trusting) opens the door for renewed understanding and love.
But it also creates a pathway for healing and a prophetic call for change.
What’s Next Personally?
Lament isn’t a destination. It moves you from where you are to where you need to be. Lament is necessary, but it is never enough.
Isaac Adams, the host of the United? We Pray podcast, says, “When it comes to racial reconciliation, we must do more than pray; but we cannot do less.”3 Prayer is essential, but there’s more to do. I’ve addressed a wide array of applications throughout this book. Let me give you a few final suggestions at a personal and corporate level. Personal What’s your role in bridging the gap in racial reconciliation? Hopefully you’ve asked yourself this question throughout the book. Even more, I trust you now have a greater desire to be part of the solution. Here’s what you might consider next.
Rehearse the biblical vision. Use the Bible to fuel your passion. Read the vision for unity in Revelation 7:9–12. Memorize Paul’s words about Christian identity in Colossians 3:5–11.
Meditate on the unity purchased by Jesus in Ephesians 2. Regularly rehearse God’s vision for reconciliation.
Practice lament. Take time to read the lament psalms. Explore how they express sorrow through prayer. Practice applying the language of lament, and then direct it to racial reconciliation—whether in processing your hurt, communicating you care, or protesting the brokenness of the world.
Build relationships. Empathy isn’t possible from a distance. Developing relationships with people of different ethnicities is essential. Hospitality and friendship create the venue for Christian love to be expressed and pain to be understood. Don’t wait for reconciliation to come to you. Be the initiator—like Jesus was to you.
Grow in your understanding. Consider reading books on racial reconciliation, especially from people outside your “tribe.” Learning the history, layers, and background of the issues will create more competency in engaging with conversations. Use social media to follow how particular leaders process racially loaded incidents and topics. Take time to understand both sides of an issue. Learn the definitions. Look for the layers. Learn how to interpret an issue from a different perspective.
Engage where you are. Determine what steps you can take to be an advocate for ethnic harmony. Perhaps it’s as simple as speaking up when someone says something inappropriate or prejudiced. Maybe you could engage in your community’s wrestling with issues rooted in historic injustice. Or you might feel led to use your financial resources to express your commitment.
Don’t stop. My list is surely not complete. You’ll need to prayerfully wrestle with the steps God is calling you to take. As you learn to lament the barriers to racial reconciliation, you’ll begin to see doors of opportunity. And when the Lord opens them, I hope you’ll find ways to take personal steps toward harmony.
What’s Next Corporately?
Beyond personal steps that move us toward biblical unity, it’s important for groups of people, especially churches, to embrace the opportunity to build racial harmony. What are some ways lament and racial reconciliation can be applied corporately?
It’s not easy. It’s often complicated. But it’s worth it.
Teach biblical unity in diversity. Christians need to be taught the importance of racial harmony. If you have a teaching role—in your family, small group, Sunday school, or worship services—consider how you can invite people to embrace the biblical goal of a unified church. Help people around you see the beautiful picture of “Christ [as] all, and in all” (Col. 3:11).
Model lament. Lament is the biblical language of corporate grief. It’s how the people of God mourn the brokenness of the world. Therefore, Christians need to be taught how to lament. For most believers, this is not a familiar prayer language. But as we learn how to apply it to the common griefs of life, it isn’t hard to see its usefulness in racial reconciliation. Teach people how to be competent lamenters. And then model it.
Mourn together at critical moments. When a racially charged incident breaks on the news, minority friends and church members might wonder if you’ve seen what’s transpired. But they could also wonder if you care. Taking time in a small group or in a pastoral prayer to lament over an event—even as it continues to unfold and the truth comes to light—communicates your awareness, sensitivity, and concern. It also serves to remind the entire church about our collective need to “weep with those who weep.” In this way, lament encourages people to lean toward one another when an incident would incline you to take opposite sides or keep your distance.
Create venues for dialogue. I’ve personally witnessed the value of forums, discussion groups, and pilgrimages for progress. Consider starting a discussion group that explores the issues and barriers in this conversation. Perhaps you could host a forum where someone provides teaching or recounts an experience and allow time for dialogue. Additionally, I’ve found the Civil Rights Vision Trip to be incredibly strategic. This annual pilgrimage combines learning, relationship, and experience in a deeply transformative way. If a three- or four-day trip is not possible, consider a shorter trip to a historic location to learn and lament together.
Intentionally celebrate and create diversity.Take the opportunity to pray or partner with churches whose ethnic demographic is different from yours. Consider a joint prayer meeting, or swapping preachers or music teams for a Sunday. Host a lunch for pastors of different ethnicities to spend time together. If you’re in a position of leadership, think through how to bring ethnic diversity to your church, worship style, and leadership. The church needs the voices and perspectives of people who do not look the same.
Advocate for change. Depending on your location and demographic, this will look different in each church. But do what you can to help your church to look a little more like heaven. Corporate change is slow and complicated. You’ll need wisdom to not outpace the people of your church or move too slowly out of fear. But I’ve seen the gospel-shaped beauty of people from different ethnicities loving one another.
It’s not easy. It’s often complicated. But it’s worth it. And I’ve seen the way lament has helped.
- Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America(New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), ix.
- Dhati Lewis, Advocates: The Narrow Path to Racial Reconciliation(Nashville: B&H, 2019), loc. 649 of 1987, Kindle.
- Isaac Adams, “Lament in Indianapolis,” interview with Mark Vroegop, October 9, 2019, United? We Pray, produced by Josh Deng, podcast, 13:44, https://uwepray.com/feed/0402.
This article is adapted from Weep with Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation by Mark Vroegop.
How does the biblical practice of lament offer Christians from different backgrounds a common language for productive, God-honoring conversations about race?
Rather than allowing racial tension to drive a wedge between us or to frighten us into silence, lament can invite all of us on a journey toward seeking God’s grace together.
Divisions of mistrust and historical bias run deep. Without God, nothing will ever change. In our pain and our weariness, we know that only Jesus can change our hearts and unite the church.
When it comes to loaded subjects like racism or ethnic tension, too often believers fall into the familiar ditches of denial or despair.