Racism is more than race prejudice. It is more than individual attitudes and actions. Racism is the collective actions of a dominant racial group. (Crossroads Antiracism Organization and Training, September, 2018)
The paradox is that the beginning of healing is in the solidarity with pain. In our solution-oriented society it is more important than ever to realize that wanting to alleviate pain without sharing it is like wanting to save a child from a burning house without the risk of being hurt. It is in solitude that this compassionate solidarity takes shape (Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out, Chapter 3).
The distinction between individual prejudice and institutional racism helps Christians realize their own privilege and participation in a racist society, but it does not address the root cause of racism–the unrepentant heart. The healing we desire has to begin with conviction and conviction begins with identifying the hard places in our hearts that dismiss the pain and resentment of racial prejudice. If we deal with our hard places, at some level we are confronting racism, regardless of the social outcomes we expect to achieve.
Henri Nouwen makes this point in his timeless Reaching Out, criticizing our culture for trying to solve social problems without accepting the responsibility we share as individuals. The move from head to heart is critical. It changes us from crusading reformers to convicted participants in fallen institutions.
Nouwen refers to this move as a “solidarity in pain,” because, instead of judging those implicated in racism, we recognize our personal responsibility through the “solitude of the heart.” In “the solitude of the heart” we are able to receive truth and know our human desperation. We lay down the defenses of privilege before the only one who will have mercy on us, our compassionate Lord, “who will not scorn this crushed and broken heart” (Psalm 51:7)
Given the choice, however, we will avoid pain and distance ourselves from the racial strife we witness in the media. Who would choose pain over distraction from pain? We find distractions in busy-ness, in longing for another kingdom remote from this world, and in rationalizing the problem. Nouwen says, ” we can not force ourselves to face what we are not ready to respond to,” but at the same time, “there is no hope in denial or avoidance, neither for ourselves nor anyone else, and new life can only be born out of the seed planted in crushed soil.”
So the privileged class is paralyzed from action, because we are not ready to feel the pain of conviction and to act from that conviction. We are stuck in passivity, because we want to avoid pain.
If the notion of institutional racism intends to move us beyond this individual paralysis, it can not succeed. It is a valuable construct in that it rationalizes how we are implicated in society’s racial violence, but it is no more than a construct. If it by-passes the heart it becomes a distraction from the root causes, and we wield its insight with judgment and self-righteousness. We become an indignant people trying to rouse indignation rather than repentance. If we were righteous then we could be indignant, but we are accomplices, so we must begin with repentance.
Nouven suggests that the burnout of the Civil Rights workers of the sixties could be attributed to feeding on the results of action instead of what he calls “the solitude of the heart.” “If any criticism can be made of the sixties, it is not that the protest was meaningless, but that it was not deep enough, in the sense that it was not rooted in the solitude of the heart. When only our minds and hands work together we quickly become dependent on the results of our actions and tend to give up when they do not materialize. In the solitude of the heart we can truly listen to the pains of the world because there we can recognize them not as strange and unfamiliar pains, but as pains that are indeed our own. There we can see what is most personal and indeed nothing human is strange to us.” (see Nouwen, Chapter 2 for more insight about “The Solitude of the Heart.”)
The only danger of the “solitude of the heart” would be if it prevented us from action when our conscience dictated that we act. We may not be able to wait until we are sanctified to raise our voices against injustice, but we must speak up with the consciousness of our own participation in public offenses. Otherwise our voice is tainted with judgment and condescension.
The Hermeneutical Cycle suggests that we “see” then “reflect” then “pray” before we “act” (“Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins,” Miguel De La Torre). Because of the urgency of action, we are easily tempted to attempt this as a rigid protocol, a progression toward inevitable action. We would be wise to listen to Nouwen’s advice on matters of the heart. “It is in solitude that this compassionate solidarity takes shape.”
A mighty work of social justice will only be born from the conviction of the heart.