Making a Way through Stories

Karen Johnson.  

While driving out of my neighborhood yesterday morning I noticed a new sign on Laramie Avenue.  Bright yellow, it proclaimed its location “safe passage,” referring to the program the city of Chicago runs that stations adults on corners before and after school so children can walk with less fear of violence, especially in neighborhoods like the vibrant, under-resourced, black inner-city community where I currently live.  I can’t help but contrast the experience of these children, who live with little security, with the upbringing of most of the children in the suburb of Wheaton (where I am moving for my new job!) who experience far less domestic violence and don’t have to worry about being shot on their way to school.  Race and class continue to divide our nation in ways not apparent for those without eyes to see.

What does this all have to do with history?  In the July 2013 Magazine of History, Lendol Calder wrote a fantastic article about the importance of bringing stories back into the history classroom.  His research suggests that his students think that history is just one damn thing after another, kind of like the Billy Joel song “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”  Since they have no narrative of the past, students find little meaning in it.  Calder ends with a call to “tell stories that assign meaning to the past while allowing students to articulate and refine their own understanding of history with the help of teachers, peers, and voices from the past.”  The stakes are high: virtues like the “courage to state one’s deepest beliefs and subject them to examination, and the empathy to see the plausibility in stories not one’s own.”

Historians, I believe, do have an important role to play in bringing reconciliation to the nation.  This summer, I had the opportunity to talk with Chris Rice, the co-director of Duke Divinity School’s Center for Reconciliation.  Chris offered perspective on how American Christianity’s practice of “reconciliation” has changed in the past 30 plus years, and he also encouraged me to, as a historian, tell stories that are not only consistent with the disciplines of our guild, but that can help people see alternate ways of living that seek to break down, rather than build up, walls.

Chris defines reconciliation as creating a “new we,” of people coming together across the lines that divide them and forming a new community.  This process is messy, necessitates incarnation, or being physically present with one another, and requires grace.  It means embracing strange bodies – bodies different from oneself – on strange ground, in places that can often be uncomfortable.  But like historian David Wills ("The Central Themes of American Religious History: Pluralism, Puritanism, and the Encounter of Black and White, in African-American Religion: Interpretive Essays in History and Culture (1997)) who argues that the defining factor in American religious history has been the racial divide, Chris, too, thinks that American Christianity’s greatest captivity has been along racial lines.  There have been moments of hope, certainly, and moments of change – such as the slave religion that emphasized freedom not bondage, and the civil rights movement that sought to create a beloved community.  

In his own life, Chris, who is white, has embraced what he calls strange bodies in strange places.  He grew up in South Korea as a missionary-kid where he saw his parents wrestle with what constituted the gospel.  Would it address the here and now, in addition to the eternal?  As a young adult, Chris lived and worked in inner-city Jackson, Mississippi for 17 years with the Voice of Calvary where he realized that he was not the solution to poverty, but that the task of conversion to reconciliation requires incarnation and grace.  Next, he moved to Duke Divinity School where he learned the importance of bridging the academy and practitioners’ worlds.  Words and theology mattered.  Now, his perspective has shifted to the global, and he is involved in Africa and starting a new program in East Asia.  He disagrees with Philip Jenkins, who argues that the center of Christianity has shifted to the global South.  Using a different lens than Jenkins, Rice points out that Christians in the global south do not embrace the triumphalism that was so prominent in the West.  Instead, they realize that often their Christianity has failed to bring about wholesale conversions – a case in point:  in Rwanda, Christians killed other Christians in violent acts of ethnic cleansing, despite their supposed unity in Christ.  Rice affirms that the Age of the Missionary is gone – the age in which American Christians, coming from the Christianized west sent out missionaries to evangelize (and sometimes create in their own cultural image) unreached people groups.  Instead, Rice argues that we should consider ourselves in an Age of Mutuality, in which Christians in America and Christians in the global south need one another and learn from one another.  

Since Chris began his work with reconciliation, he has seen a number of changes.  Perhaps the biggest is that American Christians are talking actually about it, and are talking about justice.  As he puts it, justice has become “sexy” – but perhaps something without cost – and in the research I have done, reconciliation always costs something for people on both sides.  In addition, the increased emphasis on diversity has brought about good things, but can also serve to stunt reconciliation’s growth.  Diversity may be good, Chris points out, but toward what end?  Is it just to celebrate?  Just to have different people present?  From a Christian perspective, Chris argues that the gospel goes deeper, and its purpose is to bring together in a new sort of community different people.  Success, the advancement of talk of reconciliation, is a danger, because it becomes a cause people can support without much effort, without practicing what black evangelical leader John Perkins (founder of Voice of Calvary) has called the three R’s: relocation, or proximity to people on the margins, reconciliation, or the creation of the “new we” and redistribution, or the sharing of economic resources and social capital, and the engagement in economics and politics for the sake of the vulnerable.  These three R’s, Chris points out, are not the way to solve poverty, but rather a means of grace, or an ecclesiology – a theology of church.  The danger, Chris thinks, is that reconciliation will become an event, something that can be put in a simple box and packaged.  He points to the Promise Keepers version of reconciliation, which Emerson and Smith talk about in Divided by Faith, as something that is shallow because it does not remember the hurt that reconciliation heals.  

And that is a job for historians.  We play an important role in both uncovering the hurt of the past – with how religion and race have combined to fragment the beloved community – and also uncovering the possibilities, the alternative pathways not taken, those moments of hope, forgiveness, justice and reconciliation.  Historians can tell stories that allow “safe passage” for others to enter into this messy, dangerous, and exhilarating  work of reconciliation.


Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks for these reflections, Karen. Calder also has a thoughtful essay on teaching in the Confessing History collection, although, if you ever get to hear him speak, his "live acts" are second to none!
Karen Johnson said…
Thanks Mark. I have read that piece as well. I think Calder is doing great work on teaching.

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