Our Public Christian Witness is More than a Vote by Rev. Eric Paul

As Nov. 3 and the election quickly approaches, I have been thinking about what it means to be or to have a distinctly Christian political witness. Of course, inherent in this statement is the assumption that we cannot divorce our Christian identity from the realm of the political. To borrow from Stanley Hauerwas, the church isn’t above politics, the church is its own politic. But my experience in the Church of the Nazarene (in which I was born) has taught me the boundaries of our political engagement. We tend to limit our engagement to voting and speaking out against abortion. For the most part, I was taught that church/spiritual life should remain mostly separate from political life. My general thesis is that when we understand political engagement in such myopic and dualistic ways, it hinders the possibilities of a more robust catalyst for Christ’s love made tangible.

Rather than voting being the “end-game” of our political engagement, it should act merely as an entry point. To view voting as an entry point means there are many other ways for Christians to witness to our distinct kind of political life. And here I want to be clear, to talk of Christian politics necessarily references the means, processes, and eschatological vision of what Randy Woodley calls the “Shalom Community.”[1] To talk about our political witness is to talk about the community of peace and how to enact it.

In the midst of ongoing racial injustice, violence, and erosion of public trust in “truth,” I’d like to point toward an historical flashpoint of racial violence to talk about one of these alternative ways of enacting shalom that faithfully represents a Christian political engagement.

Ironically, Nov. 3 is a meaningful date not just for the 2020 election. It also marks the 31st anniversary of the Greensboro massacre. And in this moment, I agree with John Paul Lederach that Christians ought not “forgive and forget” but “remember and change.”[2] On Nov. 3 1979, Ku Klux Klansmen and Nazis, with what would later be described as police complicity, disrupted a labor march in a predominantly black neighborhood in Greensboro, N.C. They killed five and injured 10 people. In the subsequent trial, all but one participant were exonerated by an all-white jury. Twenty years later, the community remained divided and the germination of the United States’ first Truth and Reconciliation Commission began.

Many of us know the term Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as the process enacted in South Africa after the fall of apartheid. TRC’s are a form of transitional justice utilized in the wake of community harm and mass atrocities, either past or ongoing, that entail truth finding, witness testimony (including victim-centered approaches), acknowledgement of wrongdoing, structures of accountability, and steps toward healing and reconciliation. Many TRCs have been commissioned; including ones in Rwanda, Sierre Leone, Canada, Northern Ireland, and the United States. Typically, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are situated in a broader framework of Restorative Justice and works to bring together survivors, accused offenders, and family and community support networks.

In 2004, The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Project, guided by the International Center for Transitional Justice and a National Board, crafted a process and mandate through a local task force to undergo the first TRC in the United States. Over two years, they received testimony from individuals, held conversations with stakeholders, facilitated conversations, held three public hearings, and learned from other TRC processes. They invited Desmund Tutu to gather with them, who spoke of how violence can lead to a “crippled community as long as you refuse to face up to your past.” A video summary of the Greensboro TRC can be found here.[3]

In May of 2006, they published their findings and recommendations. Fania Davis, in her book, “Race and Restorative Justice,” summarizes: “The final report called for community healing by way of institutional reform, official apologies, anti-racism police training, public memorials and museum exhibits, and the creation of a community justice center and police review board” (Davis, 78).[4] This particular TRC process was initiated by community members and was a grassroots effort. That is, legislatures and policy makers were not a part of the process. The city ultimately rejected the recommendations of the board. The process did, however, spark communal healing in a divided city.

And while there are many lessons to be learned, I’d like to just share a few:

The Greensboro TRC interacted with and was hosted by faith communities. Churches are much more than a collection of individuals who come to worship on Sundays. Churches are built-in community structures that have the capacity to link and fortify social relationships across a community. As such, being willing to partner with and engage in a diverse cross section of community organizations is an essential witness to the shalom community. And, this includes government agencies that can match community work with policy change (one that might have had better results in Greensboro).

Churches are much more than a collection of individuals who come to worship on Sundays. Churches are built-in community structures that have the capacity to link and fortify social relationships across a community.

But this means several things, especially for Nazarenes who are predominately white. First, we must seek the truth of historical, systemic, and ongoing harms. For many in the United States, that means listening to the stories of our black and brown brothers and sisters (both in relationship with our neighbors and through diverse authors). We must either join spaces or create spaces for storytelling and relationship building. Black Lives Matter grew as a collective movement because these listening spaces have not been cultivated. Listening well with grace and compassion is a distinctly Christian political practice.

Second, these spaces-of-encounter must provide an avenue for truth-telling and accountability. If the goal is healing, then we must look at these historical and ongoing harms (like institutional and cultural racism) as wounds that cause trauma. And here’s the thing about trauma — in order to overcome it, survivors need validation that the harm was wrong, answers that help them reconstruct a coherent narrative, the power to have their voices heard, physical safety, and resources to heal. All of these, collectively together, provide a sense of justice. Accountability, then, requires the ones who are responsible for harm to be accountable to these measures and make amends. Our current legal system prosecutes “individual acts,” but doesn’t account for systemic and communal harms done. Community-based truth and healing initiatives (like ones found in the restorative justice field), with churches as primary participants, provide a process for such accountability.

Third, a justice that leads toward shalom requires reparative action. Equity needs to be restored. In a TRC process, the outcomes are constructed from the conversations held in those “spaces-of-encounter.” That means, we’re talking about constructing a justice “with” rather than a justice “to” or even “over” a community. Communal participation across racial or political divides is key to lasting change. These reparative measures can be economic, policy based, educational, relational, and even psychological (see above from the Greensboro TRC as recommended outcomes).

Our engagement doesn’t doesn’t have to be a full on Truth and Reconciliation process, but instigating spaces to gather with the “other,” for story-telling, for truth-telling, and for participatory practices for accountability are all options for re-imagining our life together (the Christian polis). My hope is that the church doesn’t fall into the trap of defining our political witness only through a ballot box or narrowly through any one issue. Rather, Christian political engagement holds the possibility of building social cohesion, repairing a myriad of harms, and through such work witnessing to the shalom for which God longs.

Eric Paul is an ordained Elder in the Church of the Nazarene, the District Coordinator for Justice and Compassion in the Hawaii Pacific District, and the Executive Director of West Hawaii Mediation Center. He continues to believe that the work of reconciliation is not an addendum to the church’s mission, but is the church’s mission.

[1] See Randy Woodley, “The Shalom Community of Creation,” at https://www.amazon.com/Shalom-Community-Creation-Indigenous-Christianity/dp/0802866786

[2] See John Paul Lederach, “Reconcile: Conflict Transformation for Ordinary Christians,” at https://www.amazon.com/Reconcile-Conflict-Transformation-Ordinary-Christians/dp/0836199030

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wnT4q384JTk

[4] See Fanis Davis, “The Little Book of Race and Restorative Justice,” at https://www.amazon.com/Little-Book-Race-Restorative-Justice/dp/1680993437