On the mind of the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee

Feb 3, 2023

Christian reconciliation is a complex practice. I’ve had the occasion to think about this (again) in that wake of the brutal killing of Tyre Nichols.

As media outlets exploded with commentary after that horrifying video was released, I found myself (like so many others) torn on how best to respond. Initially, a part of me wanted to find ways to foster forgiveness and understanding across the racial lines that were quickly drawn. I wanted, that is, to help promote peace between those who felt wounded by what they saw, and those who felt that they were wrongfully condemned by those wounds. Yet as the days passed, I confess, I found that my desire for reconciliation was strangely half-hearted. I found myself, to put it more baldly, not sure that reconciliation is really what I want.

At least, not yet.

St. Augustine described the effect of sin upon the human heart as a sort of “curving inward on oneself.” In this image, he is elaborating upon the traditional Christian belief that human beings are created with a natural desire for God. Sin, in this view, is when we choose against our natural desire for God––toward more base and self-oriented desires. Augustine’s insight is that, when we settle for these desires, our desire itself gets reoriented. We start craving these things rather than God, and fixing our vision on them.

Thus, over time, we get curved inward on ourselves. We get to the point where we have trained ourselves to see these desires as natural and normal. And we can no longer see how distorted they are. Augustine also believed that this was something that was socially reinforced (hence, his famous “pear story”). Having come to see the world in a certain way, we surround ourselves with people who share our worldview, and help convince us that the distortion is just the way things really are.

This is why reconciliation, which is indeed the end of Christian life, is still just that—an end. Put differently, Christians have always believed that the sacrament of reconciliation is the end of a process which begins with several other steps. Two in particular seem important in this case. The first is conversion. The second is confession. Reconciliation without conversion and confession is no reconciliation at all.

Conversion is necessary because sin has changed our orientation. Having been turned inward on ourselves, we need to be turned back toward God. Having been blinded, we need to again be able to see. And confession is necessary to make this conversion public. Sin that is socially reinforced must be dealt with by a repentance that is tapped into the deepest resources of our communities.

This past week, I have had to face the reality again that ours is not (yet) the hour for reconciliation. I’ve thought this as I’ve heard—as you, perhaps, have heard—many people ask: How can the killing of Tyre Nichols be racially motivated if the officers that killed him were black? Behind this question is the belief that “racism” is an individual’s hatred for another individual (based, for example, on a difference in skin color).

It’s worth saying that it’s certainly still possible for racism to be the source of a black individual’s animosity toward another black individual—this is a common psychological phenomenon, where victims “internalize” harm shown toward them, and harm others like them because of it. But what this question—how can the killing of a black man by black police officers be a result of racism—shows is how “curved inward” on ourselves we still are––how blind we still are—to the ways that race and racism have permeated our culture, not only at the superficial level of prejudice and stereotyping, but on a structural level––constructing entire social technologies, and organizing comprehensive social performances.

I admit, I am constantly surprised by how many still chafe at the idea that racism might be embedded within the legal codes of this country. As if the three-fifths compromise wasn’t a constitutional amendment; as if the lynchings of five thousand black bodies in this country weren’t declared legal by our federal government; as if the Christian churches that wouldn’t marry an interracial couple like my parents weren’t backed by a history of anti-miscegenation laws; as if we had never seen “Black Codes,” or “Jim Crow Laws,” or the “War on Drugs,” or “Stop and Frisk” policies, or any of the other ways in which racial profiling continues to be inscribed in and enabled by the political and legal structures of our nation.

It should be no surprise that in a world where racial profiling has been police policy—and people today still defend racial profiling as a strategically important practice––that even black police officers are capable of racially motivated killing.

In such a world, what we need, more than anything, is to confess. To confess that we have not yet fully come to terms with our racial history. To confess, in fact, that many of the ways in which we have ostensibly come to terms with this history are (at best) superficial, and have actually served to hide how racism endures at a systemic level. To confess, in other words, that in treating the symptoms, we have allowed the disease to mutate, bury itself, and so become more insidious than ever.

Lent is coming. And I pray that all of us might use that penitential season as a chance to come before God, confess our sins, and have our hearts more fully converted.

Nate +