UPDATE 10:05 p.m. ET January 6: Hours after this essay was published, Trump supporters breached security and entered the Capitol, spurred on by Trump himself. Their goal was to interrupt Congress as they were counting Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory. And interrupt they did, entering offices, climbing walls, threatening the safety of elected officials, and waving a Confederate flag for good measure. In response, President Trump repeated his false claims of election fraud, calling the insurrectionists “very special” and saying to them, “We love you.”
President-Elect Biden’s response was impassioned, and rightly condemned the seditious assault on the Capitol, but it was also inadequate precisely because he continued to trade in language that fits with easy calls for bipartisanship and unity. The main takeaway of his speech was that the United States is better than this, and that the nation needed to return to what it has always been—decent and honorable.
This sentiment, of course, flies in the face of what we witnessed today: Twelve Republican senators and dozens of representatives (representing millions of American voters) objecting to Biden’s victory, denying that his election was legitimate; Sen. Ted Cruz receiving lengthy applause for signing an objection to counting the electoral votes from Arizona; Trump supporters online excusing the takeover (or, saying it was Antifa in disguise), as millions still believe that the election was stolen from Trump; and the largely restrained response from law enforcement—some of whom took selfies with insurrectionists—which reeks of white privilege and white supremacy.
The insurrectionists were only pushing the logic of the arguments made by so many Republican representatives, strategists, and news outlets to their logical conclusion. “This is not us” is an inadequate response. Because this is us, and whatever reconciliation means in the coming years includes facing that fact.
It might sound counterintuitive, maybe even vaguely impious, but as a Christian and a theological ethicist, I am wary of calls for reconciliation.
It’s not that I’m against reconciliation per se. By temperament I do not relish fighting and find no great virtue in being disagreeable for its own sake. My wariness, rather, is reflective of the fact that the kind of reconciliation I often see peddled in the national discourse involves little more than a lazy invocation of “unity,” leaving the difficult but necessary paths that (might) lead to actual reconciliation untrodden.
Simplistic calls to end rancor immediately and at all costs tend to forget what led to fighting in the first place; they downplay what’s materially at stake in any particular struggle; and they frequently obscure the power dynamics at play, minimizing the difference between oppressed and oppressor (or abused and abuser). Put simply, they forget that only a truth and reconciliation commission has even a chance of being just.
I bring all this up because, ever since Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election, a chorus of people, including the president elect himself, have been calling for everyone to come together and heal. We are too divided, they tell us. Let us follow the better angels of our nature and restore our bonds of affection, especially now that the purportedly singular threat of Donald Trump has been defeated.
This move, of course, was entirely predictable. Biden’s campaign was predicated on returning to an era when political adversaries were, if nothing else, “civil” to one another. Indeed, Biden has held up his ability to compromise with segregationists as a sign of the pragmatic, conciliatory stance he will take with Mitch McConnell during his time in office—in order to “get things done.”
If one is relatively comfortable with the status quo, then such calls for reconciliation, unity, or “bipartisanship” will sound like common sense. Simply tone down the rhetoric, resist “extremism,” and stress “pragmatic” solutions, and everything will work out. President Obama’s recent memoir is a good example of the rhetorical power of such appeals to “unity,” at least for a certain segment of the population.
Of course, this approach fails to recognize that the neoliberal economic policies pursued over the past forty years (including by Obama) helped pave the way to Trumpism, and instead lends itself to speaking about our political fights in terms of whose “team” wins, or which politician you’re a “fan” of. Such language suggests that one has little at stake in the policies pursued by the outgoing (or incoming) administration.
Conversely, calls for reconciliation do not seem as popular among those who’ve been on the receiving end of the Trump administration’s more destructive, racist, draconian policies. I don’t see immigration lawyers and activists, especially among the Latinx community, clamoring for unity. Nor are my Muslim friends, who’ve dealt with rampant Islamophobia within the Trump administration. Nor are climate change scientists who have watched the Republican party deny the very existence of global warming.
Perhaps all it takes to be suspicious of reconciliation right now is a memory that goes past breakfast. Some of us remember McConnell blocking a vote on Judge Merrick Garland for Supreme Court for nearly a year, or cannot forget the misogynist spectacle that was the Brett Kavanaugh hearing. To invoke reconciliation at this moment would seem to ask us to uncritically embrace the people who are behind such noxious movements, and others besides.
As a Christian ethicist, I find myself siding with this second group. I’ve learned to be suspicious of calls for reconciliation that move too quickly from injustices endured to forgiveness demanded by those who have done (or supported) great harm; calls that say, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. But why? Didn’t Jesus say, “Blessed are the peacemakers”? For a Christian like me isn’t that a pretty clear principle?
Part of my suspicion is due to the fact that I know this is hardly the first time in the history of the United States that people in power have called for reunion in the face of popular unrest. And while calls for reconciliation can be good or neutral, they can also signal an abdication of the responsibility to face and address injustice, a lesson I learned writing about the theological convictions embedded within Confederate monuments.
As you can imagine, the nation was not particularly united in the years following the Civil War either, as the ideological divides which led to war did not vanish after the fighting ceased. Eventually, a desire grew among certain segments of the population for the animosity to end—even if this meant abandoning the project of Reconstruction and leaving Black people relatively defenseless in the face of legal and extralegal attacks. Continuing to reckon with the immediate past was considered toxic, passé, and—industrialists pointed out—bad for business.
These voices calling for reunion won the day, and what followed could not be genuinely described as a painful but necessary process of truth-telling and the material righting of wrongs. Rather, a cheap reconciliation was rendered, which served—at the beginning of Jim Crow, no less—to hide our continued animosities from ourselves, rejecting one of the major opportunities this nation has had to face what Eddie Glaude, following James Baldwin, calls “the lie.”
It is now relatively well-known that most Confederate monuments were constructed at the height of lynching and Jim Crow. For this reason alone, statues erected at this time are rightly talked about as statues of and for white supremacy, bolstered by a highly sanitized and selective narrative about the past. But another, sometimes overlooked, function of Confederate monuments was the way they served the cause of “healing.”
That is, Confederate monuments stood as trophies of a cheap reconciliation where white people of “both sides” of the war could celebrate each other’s mutual valor. Perhaps they would never agree on who was in the wrong, but for the good of the nation, (white) Americans should put their feelings of ill-will behind them. This act of “reunion” was often symbolically performed by veterans meeting on a battlefield and shaking hands.
Reconciliation was won either by actively promoting white supremacy (“At least we both share this superiority together!”) or else not discussing such a divisive topic. It is for this reason that Frederick Douglass looked at this situation with trepidation:
“So sure as the stars shine in the heavens, and the rivers run to the sea, so sure will the white people North and South abandon their quarrels and become friends. . . . If war among the whites brought peace and liberty to blacks, what will peace among the whites bring?”
Speaking as a theological ethicist, the problems with this version of “reconciliation” are legion. It promoted a false equivalency between competing forces. It minimized questions of justice for Black people in the United States. Perhaps most problematically, it confused an overt lack of fighting with “peace” or “healing,” thus paving the way for new forms of violence to emerge in that very moment, born of the same demonic, white supremacist logic.
And insofar as contemporary calls for healing trade in a similar “move on” mentality—that refuse to really face what has happened over these past four years or how we got here—they echo some of the same moves that gave rise to the majority of public Confederate monuments. In the late nineteenth century, calls for reconciliation focused simply on ending “sectional animus” rather than on fighting white supremacy directly. As such, the white supremacist ideology that upheld slavery carried on in new forms. Only the powerful were served by this quick move to “reconciliation.”
Similarly, today only the powerful are served by equating the people who vociferously protested the Trump administration separating children from their families (for example) with the very administration imposing those policies, as equal and opposite representations of “incivility.” Only the powerful are served by a desperate attempt to return to “normal,” to advocate what they call “peace.” Because we are not at peace, nor should we be, given the divergent interests at play.
“Normal” is what led to this situation in the first place. Healing doesn’t entail hiding from this reality, and any call to “come together” that seeks to soft-pedal the challenges facing this country in the immediate future—regarding the prison industrial complex, gentrification, and xenophobic immigration policy, to name just a few—only blocks the path to true justice, liberation, and yes, reconciliation. If Trump is the symptom rather than the disease, as was so often repeated during the presidential campaign, we must be willing to name what that disease actually is.
Don’t get me wrong: I still think people should work toward reconciliation, and I would hope that my fellow Christians would lead the way in this work. But white Christians must also remember, to paraphrase James Cone, that although Christians believe that “objective” reconciliation has been wrought by God in Christ, the “subjective” reality of reconciliation cannot bypass the work of reckoning with injustices suffered and injustices rendered. In other words, the problem isn’t that easy calls for reconciliation are too Christian or too good. The problem is that they really aren’t reconciliation at all. They’re mere shadows of this hard-won practice, which at its best moves through the processes of discernment, reckoning, and repentance before daring to speak that word.
Indeed, no invocation of reconciliation is worthy of the name that does not see it as a process. This process has been brilliantly outlined by womanist theologian Chanequa Walker-Barnes, who writes that true reconciliation requires (1) confrontational truth-telling; (2) liberation and healing for the oppressed; (3) repentance and conversion for the oppressor; and (4) building beloved community. Everyone should care about reconciliation—but reconciliation of this sort. And everyone should reject calls to come together that seek to skip every single one of these steps.