• Sheila Wise Rowe

A Spoke Into the Wheel

There have been public pronouncements that systemic racism doesn’t exist, and the reality and pain expressed by the oppressed are not real. Despite this, there’s documented evidence of the disparity in income, housing, education, COVID-19 deaths, police profiling, brutality in Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color. As I consider the denialists, I read in Jeremiah 6:14, “They have treated the wounds of my people carelessly saying “Peace, peace” when there is no peace.” Yet others have taken to the streets to proclaim the truth that racism is real. The vast majority of those protest marches have been peaceful. Those that have not been so are from the release of pent-up rage over the systemic injustice. When racism isn’t fully acknowledged, and racial trauma is untreated, peace will be fleeting.

There is a story in Genesis 26:15-21, where historical enmity and unresolved conflict resulted in suspicion and sabotage. This story serves as a metaphor for the racism, opposition, and racial trauma people of color face. We read how Isaac faced opposition as he settled down in the Gerar Valley. He soon discovered a well of fresh and clean water, but Gerar’s shepherds came and claimed the spring. “This is our water,” they said, and they argued over it with Isaac’s herdsmen. So Isaac named the well Esek (which means “argument”). Isaac’s men then dug another well, but again there was a dispute over it. So Isaac named it Sitnah (which means “hostility”).

Our experiences of racism prevent the flow of water or provision and hamper agape love. Some believe that racial reconciliation is possible even while denying and minimizing the inter-generational and interpersonal damage caused by racism. The truth and reality of God’s shalom or peace will not be fully manifest when there are misrepresentations, ongoing oppression, racism, minimizing, microaggressions, implicit and explicit bias. Each racist incident leaves a wound of racial trauma that affects people of color. No matter how hard we try, quarreling and accusation are regular occurrences, and our efforts are sabotaged or made insufficient. Racial trauma from those incidents may cause some of us to isolate, become angry, pessimistic, act out, or engage in people-pleasing—yet always leaving us thirsty and unfulfilled. Our pain and trauma are like a festering wound underneath a bandage. Healing begins with removing the band-aid, the wound cleansed, antibiotic ointment applied, and the injury redressed.

Jesus heals racial trauma and quenches our thirst, and he often works through his people to accomplish this. In Genesis 2:18, the Lord says it is not good that we are alone, so He gave us to one another. As we slowly remove our masks, tell our stories, reveal our struggles, and work through unforgiveness, we discover our shared humanity. We are a broken humanity that Jesus loved and valued enough to die to set us free and reconcile us to the Father and each other. If we want genuinely reconciled relationships, we must acknowledge past and present harm and be determined to go a step further. Repentance must include a commitment to stop all injustice and oppression and repair any damage done. God is a God of justice, and Isaiah 1:17 tells us, “Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” We drive a spoke in the wheel when we repair the damage done by the wheel of racism.

Truly reconciled relationships include repair; without it, the apology and repentance can feel shallow. In Luke 19, Jesus invites himself to the home of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, an agent for state-sanctioned systemic oppression. Zacchaeus repents, and we see an example of repair and justice when he proclaimed, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Repair occurs on a micro level when marginalized people and communities receive previously denied access and opportunities. Repair also happens on a macro-level when there’s a systemic and institutional overhaul that promotes equity in education, salary, healthcare, society, and within the Church. As we remain connected to the Lord, the Holy Spirit empowers, equips, and leads us to join our sisters and brothers to pursue Christ-centered love, justice, and reconciliation. I hope and pray that someday all of us can say as Isaac did in Genesis 26:22: He named the undisputed well Rehoboth, saying, “Now the Lord has given us room, and we will flourish in the land.”

Sheila Wise Rowe is a writer, counselor, speaker, and spiritual director. She is the executive director of the Rehoboth House, and the cofounder of the Cyrene Movement. Her most recent book is Healing Racial Trauma: The Road to Resilience.

This article is part of our ongoing series, Through the Valley: Real Conversations About Following Jesus When the Road Gets Hard, in which we're talking about discipleship in the parts of life that are difficult, complicated, or sometimes controversial.