Conversation Starters for Discussion of Civility and Racial Tension

Conversation Starters for Discussion of Civility and Racial Tension

ConversationsAwareness... Decision... Action...

Many years ago, I learned this three-word phrase as a mantra describing a process needed to bring about a desired change. Today I think again of this mantra when our country is embroiled in racial tensions.

The “awareness” phase of the mantra is about education – learning the dynamics of a reality. Without understanding a situation, there cannot be appropriate decision nor action. But awareness is more than just head knowledge. It is also empathy – insight, appreciation and compassion.  

In light of recent violence fueled by racial tension, leaders, whether political, police or religious, are calling for conversation as a way for all of us to develop understanding and empathy toward those who are different than ourselves.

As communities of faith who claim all people as children of God, congregations have a role to play in fostering such conversations. Small groups of racially diverse participants can dialogue together about the issues.

Two resources come to mind that can be useful for generating this kind of conversation.

Richard J. Mouw, former president of Fuller Seminary who is described on the Fuller website as a “civility advocate,” authored the book Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. In the book, he describes civility as “public politeness. It means that we display tact, moderation, refinement and good manners toward people who are different than us.” Watching news coverage of the senseless killings of African American men and police officers, we hear some folks urge us to “watch our words” or to remember “rhetoric matters.” Congregations have a role to play in encouraging civility and kind treatment of others. Mouw’s book is a foundational resource to help small groups become aware of and promote civility.

Another resource, one that addresses racism and white privilege, is by Jim Wallis, founder and leader of Soujourners and proponent of faith-inspired movements for social justice. Published in 2016, Wallis’s book, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America, is addressed to white Christians. Wallis observes that sports teams provide an environment in which racial lines are eliminated. Players on a team – black, white, Hispanic  – develop deep friendships with one another without regard to racial delineations. He urges white players’ parents to make intentional efforts to converse and listen to parents of black players in ways that foster racial understanding and empathy.

Both the Mouw book and the Wallis book are excellent resources for strong small group discussions for congregations whose leaders and members want to seriously consider their roles in bridging our country’s racial divide. If your congregation wants to engage in conversations that foster “awareness” and empathy, do so in an interracial context. Congregations that are not racially diverse should invite a neighboring congregation of another ethnic group to join in the conversation.