The Delmar Divide

There has been a lot of talk about reconciliation around here lately. The violent and tragic death of Michael Brown ignited protests around our region. These protests have highlighted how divided our city is. The St. Louis region is one of the most racially and economically segregated metropolitan areas in America. When the 2010 census data was released, Franz Strasser, a reporter and video journalist with the BBC, was struck by the segregation so clearly present in an ostensibly “post-racial” America. He learned about the “Delmar Divide,” the single street that divides St. Louis City into black and white, rich and poor, over-educated and under-educated. He crossed an ocean to come and film a documentary short highlighting this uncomfortable reality (you can watch it here).

As the Ferguson protests have shown us, it is not only St. Louis City that is divided. The protests have pointed out deep problems with St. Louis County. Following the protests, Radley Balko, a reporter from the Washington Post, published a substantial article describing how St. Louis County profits off of the poverty of its residents in poor, FergusonCard3black communities (you can read it here). There have also been dozens of stories posted in news outlets around the world recounting how the largely white police forces in St. Louis County (as well as in municipalities like Ferguson) have extremely disproportionate statistics of searches and arrests.

Several months ago a major multi-year study on the health of African-Americans in our region was released by a group of scholars from Washington University and Saint Louis University. They approached the study with the idea that the health of a community cannot be looked at in isolation, but must be examined along with economics, education, crime, employment, and many other factors. All of these things can contribute to a community’s flourishing, or to its decline. The picture they gave us of our region was stark. One cannot look at the report honestly and still claim that we live in a post-racial society. The extent of our segregation is revealed to us in maps and charts, as well as narratives and histories.

It’s easy if you live in the wealthy and white parts of our region to be oblivious to this separation. You live your life, attend school, work and go to church all without crossing imaginary lines. You might hear stories about “those people” up there or the “shady neighborhoods” in north St. Louis, but you probably never go there and meet the people for yourself. When you hear tragic stories of teenagers who are shot, it’s easier to react in disgust and horror than it is to ask difficult questions about the region that you live in and sustain with your daily life.

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Source: For the Sake of All (read full report here)

Thankfully, in the midst of the tragedy of Michael Brown’s death, communities and churches are having some of these difficult conversations. While some people want to continue to keep their eyes closed to the divisions and disparities so blatantly apparent, others are humbly listening and learning about the extent of our divisions for the first time. I have been especially proud to see the churches in the St. Louis region on the forefront of calling for a change. Many churches have been awoken to their own segregation and have begun meeting together to talk about how to heal the racial divisions that plague our society. There have been continual calls for racial reconciliation among the churches, and I hope that these calls will result in more than sentimental moments where we all hold hands and sing of unity. I desperately hope that the reconciliation that is called for will take root and bring about real, visible changes to the way we live and worship in this city.

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But I confess that when I think about the task of reconciliation in light of the reality of our segregation, I am overwhelmed. Looking at the charts and maps that show how far-reaching our divisions go I don’t know where to start. It seems impossible to create reconciliation in a region so locked into a history of separation and oppression. Non-profit organizations and communities of faith are no match for the destructive powers of sin that ravage communities from within and without.

This is where the Gospel must interrupt us. For the Christian Gospel shows us that it is impossible for us to bring about real reconciliation, for real reconciliation has already been brought about by God’s action in Jesus Christ. “Reconciliation is not an ethical demand in the understanding of the Christian faith,” writes theologian James Alison,“it is first of all something which has triumphantly happened in a sphere more real than ours, and which is tilting our universe on a new axis, whether or not we understand it. This means that what we think of as real, as stable and as ordered is not so, and what is real and true and ordered and stable is not what is behind us, but what we can become as we learn to undergo being set free from our imprisonment in what we might call ‘social order lived defensively.’”

Reconciliation is not something we do, but something that God has already accomplished. God has already disarmed the rulers and authorities, making a public spectacle of them by triumphing over them through the cross. God has already taken us who were dead in our sins and strangers to the covenant and adopted us as children. In his own flesh Jesus has made peace between those of us who were far off and those of us who were near. He has already demolished the dividing wall of hostilities that we built between us, even if we continue to lie and say that it is still there.

Today is Christ the King Sunday. We remember today that Jesus Christ reigns. But Jesus doesn’t reign like the kings and emperors that we see. In his cross and resurrection, he titled the universe in a new direction; he showed a reigning that is always self-giving love. Jesus made peace and his peace is more real than the violence of the world. His reconciliation is more real than our division.

Our task then, is not to create reconciliation where there is only division. No, we are called to destroy the lie that is our division and reveal the true reality already established by God in Jesus—we are reconciled.

Now, action is no less essential on our part, but we are not tasked with creating reconciliation by force of will or ingenuity of programing. Rather, we repent of the daily lies we tell ourselves and which we so easily adopt as true. The church’s life together and its worship help to rid us of these lies by telling us once again the truth of the gospel. Theologian Karl Barth had this in mind when he wrote that if the church “has a right understanding of itself in its common breaking and eating of the one bread and therefore in its concrete life as a community, then as the body of Christ it has to understand itself as a promise of the emergence of the unity in which not only Christians but all men are already comprehended in Jesus Christ.”

The practice of reconciliation is not all that different from the practice of repentance. It is the recognition of the falsehood of the things we tell ourselves about our who we and our neighbors are. It is a turning from those lies to the truth of the Gospel. It is a looking to Christ, not as a far-away savior, but as a mirror who reveals to us just what it means to be a child of God. In looking at ourselves in that mirror, we can see clearly the dirt that is our lies and division and so can be empowered to wipe them away and reveal the God-given beauty marred by our muck. Repentance, James Alison writes, “is not the need to bow the will before some authority, much less a religious authority. Rather it is the gift of the ordinary access to being created which is proper to us good creatures whose goodness has inexplicably got involved in being something less than we are, a gift whose shape is a certain breaking of heart.”