What a Leading Racial Reconciliation Advocate Learned from Her Critics
Written by The Ministry of Jesus Christ on August 27, 2020
Brenda Salter McNeil remembers the moment when everything changed. An active leader in reconciliation circles, especially within the church, she recalls feelings of uncertainty about her involvement in the Ferguson protest movement nearly six years ago. Certain that a younger generation of activists would take the lead, she traveled to Missouri not as an active participant but as someone who was there to “learn, listen, advise and consult.”
But when the young activists asked whether she and other church leaders were actually going to join in protests later that day, Salter McNeil found she could only utter a single word in response: “Yes.”
Even if her response felt reluctant at best, the celebrated theologian, author, and pastor later felt she “was compelled to take a stand against the persistent forces that continued to deny the humanity of black and brown bodies, as evidenced by the ongoing slaughter of our sons and daughters by the police.” Little did “Dr. Brenda,” as students and parishioners know her, realize how this particular moment would upend the specific type of reconciliation work she had been engaged in for nearly three decades.
In her anticipated new release, Becoming Brave: Finding the Courage to Pursue Racial Justice Now, Salter McNeil invites readers not only to learn from her as a teacher and a guide but to gird up the courage to join her in the fight against racism and systemic injustice. In a book that is both necessary and prophetic—composed of equal parts history, biblical commentary, and personal narrative—Salter McNeil offers a distinctly pastoral approach. Her book is an exhortation to storm the gates, an admonition beyond heart and into the realm of action. It’s an invitation to “unlikely leaders and unlikely activists sensing the call of God on their lives,” to believers who are willing to become undone as they work to undo archaic systems of whiteness and white supremacy for the sake of the gospel.
But before Salter McNeil could issue this invitation, she had to become undone herself.
Perhaps it’s just me, but I often recognize the mark of a strong leader in one’s willingness to admit a mistake. Whether inside or outside the church, when leaders cultivate compassion and humility more than they seek admiration and success, I can’t help but lean into what they might have to teach me.
Salter McNeil is no exception to this rule, especially when it comes to recognizing that her critics had been right: She hadn’t gone far enough in “specifically addressing issues of systemic and structural injustice that affect people of color, the poor, and the marginalized in our society.”
As Salter McNeil writes in Becoming Brave, for too long she had bought into a model of reconciliation based on friendship, diversity, and inclusion—a model that, at its heart, ultimately sought to make the conversation palatable for a dominant white culture. By failing to insist on justice, this approach gave insufficient weight to both the historic and current realities that continue to create, feed, and amplify systems in our country that benefit some but not all. And in shrinking back from acknowledging the myriad roots of injustice, Salter McNeil writes, the prevailing reconciliation model never truly identified “the specific work that different groups must to do repair the divide.”
In one of many moments of deep authenticity, Salter McNeil recollects the illicit prize she chased after as a woman of color catering to mostly white spaces. Explaining her thinking at the time, she writes, “[I]f I could convince evangelical Christians that reconciliation was not some politically motivated agenda but a biblical calling rooted in Scripture, they would pursue racial justice. For years I tried to be biblical enough, nonthreatening enough, patient enough, persuasive enough, theologically rigorous enough, so that no one would say I had a hidden agenda.” Certainly, as a white woman, I can see how her words might be hard for readers in white evangelical churches to swallow—but this is the entire point. For too long, the reconciliation movement sought to dilute the brutal realities of racism and white supremacy so that white people would be comfortable discussing them. But this only served to ignore the real root of the problem.
Turning toward the bolder, justice-oriented approach she now embraces, Salter McNeil begins to ask (and answer) the kinds of questions that matter: “How will the belief in God’s reconciling work in the world practically impact impoverished people and those discriminated against based on their race, gender, sexuality, class or social status? How does our belief in the reconciling power of the Resurrection enable us to speak truth against the powers of injustice that are at work in the world? If we can’t answer those questions, then we are not relevant, and our message of reconciliation is shallow.” By boldly speaking truth to power, Salter McNeil dares her readers to consider how we as God’s people have allowed injustice to fester like an insidious, infected wound in our country today.
In tailoring its message to white ears, Salter McNeil writes, the reconciliation movement was ignoring the prophetic voices of the non-white (and non-male) “protesters, teachers, journalists, artists, [and] preachers [who] come to get our attention and inform us about the reality of what’s going on in people’s lives.” In tuning our ears to these neglected voices, we allow the Holy Spirit to whisper new truths, including truths that can make some of us feel rather raw and exposed in our comfort. And we come to see, all the clearer, how these voices must be re-centered if real change is going to occur.
Lessons from Esther
In reality, this message is nothing new, for Salter McNeil takes it straight from the book of Esther. Chapter by chapter, she reveals her fiery preacher’s soul as she walks readers though this Old Testament story of faithfulness under trying circumstances. Salter McNeil offers a thorough understanding of the customs, culture, and significance of ancient Persian society, all while providing biblical insight into central characters like Xerxes and Hadassah (Esther’s Jewish name) or Haman and Mordecai. And she draws powerful personal parallels between Esther’s time and our own.
In the opening chapter of Esther, Queen Vashti decides to stick up for herself by refusing to attend the extravagant party her husband is throwing, which infuriates the king and leads to her losing the throne. Salter McNeil uses Vashti’s example of principled defiance to remind readers that “we must not compromise our dignity, self-esteem and self-worth in an attempt to please others, to maintain a relationship, or to keep the peace.”
In another pivotal moment, Mordecai refuses to wear the clean clothes the newly minted Queen Esther has sent him, continuing instead to clothe himself in sackcloth and ashes for the Jewish people. From this, Salter McNeil draws valuable lessons about the role of biblical and historical lament. “By sending back the clothes,” she writes, “he is making a prophetic and political statement.” She imagines Mordecai thinking, “I will not let you silence me. I will not let you placate me. I will not go away quietly.”
Connecting the dots between Esther’s life and her own reconciliation work, Salter McNeil exhorts her readers to partner in efforts to bring real change to broken systems of inequality, even though they are certain to face fierce resistance. Esther, she writes, “decided to join in God’s reparative work in the world, knowing full well that there were no promises that everything would turn out okay.”
By telling uncomfortable truths, both about herself and her audience, Salter McNeil compels her readers to wrestle with the limitations that keep them from fully engaging in this work. But in the end, her invitation is pastoral at heart. Like a good shepherd caring for her flock, she leads us into the deep work of reconciliation with compassion and grace. In so doing, she helps us—in the words of her book’s subtitle—find the courage to pursue racial justice now.
Cara Meredith is a writer and speaker living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of The Color of Life: A Journey Toward Love and Racial Justice (Zondervan).