Relational Violence: Change in the Ruins

Relational Violence: Change in the Ruins September 23, 2020

My first look into the eyes of racism was in 1977 when I was a freshman in college. I attended Bob Jones University—an institution I now know was built, both historically and theologically, on a foundation of racism.[1] My student job was an administrative assistant to the university president’s executive assistant. One of my assignments was a memo to the staff asking them to clean up after themselves in the faculty bathroom, because it looked like a bunch of n***s had been using the bathroom. I never finished the assignment. My supervisor eventually typed the memo for me.

By the time I was a junior, that experience, as well as the university’s policy against “inter-racial dating,” made me ask, “is this even Christian?” I didn’t think so, but my own fragile knowledge of racial inequity, the complicit role of the white evangelical church, and my own responsibility compelled me to push this category to the corners of my life. Yet I could never completely shake the dissonance of that memo with the foundation of my faith: that we can find the face of God in everyone.

I slowly started to recognize relational violence and its inevitable ruins: disorientation, dehumanization, and disconnection. I am also learning that reorientation, compassionate inquiry, and belonging can rise from the ashes of my own ignorance and prejudice.

From Disorientation to Reorientation

The disorientation of not being able to type that memo is a reality I’ve felt many times. For me, disorientation is like the warning light on the dashboard of my car. I know something is not as it should be, but I’m not sure what to do about it. Disorientation becomes shame when we don’t seek help and become willing to push what we think we know out of the way in order to get to what we need to learn.

Years later I was asked to speak at a teacher in-service training in Nashville. I came face to face with racism again—my own—when I walked into a room of all African-American teachers. As I plowed ahead into my standard presentation with statistics, stories, and songs about white teenagers, the ruins of my deliberate denial began to surround me. I knew I was losing my audience. Shame taunted me from the corner of the room, hissing in delight that my denial had shrunk, silenced, and shaped me far more than I knew.

In a moment of mystery that clearly came from God himself, my shaky soul knew that I could not stay in the safety of systemic shame that would keep me from asking questions and admitting my ignorance or even my ugliness. I was tired of compartmentalizing my faith. After about fifteen minutes of bumbling into my presentation, I stopped and acknowledged, “I don’t know what I’m doing here. All of my stories are white. I think I should listen to you. . . .”[2] That day began my education in racial injustice. As I listened to their stories, I was reoriented to see the dignity of these men and women who do far more than teach.

From Dehumanization to Compassionate Inquiry

When we silence ourselves and stay in radical denial for the sake of self-protection, we dehumanize ourselves and others in the process. Compassionate inquiry breaks down walls and steps out from behind ideological shields. I learned this from a teacher that day—a teacher I initially dismissed with disdain. He began the morning by complaining about working on a Saturday. He wore his baseball cap backwards. I assumed he had nothing to offer me. I decided I just wouldn’t look at him while I taught. Small decisions accumulate into a smoldering fire that can ignite in a split second—burning hot and fast—and leaving the carnage of dismissal and degradation. A backwards baseball cap pushed me to desecrate this man’s dignity, and in the process, I desecrated my own and betrayed my faith.

Near the end of our time together, this teacher raised his hand. I pretended I didn’t see. Finally, he called out kindly, “Will you pray for us before you leave?” His compassionate inquiry stopped me. I quickly mumbled a half-hearted prayer, knowing the one in the room who needed the most prayer was me. Compassionate inquiry nudges the unconscious dynamics that run our lives. Acknowledging them begins the process of liberation.

From Disconnection to Belonging

True belonging is not about fitting in to safety or selling out to denial. It requires that we face the truth about ourselves, become willing to be uncomfortable, and be present with others without an agenda. I began that in-service training feeling untethered and alone. As I faced years of denial, unspoken prejudices, and inexcusable ignorance, I began to feel a sense of belonging in the midst of these weary and wounded hearts. After I fumbled through a prayer, another man in the class asked if he could pray. I can still hear his gravelly voice tinged by a Southern accent as he read a prayer by Walter Brueggemann:

When the world spins crazy,

            spins wild and out of control

            spins toward rage and hate and violence . . .

We pray midst the spinning, not yet unnerved,

            but waiting and watching and listening,

            for you are the truth that contains all our spin. Amen.[3]

Small ideas and decisions have left ruins of racism in my life. Small moments of asking, admitting, listening, and learning are allowing change to rise from those ruins. The poet W. H. Auden wrote, “Most of us would rather be ruined than change.” May we prove him wrong—one moment at a time.

[1] Justin Taylor, “Is Segregation Scriptural? A Radio Address from Bob Jones on Easter 1960,” The Gospel Coalition, July 16, 2016.

[2] Sharon Hersh, Belonging: Finding the Way Back to One Another (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2020), pp. 175–178.

[3] Brueggemann, Walter. Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002, p. 76.


Sharon Hersh is a licensed professional counselor, an adjunct professor in graduate counseling programs, a sought-after speaker, and the author of several books, including Belonging: Finding the Way Back to One Another (NavPress, August 2020), The Last Addiction: Why Self-Help Is Not Enough, and Bravehearts: Unlocking the Courage to Love with Abandon.

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