Mutual Accountability is not Equal Responsibility

by | Aug 3, 2021

When we talk about race relations we usually focus on the “race” part and forget the “relations” part. We know that there are tremendous differences based on race. We know that we have great difficulty with interracial conflict. Racial identity has come to be identified with certain cultural and political values. Our discussion about race also comes in a polarized society where we are taught to dismiss or ignore those with values that differ from our own. So our racial identity becomes a signal of who are our combatants and who are our allies. Unfortunately, this propensity to rely heavily on our racial identity is very present in the Body of Christ and we have allowed the same racial conflict in the rest of society to impact us in our churches.


“Whether we like it or not, we are in relationships with others of different races.”


But the term “race relations” is also about relations or relationships. Whether we like it or not, we are in relationships with others of different races. It does not even matter if all your friends share your racial identity. In the United States we have to learn how to relate to those of other races. That relationship can be beneficial or it can be unhealthy. When these relationships are unhealthy then life is terrible. But if we pay attention to the relationship aspect and work towards improving it, then we have a better chance of turning it into a beneficial relationship. Few things this side of heaven are more pleasurable than living in beneficial relationship or community with each other.

If we begin to focus on the type of race relationships we tend to have then we can see that we have miserably failed to create the type of interracial community we need in the church. Clearly, we have improved the legal rights of racial minorities over the past several decades. But our relations to each other have scarcely improved. Even the presence of a black president, or perhaps because of his presence, the level of racial mistrust and alienation has not abated. There seems to be a standstill with people of color talking about justice while whites are talking about equality and both groups talking past each other. Unless we are willing to address the issues that inhibit our ability to relate to, and build community with, each other then there is little reason to believe that things will get better.

MUTUAL ACCOUNTABILITY IS NOT EQUAL RESPONSIBILITY

It is with this in mind that I have advocated a mutual accountability model for race relations. The idea behind this model is relatively simple. Our ability to relate to those across different racial groups has been compromised by centuries of racial abuse and only recent recognition of equal racial rights. To move forward and work towards repairing this relationship we must find ways to dialogue with each other. The dialogue is not merely to buttress our relationships but also so that we work together to solve our racialized problems. Our society has done a horrible job with such dialogue, and thus the problem of racial estrangement has not gone away. And we in the church have not shown ourselves to be much better than those outside the church. What has been termed collaborative conversations holds promise for helping us to move away from our current poisonous race relations.


“Unless we are willing to address the issues that inhibit our ability to relate to, and build community with, each other then there is little reason to believe that things will get better. ”


Sometimes when I bring up this solution, some people argue that I advocate some type of 50/50 compromise for every racial issue out there. But mutual accountability should not be confused with equal responsibility. The mutual accountability model is not an equal responsibility model in that we expect an outcome where all races share the same responsibility from this point forward. We all have a mutual responsibility to enter a useful dialogue. But this does not bring a natural conclusion that our answers will result in identical roles in the solutions we decide to implement. I welcome the chance to identify the responsibilities that we all have in contrast to how we may decide the roles we must play to move forward.

MUTUAL ACCOUNTABILITY IS NOT EQUAL RESPONSIBILITY

MUTUAL ACCOUNTABILITY IN COLLABORATIVE CONVERSATION

In my forthcoming book, Beyond Racial Division, I identify two common approaches to finding a contemporary race solution: colorblindness and antiracism. Both fail to provide the opportunity for the type of dialogue we need so that we can find sustainable racial solutions. Neither truly foster a collaborative conversation which is “a purposeful, outcome-driven conversation aimed at building on each other’s ideas” (Brake, 2019). Without a focus on these conversations, we will come up with solutions not accepted widely enough to be sustainable. Those solutions will consistently face criticism and undermining by those who feel that their voice has been left out. Rather than relieving us of racial alienation, solutions based upon the imposition of colorblindness or antiracism advocates are likely to sustain, or perhaps even increase, racial estrangement.

Instead of attempting to use cultural, social, or political power to convince others to capitulate to our racialized desires, we need to do what we should normally do in a troubled relationship: talk to one another. Try to figure out what each of us need and see if we can find a compromise where everyone is better off. Find solutions where we both win and learn how to cooperate with others in the Body of Christ. Engage in moral suasion to convince others about the direction we want but also listen to them so that we can address their concerns. This is what we do in healthy relationships.


“Instead of attempting to use cultural, social, or political power to convince others to capitulate to our racialized desires, we need to do what we should normally do in a troubled relationship: talk to one another.”


A few words about moral suasion. Moral suasion is about trying to convince others of something that we think is right. We want them to see that it is right as well. When you try to convince your teenager to not spend so much time in front of the television you may engage in moral suasion. When you try to convince your friends to come to Bible study you will probably use moral suasion. When your spouse tells you that the weeds are taking over the yard and so you should mow then she is engaging in moral suasion. Or maybe she is just doing that to me.

But we must not make the mistake of thinking that moral suasion is about coercion. Indeed, real moral suasion requires that we build rapport with those we want to persuade (Cialdini, 2001). We accurately understand their point of view (Watkins, 2001). We learn to admit when they are correct. We are willing to find areas of agreement with those we are attempting to persuade (Paulus, 2006). Real moral suasion is about relationship building, not coercion. It is about taking the time to understand where other people are coming from and doing the hard work of reaching them in a way they can understand you. It is also about being open to the fact that you may learn from them and could be wrong in certain ways as well. So in the end everybody has a chance to grow in wisdom and together as a family. Done properly, moral suasion will unite us by making us want to identify with, and care for, each other. Real moral suasion builds and sustains community.

Given all that moral suasion can do, it is the responsibility of everyone to engage in moral suasion to improve race relations. Everyone. Whites and nonwhites have the responsibility to engage in moral suasion. Nobody can say to others that their perspective is not welcome in the discussions we must have. Everybody is required to treat others with respect. Everybody is obligated to seek out solutions that try to meet the needs of others. Everybody is required to engage in moral suasion and find the healthiest ways to do so.

This requires a change of mindset. So much of how we relate to each other racially is to try to figure out how to get our way. We seek victory rather than community. We need to change our mindset so that we are not merely seeking for our team to win, but we also want to see everyone win as much as possible. We are willing to hear others out but expect that they will hear us out too. We learn to distinguish between that which we want and that which we need. We learn how to give up what we want so that others will help us get what we need. And we do the same for them. When we change the mindset about the type of conversations we can have, then we will change race relations for the better.

This type of commitment is going to require us to consider the development of new skills that increase our likelihood of success. We must consider how to engage in active listening. This is the type of listening where we listen for comprehension and not conflict. We listen so that we can put their concerns into our own words. We know that we will have to adequately actively listen to them when they tell us that we accurately reflect their desires with our own words. If we do not learn how to listen for understanding instead of being ready for our next debate point, then collaborative conversation is not possible.


“When we change the mindset about the type of conversations we can have, then we will change race relations for the better.”


We also must learn how to communicate with others. Communication is not an opportunity to guilt trip or to win an argument at any cost. The purpose of this communication is to provide information and emotion of a given situation, not to provide shame and pressure. Our communication with others will be an opportunity for revealing a different perspective for those who do not yet know how we feel. We will show our emotions but do so in a way that respects the dignity of the listener. We will find illustrations relevant to the listener and have patience in continued dialogue. We will not always get it right, but we will endeavor to keep working on our communication skills so that we can clearly enunciate what is important to us and why.

It is the responsibility of everyone to develop these skills of active listening and communication. The more we engage in this type of collaborative conversations that arise from those with these skills, the better we will understand each other. But that only happens if we all take seriously the responsibility of engaging in this type of communication. Expecting others to be patient with us without also exhibiting patience with them will also breed resentment and return us to the racial alienation we have today.

As Christians who understand the power of human depravity to distort our desires, we know that we need to work on caring about those in our social and racial outgroups. This model fits with our concerns about our own depravity since we know that it is hard for us to see how our own selfishness clouds our judgement on the right thing to do. We have blind spots that we need help to overcome. Getting input from others who disagree with us is a good way to deal with such blind spots and perhaps the best way this side of heaven.

MUTUAL ACCOUNTABILITY IS NOT EQUAL RESPONSIBILITY

If we needed any other biblical commandment about how we must treat others, we should look to Philippians 2:3. We are commanded to consider the needs of others as much as, or even more than, our own needs. That does not mean that we totally neglect our needs, but a Christian approach cannot be focused on only our needs. We must seek out ways to serve everybody as far as possible. So we should approach these conversations by asking questions about how we can aid others as well as help ourselves. Christian leadership is supposed to be servant leadership. Collaborative conversations provide us with another way in which we can serve others as we must learn how to work with them to find solutions that aid them. Collaborative conversations are an important tool we use to deal with racial animosity.

 

MUTUAL, BUT NOT EQUAL, RESPONSIBILITY

I unashamedly argue that people of all different races have a responsibility to seek out solutions that serve more than just those in their own racial group. But with that assertion there is a temptation to see the model of mutual accountability as one that requires solutions where we have equal tasks for people of all races. That is simply not true. To use an analogy, if a husband is going out with his male friends too much then he and his wife have a responsibility to discuss a solution with which they can live. It is not for her to dictate how often he can go out with them. He likely has a need for their companionship, and she may not want him to go out at all. But it is not up to him alone to decide either. He must take his wife’s needs into account. Rather, they both can enter a collaborative conversation to find the best solution for their relationship. But notice what has not happened. The wife has not been asked to cut down on her relationships with her female friends because that was not the problem at hand. If the husband has not been troubled by the time she spends with her female friends then it is merely vindictive to assert that she should have to change the amount of time spent with them. She had a mutual responsibility to enter into a healthy conversation, but we are not talking about a solution where both parties have equal responsibilities.

Our discussions on racial issues do not happen in a vacuum. They happen in a country where racial minorities have greatly suffered. And unfortunately, the church has too often played a role in that suffering. But this suffering is not simply historical. Historical racism has resulted in contemporary modern prejudice and institutional forms of racial discrimination. If we are sticking to the notion of building racial relations, we know that when a member in that relationship has suffered because of other members in the relationship then we would expect to figure out how we can alleviate that suffering. The victim does not get anything he or she desires. Human depravity impacts victims as well. But it is not realistic to think that we can develop the relationship by relying on equal responsibilities. Someone has been hurt, and we have to consider that reality if we are going to move forward.

Our discussions must put all possibilities on the table. This means solutions dependent on a notion of equal roles for whites and nonwhites. Taking solutions off the table before we have had a chance to have collaborative conversations does not allow us to fully communicate our concerns with each other. So technically I am not stating that the final solution that comes out of these conversations cannot include the concept of equal responsibilities for whites and nonwhites. In fact, sometimes that will be the best solution. But our solution must come after we have engaged in collaborative communication with each other. Historical and contemporary institutional racism combined with the pain so many people of color continue to feel suggests that in an atmosphere of real active listening and effective communication it is unlikely that such a colorblind perspective will survive “negotiations” between whites and nonwhites.

MUTUAL ACCOUNTABILITY IS NOT EQUAL RESPONSIBILITY

As a person of color, I believe racial minorities should welcome these types of conversations since they are likely to produce outcomes that reduce racial inequality. We cannot expect to get everything we want. Humans do not do well getting everything they want. But what we do obtain though such discussions will be supported by a good many majority group members. This means sustainable reforms rather than contested efforts encouraging sabotage by those who feel silenced in the decision-making process. A process in which everyone has input is a must since such a process will help us gain the broad support needed for reforms we want.

Whites tend to emphasize images of equality as they consider racial solutions. People of color tend to emphasize images of justice as they consider racial solutions. These values are important as we move forward, and any lasting solutions must contain both elements of equality and justice. But the way individuals promote these values tend to create preordained solutions for our racial problems. Preordained answers of equality as conceptualized by whites or justice as conceptualized by people of color to our racial struggles are doomed to generate more conflict than community. Learning what is important to others and acting to care for them is not only a Christian approach to racial problems, but it is also the best method for finding real solutions. Doing so creates the need for equal responsibilities in our racial discourse without a requirement for equal responsibilities in the final outcome.

But while we should be careful to avoid preordained solutions, it is important to recognize that historically we have seen a pittance of justice and equality for racial minorities. Often solutions sought by people of color will address the values of both whites and nonwhites. Naturally this does not mean that people of color are free from the poison of human depravity, and so we can, and sometimes do, offer solutions that are too focused on our needs to the exclusion of any concerns about majority group members. But, the moral deficit of our racial past cannot be waved away to make members of the majority comfortable. Correcting for that moral deficit will naturally favor corrections that, at least on the surface, seem to favor people of color over white Christians. We should respect both values of equality and justice as we move forward in reshaping our racial relationships with each other. But we should also keep in mind the possibility that we have to compensate racial minorities with the equality and justice that has been denied to them for so long.


“Learning what is important to others and acting to care for them is not only a Christian approach to racial problems, but it is also the best method for finding real solutions.”


How would this look in real life? I remember working with a church on becoming more racially diverse. The church already had some degree of diversity but wanted to become a place where more people of color would be comfortable. To this end the church, who had a white pastor, had already hired two African-Americans for their staff. A surface level acceptance of integration may have stopped any further efforts right there. But to the credit of the pastor and the other members of the church that wanted to continue a conversation with the members of color to make further adjustments.

One of the topics that came up was how to address the pastor. There is a key cultural difference between whites and blacks in Christian circles as it concerns addressing clergy. Whites tend to address their clergy by their first name. This taps into a value of equality they perceive among believers. The pastor is not seen as being closer to God than anyone else. For blacks a pastor is always called “Pastor so and so.” The authority of the title is always recognized. This is tied to a history of African-Americans where they were not treated with respect no matter what credentials they accumulated. The most prestigious African-American in a community was still addressed as “boy” by the larger white society. This is an injustice that African-Americans want to see addressed. So acknowledging the accomplishments of African-Americans clergy is seen as an issue of justice for blacks. Neither the value system of equality on the behalf of whites or justice on the behalf of blacks is wrong or sinful. It is just a cultural difference.

The white pastor was quite comfortable being called by his first name. Because he was the head pastor those who called him by his first name also called the two African-Americans pastors by their first names. This did not sit well with the African-Americans in the church who felt that the black pastors were being disrespected. It was an opportunity for them to make demands to the white members of the church. They could threaten to leave the church over the slights they felt were given to the black pastors.

MUTUAL ACCOUNTABILITY IS NOT EQUAL RESPONSIBILITY

Instead they entered a time of conversation with the pastor. As he saw the cultural dilemma they were in, he decided to make the decision to have the laity address him as “Pastor” to make it easier for them to likewise call the black pastors “Pastor” as well. He preached a sermon outlining his reasons and to the best of my knowledge the white members of the congregation largely accepted the change. Please understand what happened here. The African-Americans could have made demands and threats. They may have gotten the same overt result in that the white head pastor could have backed down and given in to their demands. But that would have created dissention among the white members who would have seen all the conflict. The right solution for this particular situation was not an “equitable” one where white pastors are addressed by their first name and black pastors as “Pastor.” But to get to that solution in a way that builds community instead of polarization the blacks in the congregation needed conversations instead of threats. People of color can be in the right as to what needs to be changed but in the wrong in their methodology of accomplishing that change.

Nothing I have said here should be taken to mean that we neglect the concerns of whites or do not seek out solutions that address their concerns. Given our racial history often that solution will likely include cultural or institutional accommodations for people of color. But of course there are going to be times when African-Americans, or other people of color, have to make adjustments for whites. We must never go into conversations without an openness to learn. The ultimate goal is not to win for our team. The ultimate goal is to find the best solution. Regardless of our decisions about the direction for us to go, we must bring people along in a godly manner rather than in a manner that dehumanizes others or with a mindset that a victory for our group is all that matters.

 


REFERENCES

  • Brake, T. (2019). 9 Tips for Creating More Collaborative Conversations. Retrieved from https://www.tmaworld.com/2019/05/07/9-tips-creating-more-collaborative-conversations.
  • Cialdini, R. B. (2001). The science of persuasion. Scientific American, 284(2), 76–81.
  • Paulus, T. M. (2006). Challenge or Connect? Dialogue in Online Learning Environments. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 18(1), 3.
  • Watkins, M. (2001). In Practice: Principles of Persuasion. Negotiation Journal, 17(2), 115–137.

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