When you have a painful problem, what do you do? Some of us ignore it, and stuff it down deep in our gut. Some of us lash out at others, projecting our ills onto them. Some of us become workaholics, thinking if we just work harder and faster, then we can somehow overcome that irksome ache. These options, while providing a temporary sense of relief, will eventually demand their due. The stronghold of racism, perhaps one of the most painful problems in the United States and elsewhere, is no different.
In the year 2020, the sands are shifting underneath us. Something has to give, but how can we respond differently as we experience a collective call to change our posture towards racism? In Healing Racial Trauma, Sheila Wise Rowe provides exactly the anecdotes (and antidotes) we need for such a time as this. The chapters of Healing Racial Trauma outline common responses to racism: fatigue, silence, rage, fear, shame, addiction. Wise Rowe also includes other, healthier chapters: lament, freedom, and resilience.
Yet these responses lead to new questions: how do we ground these abstract nouns in reality? What do silence and rage, not to mention lament and resilience, look like in the flesh? Wise Rowe not only weaves biblical examples in each chapter, but she also draws from stories close to her, including her own, to walk us through healing journeys for people of color from a variety of backgrounds.
As Healing Racial Trauma makes clear, however, we must first contend with the past before we can expect healing. Wise Rose recounts, with vivid vulnerability, the horrifying obstacles that her own Granddaddy James endured: the death of his daughter, her father-in-law, uncle, and his baby grandson in quick succession from tuberculosis due to a lack of hospitals for Black folks in his community. Local white suppliers refusing to sell him stock for his general store. Only receiving 60 percent of the pay of a White farmer for the same bushel of produce.
I admit a temptation as a White person to squirm while reading Wise Rowe’s vignettes. Yet turning away is exactly what I cannot do; I cannot pretend things are better than they are. In fact, Healing Racial Trauma offers White people like me a powerful prescription, too. I am called not only to be one of the “compassionate listeners who acknowledge: ‘I see you, and I see your pain,’” but also to be a “presence, rather than a savior; a companion, rather than a leader; a friend, rather than a teacher.”
Healing Racial Trauma offers me additional advice. As Wise Rowe concludes, “if we want true reconciliation that is flourishing, then repair is essential; without it the apology and repentance can feel shallow.” She then takes us to Luke 19 and the story of Zacchaeus. This tax collector’s journey of repentance and healing leads him to declare to Jesus, “I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much”(verse 8). Only then does Jesus say, “today, salvation has come to this household”(verse 9). For the sake of Zacchaeus’s own healing, he paid reparations to those who had suffered because of his privilege.
What will reparations look like for us, in our time? While we can celebrate that Congress acted in 1988 to apologize to as well as to pay Japanese-Americans “$20,000 each as reparations for their material loss and suffering” in internment camps during World War II, “people of color are still waiting…[for] reparations for the damage that racism has caused to individuals, families, and communities.”
Wise Rowe recounts several micro as well as macro acts of reparations (some already enacted, but many still unrealized). I would add to this conversation a key act of reparations that is starting to take place in this country, which is giving away some or all of one’s inheritance.
The topic of reparations is one of many themes covered in Healing Racial Trauma. Wise Rowe also outlines a variety of practices like dance, music, and lamenting that have aided healing. She additionally recommends reengaging “old practices that helped our ancestors to cope and heal,” such as the herbal remedies of her mother.
We learn that another crucial curative practice is telling our entire story. Indeed, “your story may bring hope and healing to those still bound by sadness, rage, fear, fatigue, shame, silence, and addiction.” Even as a White person, I have a story to tell regarding racism, and I have been touched to see the ways that God has used my story to bring healing to others, too.
Healing Racial Trauma is a rich resource for our time, offering concrete ways to pray for healing, a glossary of terms that will become increasingly useful as we learn how to even talk about this topic, as well as a small-group structure to put these ideas into practice in our local communities. Yet the conversation around racial healing will certainly continue beyond this moment. What can we expect going forward?
For one, I’d love to see more conversation on exactly how liturgical practices such as the sacraments can aid the healing of racial trauma. I was encouraged to learn about people of color weaving indigenous practices into worship services as they find “where the Creator, Jesus, and the Spirit have been there all along.” As a theologian, I paid particular attention to Wise Rowe’s assertion that “full-emersion baptism as an adult has aided in soul repair.” Does this practice include adults being re-baptized? If so, certain denominations (such as my own) may need to rethink how we can offer this healing emersion apart from re-baptism. Another sacramental question is what role has the Eucharist played in soul repair?
Healing Racial Trauma is a book for all races, as all of us have been damaged by the legacy of racism. Yet the good news is that God wants to bring healing to all of us, too. Healing may look different based on our racial background, just as many of us have been treated differently because of our racial background.
As a White person, when I am tempted to think healing for me may look like some sort of condemnation of guilt, I remember the story that Wise Rowe recounts of “Rizpah, a traumatized mother grieved by an act of vengeance” in 2 Samuel 21. This mother “refused to be moved” beside the bodies of her murdered children, children whom King David forbid to be buried. Rizpah lamented and publicly demonstrated her grief. As Wise Rowe explains, “when King David hears of Rizpah’s tenacity in guarding her loved ones, he finally grants her justice.” Only then, after King David relents, does the Lord release blessing on the land.
“I wonder to what degree the church’s refusal to recognize the grief and pain of people of color and refusal to lament has affected our land,” Wise Rowe asks. When the world is increasingly being consumed by wildfires or buried under floodwaters, I wonder the same thing. Our land could sure use some blessing now. How is God calling us to seek it?