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The power of reconciliation: from the apostle paul to Malcolm X.

As a Christian, I embrace a New Testament perspective on reconciliation. I write, teach, and often preach that through Jesus Christ we are reconciled to God and to each other. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was a re-creation event that restored us to God's original intention of a united and reconciled human family built on just and healthy relationships. I also fully acknowledge Christianity's history of involvement in colonialism, apartheid, genocide of indigenous peoples, the Holocaust, and the like. Christianity has often exhibited the very opposite of reconciliation throughout history. Even in the twenty-first century the church in the United States remains our most segregated institution. Yet at the core of Christian faith is God's intervention into human history releasing the power of reconciliation.
 But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought
 near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he
 has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall,
 that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its
 commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new
 humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile
 both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to
 death that hostility through it. (Ephesians 2:13-16).

These words are from the apostle Paul whose own personal life transformation witnessed to the reconciling power of God operating through the abiding presence of a resurrected Jesus Christ. Known at the time by his Hebrew name Saul, he was terrorizing the early church and preaching racial and religious separatism. Yet through a powerful encounter on the road to Damascus, Saul met Jesus, soon received the forgiveness of the early church, and became an apostle of reconciliation between Jews and Greeks. He went from persecuting Jewish Christians for including people from other ethnic groups in their faith communities to becoming the leader of the movement for unity among people of all nations.

Paul's theology of reconciliation was birthed from his own personal experience. "From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view, even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away, everything has become new!" (2 Corinthians 5:16-17). Paul experienced a divine moment on the Damascus Road, embraced himself as a human being created in the image of God, and inserted reconciliation at the core of Christian theology.

Inherent in my viewpoint is that reconciliation and overcoming racism require a Christian theology for success. Then I encountered the life and message of Malcolm X.

The Transformation of Malcolm X

Nineteen hundred years after the death of the apostle Paul, Malcolm X was preaching a message similar to the pre-Damascus Road Saul. He proclaimed that God desired separation by race and religion in the United States. "The Scripture says that God will separate his (black) sheep from the (white) goats ... The goats are to be slaughtered ... while the sheep are to be gathered into his pasture ... In like manner God has prepared a Doomsday for this sinful white world of colonizers, enslavers, oppressors, exploiters, lynchers ... White America is doomed!" (1)

In an amazing reversal, culminating in his pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca in 1964, Malcolm X began to sound like the post-Damascus Road Paul. "I believe in recognizing every human being as a human being, neither white, black, brown nor red. When you are dealing with humanity as one family, there's no question of integration or intermarriage. It's just one human being marrying another human being, or one human being living around and with another human being.... The worst form of a human being, I believe, is one who judges another human being by the color of his skin." (2)

Malcolm X's transformation and reconciliation occurred and operated completely outside of Christianity. Malcolm periodically attended church with his parents. His mother made every effort to expose her children to a variety of Christian denominations. As a teenager living with his sister Ella Collins in Boston he was involved in a church youth group and sang in a church choir. Yet it seems that Malcolm Little (as he was named then) never discovered the reconciliation fire at the core of Christianity.

Where was Christianity's theology of reconciliation when Malcolm X needed it? When he was searching for ways to respond to racism, the Christianity he encountered apparently offered him no answers. Was the Christianity that existed in most white congregations in the United States the same as that found in first century churches founded by the apostle Paul? Did the congregations comprised of African Americans that Malcolm visited offer him a reconciliation theology to deal with the repressive racism that was his daily experience? It seems that Malcolm X encountered an incomplete or even inauthentic Christianity. Yet Malcolm X's Islamic faith clearly thrust him forward toward healing and racial reconciliation.

Malcolm X's Process of Racial Reconciliation

As a result of his transformation through Islam, Malcolm X recommended the study of Islam to address race relations in the United States. What exactly did Malcolm X recommend? Like the apostle Paul's recommendation in 2 Corinthians based on his own experience of reconciliation, Malcolm's suggestion grew out of the process that changed his life. Malcolm X's identity changed from that of a victim of racism to a person whose identity was culturally rooted, racially secure, and reconciled to others.

Malcolm X could have been speaking of his own beginnings when he stated, "When they start indicting us because of our color that means we're indicted before we're born, which is the worst kind of crime that can be committed." (3) As an African American, Malcolm X was indicted for the "crime" of his black skin color before he was born. At birth he began serving the life sentence of racism. Racist whites harassed his family, set their house on fire, and killed his father. Racism blinded Malcolm's school teacher from seeing a potential lawyer and his foster parents seeing a future leader. Malcolm X lived in a social context where humanity and whiteness were equivalent terms. Since Malcolm X could never become white he could not attain human status in the fullest sense.

In his autobiography Malcolm X repeatedly reflected on his own internalized racism and his efforts to gain acceptance. He described how he had straightened his hair through using lye to burn his hair straight.
 How ridiculous I was! Stupid enough to stand there simply lost in
 admiration of my hair now looking "white"... This was my first
 really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that
 pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man's
 hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America
 who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are
 "inferior"--and white people "superior"--that they will even violate
 and mutilate their God-created bodies to try to look "pretty" by
 white standards.... It makes you wonder if the Negro has completely
 lost his sense of identity, lost touch with himself. (4)

Malcolm X sought dignity, self value, and the feeling of being human by assimilating into his perception of whiteness. His psyche and spirituality were deeply damaged by societal racism. Religion professor Cornel West writes, "Malcolm X's notion of psychic conversion holds that black people must no longer view themselves through white lenses. He claims that black people will never value themselves as long as they subscribe to a standard of valuation that devalues them." (5) Malcolm X found the opposite of his racial victimization in the message of the Nation of Islam, a small religious group that taught racial separation, the inherent evil of whites, and the need to embrace African culture. Through his involvement in the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X discarded his internalized view that "white" and "human" were interchangeable and rediscovered his value as a black man of African descent.

While the Nation of Islam offered Malcolm X a positive view of his blackness and African origins, it "was predicated on an obsession with white supremacy." Cornel West explains:
 Yet this preoccupation with white supremacy still allowed white
 people to serve as the principal point of reference. That which
 fundamentally motivates one still dictates the terms of what one
 thinks and does--so the motivation of a black supremacist doctrine
 reveals how obsessed one is with white supremacy. This is
 understandable in a white racist society--but it is crippling for a
 despised people struggling for freedom, in that one's eyes should be
 on the prize, not on the perpetuator of one's oppression. (6)

Therefore, Malcolm X's sense of self was still connected to white identity. The Nation of Islam could only reverse the effects of racism, not reconcile Malcolm X with the broader human family. His essential understanding of himself and others was transformed through his complete embrace of Orthodox Islam and fully realized during the hajj to Mecca. "In my thirty-nine years on this earth, the Holy City of Mecca had been the first time I had ever stood before the Creator of All and felt like a complete human being." (7) Political scientist Eugene Wolfenstein summarized:
 Stating the point positively, in the Middle East he believed he was
 free to be a member of a religious community in which race had no
 exchange value, no currency. The fact that he was black gave him a
 distinctive character but no position of either superiority or
 inferiority in relationship to any other Muslim. Islam was for
 Malcolm already beginning to lose its racial quality and to take on
 a human one instead, while at the same time his self-conception was
 being deracialized. (8)

After he returned from Mecca, Malcolm X suggested that whites should study Islam if they also wanted to embrace racial reconciliation. His experience of whites on the hajj was unlike anything he had previously experienced in the United States. They exuded an attitude and character untainted by racism. So Malcolm recommended his own process of transformation not only to blacks but also to whites (like Paul recommended his experience of reconciliation to both Jews and Greeks in the first century). In the same way that African Americans may internalize negative views of blackness, whites can fall victim to faulty definitions of whiteness that ascribe a sense of superiority or the one-dimensional view that whiteness is the norm for humanity. Therefore, whites need to deconstruct such beliefs regarding whiteness and restore a sense of culture. Also, whites need to rediscover an experience of humanness--their own and that of persons who are not white. Theologian Howard Thurman wrote, "The burden of being black and the burden of being white is so heavy that it is rare in our society to experience oneself as a human being." (9) True reconciliation can lift this burden for all people regardless of race or culture.

In the twenty-first century our world needs its religions to rediscover their fiery core of reconciliation and unity in a time when racism persists. Perhaps the future of reconciliation could benefit from a conversation between the apostle Paul and Imam El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X).


1. Malcolm X, The End of White World Supremacy: Four Speeches (New York: Arcade, 1971), 131.

2. Malcolm X, quoted in Pierre Berton, "Whatever is Necessary: The Last Television Interview," 186; Malcolm X, February 1965: The Final Speeches (New York: Pathfinder, 1992), 67

3. Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grove, 1965), 84.

4. Ibid., 56-57.

5. Cornel West, Race Matters (Boston: Beacon, 1993), 96.

6. Ibid., 99-100.

7. Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 372.

8. Eugene V. Wolfenstein, The Victims of Democracy: Malcolm X and the Black Revolution (Berkeley: University of California, 1981), 305.

9. Howard Thurman, This Luminous Darkness: A Personal Interpretation of the Anatomy of Segregation and the Ground of Hope (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 94.
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Author:DeYoung, Curtiss Paul
Publication:Cross Currents
Date:Jun 22, 2007
Previous Article:America's original sin: the legacy of white racism.
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