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An Attitude Change is Not Enough

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I read an article today in the Globe and Mail that I found important and sobering.

The article engages the question of racism in the United States in the wake of the recent Charleston shootings. On the one hand, the article was surprisingly positive; racism and racist attitudes have decreased dramatically in the United States, as have other social measures such as crime rates, teen pregnancies and school drop out rates. And yet… race related violence continues, poverty, unemployment rates and incarceration rates remain high while the income gap between African-Americans and white Americans has increased.

The author of the article, Doug Saunders, asks: “Why have the huge improvements in American racial attitudes and general social measures not brought about an improvement in racial equality?” Saunders’ answer is this: “Once an institution (a city, a police force, a school system, an economy) is set up to create a racial divide, it will continue to do so, regardless who’s running it, unless there’s a dramatic intervention.”

Saunders’ statement is sobering at several levels. On the hand, this statement is sobering because behind the statement are real people with real lives and real dreams, whose present and future is so severely impacted by persistent racism. It can feel hopeless. Surely, we would have thought, it would be enough to change attitudes. Would the rest not follow? Apparently not.

We have seen the same reality, of course, with respect to environmentalism. Though most people love the natural world in which they live, few can accurately see the complexity of the system to which we belong that depletes the environment. Even fewer can extract themselves from the forces that continue to deplete this world.

We have also seen this same reality with churches or other organizational groups with which we work. Let us assume a congregation or organization adheres to a way of doing things that privileges some voices over others. Or, it has tied itself to one way of living into its purpose. Or, it has broken apart over conflict. Now, let us assume that this same congregation or organization takes a hard look at itself and makes real and significant changes with respect to these underlying attitudes. The people feel hopeful: Change appears to be on the horizon. Over time, however, the hopes of the people are dashed – real or meaningful change does not happen after all. Why?

As Saunders indicates, when the system was established to do things a certain way or to keep people apart, an attitude change is not enough. The system also has to change. This is remarkably hard work, in part because it is often not at all obvious to those in the system how the system is aiding and abetting those values to which they themselves no longer adhere. In these situations, Saunders calls for a “dramatic intervention.” It takes tremendous courage, humility, openness and self-compassion to look at one’s system, to recognise that the system “is us” and to release one’s attachment to how things have been to allow something new to emerge.

It is precisely this dynamic that ARC has been attending to with its renewal-journey work. How do we walk with churches and organizations in a manner that opens the possibility for the dramatic intervention they are seeking? What we have learned is that it is not enough to think our way into being different. We must also go through the painful process of letting go of what was, to allow the new to emerge. This work is so challenging it can only really happen wrapped in the embrace of God’s love. And here’s the surprise: From this place of being wrapped in God’s love, the work itself is transformed from challenge to joy, from just-a-dream to wondrous reality. It is blessing that awaits us… and that calls us to itself with urgency – because as we have seen in the real and tragic situation in Charleston, taking the journey into transformation can’t wait. The real lives behind the statistics matter.

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Betty Pries has more than 20 years of experience coaching, mediating, training and consulting in the areas of conflict resolution and change.   Betty's work with churches and church organizations is guided by her desire to enhance their spiritual and organizational health, and strengthen the capacities of leadership to discern a way forward.

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