By Lisa Liou

The Goodness of Failure in Racial Reconciliation

Have you ever attempted something that would certainly result in failure?

When I first realized that racial reconciliation is a gospel imperative, I was entering college—a White girl from a suburb that was 90 percent White. I knew all the Bible verses about reconciliation and loving your neighbor, but I had never thought about how they related to race.

I’m thankful for my first truly cross-cultural friendship, which has led me down a path of lifetime learning. I have Jeff to thank for teaching me his perspective as a Taiwanese American beginning with late-night study sessions at Denny’s and continuing through dating and 11 years of marriage.

But not even 14 years of his excellent teaching could shield me from failure. I still have not forgotten the time I confidently corrected a Chinese elder. The gentleman was gracious, but it dawned on me 60 seconds later that I had broken an important code of hierarchical culture with my confident, White, American impulse. Face palm.

Why We Need to Fail

The truth is that we become cross-culturally competent only over time as we enter into the process of trial and error. But we hate to admit that this is how we learn. After all, failing in an area we care about hurts. Worse still is failing people we care about. And yet if we never fail in relationships with others who are different from us, it probably means we are keeping too safe of a distance.

I admit to frequent failures. In my cross-cultural marriage I still battle in my heart over cultural preferences. I like when things work out in a way that suits me; I like the convenience that brings. But deep relationships call me to consider my default assumptions and the privileges that benefit me as a White woman.

There is no shortage of challenges, both systemic and interpersonal, when it comes to truly living as the diverse, reconciled body of Christ. Attentiveness to these challenges will lead us to hard places that make us uncomfortable, requiring us to search our hearts and ask for forgiveness. 

Tips for Failing Well

If you plan to grow in this key area of discipleship, brace yourself for some failures. And do not back out. Our integrity as followers of Jesus who are called to love others depends on our willingness to work hard with perseverance. Here are some tips that have helped me stay engaged—even when I fail.

  1. Ask questions. When given the opportunity to learn from someone, questions are your best friend. If your question offends, go to step 3.
  2. Avoid assumptions. When you recognize you have assumptions beneath the surface, ask questions. (And go to step 3 if needed.)
  3. Say “I’m sorry.” You become a trustworthy friend when you apologize after you have hurt someone. You can also express your regret for things you failed to do or that others have failed to do. (Note that I am not suggesting an incessantly apologetic posture. Apologies are only meaningful when both sides understand what the apology is for. But apologies for actual trespasses are always necessary and appropriate, and the usefulness of an apology is related to the sincerity of the person who offers it.)
  4. Avoid defensiveness. Since our task is to show Christ’s love, we need feedback when we offend; welcome this feedback. And go back to step 3 if necessary.
  5. Become a trusted person over time. Short-term interactions do not allow enough opportunity to truly demonstrate a learning and receptive posture. When you break trust, go to step 3. 

I see frequent opportunities for people to put these steps into practice. Most recently, I saw two leaders fail. One engaged in this process and the other did not. The leader who failed well apologized quickly after hearing the issue, even thanking the person who called him out on his offense. It was a make-or-break moment for building trust. The other leader did not fail well and became defensive, missing a key opportunity to learn.

How Will You Handle Your Failures?

Close relationships inevitably come with failures and the need to say, “I’m sorry.” I am convinced that we can demonstrate our character and integrity by how we face our failure in these relationships. Failing well creates potential for a new level of trust to be attained; if we run from our failures, we run from that potential. We lose a chance to be transformed by someone different from us and we fail to explore the depths of Jesus’s reconciliatory power in our relationships.

As you move farther into this new school year, I hope you feel the freedom to fail in this one subject with the five steps I have given to help you through those moments. I promise this is a course where your skills will grow through trial and error. 

You might also be interested in:

Making New Friends in College

Reading the Bible with a Diverse Community

Or check out these resources from InterVarsity Press:

More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel

The Heart of Racial Justice: How Soul Change Leads to Social Change

Lisa Liou has served with InterVarsity on campuses in Michigan, Illinois, and California since 2002. In her current role, she serves as co–area director of the InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries team in Southern California. 

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