A Review of
Becoming Brave: Finding the Courage to Pursue Racial Justice Now
Brenda Salter McNeil
Hardback: Brazos Press, 2020
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Reviewed by Karen Altergott Roberts
Becoming Brave is a book for our moment. We learn it is possible for someone devoting her life to issues of racial reconciliation to be asked a hard question. For instance, a younger person asked, “…when are you gonna talk about justice?” This leads the author to self-examination, and I am glad she chose to share the results with us. Brenda Salter McNeil addresses many justice issues in this book. Most inspiring to me is that she develops a new and deeper awareness of justice. At this moment, we all need renewed minds to accomplish racial reconciliation. In this moment, all of us – whether we walked in Memphis in the last century or joined marches and protests in this past year – are required to self-assess. What of our beliefs, behaviors and strategies need to be renewed so that we can better accomplish racial reconciliation? How can we participate now in the transformative process that leads to greater justice?
The author teaches us by weaving together her own story of racial reconciliation work with the people-saving work of Esther. We are drawn into the scriptural story, and into God’s journey to reconcile all. Brenda Salter McNeil, preacher and activist, teacher and author, writes from her life and her heart and her theological training to those of us in many faith traditions. By using the story of Esther, the author makes our contemporary situation clear. McNeil’s own appointed time leads through civil rights history, and to the questions of what is being asked of us. Esther’s appointed time leads through life as an orphan raised by a cousin to being chosen as a beauty to be prepared and presented to the King of Persia. From humble beginnings to a seat near power, her voice gained tremendous potential influence. Esther was put in a place to represent her people. She had to go through a self-assessment and time of preparation. Those who speak for justice in an unjust world today are at risk, just as Esther was at risk in a world of prejudice and ethnic hatred so many centuries ago. We must prepare ourselves.
We need people by our side. Esther’s cousin was not always by her side, but always tried to keep her informed. Who do you get your information from? Others in the place of power who flatter and encourage you, or from outsiders who know all too well the risks of being outside of favor? How disappointing people ‘in the court’ can be in the holy mission of reconciliation! Are they who we listen to? Esther needed warning from outside, before she knew what she could do to save her people. The church, and other faith communities, need more than the “All are welcome….” pronouncements, heartfelt though they may be, before we can make a difference. Some of you may be broken-hearted at the weak tea often offered by the church to those who seek racial reconciliation. And, unbelievably, many faith communities stand in opposition to racial reconciliation, and block and parry, dither and dawdle as lives are lost. Brenda points out “there is a real danger for those of us who stand as reconcilers in the palaces of white evangelical spaces” (87). Esther didn’t really know what was happening to her people outside the gates of the palace; many people protect themselves from some of the brutal and difficult aspects of life of the other, both of these not realizing how their action or inaction will mean life versus death for others. We need to know what’s going on, and that risk is there for us whether we speak out about it or not.
Why don’t we know more about what’s going on with other people? As this author points out, our social media has become an ‘echo chamber,’ our purchases support slave labor – think of chocolate and other ‘palace treats’ – and our fears of breaking silence because we know what could happen to us leads us to hesitate before approaching the King with our concerns for the people who are threatened with violence and death. The cousin who raised Esther, the prophetic voices that proclaim dreams of equality and justice, the voices of Liberian women tired of 7 years of war, the sheroes and heroes who challenge the unjust ways of our world all need to be renewed in mind and convinced in their own way that God is calling them to do something more, something right, something risky for the possibility of saving their people.
Why don’t we do more? Esther teaches us. Well, Brenda Salter McNeil teaches us through Esther, through assessing her own story, through inspiring us, through telling us history, through showing us a future that can be reached, through listening to those who know what is really going on outside the palace gates. We must listen. We must let our minds be renewed. We must leave fear behind, for it won’t help anyone if we are afraid. Because individual privilege, whether yours or Esther’s, cannot make up for systematic oppression, because no one really knows it all and we must listen, whether to Mordecai or to Brenda, or to those whomever really knows what is going on in the world.
Becoming Brave is the fruit of a lifetime, the reward of integrating various aspects of her life, and a statement or two on where we all need to go at a moment like this. It preaches.
Karen Altergott Roberts
Karen Altergott Roberts has been a faculty member at several midwestern universities, a pastor in Indiana, and a writer. She writes on social issues, teaches public speaking, and paints as a spiritual discipline.