Racism, Repentance, and Reconciliation
I want to preface this essay about racial justice by stating two things about my identity. First, I am a Christian and second, I am white. My main audience is those who share this dual identity of being Christian and white. I think those identities matter in this discussion, though the first more than the second. Nevertheless, I hope that if you are neither a Christian nor white that there will be something in this essay for you as well.
When looking at the existence of racial injustice in the United States—from the killing of George Floyd to unequal access to education—one of the first Christian responses is that of lament. We lament the presence of the sin of racism in our nation. Racism is a sin that denies the full humanity of someone made in the image of God because their skin color and external features are different from our own. It dishonors the imago dei rather than recognizing and affirming it. This means that racism is not only an offense against another human being, it is an offense against God whose image has been denied (See 1 Jn 4:20, Js 3:9-12, Gen 9:6). Racism fails to obey the twin command to love God and our neighbors.
For Christians, lament for sin should quickly move to self-examination and repentance. Repentance takes seriously the Christian understanding that human beings are corrupted by the fall. We are separated by sin from God and from each other. We are in need of reconciliation with both. The pervasiveness of sin—the spider-like way it weaves itself into all areas of human life—means that the tendency to deny the image of God in other human beings on the basis of external appearance is not unexpected. It is as common and as expected as any other sin. For this reason, we should seriously examine whether we as individuals and our society at large have sinned in this area. As 1 John 1:8 says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Christianity requires us to take a hard, honest look at ourselves and our nation to see whether we are guilty of racial injustice. It then calls us to repent for our sins if we discover that we have fallen short in this area. This is an especially Christian response because repentance and forgiveness are not native to secular conceptions of justice. For us and our salvation, they are essential habits.
Many Christians can get on board with the idea of individual sins. They balk, however, at the mention of collective or national sins. The thinking goes like this, “Why should I repent for what other people did in the South a hundred years ago?” Setting aside the fact that racial injustice did not stop with the Fourteenth Amendment, it is an objection that is worth considering. Why should one individual repent for the sins of other individuals? Instead of entering a Biblical exploration of collective sins, of which Adam’s sin is just one example, I’ll take a simpler route by mentioning what two Christian writers had to say about national sins and repentance.
Few people have cataloged a nation’s sin as extensively as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a man who suffered unjust imprisonment by his own nation of Russia in the gulag. Yet in the essay “Repentance and Self-Limitation in the Life of Nations,” he writes that, “The nation is mystically welded together in a community of guilt, and its inescapable destiny is common repentance.” He argues movingly for national repentance as the necessary response for his nation’s sins. We can find a similar perspective in a short essay written by G.K. Chesterton called “Paying for Patriotism.” In it, he responds to a critic who censures him for discussing English colonialism in Ireland and the often brutal oppression of the Irish people. Chesterton admits that he himself did not do all the terrible things that the English did to the Irish. Yet it is equally true that he didn’t ride with Chaucer, help Shakespeare write his plays, or fight with Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. Chesterton writes that, “[I]f we accept this mystical corporate being, this larger self, we must accept it for good and ill. If we boast of our best, we must repent of our worst.”
It is true that I personally didn’t separate families at the auction block or whip slaves who picked cotton too slow. I didn’t carry a picnic basket on the way to see the “strange fruit” at a public lynching. Neither did I scream at Elizabeth Eckford as she walked to get an education equal to white high-school students, nor did I pull the trigger that assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. I neither shot Trayvon Martin as he walked home nor suffocated George Floyd. But in the same sense, I didn’t fight the Red Coats with Paul Revere or help Francis Scott Key write “The Star Spangled Banner.” I didn’t storm the beaches of Normandy or launch the first men to land on the moon. We cannot pick and choose which parts of the American heritage we claim as our own. If we at all claim to share in the greatness of America, we must also share in the sins of America. That is the cost of patriotism. Repenting may be one of the most patriotic things a Christian can do.
My hope is that this awareness of our larger national self will jolt us out of the hyper-individualistic stupor the Enlightenment has cast us into. Our sins may not only be individualistic, they can be at the level of groups, institutions, and social systems. If we take the idea of sin seriously, we shouldn’t be surprised that the sin of racism can be systemic. What else can we expect from social systems created by sinful human beings? Sin is insidious and complex, infecting everything. One has only to look at the Old Testament law to see that God not only cares about individual purity but also about a just society. There is a system for dealing with poverty and debt. The law provides a way to incorporate foreigners into the people of Israel (e.g. Exodus 12:48-49). And here we are moving towards that which follows repentance: reconciliation. Repentance should lead towards the establishment of a just society where God’s shalom peace flourishes.
There is another error that I feel I should address in talking about racial justice. That is the idea that racial justice is found by ignoring bodies and only looking at individual character or intellect. This colorblind approach is usually expressed by well meaning people as something like “I don’t see color.” Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement that “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” is sometimes used to support this approach to justice. One might also point to Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one
in Christ Jesus.” I would argue that this approach to racial justice comes not from Christianity but from a Cartesian dualism. Cartesian dualism, reflected in the statement “I think therefore I am,” posits that the mind as existing separate from the body is the truly important and defining part of the human being. This understanding of human nature is antithetical to the incarnation: that in the fullness of time God took on human flesh and was made man, a man living in Galilee in the first century, speaking Aramaic, and having the skin color of his human parents. In taking on a particular body, Jesus demonstrates that matter matters in Christianity; bodies matter. Orthodox Christianity affirms that humans are body-souls or soul-bodies; we are embodied beings. Bodily characteristics like skin color and sex matter in Christian understandings of human identity. Galatians 3:28 makes clear that these do not determine the closeness of our relationship to Christ or the degree to which we reflect the image of God, yet few would argue that Galatians 3:28 means that gender distinctions cease to matter, so why race?
The importance of bodies means that Christians lose something when they gather in racially homogeneous groups. We lose a variety of perspectives that come with having Christians of different skin colors, cultures, and languages. Such a view may sound like cultural relativism. I hope, however, that is as far away as possible from a bland cultural relativism or superficial multiculturalism. Instead, it is rooted in the idea that the life of the body of Christ requires a variety of different body parts. We don’t just need different spiritual gifts and roles in the Church, we need Christians whose different embodied racial and cultural experiences are informed by the Holy Spirit. The fact that we are all one body and orientated towards one Lord keeps this embracing of difference from descending into cultural relativism. When diverse groups of Christians gather together they imitate heaven where St. John saw “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9). Even when the Christians we gather with are culturally and ethnically homogeneous, whether because of geography or styles of worship, we should strive to reach out to Christians that are racially different from us and build bonds of unity and relationship. Homogeneity is never something that Christians should intentionally seek to cultivate. We need to make space for those who are different within our local bodies because without them we are incomplete.
One scriptural image for reconciliation is that of hospitality. Hospitality may sound like a milquetoast idea, something that involves coffee and tea cakes, but it is really a richer and more costly concept. Christian hospitality is a response to God’s hospitality to us. In Ephesians 2, St. Paul tells us to “[R]emember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ…So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” Through Jesus’ death on the cross, he made space for Gentiles in the household of God. The book of Acts shows how resistant many Jewish Christians were to the idea that ethnically Gentile people, with their strange languages, customs, and traditions, could be as close to God as ethnically Jewish people. Yet it is the story of the Bible that God makes space in his household for diverse groups who are born outside it. Even in the Old Testament, as I mentioned earlier, the law provided a way for foreigners to acquire the rights of native born Israelites, a revolutionary way of breaking down racial divisions.
If God made space for us, we need to make space for others. White people have historically controlled access to a variety of spaces, whether they be cultural influence, education, political office, bank loans, or neighborhoods, even though these spaces are not ultimately our own. Because of this history, it is incumbent that we be the ones to make space. Yet divine hospitality is potentially costly. Jesus sacrificed his life so that we could be at home in God’s household. Reaching out to people that we avoid because of stereotypes, whether realistic or sinful, may require no less a sacrifice of our sense of security. It may require living in a poorer neighborhood or sending our children to underperforming schools in order to be present with those who are racially different from us. It may mean giving to people who will take advantage of our hospitality, remembering how often we have taken advantage of God’s hospitality. It may mean denying ourselves the privileges of our racial identity in order to let those who have been held back by the historical weight of racial injustice to succeed, or giving up our place of authority so that someone else can assume it. It may mean economic sacrifice by those who have been provided with more. As Jesus warns in the gospel of Luke, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Lk. 12:48). If all this sounds radical, it is. But we have only to look to Jesus to see an example of this self-limitation. Though he was God, he took on the nature of a servant, assuming the limitations of a human body. In that limited state, he lived as Emmanuel, God with us.
What this looks like for the United States as a whole which is, or has become, a secular and pluralistic nation, I’m not entirely sure. Yet the call to confront racial injustice, to repent and move towards reconciliation in whatever spheres we are in, is a call that is for all Christians. I hope too that I have shown that racial justice is not a deviation from the main concern of the gospel; it intersects at key points with God’s plan of salvation for the world. Some of our failures as white Christians to take seriously the sin of racism in all its complexity and pervasiveness come from secular notions—including Cartesian dualism and hyper-individualism—that are at odds with a fully Christian understanding of human nature. We need to examine how habits of mind and behavior have led us away from faithfulness to God’s vision for humanity. Return, after all, is what repentance is all about.
Repentance brings up another controversial “R” word: reparations. In the Old and New Testaments, there is the idea that justice requires restitution as a part of repentance. How one puts a dollar amount on all the sufferings inflicted by racism, however, is something I don’t know where to begin calculating.
See also Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Everything that Rises Must Converge” which critiques the ability of dualism to free someone from a racist mindset. Cartesians dualism is an important aspect of Enlightenment thinking. It is perhaps not a coincidence that “scientific” racism, the progenitor of modern racism, is another Enlightenment product.
I owe the theological idea of hospitality and the notion that it can be applied to political life to Matthew Kaemingk’s Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear.
See for example the Mapping Prejudice project at the U of M which looks at the spread of racial covenants in Minneapolis. These covenants, which continued to be added to warranty deeds until the mid 1950’s, prohibited the selling of houses to persons of color.