Dear White People: Repent!

On Facebook & Twitter I recently made the following statement: “To my white brothers & sisters: our participation in the ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬ movement begins with our repentance & confession.” A friend read this and asked if I could suggest any resources for repentance. I’ll suggest one such resources at the end of this post, but I want to start by filling in my original statement just a bit.

During the past few weeks I’ve wondered about how white people can participate in protests, marches, and movements for justice on behalf of black and brown people. This is worth thinking carefully about since the white protestors, like myself, are complicit in and beneficiaries of the very systems responsible for the injustices targeted by the protests. A white person presents at least two challenges in these settings: his presence is a reminder of the privilege and prejudice that makes the protest necessary and his formation within a white supremacist system makes his participation in a movement to dismantle such a system… complicated.

Despite these very significant challenges, there are good reasons for white people to join the struggle for justice for black and brown people. James Baldwin saw this in the early 1960’s:

White people cannot, in generality, be taken as models of how t live. Rather, the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being. And I repeat: The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks- the total liberation , in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind.

Black Lives Matter Protest in Bronzeville (photo credit: Esther Kang)
Black Lives Matter Protest in Bronzeville (photo credit: Esther Kang)

Here’s what I take from Baldwin about white protestors participating in BlackLivesMatter: We must begin by acknowledging our own profound need, by the way our privilege and unacknowledged power has corrupted our hearts. We come to this justice movement not as innocent bystanders or righteous saviors. We come as desperately needy persons, not to assuage our guilt but to confess our sin and need. For many of us, the act of protesting is a quite literal repentance- we are turning away from our sins of commission and especially our sins of omission and we are turning back to our Savior and the priorities of his Kingdom.

In my original statement I wrote that a white person’s participation in the movement begins with repentance. And while it does, repentance must also be ongoing. In our discipleship to Jesus we are regularly being shown new (to us) habits and assumptions that require our turning away. This will be especially true for those of us whose society has affirmed our assumptions, desires, and fears. As we continue to follow Jesus it becomes clear that the affirmation we received as members of a dominant culture is no longer so quick in coming. The ethic and assumptions of the Kingdom of Heaven are often greatly at odds with those of our country and its privileged citizens.

Though it is ongoing, this repentance will also be specific. White Christians who are becoming aware of the destructiveness of whiteness as a social construct can feel ashamed of being a white person. This person wants to apologize in general terms for being white. But such general shame and vague repentance isn’t helpful. After all, no one chooses their race or ethnicity. Neither do we choose the history and social realities associated with them. And while the social construct of whiteness continues to wreak havoc in America, there is nothing inherently wrong with a person’s white skin.

So our ongoing repentance must avoid vague generalities. We must instead repent like Zacchaeus who, when made aware of his sin by his proximity to Jesus, repented of particular sins: “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” The history of race in America – a history so many white people are ignorant of – provides many specific reasons to repent: economies and institutions built on slavery; discriminatory housing policies; stolen wealth and land; education inequities; mass incarceration; cultural stereotypes promoted by the media. These are barely the tip of the iceberg and the connections to these large themes and one’s own complicit privilege are not immediately obvious to many white people. But follow Jesus long enough with an eye to reality and the connections will come and along with them the need for particular repentance.

Black Lives Matter protest in Bronzeville (photo credit: Esther Kang)
Black Lives Matter protest in Bronzeville (photo credit: Esther Kang)

To be fair, many white people have been Christians for a long time and are as blind to the need to repent as are many of their non-Christian peers. Without going too deeply into it here I attribute this blindness to church structures that are more determined by our country’s racialized assumptions than by any Biblical ecclesiology. In too many cases our churches exacerbate our privilege and prejudice rather than calling them out and calling us to repentance. Segregated white churches eliminate the possibility of reconciliation across cultural divides, one of the bitter fruits being white people who never submit relationally to people of color whose experiences and perspectives would provide new rationale for specific moments of repentance.

Intrinsic to Christian faith is dependance on God’s grace and mercy. Confession, repentance, and forgiveness are not exceptional or occasional practices for Christians; these are the very basic practices of our faith. I point this out to say that, in theological theory at least, white people ought to welcome the opportunity for ongoing repentances as a normal and natural characteristic of their faith development. I don’t mean that it’s easy, but no one who reads the Gospels closely expects discipleship to be easy. Good, but never easy.

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As for resources for repentance, I think the Psalms are always the starting point. In recent weeks our church has turned to those psalms that were written during times of exile. These often speak to both the need for deliverance and the need for forgiveness.

Do not hold against us the sins of past generations; may your mercy come quickly to meet us, deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake. [Psalm 79]

Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us, for we have endured no end of contempt. We have endured no end of ridicule from the arrogant, of contempt from the proud. [Psalm 123]

The beginning of Nehemiah also is a great example of a man with cultural privilege repenting of a previous generation’s sins. This is tough for people who know too little of our history and value too much our individuality, but Nehemiah shows us why such wide repentance is necessary and good.

Author: David Swanson

Pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville. Collecting signs of life.

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