As I have been learning about worship, one of the worship styles which scares me a little bit is “Activism”. This means worshiping God by fighting for a just society and caring for the underprivileged. This is not my preferred way of worship, but it is clear in both the Old and New Testaments that God has a heart for justice. Psalm 103:6 says, “The LORD works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.” His laws for Israel reflect this desire for them to be a society which provides justice for the poor and vulnerable. The church in Acts works out this desire by caring for the poor and widows among them. If this is God’s heart, it should be mine as well. One area where this has come to reality for me is in the issue of racial reconciliation. I have spent a good deal of time learning and thinking about how I can respond, and here are some of my thoughts.
Repentance. It’s always been hard for me. I’m a bit of a perfectionist (okay, a lot), and repentance requires admitting that I have done something less than perfectly. So when George Floyd died, and suddenly social media screamed for white repentance, I had to fight an internal battle against the reaction rising in me that cried, “I’m innocent! I’m innocent!”
In some ways, I am innocent. I have never witnessed, much less taken part in, the kind of racist acts I have read about on the internet. Actually, I grew up taking pride in the fact that there was no more racism in the US. This viewpoint may have been naïve, but it came from learning about the fight against slavery and living in a community where we didn’t see racism in action. We honored Civil War leaders who fought against slavery. We esteemed those who continued to fight for black rights in our society. One of my heroes as a child was Ruby Bridges. Her courage and determination opened the way for black people to enter the public education system. I loved to read these stories where freedom overcame tyranny, and I was proud to live in a society that had been able to root out oppression. I didn’t have any reason to think things were different.
The result was that when I heard people talk about racism that still existed, I felt irritated and offended. I thought people of color had their rights but wanted more, and were using an old wrong to manipulate society into giving it to them. I was offended that the rights that had been won were ignored and unappreciated. I was offended because the implication was that I was guilty, but I felt like I was innocent.
This is probably similar to the story of many white people that I know – people who have never witnessed racism, who are proud of a history that has overcome racism (and have no reason to think otherwise), and who resent being called guilty. As a result, racial tensions can be hard to digest.
So this was my history. But over the past few years, I have started to see a different story. It started with reading Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy”. As I read I could see that I had missed something big in our society. I found more and more stories of racism, both personal and ingrained in society. As I read these things, I realized that change was needed.
Along with this came a desire to repent: It makes me sick that this is our history, and I’m sorry to those who have lived it. But I also wrestled with repentance. How can I repent of something I haven’t really done? How do I reconcile my personal innocence with the guilt of my “group”? Okay, quick note on personal innocence. I’m not really personally innocent. I know there are times when I judge people by their race. I know that when I travel to Africa I struggle not to slip into “paternalism”. I know these weaknesses and I do repent of them. But, I think it’s still important to consider how to repent of wrongs I haven’t personally done. In this struggle, I’ve found the answer by looking at repentance in the nation of Israel.
The nation of Israel was called to be holy and set apart to God, but as we know they so often failed. There are so many examples of one person – a priest or a prophet perhaps – repenting on the behalf of the nation. One of my favorite examples is Daniel. The book of Daniel is filled with examples of Daniel’s personal covenant faithfulness – at the very beginning of his time in Babylon, he refused to eat food that would have broken the covenant. Then, when the decree came to pray to the King only, he continued to pray to God even at the risk of his life. In addition to his personal innocence, Daniel had very little relationship with Israel. He was not in Israel, but in Babylon, and in addition to that he wasn’t living with the other exiles. He was part of the Babylonian ruling class, and therefore would have been separate from the general exiled population. So, when it came to Israel’s covenant unfaithfulness, Daniel had very little to repent of. Yet, in Daniel 9:4-6, Daniel prays to God and says, “Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land.” Daniel clearly includes himself in this prayer! He says “we” over and over again. It was never “they” or even “our ancestors”. Daniel recognized that as part of the group that was unfaithful to God, part of the responsibility came upon him, and he could repent for it. He came humbly before God, even though he himself had been faithful.
I think this sets a precedent for us, as white people and as Christians. Though we are not personally responsible for slavery or the resulting racism in our country, we can still repent for the sins of our people. Repenting for the sins of one’s “group” is still hard to do. It’s still admitting that the group hasn’t been perfect, and as a result I share some of the culpability. But I think it’s an important step in righting the wrongs that have been done.
And for me personally, while “activism” isn’t my preferred way to worship and social justice isn’t my primary calling, I want to worship God even in the hard ways. I must step out of my comfort zone and take part in God’s justice by repenting for the sins of my people.
So, to people of color in America, I want to say, “I’m sorry for the sins of my people. I’m sorry for the injustice and oppression that you faced. I’m sorry for the injustices you still face. May the LORD lift you from your affliction (Psalm 107).”