Growing up, I was always taught I was a wretched sinner.
Uplifting message for a four-year-old, right?
But there was good news. Though I was a sinner, there was forgiveness available in Jesus! Jesus had died on the cross for my sins and your sins and everyone’s sins. All we had to do was believe and invite Jesus into our heart and we would be saved.
Of course, we still sinned everyday. None of us were perfect. By the time I became a teenager, this led to much confusion because there was the constant fear we weren’t really saved. Many of would get saved over and over just to make sure. Since then, I have heard plenty of stories saying my experience of fearing I could lose my salvation at any moment was not unique.
Thankfully I developed a much better understanding of what salvation is and how it works which includes not needing to live in constant fear that we’ll accidentally step across some line, ending up on God’s naughty list, and become subject to eternal torment. I still adhere to the best of these early lessons: we ARE all sinful and we CAN be forgiven. Speaking of sin, on our best days, we still screw up. We’re a mess. Yet I believe we can grow and mature. Jesus invites us to follow him and we actually can become better people than we were before! We’re always loved and forgiven, we’re always able to get better and we’re always liable to screw up.
All this to say, humility and confession and repentance are a constant part of Christian discipleship.
This is why I am often confused at the resistance on the part of white American Christians to confess the sins in the history of our country or the brokenness in our systems right now.
In other words, my theology of sin prepared me to easily believe in systemic racism. Just as individuals are sinful, so too is any institution or system built by humans. Sin is not merely an act you commit from time to time; sin is a force bigger than us that affects all of creation from nature to institutions to individuals.
So again, I struggle to understand why white American Christians are the primary group that resists admitting systemic racism is a sin (we just saw it last night with Mike Pence on the debate stage!). I suppose a large part of this is that white evangelical Christianity has heavily focused on individual sin and personal responsibility. These things are certainly a part of a full understanding of sin, but taken alone they are simply not enough. This emphasis on individual sin and personal choice is more influenced by modern culture and philosophy’s way of looking at humans than it is from Christian theology. When we look to theology rooted in the revelation of God through the Scripture, we find description of sin and the brokenness of creation that extends beyond just individual choice. Scripture gives us a picture of sin that extends to all creation and from this we recognize the reality that all of nature and all systems and institutions are also broken.
Recently CSFPA had a virtual fall retreat in partnership with Bridgebuilders, an organization in Chicago. We had visited Bridgebuilders on Spring Break 2019. They invite groups to Chicago to listen, learn, serve and return. Our retreat focused on the listen and learn part, though the hope is we would serve in our communities. One of the sessions at the retreat was about poverty. CW Allen, the teacher of the session, asked the question, “Why are people poor?” He ended up walking the students through three broad categories:
1. Personal Choice – People are poor because of bad choices.
2. No Choice – People are poor because of things like natural disasters.
3. Systemic – People are poor because of broken systems.
White conservative evangelicals focus almost exclusively on the first and second category. This is why when natural disasters occur, church groups are quick to help. But if we focus only on these categories, we do not take into consideration the reality of systemic racism and oppression. For what its worth, we could argue that some secular liberals focus exclusively on the third category. In this view, if we just fix the systems we will create utopia. White evangelical Christians are quite good at criticizing this view. But we must turn the criticism to the deficiencies of our own view as well.
A full Christian view, based in scripture, sees all three categories at play.
Recognizing the third category is only the first step. Once we recognize broken systems, we must then confess our benefit from them.
White Christians built the system of slavery that built the economy in the south in antebellum America. White Christian preachers supported it with scripture. White Christians seceded from the union and fought a war to keep slavery. White Christians then put a system in place that kept black citizens oppressed. When black people across the country would start to reach equality, white Christians would lynch and riot to keep the status quo in place. During the Civil Rights movement, it was White Christians who were most opposed to equality. The white evangelical movement took off when the federal government forced Bob Jones university to integrate, angering evangelical leaders.
There is more we could say. The point is – we must confess this history.
Confession is hard. Its uncomfortable to recognize we have benefited from this history. In the face of guilt from recognizing our benefits and complicity, its easier to retreat into the status quo then take steps to begin to make things right.
And for the record, this is where I begin to run out of steam – I do not know what ‘making things right’ looks like.
But I do know we must confess and repent.
Because its disingenuous to condemn riots we see now when historically white people rioted all the time to keep their power.
Because its disingenuous to assume white evangelicals are correct in our social views now when we have consistently been wrong in our history.
Because its disingenuous to assume we’d have opposed slavery or supported Civil Rights when the way we read the Bible is the same way our predecessors did as they supported slavery and opposed Civil Rights.
We need to confess. We need to repent. We need to stop putting ourselves in the center and learn to listen to and learn from our Christian brothers and sisters. We need to push white Jesus off the pedestal and see if we can find the real Jesus worshipped all over the globe by diverse Christians.
From all of this, we can begin to work for Shalom. This is another thing Bridgebuilders focused on with my students. They spoke of how sin broke relationships in four directions – with ourselves, others, God and nature. A holistic understanding of salvation is one that brings peace and wholeness (shalom) in all of these directions. We cannot ignore any of them as we work towards all of them.
May we learn what it looks like to confess, repent, be humble and work for shalom in our communities.