On this national holiday when we remember the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, we not only remember his courage, valor, and prophetic words but the reason why he was needed in the first place. There is no need for a legacy of Dr. King except for the legacy of slavery, oppression, segregation. If not for our nationwide refusal to treat our brothers and sister of color with the honor and dignity due them as bearers of the image of God, there would not have been a need for fighting for civil rights and there would not have been a martyrdom of Dr. King.
But that was a long time ago…
For some, the end of legalized owing of slaves marked the end of systemic inequality. But what of Jim Crow and sharecropping that continued the subjugation of a people through legal means? For others, desegregation of schools and the Civil Rights act of 1964 marked the end of systemic inequality. But what of the inequities in the justice system and the disproportionate representation of Black men in prison? What of unjust incarceration? Today, many mark these evils by attending a showing of Just Mercy depicting the work of Bryan Stevenson to free innocent men from death row. You cannot watch this movie and not see that a system was designed to keep some from their inalienable rights.
So, should I repent of sins I did not commit?
But are we–who did not participate in buying and owning slaves, did not participate in enacting and enforcing color line laws, did not falsely accuse or discriminate against African Americans in the justice system–held accountable what our family and political forbears have done? Ought we to apologize and repent from institutional and corporate sin we did not actively commit? Ought we to make right what was done wrong to others, or to those who ancestors were wronged?
The argument of some is that we ought only to confess and repent of our own sins. We cannot repent of those sins others committed before us. The basis of this argument is that there are no biblical commands (outside of Lev 26:40) to repent for the sins of others. But this view does not take into consideration two important factors:
- God’s blessing is tied to community righteousness and community care for vulnerable people. The bible, God’s letters to his people are not written just to individuals, but to whole communities
- Consider James 1:27 and the litmus test for true religion
- Consider the warnings throughout the Bible to not tolerate injustice (Hab 1, 1 Cor 5, Rev 2)
- Sins come in all sorts of sizes and shapes, including NOT speaking truth and standing for righteousness.
- Individual sins can com in the form of commission AND omission. The failure to not speak up about past and present injustices is still a failure. (James 4:17)
- Not blessing those in need with something is condemned (1 John 3:17)
The beginning of healing
When we call things as they are, we begin the process of healing. Have you ever experienced someone who publicly acknowledges that a wrong was done to you or to those you love? How did this make you feel? And if that person represented the institution that did the wrong to you, how would that make you feel? It might not resolve all of your pain, but most likely you would feel like you had entered a new path of healing.
So, let us endeavor to speak up about the wrongs done in this country to our African American brothers and sisters–the ones that were done during chattel slavery, the ones during reconstruction and Jim Crow, the ones during segregation, and the ones that continue today. Let us acknowledge and disavow the actions of those who went before us. Let us show our regret for the ongoing negative impact on our entire community. We all suffer when any of us suffers. And let us repent of our own complicity where we see it. Let us especially repent of our fear and hesitation to listen to the pain and suffering of our brothers and sisters and our over-concern for the impact this might have on our own well-being.