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.
Regular readers will notice that I have posted little of late. The combination of too much to do at this point in the semester (2 weeks to go!) plus nothing much to say are the reasons why. However, I have a new post over at the faculty blog at www.biblical.edu. This post is a version of a short essay that I wrote for the AACC Christian Counseling Today magazine in 2006.
On regular occasions church leaders request consultations about complex pastoral cases in their churches. The most frequent consultation has to do with some form of abuse or offense by one parishioner against another. The offending party wants to be reconciled with the victim party but the victim party is hesitant if not downright refusing such reconciliation. In other situations, the church is trying to figure how long to discipline or restrict the parishioner. The big question is commonly,
“How do we know when [name] is really repentant?”
Here’s the problem with answering this question. The fruits of repentance are quite hard to distinguish from their counterfeits. Tears, words, and time are poor estimates of true repentance. However, there are some very good evidences of repentance. Click GRACE Repentance for my 3 signs every church leader should know.
Public, direct, and heartfelt apologies are difficult…and rare.
I’ve written here numerous times about apologies and repentance. I find public apologies very interesting, especially by those who can afford to pay someone to help them “get it right.” Last week I listened to a public figure hold a press conference after his conviction for DUI. This person has a lot of money and access to all of the best “coaches”. And yet, his apology was all about himself. Asked what he learned? “I learned that life is full of second chances and I got one.” Now, that could mean that he realizes that he was protected from killing someone with his car. He avoided ending his career. Or, it could mean something far less than remorse. Really, his “apology” was all about himself.
Here’s my question to readers: Have you witnessed or experienced a “home run” apology? What made it so? What features were present? How did you know it wasn’t merely learning the right words? Did you ever think you received a real heartfelt apology only to discover later it wasn’t?
In “Machete Season” (book about Rwandan “killers”), one victim gives one requirement:
“If killers come to church to pray to God on their knees, to show us their remorse, I cannot pray either with them or against them. Real regrets are said eye to eye, not to statues of God.” (p. 163)
If you haven’t seen Jack Miller’s little book on repentance I encourage you get ahold of the new edition published by CLC publications (2009). The cost is under 8 dollars! Jack Miller wrote the first edition in 1975 under the title, “Repentance and the 2oth Century Man”. This one, entitled: Repentance: A Daring Call to Real Surrenderalso includes a foreward by Andree Seu (World Magazine) and an epilogue by Miller’s widow, Rose Marie.
Here’s why I find this little book very helpful. It clarifies the subtle but oh-so-important differences between true repentance and penance; between true repentance and regret. It reminds us that repentance is a daily moment-by-moment attitude but is not something that is full of shame and morose feelings.
As someone who works with Christians struggling with addictive patterns, I find one of the greatest challenges is to help clients move from penance to repentance and from guilt to freedom. This book ought to help with both.
For those unfamiliar with Jack’s legacy, he started New Life Presbyterian Church in Glenside (my church) and out of that church a number of other churches were planted as well as the founding of World Harvest Missionwhich has 170 missionaries now in 15 countries–including Uganda where missionaries were intimately involved in the care of those suffering through last year’s ebola outbreak.
I’ve noticed that the American Association of Christian Counselors has made many of their magazine (Christian Counseling Today) articles available for free on their www.ecounseling.com website. You can search by author or keyword to find what you might be looking for.
My 800 word essay on repentance after abuse can be found here. A longer and very helpful article by another psychologist on the 12 features of spiritual abuse can be found here.
Can an apology come too soon? I was listening to an NPR show discussing a national apology for slavery in the US (and reparations). One guest on the show stated that if a government or organization apologizes before there is adequate dialogue about the real effects of that entity’s misdeeds (i.e., support of slavery), it kills further dialogue.
Really? Why is it that if we apologize for hurting someone that we think the conversation is over?
Point of fact: true apologies invite further discussion, including exploration of the effects of the “crime.” When discussion ends because of an apology, we discover that the apology was really cover for, “Will you let me out of jail for what I did to you? Will you forget my bad behavior?”
True apologies are not formed as questions or requests–either explicitly or implicitly. It is offerings of forgiveness that end or at least change discussion regarding criminal activity. When we demand instant forgiveness or apology acceptance we inappropriately tie apologies with conversation endings.
Do you agree with this next statement? The truly repentant do not mind apologizing as many times as necessary nor engaging in conversation about the effects of their misdeeds.
In relationship to slavery, the matter is complicated in that the conversation is happening between those who either indirectly benefit or suffer from slavery. Because of our overemphasis on individualism, we often fail to acknowledge corporate sins and that some of us benefit from those corporate sins. Read Ezra and Nehemiah and you see a different picture. A people repenting for sins done by the previous generation. Now there’s a novel idea.