Justice, Reconciliation, and the Primacy of Repentance

We need to repent and we need to do it now.  We have a long list of injustices to confess.  And you, white Christian American, should be first to your knees.  Think of the sins of our people.  Now think of how appallingly few of those injustices have ever been formally and publically lamented over, apologized for, or brought to a table of reconciliation.  Let’s change that.  Where to start?  Pick anything.  The Trail of Tears, the current treatment and fracturing of deported families, chattel slavery, unconscious bias, white privilege, Japanese internment camps, or state-sponsored torture.  Just stop waiting.  Or maybe it’s worse than stalling.  Maybe we really think there’s no need to raise our voices together about these things and cry out to our holy God.  Are we waiting?  Or have we not learned one of the most basic lessons we teach our toddlers?  “I’m sorry.  Forgive me.”  

The problem in America is that we only know how to say “I’m sorry.”  But for the deep wounds we see all around us, something more is needed:  Communal repentance.  And we’re not good at either repentance or its communal nature.  A call to repentance is not the same as being an ally or signing a petition or saying you’ll pray for Charleston.  There is plenty of that happening already.  Too often, prayer and solidarity have become code for salving one’s individual conscience, but not taking any action.  On the contrary, public repentance requires vulnerability.  It requires identifying a problem, admitting to it, and “turning toward” something new.   The powerful book Forgive Us by Cannon, Harper, Jackson, and Rah, reminds us that “repentance requires an about-face in our actions and a deep change in our way of life.” 

The authors use Nehemiah’s story to highlight the power of confession.  They also point out the communal nature of it.  When Nehemiah lifts up his prayer in the first chapter he confesses to “the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you.”  It would be easy to miss that Nehemiah cries out for forgiveness on behalf of his people, himself, and his ancestors.  All three.  God does not punish us for the sins of our fathers.  But that does not negate the communal nature of our sinfulness.  We inherit the sinful systems of our people and we are not immune from their destructive powers.  So we lift our voices.  

We really don’t like to do this as Americans.  Our radical individualism tells us that we are not responsible for the past, let alone anyone else in the present.  Our love of personal responsibility becomes toxic when it grows into the great lie that we are all self-made and isolated.  We believe that the sins of our people aren’t relevant to us.  But this couldn’t be further from the truth – sociologically, theologically, or biblically.  We are also people who want to see results.  We’re concerned about moving on and moving forward.  But that blinds us to the fact that moving on requires the slow, guilt-embracing, communal work of public repentance.  We seem to miss the obvious first step in our cycles of healing, which is saying, “We’re sorry.” 

So how do we do this?  There are many people who understand this and are doing something about it.  Black leadership in this country understands this.   The book “Forgive Us” understands this.  Manitoba understands this.  My inspiration for this call to repentance was a simple BBC article about Manitoba’s public apology to indigenous people.  The province’s statement is not to be mistaken for action.  But it is an essential start.  Why do we not hear about these type of apologies more often?  Where are the Christians demanding reconciliation and leading public liturgies of confession?  

We seem to miss the obvious first step in our cycles of healing, which is saying, ‘We’re sorry.’

Mark Charles understands our need to address the past in order to achieve anything resembling healing and reconciliation.  His article on the lasting harm to Native Americans is painful, poignant, and inspiring.  He highlights the terrible truth that the phrase “merciless Indian savages” occurs only a few lines away from “all men are created equal” in our beloved Declaration of Independence.  Our country is founded on racism.  Do we think we have escaped the effects of that?

But everybody understands that this is an old document, right?  We don’t believe that anymore, right?  Yet there it is.  And there the Confederate Battle Flag hangs in our public spaces.  Public repentance always looks to the powerful symbols that continue to produce pain.  We, white Americans, must realize that not acknowledging these things is akin to pretending like they never happened.  Our attempts at minimizing the pain of our brothers and sisters sounds similar to a pathetic playground apology – “we’re cool now, right?” 

This is why the flag matters.  Why street names in Charleston matter.  Why names of football teams matter.  “That doesn’t mean the same thing anymore.”   And “we don’t think that way anymore.”  Then prove it.  Prove that these fellow human beings mean more to you than a few words, a flag, or your pride that tells you don’t need to repent.  Get rid of the thing that hurts your sister or brother.  President Obama expressed it poignantly during his eulogy speech in Charleston.  About the removal of the confederate flag he said, “It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history, a modest, but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.”  I agree.  Its power comes from the fact that it is a visual representation of public repentance, an action among so many words. 

This is a call for repentance on every possible level.  Go to God in private prayer.  Lead prayers in your churches.  Make personal apologies for hurtful words and past actions.  Let this repentance rise to the highest levels of our public life.  Teach your leaders to make public statements and apologies for past and present actions.  Let’s raise our voices upward to God and outward to those we’ve sinned against.  We dare to believe in a God of radical grace, which means we dare to believe that on the other side of repentance are joy, peace, and freedom.  Our God is merciful.  Join me.

My name is Dan Carter – I am a sinner.  My people have sinned against so many others.  I have inherited the benefits of systemic oppression, violence, and racism.  I, too, am a racist.  I judge, fear, and blame others.  For me, for my people, for my country, and in the name of my Lord Jesus Christ, I am sorry.  Please forgive me.

  -Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI.  www.calvaryreformedholland.org