Over the next week, ICCM will be sharing a four-part series on The Gospel and Race written by Grace Mosaic Elder Kenny Gibbs.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. 1 John 1:8-10
In America, we know you’re not supposed to be “racist.” It’s not just bad – it’s basically the worst thing you can be. Our history – from slavery to the continuing fight for full civil rights – tells us that “good people” should not have biases against others “based on the color of their skin.” This type of thinking is so deeply ingrained that even people like Richard Spencer, the organizer of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville that killed Heather Heyer and two police officers, doesn’t call himself a racist, but refers himself as a “civil and human rights advocate.” As a result, in conversations about race or racial injustice, I have often found that the focus, especially among my White brothers and sisters, is primarily on making sure they are not seen as a racist, instead of the more important task of dismantling the systems of racial hierarchy and oppression which mar the Imago Dei and stifle the flourishing of fellow image bearers.
Despite the cultural norm that “good people” don’t have bias based on skin color, social science tells us that to be human is to have bias. Further, to be American (or influenced by American culture) often means having pro-European and anti-Black bias. Yes – even Black people have this too. However, if a person’s idea of him- or herself as a “good person” requires they not be a “racist,” or to be a person without any known or unknown bias against another person based on their race, then he or she will not confront their biases and tear them down. We do not repent of the sins we don’t believe or admit exist.
The story of the gospel is that we are not “good people.” As Paul writes:
There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” Romans 3:10-12
Instead, we were enemies of God who have been justified (judged to have the status of righteous sons and daughters in His eyes) by Jesus’ incarnation, life, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. Further, we are being sanctified (becoming the holy people He intends for us to be) by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In American churches, I have seen my Christian brothers and sisters confess sins such as lust, adultery, anger, impatience and (to a lesser degree) greed and workaholism. Yet, I have rarely seen us confess our racial sins. Instead, I have often found many of my Christian brothers and sisters, especially my White brothers and sisters, hold onto to the notion (consciously or subconsciously) that they are without racial sin. This need to self-justify keeps us as the people of God from moving forward gospel reconciliation. More than that, the notion that one is without racial sin nullifies Jesus’ work on the cross, which earned our justification completely (i.e., He doesn’t need us to supplement His righteousness with any of our own – we have none to offer apart from Him).
As 1 John 1 says, when we confess our sins – including our racial sins – God our father is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse of all unrighteousness. Every last bit. However, if we say that we have no sin – or that the total depravity of human nature somehow skipped over the parts of our brains that make associations based on race – we are deceiving ourselves. Moreover, we deprive ourselves of the freedom that Christ won for us, or the power He gives us to do His work of gospel reconciliation. We cannot be cleansed of that which we do not confess.
Jesus began His public ministry with the call to repentance:
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mark 1:14-15
As people aiming to bring about the Way of Jesus in every sphere of life, we too must start with repentance. If you are a Christian (especially but not exclusively a Christian who identifies as White), confess and repent of your racial sins and biases that you might be cleansed from them and be empowered to participate in God’s kingdom building work. (I, as an elder in an intentionally cross-cultural church community and a person whose professional work intersects with issues of diversity in science, do this regularly). This is not a call to “white guilt” – that form of worldly sorrow, which leads only to death. It is a call to confession, lament and godly grief about racial sin and your role in it, which will in turn produce gospel repentance “that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Corinthians 7:10). The words of the psalmist are particularly helpful in reflecting on the issue of racism in America: “Both we and our fathers have sinned; we have committed iniquity; we have done wickedness” (Psalm 106:6).
Jesus died for all of our sins – including racism. To be Christian is to live free from the need to self-justify. The love of Jesus is big enough to cover over all sin – including racial sin – and the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit avails to cleanse us from racial sin. Confess, repent, and be free from the need to self-justify so that you might be empowered do the work of gospel justice and reparation for racial sin.
Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.