Racism and Repentance (Part 3)

Remnants of the Past

At the end of March, the city of Evanston, Illinois enacted a Restorative Housing Program which aims to bridge the wealth gap between Black and White residents of the well-to-do Chicago suburb. The program, funded primarily by cannabis sales tax and private contributions, will allocate a total of $400,000 (paid out in $25,000 allotments) to Black families to put toward down payment assistance for purchasing a new home, mortgage payments, or home improvement projects. Proponents of the bill point out that these payments will not be direct-deposit cash payments to all Black families in Evanston; rather, they will be grants earmarked for the purpose of building the wealth of Black families specifically through home ownership. The program will be limited to Black individuals and descendants of Black individuals who were historically denied the opportunity to invest in residential property as a result of the government’s discriminatory housing laws. [1]

In the 1930s, the government was faced with a housing crisis as the country’s cities became overpopulated and property was in short supply. In order to alleviate the pressure on the housing market, the government began investing resources into building suburban communities. These suburban development programs were specifically targeted toward White, middle-and-lower-class families. As a result, White families moved out of the city and into the suburbs (suburbs such as Evanston, Illinois) while Black and other minority families were relegated to the inner-city housing projects. Given that building equity through home-ownership is one of the best ways for individuals to build wealth, there arose a distinct wealth gap between between those who owned homes (mostly White people) and those who lived in rental properties or government housing projects (mostly Black people and other minorities). This practice, known as redlining, amounted to, essentially, government-sanctioned segregation [2]. The wealth gap persists to this day in many regions of the country. Through their Restorative Housing Program, the city of Evanston is seeking to afford Black families the opportunities they were denied in the past to invest in property and increase the quality of life for the city’s Black residents.

The reparations are not intended to appease the conservative caricature of a lazy, entitled slouch looking to the government for a handout for some perceived racist slight against their long-dead ancestors. They are meant to reform and reverse the affects of systems and policies designed to stack the deck in favor of White policymakers, corporations, and individuals; policies that still negatively impact Blacks and other minorities, put them at a real disadvantage, and deny them access to real opportunities for success.

You don’t have to look far to see more examples of remnants of historical discrimination that still put people of color at a distinct disadvantage in American society. From school districts being mapped (and funded) according to borders and boundaries that once separated Black and White residential areas, to Planned Parenthood targeting minority neighborhoods and taking advantage of their lack of access to affordable healthcare, to fast food chains and bodegas displacing grocery stores in urban communities, leaving low-income people with fewer options for a healthy meal and contributing to America’s obesity problem, which is disproportionate to Black and Hispanic populations.

There is a myth in our culture that one can simply bootstrap their way to success if they simply put their nose to the grindstone and work hard for it. That’s all well and good in theory, but it assumes that everyone in America has an equal opportunity to succeed in the first place; that we are all playing on the same field – and that’s empirically untrue. Institutional slavery may have been abolished (by law, anyway) in the United States, but remnants of America’s historical abuse of people of color continue to impact the lives of millions.

Repentance: A Review

In Racism and Repentance, I have been building the argument that collective repentance for historical and modern racism is a God-honoring, biblical step toward healing and reconciliation. I have received a great amount of feedback from numerous people, most of which has resulted in gracious, encouraging, challenging dialogue. The biggest pushback has been against my use of the word repent. Several people have expressed their conviction that it is not possible, worthwhile, or biblical to repent for evils that we did not personally commit. I have argued to the contrary:

  1. Sin in the broad sense is humanity’s collective state of unholiness before God.
  2. As a collective problem, collective repentance is a right and biblical response to sin (this is not to say that one should not repent for his or her individual sins as well).

In Part 2, we looked at an example from Nehemiah 9, where the nation of Israel, having just returned from exile, recounted the sins of their ancestors that had brought judgment upon their people, repented as a community, and renewed their covenant vow to obey and worship God above all else to avoid repeating history. This story, in my mind, provides the best biblical model of repentance:

Repentance is

1. recognition of sin,

2. a change of heart and mind, and

3. a commitment to re-orient our once-sinful desires toward obeying and exalting God.

Racism and Repentance

Many Christians don’t seem to have a problem with the idea of collective repentance. The disagreement is over the necessary extent of it. You’ve probably read or heard this verse numerous times over the past year:

If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

2 Chronicles 7:14

In response to the fear and anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, political and social unrest, and a year in America defined by unprecedented division, many Christians looked to this verse from 2 Chronicles as a divine call for we Americans to repent of the sins that brought us to the dire situation we found ourselves in and seek God’s forgiveness and righteousness. I think we can agree on two things here:

  1. Human sin leads to judgment, societal brokenness, division, and disaster, and
  2. Collective repentance is the first step toward bringing about healing.

Something we don’t all agree on, however, is whether it is profitable to repent of the specific sin of institutional racism, because many people of faith do not agree that it remains a problem in America today. I have shared a number of examples that, hopefully, illustrate that it is in fact a problem. While discrimination has been outlawed in most arenas of American society on paper, there are still remnants of racial segregation and discrimination that exist in the laws, policies, and social norms that govern our society. These remnants negatively affect the quality of life of millions of Black people and other minorities.

I am not saying that I don’t love and appreciate the United States of America. I recognize that it is a privilege to live in this country and that much blood, sweat, and hard work have gone into building our nation into what it is. But I am not so naïve to think that there is not still work to be done. I believe the discrimination, disenfranchisement, and hatred people of color experience in our nation is an injustice that Jesus cares very deeply about. I believe that our failure to listen and respond to the stories and experiences of marginalized people is a fundamental failure to love our neighbor as ourselves. But I believe that Christians can be a tremendous force for racial reconciliation and healing; and it starts with acknowledging that racial injustice is a problem.

What would it look like for the people of God to repent of all the ways society has disenfranchised people of color, and all the ways we have contributed to, or benefitted from, racial discrimination? What if we committed to being a voice of hope and reconciliation to people who have been historically marginalized? What if we made the choice to do better moving forward? This is the model of collective repentance that I am proposing for all of us to consider.

  1. Recognize that the sin of racism still affects real people in our society today. I am not suggesting you take a page out of our culture’s playbook and look for racism around every corner and behind every problem. Doing so dilutes the issue and takes the focus off of real people. Instead, talk to people outside of social media, hear their experiences, and listen. Seek to understand how other peoples’ perspectives and experiences may be different than your own.
  2. Open your heart and mind. Consider how Jesus treated marginalized people in his culture (The woman at the well [John 4)]; the paralytic in Capernaum [Mark 2:1-12], etc.). Read the prophets (Isaiah 1; Hosea 4:1-2; ) and remind yourself of God’s heart for the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. Allow God to search your heart and convict you.
  3. Commit to seeking justice and reconciliation for those who have been affected by institutional racism. If God has convicted you of any present or past wrongs, ask him to forgive you and soften your heart toward people who have been affected by injustice.

Conclusion

I firmly believe the gospel of Jesus transforms not only our own position before God, but our position before other people. As people who have submitted ourselves to the Lordship of Jesus, we have committed to following him into the world and bringing about peace and justice on earth as it in his Kingdom. Racism is an injustice for which the people of God have an answer and the potential to be a tremendous force for healing, understanding, and reconcilation. The first step toward healing is to humble ourselves and repent.

Cover Photo: Henry Horner Homes, a former Chicago housing project. Photo by David Wilson, Oak Park, IL.

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