This post is not going to go the way you think it will, so please read to the end.
If I am guilty of something merely because I am white, there is no redemption for me. I cannot stop being white.
Now, I know that those who use the phrase “white guilt” often mean not just (or not primarily) the color of my skin, but the privilege that goes with it (something to be addressed in a future post). But the heart of white guilt is the idea that if I am white, then I must have sinned in some way connected to my skin color, most likely (say some) in a racist way against a black person. And while technically my guilt arises out of privilege, many people are getting the less nuanced message that it arises out if skin color.
This fits well the narrative promoted by those who subscribe to Critical Race Theory and intersectionality (also to be addressed in a future post). It does not, however, fit the Christian narrative. I will say this many times over subsequent posts: This present national crisis is going to reveal how many professing Christians have either drifted into a Marxist worldview on the left or Individualistic worldview on the right. And it should challenge us to seek out a distinctly Christian worldview as a third way between the other two.
An article in the New York Times asks, “How Can I Cure My White Guilt?” The authors seek to answer an inquirer who writes:
I’m riddled with shame. White shame. This isn’t helpful to me or to anyone, especially people of color. I feel like there is no “me” outside of my white/upper middle class/cisgender identity. I feel like my literal existence hurts people, like I’m always taking up space that should belong to someone else…I’m curled up in a ball of shame.
Their answer to this tormented soul? “Every white person should be ashamed of that injustice [the privilege whiteness afforded]. Which is different than being ashamed of being white.” The solutions given are various works of penance: becoming an ally, expressing anguish, relinquishing privilege. In other words, law.
This is what we might call ontological guilt, culpability and shame for your very nature. It is distinctly not a Christian view of guilt. God declared his creation of man and woman to be ‘very good’ because they were made in his image. The image of God is what gives us our inherent dignity. Ontological guilt, then, is not Christian. There is no redemption for ontological guilt. There is no good news.
In the Bible guilt is always connected to thoughts, words, or actions. This is what we call moral guilt. I am guilty when I do something I should not do or fail to do something I should do. Guilt is primarily in relation to God, and only secondarily in relation to others (Psa. 51:4). I become guilty when I break God’s law or erect idols in my heart. The gospel is the good news that because of Christ’s atoning work on the cross. By repentance my moral transgressions can be forgiven, and I can be made clean.
So, if I am not guilty because of my whiteness, am I still automatically guilty of racism because I am white? Automatically? No, but I should not dismiss the notion that I have committed an act or thought of racism just because none comes to mind in a quick review of my sins. David asked God to search his heart to see if there was any wickedness in him (Psa. 139:23-4) because sins can remain hidden (Psa. 19:12).
Perhaps every white Christian should ask God to search his heart for hidden preference, favor, hatred, or injustice toward people based on ethnic differences. So should every black, Asian, Latino, and other believer regardless of his ethnicity. We should also do this based on economic status (James 2:1-13), class, education, or any other difference. No discrimination is acceptable to God. He hates unjust treatment of others (Prov. 20:23). We should ask ourselves hard questions like:
Am I friendlier to people of certain ethnicities than to others when I encounter them?
Am I more willing to help people of certain ethnicities than others?
Do I care about the injustices experienced by people of certain ethnicities more than others?
Do I pray for and work to minister to people in need regardless of their ethnicity?
Do I care about the well-being of people of other ethnicities as much as I do those who look like me?
These are just a few of the many questions we can ask God to search our hearts. We may find after doing this that God reveals some prejudices. If so, we should experience shame and grief for our sin that leads us to repentance. And if we have sinned against another person as a result of these heart attitudes we should seek out their forgiveness.
It would be awful to be guilty simply because of my skin color. It would be anguish to know that there is nothing I could do to escape condemnation simply for who I am and not for anything I have done.
This is exactly the position in which many black people find themselves. It is hard for me to understand that until I listen to their stories. Because many white people are insulated from close relationships with black people they may not be aware of this. I presently live in the whitest place I have ever lived. I have never known what it is like to be pulled over by a policeman for no apparent reason. I don’t know what it is like to be called names for my melanin. I have never been afraid to walk through a nice neighborhood because I am white.
A black friend from the West Coast told me yesterday that he was harassed for his ethnicity this week. One of his sons is a mechanical engineer in his 20’s and has been pulled over a dozen times in the last year on his way home from work. Many other compelling and heartbreaking stories have been told. Are we listening?
I am well aware as a theologian that the root problem is sin in the heart. You cannot legislate or educate hatred out of the heart. Most African American spokespeople do not assume we can. This raises the issue to be addressed later of what can be done, not just in human hearts, but in police training, the justice system, and other realms.
But before we go there, I ask myself and my white friends, are we willing to listen to the stories of those who have been harassed and mistreated merely for who they are? Will we weep with those who weep and resist evil when we see it?
Here’s who I am presently listening to: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/george-floyd-and-me/
Next: Human dignity and equality are only consistent in a Christian worldview.
I invite comments, corrections, suggestions, and questions.