Payback time

“What do we do now?” That’s the refrain I hear after I speak or preach or teach about the long history and persistent presence of white supremacy and racism, even in the church and among Christians. While well intended, “What do we do now?” represents a rush to false resolution and a desire to dismiss our current complicity in the sin of racism. White people like me want to be assured of our goodness. We want to be commended for our desire to do something. We don’t want to sit in the painful space of recognizing the advantages we enjoy at the costly expense to non-whites. Repeatedly, white Christians say to me that the past is past and all that matters is what we do now. Embedded in that urgency is a need to deny the suffering, terror and oppression beset upon people of color not only by our white ancestors, but by our peers in this present day.

Unless we white people recognize the depth and breadth of injustice and harm done, we can never advocate and participate fully in making the amends that result in real reconciliation. Knowing the past, as best and honestly as we are able, is critical to acting faithfully in the present and subsequently shaping a future pleasing to God. White Christians ought to be leading the way to expose our history, name our complicity, recognize our complacency, confess the sin of systemic racism, repent of relentless white supremacy and work for justice.

White Christians ought not to be racked with guilt; we ought to be on fire for justice. Our baptism must matter, materially, made manifest in how we live together. Like Zacchaeus, our encounter with Jesus should transform us in ways undeniably evident to others. When the way of Jesus trumps the ways of the world, we cannot help but make things right and seek the well-being of others — especially those our actions, or inactions, have injured.

Like those cut to the heart by John the Baptist’s call to repentance, our question of “What should we do?” must be followed by acts of contrition that repair relationships in tangible ways. Asking that question rhetorically while shrugging our shoulders and declaring that the past is past allows us well-intended white people to maintain our goodness while also preserving all the unearned benefits conferred upon us through generations of oppression of African Americans codified in policy and enforced through periodic acts of terror.

But, what should we do? First, recognize the expansive, ubiquitous evil of white supremacy and the subsequent advantages it gives whites and detriments it has wrought on people of color. Do the work of research in your family, faith community and town. Read books, historic and contemporary, about past injustices and their present consequences. Talk about what you learn with other people in your circles of influence. Second, repent. Repentance entails a turning, a change of heart and a change of mind and a change of values and a change of actions. The white church’s complicity with racism is indisputable. The suffering inflicted on generations of African Americans is undeniable. White Christians cannot deny the injustice of slavery and Jim Crow, the horrendous violence of the KKK, lynch mobs and bombings, nor the systemic unfairness of access to home ownership, funding for college education, impact of law and order legislation and so much more. Knowing that our leg up comes at the expense of standing an another’s neck, we must repent. Finally, we must repair the damage, make reparations and pay back that which is owed.

Repair is possible. Reconciliation is possible. Reparations are possible. Through Christ all things are possible. The question white Christians must answer is not “What should we do?” The question is “What are we willing to do?”

If we prayerfully do the work to recognize the depth and breadth of the wrong done and truly repent, then the acts of repair become inevitably unstoppable, joyful, exuberant. Like Zacchaeus, we will do whatever it takes to make things right —

not out of guilt, but because the grace of our Lord transformed us and compels us to live in ways that show the world our love for Christ and for our neighbors.

Grace and peace,