Lent is the 40-day season when followers of Jesus reflect on God’s purposes for our lives and embrace the imperative of repentance, a discipline involving conversion from self-worship (idolatry) and self-righteousness to God-worship and righteousness according to God’s justice. Repentance begins with confession, meaning admitting we have wronged God and others (whether by commission or omission). Beyond that, repentance involves turning away from wrongful values, acts and practices and embracing the values and ways of God in our relationships to God and others.
Thus, repentance always involves protest by people inspired by God, the Protestor in Chief, about attitudes and actions that violate divine love, truth and justice. With God’s help, we become protestors of our ways. We not only agree with God that our ways require prophetic protest; in repentance we become God’s people of protest, God’s prophetic and subversive agents of divine love, truth and justice. In that sense, we never become repentant people without somehow also becoming prophetic about God’s love, truth and righteousness (justice).
“Repentance always involves protest by people inspired by God, the Protestor in Chief.”
While Baptists have always considered repentance an inseparable part of God’s grace, we have stressed repentance as an aspect of piety rather than an ethical imperative for doing justice. We speak, write, preach and sing about repentance as part of a personal relationship with God, but seldom (and then only reluctantly) treat repentance as necessary for healing broken relationships because people abuse power and harm others.
That pietistic view of repentance does not square with the Bible. In Torah, the sin offering was presented to atone for sin based on acknowledgment of guilt. Meanwhile, the trespass offering was presented to atone for sin based on acknowledgement of injury. The trespass ritual teaches that sin against others always involves more than guilt. Sin also causes damage, harm and injury that is not atoned for without voluntary and intentional conduct to repair what has been harmed, damaged or injured.
We never repair harm or undo the oppression of sin committed against others by merely making an apology and feeling remorseful. Acknowledging guilt and expressing remorse does not restore what has been wrongfully taken, does not rebuild what has been destroyed and does not heal what has been wounded. Healing what has been wounded, righting what has been wronged and restoring what has been stolen or destroyed involves justice (righteousness). That requires us to ponder the ethical imperatives surrounding reparations, restitution and restoration if we are to truly and faithfully reflect about repentance (during the Lenten season and always).
Sadly, white Baptists have shown little interest, and even less enthusiasm, in acknowledging how the sinfulness of racism, white supremacy and white religious nationalism injures and works oppression on people of color. The much ballyhooed 1995 Resolution on Racial Reconciliation on the 150th Anniversary of the Southern Baptist Convention expressed collective guilt and remorse for racism, slavery, discrimination and other oppression related to racism toward African-Americans. But it was conspicuously and suspiciously silent about healing the damage, injury and harm caused by more than 250 years of chattel slavery, another century of state-sanctioned segregation, and the ongoing systemic practices and policies that extended that wicked history.
I have found no document, report, survey or even an estimate by white Baptists that even attempts to calculate the economic value of 250 years of forced and unpaid labor by millions of black people. No compensation was paid to Emmett Till’s mother, nor to the surviving relatives of countless other black victims of vigilante white racism, including black people who were lynched in public spaces (including church grounds). I have not unearthed sermons or essays by white Baptists (including messages to a congregation, association, convention or other religious gathering) that protest the calculated indifference of white people toward reparations, restitution and restoration for black people because of racial injustice.
“White Baptists who reject the morality of reparations deliberately ignore the example of repentance displayed by Zacchaeus.”
Respectfully, calculated refusal by white Baptists to confess that reparations, restitution, and restoration are ethical imperatives causes many people to view white Baptists as weak witnesses (at best) about the transforming and salvific work of repentance. At worst, white Baptists are considered hypocrites concerning racial justice and repentance.
Concerning the restitution that lies at the heart of the ethical imperative of reparations, South African liberation theologian Allan Boesak draws on the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-9) who pledged to divest half his wealth and added that “if I have defrauded anyone of anything I will pay back four times as much” (Luke 19:8). White Baptists who reject the morality of reparations deliberately ignore the example of repentance displayed by Zacchaeus. Hence, we should not be surprised when the rest of the world (and especially black people) disregard white Baptist apologies as mere exercises in pietistic rhetoric.
Whatever white Baptists may think about repentance and reparations, black descendants and continuing victims of the wickedness of racism, white supremacy, white religious nationalism and racial injustice know that repentance involves something exponentially more substantial than pietistic rhetoric.
For starters, repentance for white Baptists should involve the discipline of self-imposed and penitent silence about reparations.
White Baptists have spent 400 years being bred, born, breast-fed, weaned, taught, trained and skilled in talking, teaching, preaching, writing and acting – wrongly and wickedly – about racial injustice. That history supports a reasonable inference – if not a presumption rebutted only by clear and convincing proof (“fruits worthy of repentance” according to John the Baptist) – that white Baptists are so ethically (if not morally) impaired as to be incompetent to fashion remedies for racial injustice, including reparations.
Black people have long been the targets and victims of white pietistic rationalizing about repentance and racial injustice. Our great and growing pain is not comforted, healed, restored or repaired by more pietistic rhetoric, however well-intentioned, scholarly or even otherwise appropriate white Baptists may desire it to be. If white Baptists want to be repentant about reparations for racial injustice, first hush. Please.
Instead, listen, look and learn. Visit the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (the lynching memorial) in Montgomery, Alabama. Visit other places and spaces where black people have suffered. Be silent. Perhaps then you may learn what you have been conditioned to not know, believe and feel.
“Trust us to know better than you do, however imperfectly, the factors that must be included in calculating what reparation involves and how it should be established.
Do not profess to “feel our pain.” Do not tell us how much better things are now than during past times. You do not know us well enough to know how many unspoken things we have suffered. You do not know enough to realize how those words re-injure us by trivializing our history (which your education system continues to misconstrue) and which you have consciously worked to avoid knowing. You do not know how your words reopen and renew traumas you have been conditioned to ignore and deny but which are part of our DNA.
You have been bred, birthed, breast-fed, weaned, taught, trained and skilled in being self-righteous about the “rightness of whiteness.” You “can’t believe” white law enforcement officers deliberately slaughtered unarmed black Stephon Clark, Tamir Rice, Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown Jr., Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Oscar Grant and countless other black men, women and children. Remember, you also “can’t understand” how white people could kidnap, buy, sell, rape, torture, defraud and lynch black men, women and children for centuries while they sang, prayed and talked about “evangelizing” the world.
Next, white Baptists should learn from the prophets they have disrespected, dismissed or destroyed.
Learn from Adam Clayton Powell, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Samuel DeWitt Proctor, Ida B. Wells Barnett, Etta Jo Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Baldwin, Barbara Jordan, James H. Cone, Wyatt Tee Walker, Vincent Harding Jr., Katie Cannon and from current prophets like Jeremiah Wright Jr., Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, Emilie Townes, Dwight Hopkins, Willie Jennings, Reggie Williams, Shaun King, Traci Blackmon, William Barber, Kevin Cosby, Ta-Neheshi Coates and the brilliant prophets of the Movement for Black Lives. Read and hear our prophets. They speak truth your leaders conditioned you to ignore, disregard and destroy.
Trust us to understand the ethical imperative for reparations better than you do because you have long and wrongly misconstrued and misunderstood justice, sin, repentance and reparations. Trust us to know better than you do, however imperfectly, the factors that must be included in calculating what reparation involves and how it should be established. Trust us because, frankly, you have been conditioned to be unable and unwilling to know how much white supremacy infects and impairs your best thinking about righteousness (justice), economics and everything else concerning racial justice.
Hush. Listen. Learn. Trust the Spirit of justice to help you embrace and maintain a penitent silence. When it comes to reparations, that’s a discipline I hope more than a few people will embrace during the remaining days of Lent.