Nehemiah, Jesus, and "White Guilt"
I am a recovering and repentant racist. I was raised in Birmingham, AL in the 80s. My adoptive parents did not teach me to be a racist — it’s not like there was a catechism of white superiority. It was, rather, just understood in my household that whites and blacks did not do things together. Black men worked for my father’s car wash. They couldn’t be trusted (in the 80s — my father has since repented of his racist mindset and Central Park Car Wash is now managed by a black man) to run things. Black women were nurses at my Mamaw’s nursing home. “I don’t like those colored girls,” she always said. She would accuse them of stealing her laundry and making fun of her because she was a helpless old white lady. Sadly, she passed away unrepentant. I pray that Abba shows her grace because of her mental instability.
I’ve been thinking about these things recently because of the election of Senator Barack Obama to the highest seat of authority in the land. In my lifetime, it was commonly understood that black men did not have the intellectual capacity to quarterback a professional football team. It is still clear that most universities do not believe African-Americans capable of coaching a Division-I college football program, but that is an essay for another time. In the course of several heated discussions on the subject of Obama’s American citizenship, one brother in Christ suggested that I suffer from an affliction known as white guilt. I’d heard the phrase in passing, but never really sought a clear definition for it. Now that I have one, I think it a very interesting idea.
Shelby Steele, a distinguished conservative race relations scholar and child of Gandhian followers of Dr MLK, Jr., writes that white guilt is “the vacuum of moral authority that comes from simply knowing that one’s race is associated with racism. Whites (and American institutions) must acknowledge historical racism to show themselves redeemed of it, but once they acknowledge it, they lose moral authority over everything having to do with race, equality, social justice, poverty, and so on. They step into a void of vulnerability. The authority they lose transfers to the ‘victims’ of historical racism and becomes their great power in society. This is why white guilt is quite literally the same thing as black power.” (all emphases belong to the author) Another writer says, “White guilt refers to the concept of individual or collective guilt often said to be felt by some White people for the perceived racist treatment of people of color by Whites both historically and presently.” While I think the second definition is less pejorative, less shaped by American partisan politics, I think Dr. Steele’s definition highlights a dramatic effect of the unharnessing of the American civil rights movement from historic Christian thought.
The critics of “white guilt” seem to suggest that it is inappropriate and unhelpful (if not altogether wrong) for a Caucasian who has never been a racist to feel guilt or to act with sensitivity and compassion towards members of a race whose lives have been affected by historic or present racism. As a repentant racist, I don’t have a dog in that fight per se, but I just don’t think it is that simple. I do not think that the social conservative ethic, by iself, adequately answers the marathon metaphor:
Imagine dragging a man out of a prison cell, releasing his shackles, and leading him to the starting line of a marathon. You fire a starter’s pistol and shout, “Run! Run! Is it unfair that your opponents have a 400-year head start? No, just run, and it will all work itself out if you just keep running!”
That’s the marathon metaphor of American race relations, which neither side chose to address with grace and self-sacrifice. Rather, both sides addressed it with rudeness, aggression, and self-justification. But THAT too is an essay for another day.
Tonight, I want to address the idea of communal guilt and repentance. Rather than being a ludicrous and unhelpful idea, I propose that it is an eminently Christian doctrine that actually points God’s way forward out of the fractured humanity that finds its source in Eden and Babel and manifests itself in racism.
The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah. Now it happened in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Susa the capital, that Hanani, one of my brothers, came with certain men from Judah. And I asked them concerning the Jews who escaped, who had survived the exile, and concerning Jerusalem. And they said to me, “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.” As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. And I said, “O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses. Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your dispersed be under the farthest skies, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.’ They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand. O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.” (Nehemiah 1:1-11 ESV)
This is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible. Nehemiah, born in exile, could not have done anything at all to cause the wreckage in Jerusalem. Let his words pour into your heart: hear his grief, his passion, his broken-heartedness. This is not representative — this is the prayer of a man who has internalized the sin of his people. In our parlance, he has OWNED it. It belongs to HIM. This is one example of communal grief and repentance, but it is not the greatest. The greatest appears in all three Synoptic gospels, and is testified to in the Fourth gospel.
When Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17 ESV)
The Messiah gets baptized? But what about what John the Baptist said about him?
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29 ESV)
The sinless Son of God gets baptized for the remission of sins? If Nehemiah didn’t contribute to the destruction of Jerusalem, at least he had sinned personally. But Jesus of Nazareth? No. The Lamb must be perfect! Only a sinless sacrifice can take away sin. So why, pray tell, does this young prophet submit to his cousin’s call for national repentance? A prophet’s action embodies the reality God conveys through him. Let me draw a few conclusions to this terribly over-long blog.
Jesus’ baptism says he truly is a Jew. Therefore, racial differences, and the resultant fear and conflict, are real. Outside of Christ, there is no force on earth that can heal them — no power besides the gospel can make Gal 3:28 a reality. NO OTHER POWER!
Jesus’ baptism truly identifies himself with the sinful covenant people of God. Our minds, shaped by years of life amid the brokenness of life under the consequences of sin, leap first to the idea that the sinless one would use his sinlessless to establish his difference, his authority, his power over those around him. But Jesus does the exact opposite — he submits to that which the “clean” of his day would not — a baptism of national repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It is in the weakness of submission to the reality of his relationship with a flawed people, not the self-justifying divisiveness of ‘public cleanliness,’ where Jesus will manifest the powerful, glorious love of YHWH.
Jesus’ baptism is a radical act of personal responsibility, but not responsibility for himself. This is where the ‘personal responsibility’ of conservative American politics and the ‘personal responsibility’ of the politics of the kingdom of God diverge. Israel needs a sinless sacrifice to take away her sin. The Law does not command Jesus to die. Patrick Mead has a great perspective about The Passion of the Christ when he says, “Mel, it is not about the whips and the thorns! It is about Jesus being there when he didn’t have to!” Love does not insist on its own way. The Garden of Gethsemane shows a loving child wrestling with deep grief and agony because of his Father’s will, not his Father’s command. Jesus chooses to take responsibility for the least and the lost, the helpless humanity of his creation.
The kingdom of God operates on the politics of indiscriminate love and truth-telling. Therefore it is our responsibility to
1) look honestly and without melodrama at the inadequacies in our society – no more dramatic wailings of guilt and knee-jerk responses that do more to foster and maintain such inadequacies – recognize that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the only solution to those inadequacies – that that solution cannot be implemented from above (from the Temple) but only from below (from the waters of repentance), and
2) trust God completely to take care of our needs as we take responsibility for the well-being of our brothers and sisters in Adam – knowing that we cannot merely throw money, Bibles, and/or apologies at people from inside our box of Diet, Dress, and Day – learning from our Teacher how to love – making our Savior famous by imitating his life of responsible, conscious, and honest self-abnegation.
If anyone has made it this far… I apologize. I hope this makes sense.
in HIS love,