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,



About Nick Gill

orphan-poet-adoptee-soldier-prodigal-servant-husband- counselor-desperate seeker after my Father's face "I feel my body weakened by the years as people turn to gods of cruel design. Is it that they fear the pain of death, or is it that they fear the joy of life?" - Toad the Wet Sprocket

Posted on 22 November, 2008, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. My head is swimming. Of course, your blog is well-written and timely.

    I’m on a tangent here, but your mention of the Savior being baptized despite his lack of sin kept my attention. I’d be fascinated to read a blog regarding baptism as a “covenant,” as you metnioned later, and not only “baptism” for “remission.” (Even though baptism CERTAINLY is for remission…)

    Sorry. Your blog. I really need to stop making requests of you and just enjoy the awesome blogginess! Thanks for writing!

  2. Nick,
    That’s great thinking and writing! I never thought of applying the communal confession of Nehemiah to racial sins. I suppose the racial sins in the RM, especially in the first two thirds of the twentieth centuries, are among the greatest blots in “our” history.

    We share being raised in Birmingham. I lived there as a child from 1962 through 1966 during the period of greatest turmoil. I remember hearing a lot of the ungodly comments and names. My Dad almost got fired for preaching a sermon on racial equality the same Sunday the Baptist church was bombed, but thankfully the good element in the congregation where he was (North Birmingham) didn’t allow that.

    Thanks again.

  3. That’s amazing, Gardner. Where did North Birmingham stop in the 60s? I’m sure you weren’t up as far as Gardendale or Forestdale, were you?

    In such a volatile time as this, I wonder why so many of our brethren would rather distance themselves from our tarnished past, rather than embrace it? We live in a country where ‘believers’ are famous for picketing funerals with “God Hates Fags” signs, and we wonder why our protestations fall on deaf ears?

    I think it is ironic that Fred Gray, Rosa Parks’ attorney, was one of Marshall Keeble’s ‘preacher boys’. Brother Keeble never understood why Brother Gray got all mixed up in the racial unrest — while scant years later your father is prophetically confronting his culture with the truth of Gal 3:28!

    God save us from ourselves! (which, btw, is the title of a free download from last year’s Tulsa International Soul-Winning Workshop – and a great piece of teaching indeed!)

  4. Alicia,

    I’ve done a terrible job thus far of addressing your requests, so keep on requesting, and eventually I’ll get to them!

    In fact, I will try to answer the Baptism and Covenant question tonight before bed, okay? 🙂 Our mid-week gathering is on Tuesday this week because of the holiday, so it’ll be later on tonight before I can get around to it.

  5. Nick,
    I’ve done a lot of running around in the Gardendale area and Forestdale area, though not lately. Of course I remember those places from my childhood and had occasional contacts with people in the area since then. The congregation at Westwood in Forestdale supported me in Argentina in the early 1980’s. I remembered playing the West Birmingham Christian school in baseball in the early 1970’s. If I remember correctly, they were in the Forestdale area.

    My Grandad and Dad were in difficult situations in the deep south. My grandad preached in the Birmingham area in the 1930’s and 1950’s and 60’s. He also preached in Jackson, Mississippi in the late 1940’s. Being heavily influenced by Lipscomb and Harding, they believed in racial equality, but did not feel that they should press the issue among the brethren they worked with. The ungodly attitudes surrounding integration in the early 1960’s seemed to change my Dad’s mind on that, and so he decided to preach the sermon that almost got him fired. He has a lot of stories about that period of time. One I remember was that “brethren” at Ensley took guns to services in case someone tried to integrate that congregation. However, the elders at 77th Street welcome the integraters, though some of the members weren’t happy about it.

    Oh well. we’ll trade more stories about Birmingham in the future. May God continue to bless you, Gardner

  6. nick…just read all these…very well thought out..your growth in the years i have known you is really interesting…most people see answers as one dimensional….you have a very wide view….and have an ability to take the depth and width of the question and answer it not only side to side but top to bottom…..
    i would like to ask…your comment about jesus doing the will of the father as not being a command…i dont really see the difference yet somehow it seems a much more important point for to elaborate?

  7. Thanks, rick! I’ve missed our conversations tremendously. You’ve been in my prayers.

    What I THINK I meant has to do with the military-style way that we understand commands. To us, a ‘command’ is non-negotiable. You don’t wrestle with it — you don’t ask God to change it — you just do it.

    But that is not what we find in the garden or on the cross. Nowhere in the gospels do we find God giving any commands to Jesus — he does what his father wants because he trusts his father — NOT because his superior officer demanded it.

    Our way of reading Scripture in the churches of Christ, our whole view of Christian spirituality, has been predicated on a medieval view of authority where we are vassals to the most powerful king. He commands, we obey — period.

    The way of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels (foreshadowed in the Hebrew Scriptures and expounded in the rest of the NT) is not like that. Here’s a couple of thought exercises that I’ve been wrestling with that may help:

    IF God is love (1 Jn 4:8); and
    IF love does not insist on its own way (1 Cor 13:5);
    THEN how are we to understand and respond to the will of God?

    From NT Wright: Imagine a company of soldiers at morning formation, expecting to receive orders. How will they respond when their company commander takes a deep breath and begins, “Once upon a time…”? How will they respond when his will is delegated through a NARRATIVE rather than some other form of communication?

  8. nick…your response makes sense in correlation to free will..if it was COMMANDS ..then it wouldnt be a matter of doing it out of love for the father..
    if god is love and if love doesnt insist on its own way…comes across like a sinners loophole…I know God says to doTHIS or NOT to do THAT but hey He knows ME and knows i am i say this a a christian who is looking for a way to be an outside the box christian..feeling somewhat that we have all been trapped into this herded pen and and being the christians we have been taught to be instead of really trying to be in touch with God individually and inter-react with Him in a personal way…its sometimes hard to know when you are being real and when you are pulling the wool over your own eyes..ever feel like that?

  9. Every day. That is the challenge of trying to bravely live out the Christian drama as a vocation, a calling, a lifestyle.

    There are several different resources I can recommend for trying to get outside the box.

    For developing a conversational relationship with God — Hearing God by Dallas Willard (I might already have loaned you that — I don’t see it on my shelf) or Renovation of the Heart (same author)

    For a broader, more inclusive and whole-life embracing understanding of Christianity —
    Simply Christian by NT Wright
    The 52 Greatest Stories in the Bible by John Alan Turner and Kenneth Boa

    For stepping outside the spirituality of the box —
    Missio Dei in the Crisis of Christianity by Fred Peatross
    Seeking a Lasting City by Foster, Love, and Harris
    Kingdom Come – John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine
    Eat This Book, or The Jesus Way, both by Eugene Peterson
    The Challenge of Jesus by NT Wright

    Also, I recommend overcoming your love of the King James Version and its descendants — pick up a large-print English Standard Version or New Revised Standard Version.

  10. nick..will respond more later…a close aunt in carlas family died today..and they had to pull the plug according to her living will…talk soon love rick

  1. Pingback: The Scandal of Conservative Exclusivity - A Quick Review of Todd Deaver’s New Book “Facing Our Failures” « Fumbling Towards Eternity

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