He Said, She Said

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Well, if the slowdown in my mentions is any indication, it seems some of the brouhaha of the last week has gone the way of most internet drama. We’re starting to get it all out and perhaps to think more critically. Hopefully, the most distracting voices are now tired, and folks who want to think hard will keep at it. At least that’s what I hope.

I realize there’s the risk of everything turning into an unending game of “he said, she said,” and ain’t nobody got time for that, but we should keep things as clear as possible as we go forward. It’s in that spirit that I want to provide a list of restatements and clarifications.

Who Should Repent of What?

Some people have erroneously said, and some quite intentionally so, that I have charged all white people today with the sins of all white people yesterday, simultaneously committing a racist act by lumping all white people together and making innocent people guilty of the sins of others. And they reject the idea that they should have to repent for something they did not do.

For the record, I reject that idea too. Here’s what I actually wrote:

I don’t need all white people to feel guilty about the 1950s and ’60s—especially those who weren’t even alive. But I do need all of us to suspect that sin isn’t done working its way through society. I do need all my neighbors—especially my brothers and sisters in Christ—to recognize that no sin has ever been eliminated from the world and certainly not eliminated simply with the passage of time and a willingness of some people to act as if it was never there. If this country will make any significant stride toward freedom, it must have enough courage to at least make it clear that Dr. King didn’t just “die” but was “assassinated,” “murdered,” “violently killed” and with the approval of far too many in this country. Until and unless there is repentance of this animus and murderous hatred, the country will remain imprisoned to a seared conscience. Until this country and the church learns to confess its particular sins particularly, we will not overcome the Adamic hostility that infects the human soul and distorts human potential.” (emphasis added)

The paragraph begins by saying in so many words, “It’s not about feeling guilty for the bygone era.” Then it continues by saying in so many words, “Don’t think things have changed so much we don’t need to worry about those sins still being with us.” It ends by pointing specifically to the sins of hatred and animus that we do need to be repentant of in our generation as in any other. I think that’s entirely reasonable and stand by that argument.

Earlier in the post I wrote, “The Civil Rights leaders standing on the balcony on that dark day pointed not only to Ray and the area where the shot was fired, but figuratively pointed to the entire country in its sinister hatred and racism.”

In the concluding paragraph of the original post I write: “My white neighbors and Christian brethren can start by at least saying their parents and grandparents and this country are complicit in murdering a man who only preached love and justice” (emphasis in the original).

Any good reader who knows to carry an argument through the entire post might reasonably conclude that the concluding reference to “parents and grandparents and this country” holds the same figurative or generalized meaning. It’s not about every single white person’s mother, father, grandmother, and grandfather being a rabid racist.

Any call for repentance in this generation is about observing and turning from any sin that has continued into our generation.

So what do I ask white brethren and neighbors to do? Do I ask them to repent of the previous generation’s sins? No.

Read it again. I call for a rather small thing, in my opinion. I ask them to admit, to say, that the generation of the 1950s-’60s was complicit (in context, by their racism) in the murder of Dr. King. I did not say so-and-so’s grandmother or grandfather actually held the gun and pulled the trigger. I did not say every white American at the time was a racist. I said we should admit what is obviously true: America was openly and virulently racist in the period in question.

Based on all the historical evidence so readily available, that should be easy to say or admit. It doesn’t require anyone today to “repent of the sins of others.” It simply requires people to be honest.

Corporate Solidarity

Of course, my post does include a healthy dose of corporate solidarity. I do not, as some slanderously contend, make James Earl Ray the federal head of white people. I explicitly tether this whole argument to Adam and the legacy of sin he ushered into the world. Here’s the sentence: “Until this country and the Church learns to confess its particular sins particularly, we will not overcome the Adamic hostility that infects the human soul and distorts human potential” (emphasis added).

What some people really decried was any sense that they had any solidarity with the previous generation when it comes to their sin. Now, that’s just bad theology. Everyone with that objection would or should admit we fall into sin in Adam. That’s solidarity on a universal level. But the Bible goes further. In several places in the Bible we find God’s people being called to recognize their solidarity as a people with the sins of previous generations.

One of my favorite theologians, who shall remain nameless to protect them from the online scurrilous, wrote this to me in a text:

Regarding conservatives who reject the notion of “corporate solidarity” with respect to guilt, I’d be sincerely curious to know how they explain Moses’s consistent rhetorical strategy in Deuteronomy. He’s addressing the next generation as if they were the ones who saw YHWH’s mighty works and heard his voice at Sinai and then who rebelled against him at Kadesh. His strategy isn’t implicit, it’s explicit (cf. 5:3). Why? Well he knows them and sees the same problem (9:24). They may not have been the ones who refused to take the promised land, but their present actions and present character is such that Moses knows they must come to grips with the same reality of their rebellious heart (and find the same solution).

I imagine there may have been some Israelites on the plains of Moab who heard Moses’s final words who might have thought, Why is he saying “you,” as if it were my fault? It was my father and grandfather who rejected YHWH at Kadesh!” And, in that case, it would have been an internal mechanism to avoid staring in the face the reality of their desperate need for God’s mercy. So they would have missed the spectacular goodness and mercy of God’s grace to offer them the promised land again and to promise to circumcise their hearts in the latter days (30:1-10). In other words, ironically, that internal mechanism to wiggle out of the rhetoric of corporate solidarity would have led them to harden their heart . . . just like their father and grandfather . . . and forfeit the grace of God. 

I imagine that it’s possible for us to speak about corporate solidarity in a way that is unhelpful or that doesn’t edify, but it’s good to see that Moses’s pastoral strategy deliberately collapsed generational distinctions because (1) the generations faced the same problem and solution and (2) he sincerely, passionately, desperately wanted these people before him to hold fast to God and take hold of the promise of rest. Love drove his rhetorical strategy, including his insistence on corporate solidarity (with respect both to receiving certain privileges and the guilt of rejecting those privileges).

That says it well, in my opinion. As even Doug Wilson pointed out in one of his posts, we see the same dynamic reasoning at work with Israel in the days of our Lord’s earthly ministry and in the immediate aftermath when Peter blazes with Holy Spirit unction at Pentecost.

To be plain: Rejecting corporate solidarity with appeals to individualism leaves us vulnerable to the same sins of our forebears. That’s why we need to admit their errors and sins and why refusing to do so can be dangerous. Sometimes those sins can be particular to our clans, tribes, and families we call “race” but better known as ethnic groups. That’s the pastoral point of the post, and it should not be lost in all the noise based on things I did not say.

Conclusion

So to review, dear reader:

1. I do not think and did not say “all white people today are guilty of the murder of Dr. King yesteryear.” I did not say “all white people in King’s generation were guilty of murdering King” as if they themselves pulled the trigger. Based upon the white Americans who joined the Civil Rights struggle on the streets and in government, I would not even dare to think or say all white people of the era were racists.

2. I do contend the general character of the country and that of most white people at the time was racist, and a great many who were not expressively racists were bystanders who did not seek justice and correct oppression. I do think that makes them complicit in the state of affairs at the at time in the same way that our silence to any widespread and known injustice today makes us complicit in our day.

3. I do think we need to (a) admit the sins and errors of the previous generation (which is not the same as repenting of them as if they were our sins), and (b) we need to repent of any similar sins we see in ourselves today.

Don’t let all the noise distract from these points. Debate the points if you like. But keep in mind that it’s easy to get lost in all the “he said, she said.”

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