When it comes to racism, some people are quick to say, “It’s not a skin problem, it’s a sin problem.” It’s a cute statement. I appreciate the sentiment. As far as I understand it, it’s trying to get to the root of the issue while avoiding distraction with superficial aspects (skin color). I’m cool with the statement as far as that is concerned.
But there seem to be some who go a step further. They regard any mention of skin color, especially in a charge of racism, as tantamount to racism itself. They argue that we don’t need to confess “racism” but to confess the heart problem, confess “sin.” Again, I get the sentiment. “Race” (a fiction) and racism (a very real sin) are quagmires or mazes that once entered are terribly difficult to escape and often result in compounded sins. I think we all want a way out. I know I do. For some people opting for a theological and biblical term (“sin”) seems like a way forward.
However, if we intentionally or unintentionally come to the conclusion that what must be confessed is “sin” abstractly rather than racism specifically, then I’m afraid our doctrines of sin and confession become a hindrance to repentance, sanctification, and reconciliation rather than a help. We can’t overcome something we won’t admit.
Further, if we were to confess “sin” rather than racism specifically because confessing racism is “divisive,” oddly racism would be the only sin we treat that way.
We do not say to spouses trying to deal with a broken marriage covenant, “Do not confess ‘adultery,’ because the real problem is sin, and calling it ‘adultery’ divides the marriage.”
We do not say to roommates dealing with broken promises, “You really should confess sin rather than confessing that you lied, because calling it a ‘lie’ is divisive.”
We do not say to the prodigal child, “What is really happening is sin rather than disobedience. Don’t call it ‘disobedience to your parents,’ because that separates you from your parents.”
Until the spouse’s adultery is confessed and repented, the roommate’s lying confessed and repented, or the child’s disobedience confessed and repented, there can be no firm foundation for repairing the breach in relationship. Calling the breach what it is and identifying the specific source is not the problem; it’s actually the first step in a solution.
That’s what makes avoiding the admission of racism a mind-numbing affair. I cannot think of a single particular sin people would encourage someone to avoid confessing except for the sin of racism. I can’t think of a single instance of bystanding, partiality, or indifference in the face of sin and injustice Christians would excuse except racism. Some treat racism as the one sin that must not be confessed forthrightly, identified specifically, and repented of with fruit particular to it.
Though some insist that this specificity regarding racism is the problem, I cannot think of a single passage of scripture that would commend an abstract way of handling our sin. John the Baptist did not counsel the sinners of his day to confess “sin” and avoid the particular nature of their transgressions. He preached in Luke 3:
7 He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics[b] is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
John was clear that appeals to the innocence of their forefather (Abraham) was no absolution for them, no get-out-of-repenting-free card (v. 8). Each of them and all of them in their affiliations had business to do with God. To particular groups of people known for sins particular to them, John called them to repent of those particular transgressions. He did not worry that tax collectors would feel picked on. He did not allow soldiers to remain anonymous for fear of social stigma. He addressed them according to their station in life and according to the sins related to their station. That specificity was the path to their freedom from sin and integrity with God. We should address specific sins of groups the way John the Baptist did, including the sin of racism.
There’s another reason we should be specific: the Bible is specific. Consider the places where the Bible gives us a catalogue of particular sins (Rom. 1:28-32; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:19-21; and 1 Tim. 1:8-11). Why does the divinely inspired Word of God give us so many lists with such specificity? It’s not solely that we might conclude we are sinners in general but that we might also know what sins threaten our souls or our sanctification and repent of them specifically.
Friends, someone is selling you a bag of nothing when they wax poetic about racism being a sin problem rather than a specific manifestation of sin for which we need to specifically repent where we’re guilty—either by commission or omission. They show they actually misunderstand the nature of this sin, because the sin itself intentionally attaches to skin color. And they do a disservice to the entire church and world when they use that approach to define away real problems that continue and seem in some quarters to be growing today. Or, worse, use that strategy to try and paint those pointing out the problem as the “true racists.”
Do not be taken in by this often well-intended (sometimes self-serving) but always deficient way of dealing with sin. Let us repent of specific sins specifically.