(This blog was updated on July 8th, 2016)
There’s no doubt that we live in a world rank with racial divide. In response to the the various police shooting that happened in July 2016, President Obama said the following at the end of his speech:
We’ve got some tough history and we haven’t gotten through all of that history yet and we don’t expect that in my lifetime, maybe not my children’s lifetime, that all the vestiges of that past will have been cured, will have been solved but we can do better.
I want to suggest that there is a real biblical basis for what the President suggests. We have history in America, and it’s not all great, and there’s a biblical call to deal with our negative history in a specific way. Not sure you agree? Let’s consider what scripture has to say about it.
I was reading through Nehemiah the other day when I stumbled on a post that hit me particularly hard.
Then those of Israelite descent separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their ancestors. (Nehemiah 9:2 NRSV)
Let’s start with this verse.
First, the people of Israel separated themselves from anyone who didn’t share their past. They gathered together, but only as those who had the same story as them. Typically, this kind of behavior is seen as exclusive, but I’m not sure that’s the case here. Or at least, it’s exclusive in a way that won’t inspire jealousy, considering what they were going to do as a result.
If they were just now separating from everyone else, it can be assumed that they were actually joined with everyone else in the previous chapter. And in the previous chapter, the focus was on having fun. Which means they shared with everyone who was willing the invitation to celebrate, eat, and have fun, but the invitation to repent was only for those who shared their history. A lot could be learned from this example: share with everyone the good stuff, and reserve the tough critique for those who share your need to repent. I think we tend to the the opposite: We push blame onto others, and then reserve the good times for those we share affinity with. If we want to heal our land, we need to follow Nehemiah’s example and reverse this role: give the good away, and reserve the repentance for ourselves.
Second, they confessed their sins. I think at this point, you’d be glad to not share their Israeli descent. Who wants to confess their sins? Not me! At that point, I’d rather be a “foreigner.” And it only gets worse from here.
Third, and finally, they confessed the sins of their ancestors.
This is the real reason they pulled away from the foreigners in their midst. They had to gather together as a people—a people with a unique history and story—because they needed to confess the sins associated with this particular story and history. Their sins, if you read the rest of the passage, mostly had to do with disobeying God, worshiping idols, and failing to trust God above anything else. That’s what they needed to confess before God. And that’s what they did. The next chapter lays out the entire story of God’s people with confessions popping up along the way.
Can you imagine what it would be like to tell your shared story—your ancestral story—to each other for the sake of pointing out every place you failed?
From my experience, when we tell our stories, we tend to only focus on the good parts. For example, we tend to point out that we’re related, in some distant way, to some US president, but fail to bring up that he owned slaves. It’s nothing new for history to be written by the victors, and thus share a biased version of the story. What’s surprising about this chapter in Nehemiah is that they offer a rather honest view of their history. They tell the dark side of their story—their whole story. When I say their whole story of God, I mean it! They start with creation and work their way through the promises, the exodus, the kingdom years, and even the exile. They gathered together all those who shared this same history, confessed their personal sins, and then confessed the sins of their story.
So this has got me thinking.
I’m a white American Christian man. And as a white American Christian man, I share a particular history and a particular story. The story and history I share as a white American Christian man is not a very good one. This history includes oppression, slavery, racism, segregation, male dominance, power, etc.
There are a lot of sins in the story of white American Christian men, and a lot of it is bad. Were they all bad? No. Was there nothing good that came from people like us? No—there was a lot of good that came from other white American Christian men in history—many are my heroes. But there were also clearly many, many sins—terrible sins. The positive side of our story isn’t helpful for the sake of confession. In fact, when you share the good parts of your story in the midst of confession, it just ends up sounding like excuses. For example, imagine if someone sat in on an AA meeting, and they had a history of alcohol abuse. But instead of sharing all of their mistakes, they started to list why they were actually a good person. My friends in AA would clearly see this as a sign of denial, a kind of denial that was keeping them from experiencing true freedom. The good parts of our story can cloud an honest confession.
As a white American Christian man living in the age of such movements as #blacklivesmatter, I tend to hear people say that we should simply let the past be the past. “I’m not racist, and I don’t own slaves, so why bring it up?” one might argue. As far as it benefits me, I agree. I do not see myself as racist or immoral in how I treat others. So why bring up the past? Well, I wasn’t sure, until I ran across this passage in Nehemiah.
They separated themselves, confessed their sins, and then confessed the sins associated with their shared story.
I’m struck with this idea. What would it look like for white American Christian men to gather together for the sole purpose of re-telling the history of our kind (the parts where we failed), confessing our sins, as well as the sins of our ancestors along the way? I’d suggest that it would be a very terrible, controversial, and maybe an even unhealthy idea, except for… well… I ran across this passage in Nehemiah, and it seems like that’s exactly what they did.
I do not know of any time in our history where white men gathered together, owned up to their mistakes, and asked God for forgiveness for their ancestor’s sins of slavery and male dominance. And in light of this sad reality, I do not think the presence of today’s violence is a coincidence.
So I wonder: What do you think? Should we let the past be the past, and simply move on? Or should we separate ourselves from others, and take the time to retell the story of our past for the sake of confession? And if we were to do this, what should it look like? And would you do it along with me?
In light of this, I encourage you to read for yourself Nehemiah 9-11. What if we were to follow their example in our day and age?