Reposted from The Cripplegate.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been preparing a review of Latasha Morrison’s Be the Bridge book and Bible study materials. In so doing, I’ve been reading her recommended resources, and have been struck by how central the following claim is to this genre of “racial reconciliation” material: “members of a group have the responsibility to confess and seek reconciliation on behalf of that group for sins that those members themselves may not have even personally committed.”
I went back and forth on whether I should post this portion of my critique separate from my full review of Be the Bridge, or leave it inside the longer review (which is posted here). I decided to run it separately because while it is only a small component of Be the Bridge, this theme reoccurs in other resources. In other words, I’ve encountered a repeated argument that white people have a responsibility to confess the sin of racism that other white people have committed in the past, to repent for those sins, and then to seek reparations on behalf of those wronged by the sin.
So today I want to address that specific argument. Then, in my review of Be the Bridge, I can refer back to this post here.
There are numerous problems with the line of reasoning behind corporate responsibility for other people’s sins. It distorts sin—on what grounds are the sins of ancestors imputed to their descendants? It distorts repentance—can one person repent of someone else’s sin? It also distorts forgiveness—can you truly forgive someone who has sinned against you if that person doesn’t repent, but rather one of his representatives does?
The Bible passages that these resources often turn to in order to bolster the argument for representative confession of other’s sins are Daniel 9:8 and Ezra 9:6. Specifically in the Be the Bridge study guides, these verses do a lot of heavy lifting. But can they support the weight they end up bearing? When you study those verses you realize that they simply cannot be used fairly to argue that white people should repent for the evils of racism in our country’s past.
To be clear—there is racism in the world now, and between slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, etc., the sin of racism has had a constant appearance in American history. Racism is a sin, and every believer should lament not only sin in general, but their own culture’s sins in particular. I also believe that cultures have besetting sins. People are prone to the sins of their ancestors, because that is how they are raised. But they become guilty of those sins when they commit them, and not by virtue of simply being a member of a particular ethnic group.
But my main objection comes when people argue that based on Daniel 9:8 and Ezra 9:6 that white Americans have a responsibility to repent of historic sins committed by other white Americans.
Let’s look at those two verses one at a time.
In Daniel 9, the exile is nearing its completion. Jeremiah had prophesied that Judah’s exile would last 70 years and then the nation of Babylon would be punished for their own sins (Jeremiah 25:11-12). By Daniel 9, that had happened. Babylon had already fallen, and the Persians were now reigning over the land. Daniel knew the prophecy of exile was not completed in Jeremiah 25, but continued in Jeremiah 29. There God declares that he had a plan to prosper Israel and to give them hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:10-12).
Daniel now finds himself standing outside of Babylon, in Persia, 70 years after he was taken into exile. Israel’s kings are gone. Judah’s line is in hiding. But it was now time for God’s people to return to the land.
Why were they gone 70 years? Because they had been punished for their numerous transgressions of the Mosaic law, and specifically their 490 years of neglecting the field’s Sabbath years (Leviticus 25:3-4). This is not a guess, but it is declared plainly in 2 Chronicles 36:21 where the author says the exile will last 70 years “to fulfill the word of Yahweh by the mouth Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths all the days that it would lay desolate, in order to fulfill its seventy years of rest.”
So now, 70 years later, Daniel is preparing to die in exile. But in his prayer of thanksgiving he confesses Israel’s sins against God, which are numerous. Daniel is declaring that God is just, Moses’ Law is just, Jeremiah’s sentence is just, and ending captivity at 70 years is, if anything, a mercy.
Daniel is, of course, identifying with his people. He is their prophetic representative—the voice of God, agreeing with God, and confessing the sins of his ancestors which led them into exile.
But is Daniel saying that the guilt of the Israelites 70 years earlier is really his guilt to confess? Well, yes and no. Daniel is certainly declaring the justice of God. When you read his whole prayer, specifically Daniel 9:3-15, it is clear that Daniel knows the fulfillment of Judah’s historic sins are at his feet. He knows it was his ancestors who caused this. Consider his list: “our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and all the people of the land,” they are all responsible for this. His list continues when he says that shame is due “to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you.”
The leaders of Israel and Judah come from a long line of sinners, and they deserved exile. Now, after all that, note what Daniels says: “To us, O Yahweh, belongs open shame, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against you.”
Is Daniel saying that he is responsible for his ancestor’s sin? No. He is saying instead that as his feet stand on the edge of time—one foot in the grave, one foot in Babylon—the shame of Israel is at his feet. He is Judah’s statesman, and yet they have no land, no farms, no kings, and no capital. They are in open shame. That’s not to say God is unjust! Rather Daniel is confessing that while the sins of his ancestors have come to him, he will not allow Israel to walk in those ways any longer.
Morrison (the author of Be the Bridge) writes that Daniel, “as a member of the group, was assuming responsibility to confess and seek reconciliation on behalf of that group” (69 of BtB). The truth is Daniel wasn’t praying“as a member of the group.” He was praying as a new Moses, standing at the edge of the Promised Land, but unable to enter. Nor was Daniel pursuing reconciliation. Rather, reconciliation had come. The clock had run out, and Israel was on the move.
Daniel’s prayer models how a leader ought to pray. But it goes too far to imply that Daniel’s prayer is a model of one person seeking reconciliation for another generation’s sins, or that there is some kind of racial continuity in sin. He doesn’t dodge his responsibility to pray for his people, but he doesn’t inherit the guilt from them either.
Ezra, if you recall, was the leader of the newly reconstituted Judah. They were back in the land. They had rebuilt the temple, and were restoring the Passover celebration. They were determined not to be faithless like their ancestors 70 years earlier.
But then Ezra gets word that the Israelites had been intermarrying with the nations around them. Some of the very same people groups who were supposed to have been driven out centuries earlier were still there, and now Israel was repeating her sad history. This was Ahab’s sin. This was Solomon’s sin. And now it seemed, history would repeat itself.
Ezra was gobsmacked when he found out. He tore his robe, he pulled out some of his hair and even his beard, and then collapsed outside the temple. It was like a gut punch, and he just sat in silence, slumped against the temple walls.
After hours of this awkward scene, a crowd had gathered. It was then that Ezra prayed, and his prayer was very similar to Daniel’s. He recounted Israel’s iniquity, recalled the exile, and then lamented the sins of Israel. He uses the first person plural throughout his prayer—“We have forsaken your commandments” and “our guilt”—while reminding his listeners that God prohibited marrying women from the surrounding nations.
However, Ezra was not praying “as a member” of his group. Like Daniel, Ezra was praying as their leader. This was happening on his watch, and he would not tolerate it. It broke him to see what his people were doing.
Was Ezra guilty of their sins? Of course not. If anything we have sympathy for him, because in Ezra 8 he was distracted trying to find Levites to lead temple worship. This was not his fault, but unless his people repented, it would be his exile.
Do you see how different this is from asking white people to confess the sins of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow?
Both Ezra and Daniel prayed the way they did because they were leaders, and they were confessing that God’s judgment was just. Ezra did not confess historic sins, but contemporary ones. He did not pursue reconciliation between parties, but rather asked God not to send them back into exile. A final contrast is worth noting: in Ezra 9, the people had sinned against God, not against others. Thus the confession was to God, not to others (although Ezra certainly used it to preach!).
Now, compare this with how Morrison describes it:
In the book of Ezra we read about how the people of Israel had become unfaithful to God. They’d taken up the forbidden practices of their neighbors.
Do you notice what is missing? Their sin has been reduced to “taking up the practices” of their neighbors, but in reality it was their intermarrying with those nations! This is evidenced by the fact their repentance/reparations involved divorcing their pagan wives. It is a very strange passage to lean on for an example for confessing racial sins of our own age.
Morrison is correct when she writes that Daniel and Ezra both “really owned” the sins of Israel (69). This is because they were the leaders, and God was bringing their period of judgement to a close. But she is wrong when she says that they were associated with Israel’s sin merely because they were “members of a group.” While an argument could be made that all members of a group have the responsibility to confess the sins which mark that group, even sins in which group members are personally innocent, Daniel and Ezra cannot be used for that.
All this begs the question about what constitutes “a member of a group” to begin with. In Israel, that is easy. There is covenantal continuity. But in the United States? Every American should lament racism in our nation’s history. But why does a generic white person bear responsibility for the sins of the previous generation? On what grounds are they members of the same group? Is there a biological connection? That would imply some kind of biological continuity in sin, which would be unbiblical.
That’s why these kind of racial reconciliation resources lean in on critical theory. They see society as bifurcated between black and white, oppressed and oppressor. If a person is white, they are part of the majority culture, and it was the same majority culture that instituted slavery, lynching and Jim Crow. Thus, the argument goes, every white person has a legitimate connection to those injustices by virtue of being part of the same culture that committed them.
Sociologically that kind of world-view simply doesn’t hold up. The argument that America contains two cultures, the haves and have-nots, is interesting I suppose, but is an argument about wealth more than race or ethnicity. At any rate, it is less than compelling to argue from that world-view to the notion that for there to be racial reconciliation in the church, whites have to confess the sins of their “group.”
And appealing to Daniel and Ezra does little to strengthen the argument.
I know that this whole post might sound nit-picky, and I suppose it could be. But this world view–the corporate guilt of white people from historic sins, the need for repentance and reparations, is a major part of the “racial-reconciliation” movement. There is more to say about that movement, but I’ll save that for the next post.