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Dear White Church: Repent!

In the wake of the terror and tragedy of the shooting at Emanuel AME in Charleston, words fail. There’s nothing I can say that captures the gravity of the moment, the depth of the sorrow, the reality of the shock and anger.

There is nothing left for me to say except, in the words of Jobtherefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.

How many times does this have to happen before white America wakes up? How many more black folks have to die so senselessly? How many more churches must be bombed? How many more of our brothers and sisters in Christ must be martyred before we white church people say enough is enough and put our feet to the pavement to enact a new political and cultural reality in our nation?

How much more terror must be unleashed upon the people of God before I, and all my white brothers and sisters in Christ are ready to say, we repent in dust and ashes?

This Sunday, my family attended two church services. We went first to a mostly white congregation; then, to a mostly black church. Both were mourning the terrorism in South Carolina. Both were worshiping God and drawing near to our crucified savior.

But it felt risky to visit the second congregation. Why? Why did it feel like a big deal to visit my brothers and sisters across the street? Why did it take an unholy massacre in Charleston to move me to visit this church? When even the church of Jesus Christ is so sharply divided by race, how can we expect to be a witness to our violently racist culture? 

I have no answers today, only my solemn intention to repent in dust and ashes. I need to seek the face of the Lord for why I and my people have failed so miserably to live in the blood of Jesus, which breaks down the dividing wall of hostility between black and white folk.

So long as white Christians fail to stand in solidarity, in true love and commitment with our black brothers and sisters, we are unworthy to call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ.

This isn’t a guilt trip. This isn’t about feeling ashamed. That doesn’t help anybody. All white guilt does is focus our attention back on the emotional needs of white people, rather than looking at the concrete steps that we can take to participate in a more just order. That’s not repentance; it’s just self-indulgence.

Genuine repentance means taking concrete steps to live a different way. It means acknowledging how we have allowed our sinful culture to blind us, ensnaring us in systemic racism and de facto apartheid. We’ve allowed ourselves to become inured to routine segregation in our neighborhoods and in the church. We’ve turned a blind eye to the steady stream of indignities, threats, violence, and terror that white America inflicts on our African American brothers and sisters.

Our faith in Jesus was supposed to transform us, but instead we’ve become conformists.

It’s not too late to turn it all around. We can still become the culture-confounding people that the gospel invites us to be. We can become the radical, anti-racist church of Jesus Christ.

But it won’t be easy. The racist culture and institutions of our nation have been built up over 400 years. That kind of darkness doesn’t get cleared up overnight. Still, there are steps that we can take right now as we seek to be the repenting people of God.

For me, an excellent first step was that simple act of worshiping with a predominantly African American congregation this Sunday. It was an eye-opening experience to be present with them as they began to process the acts of terror in South Carolina. I was humbled to receive their warm hospitality. Despite the fact that I, as a white person, could easily be viewed as a threat right now, they welcomed me with open arms. I have so much more to learn.

What’s your next move? How will you participate in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation in this time of deep pain and struggle? What does it look like to repent in the midst of a society that is so steeped in institutional racism and generational injustice? How will we open ourselves to the power that Jesus gives to break down the barriers that bind us, to create one new humanity in the Holy Spirit?

For me, and for my white brothers and sisters, first things first: Let us repent in dust and ashes.

Related Posts:

Wake Up America, Racism is Real

50 Years Later, Segregation Lives

  • Diane Benton

    Instead of changing our mind about a symptom lets repent of the root cause; the notion that God is violent.

  • Smfrmrinfrisco

    Micah, we need to get past the politically correct terms “racism” and “racist” and quit conflating changing culture and institutions with walking with Christ…you might want to read Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture…rather, I believe we need to focus on our neighbors as the folks we encounter daily and treat them as Christ. Every person, every day, every encounter. Even the folks who scare us, or don’t look like us, or sound like us, or believe as we do. In other words, engage in personal metanoia and see how the world changes through our change….thoughts?

    • I disagree. Recognizing the social reality of racism is fundamental to address the evil that we saw this Wednesday. Personal piety and individual faith, absent any systemic analysis and action, will not get us where we need to go.

      • Smfrmrinfrisco

        I respectfully note that society is made up of individuals and that it is when individuals encounter the other as I-You change is engendered. Systemic analysis and action is lovely as a tool for community development and social science research, but it is the relational personal encounter which calls us to metanoia….

      • Smfrmrinfrisco

        And btw, other than picking up our cross and following Our Master, where else need we go?

  • Susan Chast

    Micah! I agree with Paul J Ricketts that this statement is plain speech and to the point I agree with it. I want to share it, but I don’t want to disseminate the picture of the murderer. Can you give the churches or the victims instead?

    • Hi Susan!

      I really honor and respect your reticence to share an image of the murderer. However, I did choose that image for a reason: I believe that white America sees something of its own reflection in this young man. His image is one sign that calls me to continued repentance for the sin of systemic racism in our country.

  • Liz Oppenheimer

    Thanks for wring not just about the Charleston shooting but also about how white people can break out of our silent complicity, including many (most?) white Quakers.

    My understanding about systemic racism and its connection to Whiteness began when I started educating myself about concepts like white privilege, historical trauma, internalized superiority, and the socialization process (“being socialized without our consent”).

    I look forward to reconnecting with you, especially over such important faith-based work.

    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

    • Thanks, Liz! I appreciate the encouragement! 🙂

  • Tim Hartnett

    This is as relevant as ever