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 Job: therefore 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.