Racism & Repentance

“Thank you God that I am not a racist!” Sound familiar?

Perhaps you haven’t heard these specific words come out of a Christian’s mouth, but I fear this is what too many of us are thinking these days.

I fear the ambivalence of Christians—most often those in demographically homogeneous contexts—whose response to our cultural moment is a nonchalant “Yes, I know. Of course racism is wrong. Good thing I’m not a racist, and I hope the real racists out there repent.”

In what follows I’d like to propose that it is not just being a racist or doing racist things that demand our repentance. Simply living in a racist world demands our repentance.

On Racism

In today’s political climate, there are few labels more inflammatory than that of ‘racist.’ Such a label puts one in league with the Nazis, chattel slavers, and members of the Klan.

Now far be it from me to explain or define racism, but I have noticed that for better or worse the incendiary nature of the ‘racist’ label has often distracted us from understanding racism in more important, holistic, and productive ways.

Too often when people hear the accusatory charge of racism they conceive of an isolated instance of racial prejudice and discrimination, such as a politically incorrect statement or an overt act of racial prejudice and discrimination.

However, when we only understand the sin of racism to consist of intentional instances, incidents, and individuals, we remain blind to perhaps the most damaging mode of racism: systemic racism.

Interestingly (and I think helpfully) Merriam-Webster has recently agreed to sharpen its definition of racism to better match its contemporary usage, which more clearly incorporates systemic racism. Take, for example, Robin DiAngelo’s definition: 

“When a racial group’s prejudice is backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control, it is transformed into racism, a far-reaching system that functions independently from the intentions or self-images of individual actors.”(1)

The sin of racism runs deep and stretches wide into a complicated web of injustice in which we are all far more entangled than we could imagine.

Racism is more than an individual act. It’s a systemic evil that’s taken a life of its own in our educational halls, research centers, capitol buildings, judicial courts, financial and commercial markets, media platforms, business industries, urban plans and various other societal structures.

We may not use racial epithets or deny services based on racial prejudice, but what schools do we send our children to and what advantages do we privilege them with to secure greater opportunities and how has this impacted more marginal communities?

Whose interests do we hope our research institutions, politicians, and judges will serve and protect?

Where do you purchase your groceries and what are your consumer staples and how has that impacted your neighborhood?

Which narratives about the world and society do our viewing habits confirm to our media outlets?

What red lines are we reinforcing by our home purchases?

More personal to my own story of Asian American complicity is the question: how did your parents and the generations before you secure their livelihood? How was your privileged upbringing, education and safety secured?

Growing up, my parents and I praised my grandparents’ immigrant work ethic. My dad’s family moved into and set up their local business in a neighborhood that had already experienced white flight out of Oakland, California. Through this local business, they sent five children through university, and these children would themselves participate in a “yellow flight” into the East Bay suburbs where my siblings, cousins, and I would grow up in private schools.

For most of my life I thought this was just one more example of the American Dream realized. And I still think that I should be proud of and grateful for my grandparents’ and parents’ hard work in a genuine way. But only in the past few years have I come to reflect on the fact that my Chinese immigrant grandparents’ local business was a liquor store in a black community.

I share all this to simply point out that there are racial dimensions to the various everyday aspects of life, and too many of these dimensions go unexamined. Now, I’m aware that we can go overboard such that “if everything is racist, then nothing is racist.” So please hear me say that certainly some expressions of racism are objectively worse than others and demand more immediate responses. And yet, as Christians we must still affirm that every expression of racism demands repentance.

Even though racism often functions independently from the conscious intentions of individuals, it feeds off of our passive and subconscious complicity. And such complicity, no matter how unintentional, demands both illumination and repentance.

On Repentance

Most people think of repentance simply in the context of blatant and explicit wrongdoing. But what if repentance is more than something we wait to do after succumbing to a particular temptation or committing some offense? What if repentance was more of a perpetual posture to assume than a punctiliar event to complete? And what if we understood repentance less as the rejection of sin, and more as the reception of God’s grace in Christ?

When Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, the first thesis read: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” While the sinful inconsistency between Luther’s anti-Semitic heart and his written proclamation is to his shame, he surely proclaimed better than he practiced.

To view repentance solely as a single action assumes that prior to our misstep we were perfect or neutral. It assumes we were not previously in need of any life change. It assumes moments of our existence that are not in dire need of grace.

In the Greek, repentance (metanoia) literally means the changing of our minds. And if you think about it, it’s something we do all the time—Christians and non-Christians—constantly adapting to better align our minds with our sense of reality.

For Christians, Jesus is Lord over all reality, so we seek to change and align our minds unto the mind of Christ, thinking God’s thoughts after him. This is the whole of faithful, Spirit-led living in Christ. Thus repentance is more than a momentary turn from sin, it’s a repeated turning toward Christ, continually submitting our reality to him and receiving his grace.

To view repentance as anything other than an all-of-life posture betrays an injurious naivete about the power and pervasiveness of sin. The world is far too broken and the sin in our hearts far too insidious to treat repentance as an occasional act.

Sin does not merely consist of individual acts of disobedience that occur every once in a while. Sin is actively committing injustice and passively omitting justice, actively hating your neighbor, and passively not loving your neighbor as yourself.

Therefore, repentance is far more than an individual act of obedience. Repentance is what happens throughout our lives when we are freed by the grace of God in Christ to actively pursue justice and love our neighbors unto God’s glory.

On Racism & Repentance

All this means that the sin of racism doesn’t demand a one time act of repentance in which we transition from being racist to not being racist. The sin of racism demands a posture of repentance in which we continually pursue anti-racism in our own hearts and in our spheres of influence.

So just because you no longer believe certain racial stereotypes you once did, just because you cheered during “Remember the Titans” and were moved by “The Help” doesn’t mean you are done repenting of racism.

Just because you’ve begun educating yourself, reading Just Mercy, watching “13th,” and have adjusted your political views doesn’t mean you’re done repenting of racism.

Just because you hashtag #blacklivesmatter all over your social media platforms, share woke content, march in local protests, and focus your purchases toward black-owned businesses doesn’t mean you’re done repenting of racism.

Just because you are growing in relationships with black neighbors and friends, learning to listen, developing more empathy, or evolving from ‘ally’ to ‘accomplice’ doesn’t mean you’re done repenting of racism.

Just because I’m writing a blog post about racism and repentance doesn’t mean I’m done repenting of racism.

We have the rest of our lives to repent of our complicity with racism. We have the rest of our lives to pursue the end of racism in our sinful hearts and broken world.

But the truth that the end of racism will only be realized at the final resurrection need not discourage us. Rather, it should embolden us as those who seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and pray that his kingdom come and will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Repentance relishes in these truths.

As Christians, we depend upon God’s daily bread to be about the repentant work of anti-racism, even while seeking forgiveness for our sins of racism and resolving to forgive others of theirs. The beauty of repentance is that as we go about the work of anti-racism, we are liberated from both self-righteous activism and indecisive paralysis.

A posture of repentance demands that we act with both humility because of our sinful condition and boldness because the pursuit of justice is God’s pursuit.

In a posture of repentance, we cannot but believe that we are fallible and will get things wrong even with the best of intentions. Advocating for an unwise policy, picking the wrong hill to shed blood on, saying the right thing at the wrong time—in the journey toward justice we will even need to repent of our well-intentioned anti-racist actions. This should keep us humble and open-minded in submission to God’s Spirit.

Yet also in a posture of repentance, we must act boldly and in reliance upon the Spirit over and above our reliance on having all the right data to make all the right calls in pursuing justice. We will never have all the data we need to move forward with absolute certainty. However, passivity, silence, lazy indecision, and a spirit of timidity are not of God. We must do the hard work of finding out what pleases the Lord (Ephesians 5:10).

A posture of repentance liberates us to passionately seek justice, even when we don’t know the exact way forward and must improvise on the way. We need not fear the shame of failure or the triumph of injustice in the end because our honor is hidden in Christ and the justice he promised shall neither be thwarted nor delayed.

It’s time to shift the conversation from “Am I or am I not a racist?” to “How am I complicit with racism and how can I continually grow in the cause of anti-racism?” And thus it’s also time to expand our practice of repentance.

So remember, the chief end of man is not to not repent. The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, and in a sin-stained world filled with rampant racism, repentance is how we glorify God and enjoy him forever to the benefit of our neighbors. May we all, through the power of the Holy Spirit, assume that posture of repentance and seek to find what pleases the Lord.

(1) Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility, 20.

Andrew Ong

Andrew is a third-generation, San Francisco Bay Area ABC (American Born Chinese). He and his third-gen wife have two daughters and still live in the East Bay. After graduating from the University of California Irvine and Westminster Theological Seminary, he completed his PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, researching Chinese American evangelicals and Neo-Calvinist theology. He presently serves on staff at Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, California. Andrew's a simple guy whose passions include: sushi, pizza, nachos, and the Golden State Warriors. On his less sanctified days he lives by the maxim: #ballislife.

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