“The white person entered the voting booth burdened by the load of guilt for having enjoyed the fruits of oppression and injustice. He emerged as somebody new. He too cried out, ‘The burden has been lifted from my shoulders, I am free, transfigured, made into a new person.’” Pg. 8 No Future Without Forgiveness Archbishop Desmond Tutu
“This is not an example for the morally earnest of ethical indifferentism. No, it flows from our fundamental concept of ubuntu. Our humanity was intertwined. The humanity of the perpetrator of apartheid’s atrocities was caught up and bound up in that of his victim whether he liked it or not. I used to say that the oppressor was dehumanized as much as, if not more than, the oppressed…” Archbishop Desmond Tutu
“I believe that movements of racial justice must be redemptive, rather than punitive. And yes, I believe that we must provide the possibility of redemption for everyone… We must do this, I believe, because our redemption is tied into their redemption. And we will not be free until we’ve all been redeemed from unredemptive anger.” – Ruby Sales
Hear me out!
In earlier posts I’ve tried to argue that for racial reconciliation to advance, we may have no choice but to offer some version of amnesty for all White racism. As an example, I referred to the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s dependency on amnesty as the means by which reconciliation and healing could begin.
But there’s a problem. Amnesty is not equal to reconciliation. Forgiveness is not equal to justice. So, where is the justice? Where have forgiven sins gone? Who is going to pay for this? Below I intend for my answer to simply be, “Christ. On the cross.”
Christ on the cross bears the sins of White racism, for White racists, in solidarity with the victims of White racism.
That’s the answer. If it’s not the answer, then we are doomed. Dead in our sin. But the witness of the church that still holds on to this old substitution business, is that Christ died for us, the ungodly, the racists, the descendants of plantation owners, and slave owners, and war criminals, the black-faced and white-hooded.
The only way for White folks to be liberated enough to put down defenses and face the truth is faith in the good news that Christ is our substitute, and our sins are forgiven.
See, I was formed in a tradition that resists subsitutionary atonement, a theological understanding of Christ’s work on the cross as the Son receiving the wrath of the Father (which just means God’s righteous anger) as the penalty for our sin. In this way he serves as our substitute and dies for our sin (and in his death our sin dies with him!).
I was taught to resist it because it suggests an image of God as an angry, abusive father. I was taught instead to see God as a loving divine being who couldn’t hurt a fly.
It’s not that the latter understanding is wrong; but the longer I live the more I think I need a bigger God than that. I think Northam and Herring and Trump and all of us white dudes need a bigger God than that.
I’ve always been aware of race since my youth. I was blessed (and I don’t use that term lightly) to go to Middle School and High School in predominantly Black schools. I was the one white boy in the gospel choir, and the first among my white-church friends to know all the words to “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” It was a gift.
I think that’s part of why in seminary I was captivated by Black Liberation Theology (see James Cone). Here the cross is seen not as God’s wrath visited upon God’s son. Instead it is interpreted from the perspective of the Black experience of oppression. Christ is less sacrificial lamb atoning for sin, more divine victim of a wrongful conviction and swift lynching. In Black Liberation Theology, Christ dies in solidarity with the oppressed and his resurrection is the promise that “trouble don’t last always.”
It’s an enlightening perspective. It’s helpful not just for Black Christians but for all Christians. It’s also one in an ever-growing family of liberation theologies (feminist, womanist, queer, trans, latinx, etc) which, thanks be to God, give voice to the Christian witness of many oppressed communities.
But there’s a pattern to most liberation theology.
Often in America when folks take seriously the voice of the oppressed, the oppressors are White Men. Like Northam, and Herring, and Trump, and me.
That’s probably why “White Liberation Theology” may sound like an effed-up version of white fragility that would attempt to white-wash or even steal liberation from people of color and other minorities. That’s why I asked you to hear me out.
Initially it sounds foolish if not harmful. I mean, from what could White folks possibly need liberation?
Sin. That’s the answer.
Sin has us bound. And not just little “s” sins.
I’m talking about sin as the human condition which permeates human society.
In this conversation, I especially mean to refer to the structurally- reinforced, multi-generational sin of racism in America.
In ways we do not understand, in ways we cannot control, and in ways for which we will never be able to atone for our sin which is “known and unknown.” We are bound in the sin of racism such that to be born white is to be born into sin— born under the dominion of the Power of Sin with a capital S. It’s as important as it is forgotten that the language St. Paul uses about Sin is the language of captivity.
Sin isn’t what we do so much as a Pharaoh to whom we’re all— but white people especially— in bondage.
And— Paul again— the only way to be liberated from the Power of Sin is not exhorting sinners (in this case, white people) to refrain from sin (in this case racism). According to Paul, the pardon produces what the proscription of the Law cannot.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ, our help and salvation, is the news of free, unmerited, grace. Absolution.
The way we’re liberated from our bondage is by hearing the promise that (while we were yet sinners— worse even than sinners, enemies of God) Christ died for the ungodly. Christ has paid the debt our race has incurred over the centuries. The only way out, and the only way through this impasse is for the sin of whiteness to hear and trust that it’s forgiven, born in Christ’s own brown body.
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) From the white perspective, this is the liberation we need, for Christ to have become our sin, to have become the sin of our racism, so that his death is the death of the retribution which our race actually deserves.
How does the old hymn put it?
“My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought My sin, not in part but the whole, Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, o my soul”
In the cross of Christ, God’s righteous anger at all the sin of the world was poured into his Son and in his death, it was born away forever and all sin, even the worst atrocities in our history, is forgiven. This is White Liberation Theology. I propose that it is only under the proclamation of this absolution through atoning work on the Cross (as our substitute) that White folks are liberated for the ministry of reconciliation.