As a renewed focus on race and justice have dominated the national conversation over the past few months, I’ve watched with sadness as the response among some white Christians has fallen along ideological and political lines. Some conservatives belittle the reality of racism. They acknowledge that racism is a sin, but they see it as mostly a relic of the past or merely the wrong actions of a small, dwindling group of people. On the other hand, some moderate or progressive Christians are overcome with guilt and shame, quick to condemn others, and often unsure of how the gospel of Jesus should impact conversations about our own racial bias and sin.
The failure of white Christians on the Left and the Right to grapple with the sin of racism is rooted in our broader failure to understand the profundity and complexity of human depravity. We fail to acknowledge our depth of sin, so we fail to see the dizzying heights of grace.
Over these past few months, I have frequently thought of an oft-quoted line from the late pastor Jack Miller: “You’re a lot worse than you think you are, but in Jesus you’re far more loved than you could ever imagine.” If we want to come to terms with the horror of white supremacy and racial bias in our country and in ourselves, we must hold to both of these realities simultaneously.
American evangelicals often view sin primarily as the sum of individual, conscious, immoral choices. Historically, however, the church has viewed sin not merely in terms of volitional decisions but also as the disordered state of our hearts: the subtle idolatry that we bear often without noticing it, the way we love the wrong things and fail to love what is most lovely, and the way we worship ourselves and set ourselves up as God. Like all sin, racism is fundamentally a disordered orientation toward the world. In this way, it isn’t chiefly chosen but is habituated and practiced in ways that are as subtle as they are destructive.
In a recent article for the Religion News Service, James K.A. Smith writes that racial bias “is absorbed through practices we never think about.” He notes that, although white evangelicals may recognize racism as a “false doctrine,” they miss how racism functions “as perceptual vice: a disordered habit of seeing others. Such vice is carried in our bodies more than it is articulated by our intellect.”
When white Christians react to the accusation of racism and racial injustice with self-defensiveness and denial of our culpability and complicity, we are not simply failing to be “woke”; we are failing to take sin as seriously as God does. When we reduce sin to a merely conscious, rational, or cognitive choice, we fail to understand what all sin (including racism) actually is. We fail to see how sin—inherent disorder—is endemic not only in certain individuals but also in cultures, societal structures, and institutions. And we fail to see that our own quest for righteousness is hopeless.
If we have a diminished notion of sin, we inevitably have a diminished vision of the redemption of Jesus. But if as white Christians our sin of racism is worse than we think, then redemption is also bigger than we think. Racial bias and white supremacy are not more powerful than the death and resurrection of Jesus. Grace allows us to give up the mad task of justifying ourselves.
White Christians cannot confront the horror of racism in America unless we believe ourselves to be beloved and forgiven in Jesus. We bear the individual and cultural disorder caused by 400 years of oppression through slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, redlining, and inequality. We continue to reap what our history and idolatry have sown in our institutions, churches, cultures, habits, and dispositions. That burden of guilt and shame is frankly too much for a human being to carry without being crushed. We have only one hope: that in Christ, we are far more loved than we could ever imagine.
If some denigrate and deny the severity of racial injustice, others offer no possibility of redemption to the oppressor. Michael Emerson argued recently that “justice without Jesus” results in “embittered ex-Christians joining others bent on bringing justice to the world, no matter the means.” We are charged only to “do better,” without any assurance of grace for our individual and collective failure. We are left with the impossible task of working off an unpayable debt and breathlessly clawing our way onto the right side of history.
As white Christians, we can admit that we are “worse than we think” only if we know that Jesus’ work is sufficient even for racists and for our long, horrific history of white supremacy. It is solely out of this certainty that we as believers can freely embrace repentance.
What does repentance look like? At times, it will mirror the antiracism efforts that many in the secular world champion: learning from people of color, confronting our own bias, seeking justice system reform, pursuing educational equity, or supporting financial empowerment for people of color. But although repentance may resemble secular calls for antiracism, the hearts of these efforts differ. White Christians can embrace antiracism not as an anxious attempt to make penance for our sin or to shore up our righteousness through our own efforts. We embrace it instead out of a rooted place of belovedness—a belovedness given to us by Jesus, who makes all things new, including our structures, institutions, laws, culture, habits, and dispositions.
In this way, the conversation about race in the church should radically differ from that of the world. White Christians can freely admit the realities of racism. We can be the first to admit that we are worse than we think and that our sin of racism angers God far more than we would dare imagine.
But as a church community, we should also not give up on the idea of grace—even if it has at times been used to excuse apathy. Jesus’ death and resurrection destroyed the power of racism. He not only brings justice to the oppressed but also promises that oppressors can be made new and that shame can give way to honor, guilt to forgiveness, and idolatry to repentance.
Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. She is the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life and Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep (IVP, Jan 2021).
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