What an extraordinary moment in American History! A bunch of my friends are getting the day off for Juneteenth. There’s talk of making it a national holiday and I don’t think that sounds far-fetched. Confederate monuments are coming down. Christopher Columbus statues are coming down. It seems like the last vestiges of racism in America are just about done and sorted out.
It IS an extraordinary moment in American History but there is tons of racism still hanging around. And I’m pretty sure it will stay. They might try to get us to calm down with national holidays and changing the twenty dollar bill, but racism isn’t going away just like that. You probably don’t need me to tell you this, but I need me to tell me this because I’m pretty excitable. I fall for the bells and whistles pretty hard pretty much every time. Oooh, shiny! Amazon gave me a movie for free! Oh wow! Philadelphia changed it’s police budget! Nice! Donald Trump changed his mind for once, what?! But the first thing we get to be excited about is not all these corporate and political high fives to what the powers that be are really hoping is a fad — no, not that, we get to be excited about repentance! (Which might yield the real change we are hoping for, and which, thank God, is not absent from the high-fiving, suspicious as it seems). I’m praying for as many people as possible to learn how good it feels to repent.
If this unique moment in my lifetime ends up NOT being a fad, it will be in large part because white people like me decide to love repentance. This is a tall order because we have individualized and moralized almost all of the grace and redemption out of our public dialogue. Justice, in its poor, worldly definition, is about punishment and we are still learning how to have a better imagination. But as a Christian, the best thing I have to bring to the dialogue is a familiarity with repentance. We can even bring joy to repentance. Of course repentance is often painful, but not at the root. The root of repentance is God’s kindness. And the first things fed by that wonderful root are empowerment to change — a “Yes!” we can change — and hope for transformation — Double “Yes!” We can change. Christians who grow from this root and are nurtured by its fruit can say with not a little gladness, “We get to change!”
Paul warns us in Romans 2 not to show “contempt for the riches of God’s kindness, forbearance and patience” For we must realize “that God’s kindness is intended to lead [us] to repentance.” White Christians run the risk of demanding grace and redemption instead of STANDING ON grace and redemption to face down the power of white supremacy in their lives. Paul’s whole argument in Romans 1 through 8 is a crescendo-ing symphonic plea to believe in and behave from Christ’s love. He is begging us to stand on Christ’s love. Paul’s argument climaxes at the end of chapter 8:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Racism and white supremacy are demons that shall not separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. But Paul does not say the demons aren’t real. He does not say the past does not threaten the present. We need this swelling song in our hearts all day long — 24/7, 365 — because we “face death all day long”! The lies we have believed consciously and otherwise are real threats. The reality of racism in the United States is undeniable and it’s pretty great that so many people are agreeing to do something about that right now. The thing I have to offer to what’s happening as one who has spent some time learning to repent is to bring a non-anxious presence to the process of exposing my own internalized white supremacy. Yes, it hurts. I confess that I have been confused and uncomfortable often in the past few weeks. I haven’t figured it all out, and I really like to figure it all out. The discomfort is real, but I am letting it burn rather than snuffing it out. It feels like it is the consuming fire of God.
This process of repentance will last my whole life, and the prospect of that would wear me down if I hadn’t already tasted the fruit of that tree whose root is God’s kindness. Repentance can feel good. I am revealing who am in Christ. I am putting to death what was already made dead when Christ died for me on the cross. I am uprooting the sin that entangles the kindness which was planted at the heart of me. My wounding will definitely be touched again and again, both the way I have been wounded and the way I have wounded others. Hopefully, my livelihood will be affected again and again. For our repentance ought to be actual and not relegated to some spiritual sentimentality. Surely, my relationships will be impacted again and again. For I will need to change my behavior in demonstrable ways. This is all difficult to do, but if I can trust through the pain of all that exposure, I am confident that God will meet me with kindness and lead me through to the repentance which I was made for. I am convinced of this. We get to do this.
This moment in history is an opportunity for repentance to rise. We can get out from under the tininess of our super-individualized understandings of ourselves. We can escape the captivity of our definitions of a counterfeit justice rooted in punishment and experience some more imaginative prophecy for another possible world and another possible self for each of us. We can face the music of our complicity and cooperation with the lie of racism, confess it and be free to sing the new song of the New Jerusalem. We know where history is heading, and there are parts of us that are not going to make it to the end of time — THANK GOD! This is who we are as Christians. Let’s bring our best to it. We get to repent!
Happy Juneteenth, friends. I love you.