Back in 1991 as part of a lengthy retreat, I made what you might call a “life confession.” A life confession is a lengthy process of reflecting on one’s life, aware of God’s boundless compassion and mercy, and naming—confessing—all the ways we have fallen into sin. Even though I made this confession truly believing that God had already forgiven me for all the ways I had missed the mark, such an exercise is not easy. It is truly sobering to acknowledge how much we have done to hurt others and ourselves. It is also truly sobering to acknowledge that we have inherited behaviors and attitudes that are contrary to God’s will, and that they are deeply imbedded in who we are.
Making this confession came to mind as I watched the troubling events of Charlottesville, Virginia unfold, and in particular the appalling response of the President and the silence of so many of our political leaders. It would be too easy for me to focus on the inadequate response of many of our leaders, when what I need to do is look in the mirror. Racism is deeply embedded in our society—it is truly America’s original sin—and the only way it can be eradicated is through white Americans like me confessing and repenting the part I have played in this problem.
To eradicate the evil of racism, white Christians like me need to take a hard look within. In the Baptismal Covenant in the Episcopal Church, we promise “to persevere in resisting evil, and whenever (we) fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.” I think it is significant that this promise links a call to resistance with the awareness that even those who resist evil will fall prey to it. Racism needs to be resisted, and we need to hold our political leaders’ feet to the fire and demand that they renounce white supremacists, neo-nazis, anti-semites, and any other forms of hatred. But first and foremost, we need to acknowledge our past and present blindness to issues of race, and our constant need to repent. We need to be aware of how easy it is to avoid our own “stuff” by focusing on someone else’s stuff.
At its best, the church knows that the eradication of evils like racism require God’s help through the transformative work of the Holy Spirit. At our best, we know that changing laws isn’t enough. Hearts need to be changed and only God can do that. Carol Anderson’s book, White Rage, recounts the depressing history of white backlash to the civil rights movement in this country. Sadly, every time we passed significant civil rights legislation, the white community simply found other ways, including new laws, to reinstate racism. I could barely finish the book because it made me sick. The enduring history of racism is a stark reminder that it is not the law, but the Spirit, that changes human hearts. Evil can’t be eradicated by legislation alone.
So I invite myself and you to renew your baptismal promise, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and when you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” With God’s help we can do this and be part of God’s transformative work in our country.