Repenting of Racism

by | Jul 29, 2020 | Bible & Culture, Guest Author, Young Adults

by Tim Keller

We are continuing to answer the question, ‘is racism a sin?’ through sharing how Tim Keller answered that question. If you haven’t had the chance to read part 1 or part 2 yet, you can here.

What does it mean to repent of racism? In one sense the answer is simple. Repenting is first and primarily to God. All sins are ultimately against him, his will and against his good creation. Repent for the more deliberate ways you may have violated the image of God, neighbor love, the new creation, and the gospel of grace. Keep in mind that we are called not only to repent of “willful” deliberate sins (Psalm 19:13). The psalmist asks “Who can discern their own errors” so “Forgive my hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12). We should therefore be willing to repent for the ways in which we may be doing “racial Othering” of which we are barely conscious.

Repent for the more deliberate ways you may have violated the image of God, neighbour love, the new creation, and the gospel of grace.

Is there any way for people in the U.S. to do the kind of corporate repentance we see in Daniel 9 and elsewhere? There are many proposals, but I will mention just one. C.S. Lewis, in his book The Four Loves says that the love of one’s country begins to go bad when we airbrush our past. As we said above, some social theories will find nothing good to say about American history at all, but corporate repentance necessitates that we come to grips with the way our society has treated various people groups.
Miroslav Volf, in Exclusion and Embrace observes there are at least four ways that we can exclude a group of people from society. The first is “elimination,” which is to literally kill them off or drive them completely out (think of the Holocaust). The second is “domination”–to segregate them and then terrorize them in order to keep them within certain bounds. The third is “assimilation”–to refuse to accept any individuals who do not abandon their distinctives and culture and adopt the dominant culture’s norms. The fourth is “abandonment”–to refuse to care for the needs or defend the rights of the group. Historically, the U.S. has inflicted, at a minimum, the last three kinds of exclusion on African-Americans and, arguably, it still does. To trace out and admit this history is a part of corporate repentance.
But the Bible always says that we have not repented if we do not change and “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). To bear fruits of repentance for the sin of racism, however, can take many forms and certainly depends a great deal on who is doing the repenting. Does a young, second-generation Chinese immigrant have the same kind of corporate responsibility for racism that an Anglo-white person does? Some argue that Asians are being admitted to the “whiteness” category as part of a continuation of institutionalizing racial hierarchies.

There are two basic places where Christians can bear fruit of repentance for racism — inside the church, and outside.

Not every community in the U.S. is multi-ethnic, and so not all churches can be. But one of the ways to bear fruits of repentance is for the members of more and more churches to make the sacrifices of power and comfort needed to form churches that show how in Christ the racial and cultural barriers that divide the world outside the church do not divide them inside, because of the power of the gospel. To many ears, especially of younger Christians, that sounds wonderful, but the actual accomplishment of a vibrant, multi-racial and multi-ethnic church is filled with difficulties. An excellent recent book on this is by Irwyn Ince, Jr.m The Beautiful Community: Unity, Diversity, and the Church at its Best (IVP, 2020). A much older, but still helpful book is George A. Yancey, One Body One Spirit: Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches (IVP, 2003).

There are two basic places where Christians can bear fruit of repentance for racism — inside the church, and outside.
Outside the church, Christians should work against racial injustice and equality, and here the possibilities are too many to name. Working for educational equality and a reform of the criminal justice system seem, to me, to be on the very front lines of the battle. When it comes to the latter, two excellent books (though written for a scholarly audience) are William J. Stuntz, The Collapse of the American Criminal Justice System (Harvard, 2011) and Anthony B. Bradley, Ending Overcriminalization and Mass Incarceration: Hope for Civil Society (Cambridge, 2018). For believers who want to understand and do something about the justice system these books, both written by Christian scholars, are a great place to start.

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About the Author: tim keller

Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, which he started in 1989 with his wife, Kathy, and three young sons. He is also the Chairman & Co-Founder of Redeemer City to City (CTC), which starts new churches in New York and other global cities, and publishes books and resources for ministry in an urban environment. Some of Dr. Keller’s books, include the New York Times bestselling The Reason for God and The Prodigal God.