It’s easier for Christians to give up chocolate at Lent than repent the sin of racism | Opinion
In my faith tradition, we are deep in the middle of a sacred season called Lent. It’s a 40 day period of repentance, fasting and penitence. It’s meant to produce a renewed and deepened faith in Jesus. But repentance and penitence have been hard sells for quite some time, most of us settle for observing Lent by giving up chocolate or cutting back on social media, that’s if we don’t skip it all together.
The contemporary American church prefers to believe that following Jesus is a one-and-done decision that can never be undone. But, in the words of Rev. Esau McCaulley, “life is long and zeal fades” and Lent is a recurring invitation to recommit to God and his kingdom. Each year, our church calendar asks us to stop and seriously consider why we are Christians, or if, indeed, we still are.
Recently, I attended a gathering of clergy activists committed to the belief that safe and dignified housing is a basic human right. The presenter shared that Charlotte has a deficit of 35,000 affordable housing units. The vast majority of people shut out of the housing market here are Black or people of color.
The speaker traced the disparity back to the racist distribution of GI Bill benefits after World War II. White soldiers who served their country got mortgage loans, college scholarships and an express pass into the middle class. Black soldiers got sent to the back of the bus and told to use separate water fountains. By design, the GI Bill excluded Black veterans and people of color. The speaker invited us to pause for a moment and imagine how different our community would look today if GI benefits had been administered justly and fairly. I invite you to do the same. What if?
Chattel slavery, genocide of indigenous people, Jim Crow, red-lining, disenfranchisement from government benefits, the prison industrial complex, I understand how these practices were designed and still work to systematically steal, kill and destroy Black Americans and people of color. I think most white Americans do know the facts (though the next generation might not if some legislators have their way). What we don’t know is what to do with them.
We flounder in denial and defensiveness, fear, shame, guilt and what-about-isms that lead to a collective performative response of a shrug. But the Christian faith offers a response that is redemptive and transformative: repentance.
The witness of scripture is clear: sin is real and it is often collective. Read the prophets. You won’t find condemnations of individuals who harmed other individuals. The prophets cry out against the nation, the collective people who tolerated a culture that defrauded the poor, exploited the weak, excluded foreigners and justified injustice.
The prophets name the evil masquerading as civic religion and then they call the people to a repentance — to turn away from the evil practices they’ve condoned and turn back to the holy ways of justice, mercy and peace.
The only way to move forward with healing and hope is to name the tragedy of our evil choices and to imagine the lost opportunities and grieve them. Knowing isn’t enough. There must be an intentional time of mourning and counting the cost. Only then can we meaningfully and collectively turn away from the sin of white supremacy and choose a new way of neighbor love.
The prophet Isaiah describes the kind of repentance that pleases God, “is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?”
We resist Lent. It is painful to grieve our sinfulness. It’s more comfortable and efficient to skip repentance and forgive ourselves in Jesus’ name. Maybe we can be forgiven by God for sins we don’t repent, but we can’t be freed of them. Until we count the cost of the old ways, we won’t have the desire for something different.
For generations, Black Americans and people of color have been grieving the violence of white supremacy and calling for a new way. It is long past time for white Americans to join them. It’s easier for American Christians to give up chocolate than to sincerely repent the sin of racism, but that kind of fast won’t transform anything. Maybe that’s the point.
Kate Murphy is pastor at The Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte.