Learning to Repent

It’s been a journey in the making for about eight years, but if I’m really honest, it’s probably been longer than that. It might be closer to forty years. It’s been a journey of enlightenment, a journey of self-discovery, and a journey of humility.

I’ve benefitted from white privilege for the bulk of my life. I was raised into it, though I did nothing to deserve it or earn it. I’ve never fought it or complained that it was given to me. I’ve never done anything to give it away, and I’ve never really done anything to repent of its benefits.

For those of us who have benefited from white privilege, it’s hard to acknowledge it and sometimes harder to come to terms with the fact that it’s something of which we should repent. You see, I think our Christianity in the west has been heavily influenced by our westernized, individualistic culture. We’ve lost the corporate nature of humanity as we’ve all set on our own individual ways. We seek after a personal relationship with Christ, which is important but we miss the point of the corporate language of the Bible. We read so many of the passages in the Bible that say “you” as talking to us as individuals rather than talking to us as a group, one body.

Those of us who fail to see that repentance is necessary are the same ones who fail to see why “All lives matter” is not a legitimate phrase. We also wonder why we need to repent for the things for which we can’t claim personal responsibility. After all, we weren’t the ones pulling the trigger, right? We weren’t there when some of these atrocities took place, right? We never asked for the white privilege that we received, did we?

But asking those questions and making those statements are an indication of us missing the point.

The Book of Nehemiah in the Bible is among my favorite books. It contains thirteen chapters of leadership and life lessons. One of the things that has captivated me about the book is found in the first chapter, specifically, Nehemiah’s prayer, for it’s in that prayer that I think I first began to understand corporate sin and corporate repentance. It’s in that prayer that I realized that there are times when we confess the sins that we might not have personally committed, times when we need to own things that others did, maybe even way before we were even born. It was in that prayer that I began to learn that being responsible for and taking responsibility for are not necessarily the same thing.

As Nehemiah prays to the Lord, he says, Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.”

Why did Nehemiah pray that prayer? He wasn’t personally responsible for Israel’s exile. He didn’t do anything to cause it. Yet, he was willing to own it and to bring it before the Lord.

Why?

I think that Nehemiah understood corporate sin. I think he understood that there was something to be said about sins for which he may have not been personally responsible, but for which he was corporately responsible. Nehemiah is an example that we who have benefitted from white privilege should follow.

I’m sure there are plenty of people who will disagree with me, and that’s fine. I feel like I’m just beginning to understand, I feel like I’m beginning to see what I’ve missed before. I may not have personally caused the mess or committed the sin, but I’ve been a recipient of the privilege that resulted from it. And that’s why it makes perfect sense for me to repent. I might not be personally responsible for the sins, but I can take responsibility for them. 

Yes, my journey’s been a long one, and it’s certainly not over. I’m beginning to open my eyes, my ears, and my heart. Opening my eyes to see, opening my ears to hear, and opening my heart to feel.

The journey has involved reading things that I wouldn’t normally read, books that might make me feel uncomfortable. It’s involved going places that I wouldn’t normally go, places that might make me feel uncomfortable. It’s involved talking with people that I might not normally talk with, people that might make me feel uncomfortable. But the only way we grow is to feel that discomfort, to move outside of the safe zone with which we tend to surround ourselves.

I’m not there, but I’m doing what I can do broaden my horizons and look at things from a different perspective. I know that God is doing a work in me and I can only hope that it continues.

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