Over the past two years, there has been much in the news about Critical Race Theory and similar ideas. While Critical Race Theory itself is not used in education below college level, the term has become the associated with education about systemic racism, the idea that many aspects of American society put black folks at a disadvantage with respect to whites. Many whites are uncomfortable with the teaching and promotion of systemic racism because when we establish that society itself promotes racism against blacks, it becomes the responsibility of the white majority to do the hard, uncomfortable work of seeking out and correcting or removing society’s racist elements.
Of course, many whites, including many Christians, think that there is little or no systemic racism in the United States today. While I believe that that the evidence (like this) for the reality of systemic racism and its serious effects on Black people today is indisputable, I will not delve into that evidence here.
Yet it is important for all of us to recognize that since the overwhelming majority of blacks in the United States do believe that racism is a serious problem in the USA in 2022, the New Testament requires white Christians to talk to blacks directly about whether and how racism has impacted their lives. God has generously blessed my wife Anne and I by allowing us to have numerous conversations with black folks about their experiences, often painful. (You can find a few of Anne’s conversations recorded for posterity under the “videos” tab of the St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church Facebook page). I’ve also had many, many conversations with whites who doubt that systemic racism is all that important. Interestingly, in almost all of those conversations it becomes clear that my white conversation partner had never sought to hear the views of blacks from blacks themselves. Yes, this kind of conversation is uncomfortable for both whites and blacks, but for Christians, “uncomfortable” is never a sufficient excuse for not obeying Christ’s command to love others, including those with a different skin color, as we love ourselves.
Those of us who agree that systemic racism is real and serious in 2022 have another problem: what do we do about it? When we talk about the development and existence of racism in society, many whites who honestly have never practiced deliberate racism find themselves feeling obligated to examine and change their behavior. They start to feel guilty. Yet many of us, including many Christians, believe that it is wrong to make people feel guilty about the racist behaviors of others.
It is not fun to think that we bear responsibility for the bad behavior of generations of whites before us. Life is much more pleasant when we can forget about our past sins, and the sins of our parents and grandparents. Unfortunately, when the past impacts the present, Christians do not have the option of forgetting the past. This is one of the central teachings of Ezra 9:1–15.
Ezra 9 is set in the early 5th century BC, between 50 and 100 years after the return of the Israelites to Judea in 538 BC. Ezra is the leading priest in Israel, working to reconstruct the religious community in and around Jerusalem. In Ezra 9, Ezra offers prayers on behalf of the community. Most important here is Ezra 9:7, where Ezra leads the Jewish people in repentance for sins of their ancestors going back several hundred years. In the context of Old Testament teaching, expressing sorrow for the sins of those who had lived and died long before Ezra’s generation had been born may seem strange: passages such as Ezek 18:14-20 clearly state what most Christians believe today, that we are responsible for our own sin, and not the sins of our parents.
Unfortunately, things are not always so cut and dried. When we sin, we often create problems that we cannot fix ourselves; our sin can seriously hurt others. When a previous generation makes a mess, the next generation must deal with the effects. This seems to be the idea of passages such as Exod 20:5 and 34:7 in which God talks about punishing the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of idolaters.
Ezra brings up the past sins of Israel because the old patterns of sin are affecting people in his day. The people had been warned against the evils of intermarriage in the time of Moses, yet intermarriage was a consistent problem throughout Israel’s history. So as long as the problem continued to exist, it was very appropriate to acknowledge and repent for the sins of his forbears.
In 2022, racism is a continuing problem in the United States. Yes, most of us condemn racism and have tried our best not to treat others differently based on skin color. But we cannot escape the reality that as long as the overwhelming majority of black folks believe that racism is a serious problem, racism will be a serious problem. And since racism has been a serious problem throughout American history, it is not only appropriate for us to recognize that history today; it is required. God does not accept “I didn’t make the problem” as a sufficient excuse for not dealing with problems that plague us today.
Confronting our ugly past is unpleasant. But if we are unwilling to take on unpleasant task, we become unworthy of being identified as followers of Christ. So even if the world around us tries to avoid the reality of America’s racist past, let us continue to name and confront that sin, as we strive to eradicate racism in our society.