White People: It’s Time to Own Our History

Why are so many white people, and especially white American Christians, terrified to admit that racism exists?

Especially considering our history.

What history, you ask? 

The history of the horrific Trans-Atlantic slave trade, told in so many heartbreaking stories, and illustrated in vivid detail by the true story of The Amistad.

The history of white people’s enslavement of Black men, women and children, with white masters raping enslaved women, brutalizing enslaved men, destroying enslaved families, and dehumanizing enslaved bodies.  Not familiar with how brutal American slavery was? Start by reading the heartbreaking, true story of Solomon Northup, who escaped enslavement, as told in his autobiography Twelve Years a Slave

The history of how professed Christian pastors and church members used the Bible to justify slavery.  Don’t believe me?  The evidence is plentiful if you’re willing to read honest history books.

The history of how America’s prosperity was built largely on the backs of enslaved Blacks, and how we as a nation have yet to pay back the debt we owe them and their descendants.   Read The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism – it’s an eye-opener.

The history of how it took a Civil War to officially end slavery in America, and how many Americans still to this day proudly celebrate the Confederacy and the “way of life” it represented, and refuse to “acknowledge or address the problems created by the legacy of slavery.”

The history of how white supremacy led the way for Jim Crow laws after the Civil War and how these “separate but equal” laws weren’t officially declared illegal until only 56 short years ago.

The history of how white Americans led out in over 4,075 “racial terror lynchings” in the American South between 1877 and 1950, where Blacks “who were never accused of any crime were tortured and murdered in front of picnicking spectators (including elected officials and prominent citizens) for bumping into a white person, or wearing their military uniforms after World War I, or not using the appropriate title when addressing a white person. People who participated in lynchings were celebrated and acted with impunity.” Some of those who witnessed these lynchings are still alive today.

The history of how many of us, or our parents, lived through the Civil Rights movement, where Blacks were mowed down with fire hoses, beaten by the police, bitten by their dogs like criminals, terrorized by whites, and treated like animals. 

The history of “redlining,” which prohibited Blacks from buying homes in nice parts of town, or mortgage discrimination which effectively prohibited them from homeownership at all. While the American middle class has traditionally built and transmitted wealth by home ownership, Black families have not had that opportunity until relatively recently. Read Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, where he makes the case that it won’t be until Americans learn a common―and accurate―history of our nation’s racial divisions that we will be able to figure out a way to fulfill our legal and moral obligations. 

The history of how “law and order” politicians created the mass incarceration system we have in America today.  The United States is a country that incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country, with a disproportionate amount of those being people of color.  As the Equal Justice Initiate notes, “racial disparities persist at every level [of the criminal justice system] from misdemeanor arrests to executions.”   For example, “Blacks are far more likely to be arrested for selling or possessing drugs than whites, even though whites use drugs at the same rate. And whites are actually more likely to sell drugs.

And I haven’t even gotten to the modern day lynchings of people like Ahmaud Arbery, (called a “f***ing n***er” by the man who shot him), or the wide-spread police brutality which often targets African Americans, or the origins of police departments in the American South as slave patrols, or the fact that one study found that “the probability of being black, unarmed and shot by police is about 3.5 times the probability of being white, unarmed and shot by police.” While another study did not find any racial differences in officer-involved shootings, it showed that Blacks are “more likely” than whites “to experience other types of force, including being handcuffed without arrest, ­pepper-sprayed or pushed to the ground by an officer.”

We can’t change the past, but…

Here’s the deal:  America has a sordid history of racism and racial violence. While we can’t go back to the past and change things, we can confess our sins, seek to make restitution, and do better going forward

In the words of scripture, if the wicked “turns from his sin and does what is just and right— if he…makes restitution for what he has stolen, and walks in the salutes of life without practicing iniquity – he will surely live; he will not die.”  Ezekiel 33:15 Berean Study Bible.

But you’re probably thinking: a lot of this stuff happened in the past and it’s not my fault!  

But here are two things to consider:

  1. You, as a white person, enjoy many benefits some of which come at the expense of people of color, including the wealth accumulated by our ancestors, educational opportunities, or other privileges of which we may be unaware.
  2. If you’re a Christian, the Bible teaches that we as followers of Jesus have a collective responsibility to make restitution, as far as possible, for past wrongs – even those committed by our predecessors.

The biblical prophet Daniel confessed the “sins of his people,” even when there is no record that he participated in those sins (see Daniel 9:5, et seq.). Perhaps for some of us, neither we nor our ancestors ever participated in the oppression we’re talking about here. But as Christians, shouldn’t we, like Daniel, be taking the lead in making things right?

The Israelite King David made restitution to the people of Gibeah for the actions of King Saul in breaking a covenant made with their ancestors, even though David had nothing to do with what Saul had done.  Once King David, as the representative of Israel, made things right, God brought the famine in the land, from which all Israel suffered, to an end. (See 2 Samuel 21:1-14)

Adventist abolitionist Ellen G. White took this concept of collective responsibility even further, arguing 30 years after the Civil War, that America as a nation needed to make restitution to “the colored people.”  

“The American nation owes a debt of love to the colored race, and God has ordained that they should make restitution for the wrong they have done them in the past. Those who have taken no active part in enforcing slavery upon the colored people are not relieved from the responsibility of making special efforts to remove, as far as possible, the sure result of their enslavement”

Ellen White, Review and Herald, January 21, 1896

White would later write that God’s judgments would fall on white Americans who had brutalized Blacks:

“The desire to show their masterly authority over the blacks is still burning in the hearts of many who claim to be Christians, but whose lives declare that they are standing under the black banner of the great apostate. When the whites commit crimes, they are often allowed to go uncondemned, while for the same transgressions the blacks…are treated worse than the brutes. The demon of passion is let loose, and all the suffering that can be devised is instituted against them. Will not God judge for these things? As surely as the whites have brought their inhuman cruelty to bear upon the negroes, so surely will God’s vengeance fall upon them.”

Ellen White, 14LtMs, Lt 99, 1899, par. 9

For most of our nation’s history, the abominations of slavery, lynchings and racial terror were perpetuated in our land, as an entire subset of the human race was terrorized.  Even today, the racism and brutality continues to a lesser extent.  Should we not be at least as honest and proactive as was King David in seeking to bring about justice and reconciliation?  

But here’s what I hear from many of my Christian friends: 

I hear: Don’t jump on the popular bandwagon of protesting racism.  

Popular?  Not among most of my friends.  Now, I’m usually slow to jump on bandwagons of any kind.  But this is one that we need to join.  Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s bad, and just because you may not agree with everything the protestors stand for doesn’t mean you shouldn’t join them in protesting racism.  In fact, I’m more than happy when people – no matter who they are – recognize truth and are willing to do something about it. 

I hear: But, “Black on Black” crime!  And Blacks kill white people all the time. Plus, there were Black slave traders!

I’m not exactly sure how this is relevant to Black people asking white people for better treatment, because no one is saying Black people aren’t messed up like all the rest of us, and yes, there are prejudiced and hateful Black people.  And yes, Africans were instrumental in providing others of their own people to the slave traders of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. But our focus here is on American racism, and the point is that Black people do not have a history of systematically wielding power to oppress white people in America. Whites are, and always have been, the powerful majority in America, Blacks are not.  It’s up to white Americans to bring about change in this arena. 

I hear: Satan wants to divide us.  God wants to deliver us from sin.  Stop talking about racism – it will only divide us more.  Just focus on Jesus!

What if someone came to you and said: “I’m having marriage problems.  There’s been abuse in my marriage that has never been resolved, can you help me?”  If you told that person: “All marriage problems are sin problems (true). Marriage problems are only going to divide us and accomplish Satan’s goal (also true). We need to be united and not focus on problems in the marriage (partially true). Just focus on Jesus (very true).”   Have you helped them work through the marriage problem or just swept it under the rug?  The abuser has never been held to account, never formally apologized, never made restitution for the harm they have done.  But we tell the victim spouse – “Don’t let it divide you and destroy your marriage – just forgive and forget.”

In reality, that’s only half the story.  While the victim spouse needs to learn to forgive, the abusive spouse needs to be lovingly held to account.  Even if the abuse has stopped, there needs to be confession of sin, restitution (Ezekiel 33:15; 2 Sam. 21:3) and a change of ways on the part of the abuser.   

The same is true for racism in America.  As Christians, we know racism is ultimately a sin problem.  Unfortunately, people – mainly white people – have historically made the color of people’s skin an issue.   When Black people raise their voices asking us for help, we can’t just say: “Racism is a sin problem.  Stop talking about it.  Don’t divide us.  Be united.”  Instead, we need to listen and admit that we as an American nation and as the church have never really dealt with this issue.

Shouldn’t we just focus on Jesus? Yes! But what does that mean? (More on that in a moment). And is it possible that Jesus wants us to deal with racism in our midst before He’ll accept our worship?

There must be truth before we can have reconciliation

As Bryan Stevenson says, we can’t have reconciliation without first having the truth.  We need to talk about the truth of what has happened in the past which still affects many alive today, and the systemic problems still in place today. 

Jesus is the ultimate answer to racism, and we need to focus more on Him than on the problem of racism.  But the problem here is that most American Christians don’t even realize that racism is a problem.  God can’t save us from a sin we won’t confess.  We need to look to Jesus, and since that is true, we ask: what would Jesus do in this situation?  Jesus came “to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18) and even drove out the oppressors of His day (see Matthew 23; Luke 19:45-48, etc.).  While Christians are never called to “condemn” people, we are often called to rebuke sin, and we are always called to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” (Prob. 31:8).

The prophet Isaiah began his sermon on social justice with a call to:

“Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins….Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” 

Isaiah 58:1, 6 ESV

Here’s how I suggest we can move forward:

  • We, as white Americans, with the followers of Jesus leading the way by our example, need to publicly, humbly confess our sin of supporting slavery, segregation and institutionalized racism.  It’s only when we admit we have a problem that we can begin to heal
  • White Americans need to recognize that we, as a nation, have never made restitution to the slaves or their descendants, even as much of our prosperity and wealth as a nation has been the result of the slave labor of African Americans. At the highest levels of our nation we need to genuinely consider how to make restitution for the generational wrongs done to Blacks in America.
  • Finally, as the ones who have been the oppressors and have benefitted most from oppression, we as white Americans need to humble ourselves and make the first move to reach across the gulf of prejudice and mistrust that separate us from our Black brothers and sisters. On a personal level, we can find ways to support the Black community financially through reputable civil rights organizations, or by investing our time in helping those in poverty.

As a follower of Jesus, I’m reminded that He has the ultimate answers to our world’s problems.

He is our example, so I ask – what would Jesus do?

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 4:16-19 NIV

Go and do likewise.

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