Yesterday was Juneteenth, when enslaved human beings in the South, in our backyard of Galveston, were informed that they were free on June 19, 1865. In honor of Juneteenth, our family watched the Netflix documentary 13th, which explores how a loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished indentured servitude in the United States except as punishment for a crime, allowed the criminalization of African Americans to keep them in bondage. Chronicling the history of Jim Crow and legislation that was disproportionately punitive against people of color, 13th exposed how white supremacy, or whiteness — the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races — has criminalized people based on the color of their skin and embedded that racist ideology in the American psyche.
Looking at our preteen and teenager as they watched 13th, innocence draining from their faces, I wondered, “What do we do with the inescapable reality of racism? How can our faith get us out of this sinful mess?” In the documentary, Kevin Gannon, professor of history at Grandview University, said, “We are a product of a history that our ancestors chose if we’re white. If we are black, we are products of the ancestry our ancestors most likely did not choose. Yet, here we all are together: the products of that set of choices. We have to understand that in order to escape from it.” There was my answer: the penitent work of Christianity.
Jesus began his ministry preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Repentance was foundational for a life committed to ushering in God’s realm, where oppression and injustice are no more, where marginalized voices are brought to the center of public attention, and where every piece of God’s creation that has been broken apart and beaten down by sin, including the sins of racism and white supremacy, are reconciled to the heart of our creator. Repentance means to turn around, take a new direction. When ashes are imposed on Christians’ foreheads on Ash Wednesday, ministers might say, “Turn away from sin and believe the good news.” To repent is to recognize evil for what it is, leave it in the rearview mirror, and return to God like a toddler running back into their parent’s loving arms.
Repentance can deliver us out of this sinful mess, but that work must be intentional. Austin Channing Brown names this in her book, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness: “The ideology that whiteness is supreme ... permeates the air we breathe — in our schools, in our offices, and in our country’s common life. White supremacy is a tradition that must be named and a religion that must be renounced. When this work has not been done, those who live in whiteness become oppressive, whether intentional or not.” Jesus puts it plainly: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). A penitential question, then, for the self-reflective Christian asks, “Am I producing fruit that comes from repentance or from whiteness?”
On Monday, night several pastors, police officers and local leaders gathered on the Bryan Municipal Building steps. The multiracial group stood together denouncing racism in light of recent murders of black people and public outcry over their deaths. The religious leaders demonstratively stated their intention “to be a part of the ongoing movement for racial justice.” It was a good and necessary moment. As moments that recognize the sin of racism produce repentance, the ongoing movement of anti-racism work will produce salvation if we remain faithful.
What does that faithful work look like? Speaking up. After a police officer pressed his knee against George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, choking him to death, elaborately false commentaries surfaced about Floyd, saying he was a criminal and deserved what happened to him. Regardless of Floyd’s past actions, as Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, says, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Speaking up against rhetoric that criminalizes and, consequently, dehumanizes someone because of their skin color is the urgent anti-racism work of Christianity. It is the faithful confession that calling someone “criminal” has dangerous consequences.
History reveals this sinful reality, for example, in the death of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black child tortured and murdered by white men in Mississippi in August 1955. The killers were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury based largely on the elaborately false testimony of a white woman who claimed that Till grabbed her and put his hands on her waist. According to the religion of white supremacy, Till was a criminal who deserved to die. According to Christianity, Till was a child of God who should still be alive. Without repentance, history repeats itself.
The greatest gift of Christianity is not admittance into a club where you are saved and everyone else is not. It’s being transformed into a new creation where love casts out all fear, including our fear of facing the reality of racism, and how those of us who look like me have benefited from it, and what we need to do to dismantle it. One of the greatest gifts of the Christian life is repentance: breaking cycles of violence and accepting the joy and the cost of walking with Jesus in that reparative work. It’s a hopeful path out of this sinful mess and into salvation.
The Rev. Dan De Leon is the pastor of Friends Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, College Station.