Questions About Guilt & Repentance
Issues of guilt and repentance are a key point in our current social discourse about race, reparations, white guilt and the like. Here’s an example of what I have in mind:
I have several half-baked questions surrounding this issue and my plan was to simply present a numbered list of those questions here, but I didn’t get past writing the first question before another question occurred to me which I need to spend a little bit of time answering before I get to the list.
Is collective guilt a necessary component to the current racial discourse?
The thread by Amy Carter Whitfield that Luke Stamps thinks is “fantastic” seems to implicitly rely on a notion of collective or inherited guilt (“we apologize”). Or perhaps it’s just very presumptuous? But could Whitfield’s basic thread be written without an assumption of collective or inherited guilt? Probably. One might try to make the case that a group of white, liberal, racially conscious Americans in 2020 who are engaging in a ritual of repentance are not repenting of sins they haven’t themselves personally participated in. How? Because “racism” is understood more broadly than personal, conscious animus against those of another race. Insofar as racism is systemic, white people can participate in systemic racism without holding to personal, conscious animus against those of another race. Thus, we might say that it is white people’s involvement in those systems that needs to be repented of.
Likewise, calls for reparations need not be understood in the framework that white people in 2020, who have never stolen money or property from black people, pay money to black people who have never had their money or property stolen from white people. Rather, the idea is that white people are currently living off of the benefits from money, property, or labor that was stolen from black people whose descendants are our contemporaries. Scott Coley provides a good illustration here (I’m going from memory, so this is not his exact illustration): suppose that my grandfather stole money from your grandfather and was never caught or punished for it — the money was never returned. Suppose that eventually I inherit this money that would have, had it not been stolen, been inherited by you. It seems reasonable to argue that I owe you this money, even if I don’t bear any guilt for having stolen it.
So maybe the current discourse about race, reparations, white guilt, and the like actually has nothing to do with collective or inherited guilt. But then talk about repentance and guilt that are grounded in non-collective or non-inherited schemes raise other questions. For instance, if white people bear guilt from participation in systemic racism then don’t black, asian, and hispanic people also bear guilt from participation in racist systems? Surely the obvious pushback will be “No, because black people are the ones suffering under those systems, not benefitting from them!” And maybe we could say the same for hispanic and asian people?
But now the claim seems to be that every individual white person is a beneficiary of systemic racism and every individual black person is a victim of systemic racism. Maybe that’s what many people are comfortable with saying, but that’s a strong claim that would be hard to support. It seems like supporting such a claim would be impossible at an empirical level. Thus, we would need some principle which suggested that systemic racism has universal impact. But even if we had such a principle, one that had at least a prima facie plausibility, it’s not obvious that a white person could be guilty — and, thus, need to repent — for participating in that system since, per the principle, participation was involuntary.
The case for reparations has a similar problem in that it’s usually offered as an indiscriminate solution (e.g., an indiscriminate tax on white people), but the non-collective or non-inherited guilt scheme is grounded in tracing wealth back to specific historical acts. But empirically tracing those lines seems impossible in a way that would justify, say, an indiscriminate tax on white people. (Scott Coley has a more local and specifically Christian solution: churches could set up reparation charities which believers could contribute to, even if they don’t know that they’ve benefited from stolen wealth, out of love for their black neighbors and concern over the possibility that they may have benefited from stolen wealth. I haven’t given much thought to this solution, but I have no immediate objections to it.)
When collective guilt is a component of the current racial discourse
But even though collective or inherited guilt isn’t a necessary part to our current discussion on reparations or white guilt, it does seem to be an implicit part of the framework in which many are engaging these issues. I think Amy Carter Whitfield’s tweet is one example. Here is another from Brandon Smith, a teacher at Cedarville University:
(Every other time I open Twitter it has a problem loading images and videos, so that’s why the handle icon is greyed out in the picture above.) The general sense of condemnation here and the idea that people, presumably white people, are responsible for the shed blood of black men and women seems to be implicitly relying upon a sense of collective or inherited guilt. Perhaps we could find some way to understand Brandon Smith’s point in a non-collective/inherited guilt sense. But regardless, here are some questions that might arise in response to comments like those of Brandon Smith or Luke Stamps. (Some of these questions are overlapping. Also, these are not intended to be rhetorical questions where I think the answer is obvious).
- If we are guilty for the blood of our black brothers and sisters are we not also guilty of the blood of our white or asian or hispanic brothers and sisters?
- If white people are in some sense responsible for George Floyd then are they not also in some sense responsible for David Dorn?
- If white people are in some sense responsible for George Floyd or if they are in some sense responsible for past racial injustices, such that they need to repent of those injustices or of the injustice against Floyd, then a fortiori, are not those white people who had some involvement in the protests that spilled over into riots especially responsible for victims like David Dorn?
- If we, as a group, need to repent for past injustices, will our children need to repeat that group repentance eventually too? And will their children need to also repeat that repentance?
- If we need to repeatedly repent for past injustices, is there really forgiveness on offer?
- If we can inherit the guilt of our ancestors, can we inherit their forgiveness?
- If white people have collective guilt for injustices committed by white people, do black people have collective guilt for injustices committed by black people?
- Why should we think that guilt is communicated along lines of racial identity, especially given the widespread agreement that race is a social construct?
- If guilt is communicable, wouldn’t it most naturally be communicated first between immediate family, then between extended family, then between local civil institutions, etc? Or, if the guilt first occurs in the context of an institution, wouldn’t it most naturally first be communicated through the hierarchy of that institution?
- Why is the discussion of reparations limited to issues of past racial injustice? Can we expand that to include past injustices from one white family to another or even a black family to a white family?
- Can we expand (or narrow) discussion of reparations to institutional guilt and responsibilities of reparations that include white and black people? (In some ways, there is already a legal framework for this sort of thing.)
I think clarity on these sorts of questions (maybe not only these questions or these questions specifically) will go a long way towards easing the anxiety a lot of people feel over our current racial discourse. There is a sense, I think, among some on the right that they are being asked to participate in a rigged game with principles that aren’t being applied consistently and to which they’ll simply be asked to play all over again the next time a George Floyd-type incident occurs.
If I’m right about that assessment then questions 5–7 seem pretty important. Is there a clear point of reconciliation and mutual (not to say equal) admission of wrongs that we are aiming at? Christians, white and black, especially need an answer to these questions that is informed by the gospel.
Hebrews 7:26–28 For this is the kind of high priest we need: holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He doesn’t need to offer sacrifices every day, as high priests do — first for their own sins, then for those of the people. He did this once for all time when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak, but the promise of the oath, which came after the law, appoints a Son,f who has been perfected forever.