The Prophets are the Healers: Repenting of Racism

The Prophets are the Healers: A Time for Racial Healing

I want to remind us of something very simple, something that we already know, but that we’re not hearing from the 24-hour news cycle: God is on the move. Who is the point of origin of the longing for righteousness? From whom does the capacity to judge good and evil proceed? Who most greatly desires the healing of the nations and the well-being of all whom He has made? Our God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The cry for justice resounding in our society today is ultimately a cry to Him, and the answer to this cry flows from His cross. As His Church, we are his co-laborers, and I believe He is calling us in these days to a wonderful work. Pastors and church leaders, I am praying particularly for you. May the Holy Spirit pour out His gifts of fortitude, discernment, and love as you lead your congregations at this time, and upon all believers as we answer His call. To aid this effort, I would like to call our attention to two facets of the gospel that will help us collaborate with our God: the Christian office of prophet; and the process of repentance.

The Christian Office of Prophet

Leanne Payne said, “The prophets are the healers, because they call people to repentance.” Jesus Himself was the prophet, calling all men, “Come, leave your sins, and follow Me.” In this moment, He is calling America to leave its sin of racism against African-Americans and learn to receive His healing and walk in His ways. It’s a ripe-field moment of great opportunity in which the gospel directly answers the cry of our culture. Those who do not yet know Christ don’t realize it, but the Cross stands at the center of their need, protest, and concern. They need to hear from men and women endowed with the power to witness to Christ. Alexander Schmemann reminds us that this prophetic office is our true nature, our true vocation. “The prophet is one who hears God and therefore can convey God’s will to the world, the one who ‘reads’ all events, all ’situations’ with God’s eyes and therefore can refer all that is human and temporal to that which is divine and eternal” [1].

God gives the gift of prophecy so that we may have true knowledge and be free, but many have rejected this union with Him, even some who call themselves Christian. Schemann points out the ideological enslavement that evolves from this rejection: “Seldom before has the world been so saturated with ideologies promising the solution to all problems as it is today; seldom before have there existed so many ‘soteriologies’ claiming to know — ‘scientifically’ and ‘objectively’ — the cure for all evils. Truly our time is the time of prophetic fraud — of the pseudo-prophecy and the pseudo-prophet in ‘science’ and ‘religion’ alike” [2]. Many such pseudo-prophets will offer their flawed answers to our nation’s cry. The world needs those who are in union with Christ to lead with discernment and divine objectivity, to be attentive to how God is moving, and to walk with steps ordered by His word. Any movement for reconciliation, healing, and transformation will only be true if it remains centered on God, His truth, and His ways.

To whatever extent followers of Christ engage this battle against the spiritual evil of racism and remain focused on Him, we will see breakthrough. Not only will God’s will be done on this issue, but we will emerge strengthened for future battles. We have other evils to fight in which the swell of public opinion will not be with us. I pray that as the voices and backbones of Christians grow stronger through addressing racism, we will also be strengthened to witness in other conflict zones (such as abortion, pornography, the deconstruction of marriage and gendered sexuality) with courage, and faithfulness.

Schmemann notes that the gift of prophecy restores the vertical dimension of true human nature. What a noble and worthy call, to be a prophet standing upright in Christ! Let us be alert about what could pull us out of that vertical posture. I believe the truest interpretation of our time is that God is on the move. But it’s also undeniably a secular cultural moment, and the strong gravitational pull of the culture could cause us to leave our vertical position and either bend towards or away from our fellow man.

We may be pulled to bend in by the gratification of being admired as socially righteous. But taking pleasure in being recognized as an ally by the world is tricky territory, and we put ourselves at risk of forgetting our heart’s deepest desire to win approval, admiration, and belonging from God. While we are working in the same direction as the Black Lives Matter movement in addressing the wellbeing of African-Americans, we part ways on abortion, an evil that disproportionally takes Black lives, and on our convictions about human sexuality and identity. As we’ve seen throughout history, godless ideology has a way of parasitically invading moves of the Spirit, and when it does, revival is weakened or even snuffed out. The best defense against this temptation to bend into those around us is to be listening well to our Father, receiving the encouragement, guidance, and acceptance we legitimately need from Him. As we do so, we are able to winsomely engage in genuine allyship with all sorts of neighbors, free to love them well because their approval or acceptance is not our daily bread.

Conversely, we could also bend away from this racial-reconciliation movement because we only see man at work in it and don’t want to be swept away by a worldly current. I believe the answer to this fear is to raise our eyes a little higher. Rather than focusing on the human drama, especially as its told on the TV news, we can look up to the great One in our midst. We have the privilege to ask God what He’s doing, how He’s moving, and wait expectantly for Him to answer. If God is not speaking on this issue, and if His will is not the mover of our hearts, then we would do well to remain silent and unmoved in kind. But if He is in it, and we don’t take the risk to engage, I fear we will be like the timid servant who displeased his master by taking a do-no-harm approach and burying his talent in the ground. Whatever caution we feel belongs in dialog with our Father. We can be confident that He will not just speak, but also provide all we need to walk in step with His will.

True prophecy calls people to repentance, and in order to repent, we must be able to name reality before God: “We did/failed to do ____, and it is an offense to Your ways of love and goodness.” So, in order to repent of racism, we must know the reality of it. Relationships help us tremendously here. As we hear the testimonies of those who have suffered, our hearts have the opportunity to embrace the reality of their experience, to bear witness, “I believe this happened.” Many Christians today are gaining needed insight through books and videos offered by those who are working raise awareness about the racism suffered by African-Americans. I commend those who are sharing both their scholarship and life stories, and commend those who are listen with humbly inquisitive hearts.

I’d like to remind all who are engaging in this learning process of an always-essential practice for Christian students: listen and learn at the foot of the Cross. Leanne Payne’s strategy was to always hold the symbol of the communion cup as a point of reference for her studies. As we study and discuss racism, we will learn best by considering its place in the central event of history: Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection, and the offering of His life to all through His body and blood. In these days we need to listen to experts and ordinaries, to friends and to enemies, in our search for wisdom about racism. There can’t help but be errors of pseudo-prophecy in any thought leader who doesn’t receive life from and refer all back to God. We still need to listen, because the gracious God of this universe speaks through all manner of sources. But we will do best to actively listen to the counsel of the Holy Spirit as we do.

If God-centered, this moment can lead to real and lasting change. Alongside much passion, we also hear doubt, fear, and even cynicism that this wave of conviction and call for change will have any effect. Many are warning of the risk that it could wash out with little meaningful outcome as after previous protests. If we rely on human concern, effort, and strategy alone, that is indeed what will happen. But if we believe God is active in His world, moved by His own heart of mercy and the cries of His people, then we have reason to hope that there is an incorruptible energy at work to heal our land. If true prophets will stand now in Christ and collaborate with the divine initiative, then we have reason to hope that righteous ground can be taken and the shalom of His kingdom might advance. There were true prophets in the generations before us, some who became famous and many who we won’t know until heaven. The prayers of these saints prepared the ground for the work we are sharing in today. Sojourner Truth was one of these, a valiant follower of Christ who was steadfastly God-centered in her activism. Her tombstone bears her exhortation to fellow abolitionists, “Is God dead?” Surely God heard her prayers, and countless others who cried out through the generations: “O Lord! O Lord! Oh, the tears, an’ the groans, an’ the moans! O Lord!” [3] God is moving in response to those prayers, and now the Spirit is asking afresh, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for Us?” Let us take heart, for many today are answering, ‘Here I am. Send me.”

The Process of Repentance

I’ve heard what I appreciate as a reasonable question from some Christians recently: *Wait, didn’t we already do this? Haven’t we already repented of slavery and racism against African-Americans?* I’m glad for the question, because it helps us renew our understanding of how repentance really works in our lives, leaving us with stronger groundwork for addressing our ongoing problem with racism.

First, a word about corporate repentance, which is an unfamiliar practice for many Christians today. Our unconscious anthropology is often more shaped by the “autonomous man” of secular modernity than it is by the Judeo-Christian picture of branches in the Vine, members of the Body, sons and daughters of the Father. I recently heard a man interviewed about protesting the government’s rules regarding coronavirus, and he expressed it quite plainly: “If you get rid of individualism, you get rid of America, and that’s what this is all about.” But from the beginning of the story of God’s people we have been not just individuals but a people, and from Genesis through Revelation, personal and corporate responsibility complement one another in the practice of repentance. In his book Repentance in Christian Theology, OT scholar Mark Boda notes, “[Torah] reminds us that we are deeply connected to one another within the community of faith, but also within our broader familial and cultural communities. The Western church in particular has become adept at focusing on individual confession of sins committed in secret. The communal dimension of sin and of confession found in Torah challenges us to consider ways we have offended God’s values as members of communities and ways we can confess and confront such sinful patterns.” [4]

The nation of Israel practiced corporate repentance throughout the stories found in the Old Testament, both intra- and inter-generationally. Those who had warned their erring neighbors and relatives and had themselves abstained from idolatry still came before God to confess, “We have sinned against you.” The descendants of even the most righteous and heroic members of the nation would put on sack cloth and ashes to cry, “We have done what is wicked in Your sight.” If the practice of taking responsibility before God to repent of the sins of our families, communities, and nation seems strange to us, it is not because it is foreign to Christianity, but because we have been shaped by worldview foreign to God’s people.

To help us work through any resistance to corporate repentance, let’s consider what it’s like when our spirits enter confession of sin by the grace of the Holy Spirit. We become keen to name sin, own responsibility, and admit guilt, even through tears. Concern about parsing blame, explaining mitigating circumstances, or naming accomplices fall away. We know ourselves to be in God’s presence and are eager to be set free by telling the truth and casting ourselves on His evident mercy. Corporate repentance is as Christian a practice as you can get, and one that has power to restore covenant relationship with our God and deliver us from our exile to the cursed domain of polarization, hate, and destruction that we call racism.

Repentance leads us to the cross, the place where God releases His healing power into this world. Repentance is a grace: the capacity to recognize and name sin, to come into agreement with God about it, and to turn from it. Through His cross, Christ restored freedom to all mankind to receive this grace and choose repentance. Racism is a sin, or perhaps a name for a whole complex of sins, and it will never be corrected or healed through human effort alone. There is no extent of wokeness, no thorough-enough policy changes that can atone for the sins of racism. The only way racism can be corrected is by redemption through the blood of Christ, a mercy which we receive when we repent.

Not only is racism a sin, it is a besetting sin, meaning that it is persistent and deeply rooted. Such sins are not eradicated from our lives through a single decision for repentance. Cleansing our hearts of racism, whether individually, collectively, or structurally, will require sustained, prayerful repentance. If you’re like me, you’ve spent prolonged seasons prayerfully targeting a character-level pattern of sin such as selfishness or a critical spirit. The sins of racism are perhaps even more entrenched than these defects of character because they’ve grown in us over generations, have taken root in the depths of our symbolic mind, and are continually reinforced by the brokenness of our culture.

Not only do besetting sins call for a long-term repentance project, but we also come to know that the project will not be completed in these bodies. The culmination of these repentance-efforts is humility and wisdom about our ongoing vulnerability to sin, rather than emerging immune to it. I have often used these helpful questions in my listening prayer journal to target the vices and character-level sins that I must confess repeatedly ((suggested by Leanne Payne, from James 1:15 and I Peter 5:8):

How was I dragged away and enticed by my own evil desire?
How did my desire conceived give birth to sin?
How have I rejected Your will and way as just and good?
Where is there denial, unforgiveness, displaced anger and unbelief?
How do I need to know You more truly?
Of what temptation must I be watchful, self-controlled and alert?

Mature Christians become more holy and godly not because they believe themselves to be beyond sinning, but because they’ve gotten to know their sin nature quite well, and have learned to submit their weaknesses more continually to Christ. As we progress in the project of repentance of racism, our hearts will be changed, our thoughts and reactions will become purer and more like our Father’s. And for the struggle that remains, we will become more sensitive to the footholds racism still has in us, and more aware of what circumstances and conditions may make us more likely to fall back into error.

Given that racism is an interpersonal sin, one that has formed in us through our participation in family and society, our repentance work will also need to take place interpersonally. This is one reason (among many) why we need our churches to facilitate repeated, corporate confession of the sins of racism that includes authoritative assurance of God’s forgiveness that can be received by all. We’ve mis-created this sinful state together, and it is good that we defy the shame that would shrink and hide, and instead engage in public, corporate repentance together. As John Coutts writes in A Shared Mercy, “The church stands before the world as a community of disturbed sinners continually gathered and built up in the mercy of Christ.” [5]

Spiritual Warfare

I’ll close by reminding us of the spiritual nature of racism. Of all the strongholds that I have played a part in confronting through MPC, none has provoked demonic opposition as vicious or potent as has our work in addressing racism. I am convinced that the satanic force of evil is energetically defending its territory here. But our God is faithful and mighty and yields no territory to His enemies. His gift of discernment breaks through our deception. His clarity descends into our confusion. His boldness overshadows our timidity. His radiant path shines in our darkness. He meets our need in manifold grace, including through our brothers and sisters in Christ. The Enemy is truly evil and intent on destroying all that God creates, including this movement for healing, reconciliation, and transformation. But I can emphatically testify that we have nothing to fear. As long as we cry out to our way-making God and utterly depend on Him, He is pleased to take our smallness and do great things. Yes, we are clay jars, and there is no shame in our smallness. Our God has surpassing power, and He is pleased to dwell with us, to descend into the midst of our fiercest bondage, and to shine the Light that banishes the darkness. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

[1] Alexander Schmemann, Of Water and the Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism (St Vladimirs Seminary Pr, 1997), 100.
[2] *ibid*, 101.
[3] Harriett Beecher Stowe, “Sojourner Truth, The Libyan Sibyl,” The Atlantic (Civil War Issue).
[3] Mark J. Boda & Gordon T. Smith, Repentance in Christian Theology (Liturgical Press, 2006), 22.
[4] Jon Coutts, A Shared Mercy (IVP Academic, 2016), 93.