With the founding of Black Lives Matter and the election of Donald Trump, issues of race and racism jumped to the forefront of our national consciousness. Around the same time, evangelicals began asking how Christians could participate in the racial reconciliation movement. Along with Daniel Hill’s White Awake, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s Reconstructing the Gospel, and Jemar Tisby’s Color of Compromise, Latasha Morrison’s Be The Bridge is one of many books that addresses this issue. While her heart for healing, forgiveness, and unity is evident in her writing, some of her assumptions open the door to serious theological errors that Christians should be careful to guard against.
Morrison is at her best when she’s recounting stories from her own life: her emotional distance from her mother, her conversion to Christ, her experience with racial insensitivity, her family’s reconciliation. In particular, hearing her recount her experiences as one of only a few Black staffers at a large Texas mega-church was cringe-inducing. People who have always been part of an ethnic or cultural majority in their community should reflect on how it can feel to be an ethnic or cultural minority facing comments that are -at best- insensitive and -at worst- antagonistic.
In the same way, Morrison rightly devotes significant space to horrifying episodes in U.S., such as the lynching of Mary Turner, in which white men burned an 18-year-old pregnant woman alive and crushed her unborn baby’s head in (p. 25-28), or the Tulsa race massacre (p. 42-47). While some readers may feel that recounting these events will needlessly open old wounds, these stories are important for several reasons.
First, they are as much a part of our nation’s history as the first Thanksgiving or the Gettysburg address. It is unbalanced to recount only historical events which portray our country in a positive light while turning a blind eye to the ugly parts of our past. Second, these events are part of the historical marginalization of blacks and other people of color which continues to have effects in the present. Third, these events serve as a reminder that should humble us and cause us -as Christians- to examine our own hearts. If professing Christians of the past could ignore such injustices, then we should realize that we’re capable of the same blindness today. Finally, like all instances of evil, Christians can and should lament that they took place, seeking to understand the pain of those who have heard these narratives from their own parents and grandparents. The stories we hear shape our view of the world and, they can pass on justifiable pain, fear, and sorrow with which we should sympathize.
While Morrison does have such applications in mind, she also uses these narratives for a more problematic reason: to argue that white people bear “ancestral guilt.”
Communal and Ancestral Guilt
In her section, “Removing Roadblocks to Reconciliation,” Morrison talks about how “shame and guilt often compel majority culture to cover up and whitewash sins” (p. 67). She continues: “Our Western society is highly individualized, and our measure of morality is based on individual guilt or innocence. We’ve all heard the justification: Why should I repent of racism? I never owned slaves. But in the Bible, guilt and shame .. are often communal and point to the need for corporate repentance” (p. 68). To support this claim, she references Ezra’s prayer in Ezra 9:6 and Daniel’s in Dan. 9:8, writing that Ezra and Daniel were both “personally innocent but … came under guilt and shame nonetheless.” (p. 69). Morrison insists that avoidance of this collective shame and guilt will be an obstacle to true reconciliation: “Dealing with that guilt and shame [of our collective past], really owning it, can be a tear-filled, painful process… We can’t bypass the weight of our guilt and shame if we intend to arrive at true reconciliation and justice” (p. 69)
Yet the concept of ancestral sin is dubious, for at least two reasons.
First, in the biblical passages she cites, both Ezra and Daniel were referring to sins that the community was still actively committing. The language is very explicit: “And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness” (Ezra 9:2), “From the days of our ancestors until now” (Ezra 9:7), “we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws” (Dan. 9:5), “We and our kings, our princes and our ancestors are covered with shame, Lord, because we have sinned against you” (Dan. 9:8). In both cases, the speakers see continuity between past sins of the community and its present sins. But in no case are they referring to sins that the present-day community had repudiated and rejected.
Second, Israel stands in a unique relationship to God as his covenant people; consequently, the proper analogy is between Israel and the church, not between Israel and a particular demographic group. “Whites” are no more a covenant community than “red-heads” or “Spanish-speakers.”
Even apart from the paucity of biblical justification for the category of ancestral sin, this issue becomes especially important given how Morrison ties the idea of “communal/ancestral guilt” to “repentance” in the subsequent chapters.
The Gospel of Reparations
If Morrison is correct that we somehow inherit shame and guilt from the actions of our community or our ancestors, it seems necessary for us to “repent.” Yet she also recognizes that biblical repentance necessitates a change in behavior. She writes: “Isn’t change the core of repentance?” (p. 129), and “True reconciliation requires that we change our behavior, that we set a new trajectory. This change of trajectory, this about-face, is what we call repentance” (p. 134). In her section “The Gospel of Reparations,” Morrison writes “If repentance requires turning and walking away from the sins of our past, doesn’t it require walking toward something more reparative? So reparations and repentance are inextricably intertwined, and those who’ve inherited the power and benefits of past wrongs should work to make it right for those who’ve inherited the burdens and oppression of the past.” (p. 155)
To be clear, Morrison isn’t thinking primarily about national, governmental reparations to descendants of slaves. The reparations she suggests are largely voluntary and far more relational. For instance, she talks about how bridge builders can identify areas “where they’ve been given systemic advantage, such as better schools, better access to health care, and better treatments by the police and other authorities” and then “ask whether they’re actively promoting people of color in their businesses, whether they’re inviting Black leadership into their churches [or are supporting] Black-owned businesses or donat[ing] to nonprofits that work for the advancement of people of color” (p. 164).
She insists that “reparation is not punitive [and] is not about punishment… Reparation is about repaying or returning those things [e.g. opportunities, possessions, property, wealth, and safety] so as to restore equity.” Yet at the same time, she recognizes that “righting the wrong… requires that we give up something: yielding influence, decentering our own experience, letting go of privilege. Reparations require sacrifice. But effective bridge builders don’t shy away from Jesus’s call to ‘go and sin no more,’ a call that includes making things right. Like Zacchaeus, effective bridge builders must return what was taken, even if it hurts” (p. 164).
That last ‘must’ is particularly significant. Though legally voluntary and relational, reparations are morally mandatory. That conclusion follows inexorably from her discussion of communal/ancestral sin, guilt, and the need for repentance. Christians who fail to enact some kind of reparations for their systemic privilege are not only failing to be effective bridge builders; they are failing to bear the fruit of true repentance.
Disagreement or Blindness
A final dynamic that’s important to highlight is how disagreement is handled within Morrison’s framework. What if a particular white person insists that the Bible does not teach ancestral guilt? Or what if a white person insists that they do not harbor white supremacy in their hearts and therefore do not need to repent of it, either by changing their mind (because they already repudiate it) or their behavior (because they already do not commit acts of white supremacy)?
Morrison suggests several places that personal comfort and a desire to maintain power are reasons that Christians deny the truth: “If we avoid hard truths to preserve personal comfort or to fashion a facade of peace, our division will only widen” (p. 24) “In the context of racial reconciliation, shame and guilt often compel majority culture to cover up and whitewash sins” (p. 67). “You don’t see many White people attending churches of color or ethnically diverse churches as bridge builders. Why? Maybe it’s because seeking ethnically diverse churches would highlight their complicity in structures of racism, and that complicity would bring so much shame and guilt” (p. 77). “Terms such as reparations, affirmative action, white privilege, and Black Lives Matter are non-starters for so many folks, in part because they disrupt the listener. They remind him or her that making things right costs something, often power, position, or money” (p. 154).
The willingness to ascribe disagreement to impure motives (whether conscious or unconscious) is troubling. Indeed, as I right this review, I wonder how many people will interpret my criticism as covert white supremacy and will subsequently dismiss it. And that shows just how dangerous this kind of motive-reading is. If we can no longer ask whether ancestral sin is a valid concept or whether Christians legitimately need to confess that “we have modified the meaning of the gospel to justify our lack of effort to pursue justice for the oppressed” (p. 121), then we’ve effectively cut ourselves from any chance of biblical correction.
Does It Work?
Apart from the theological concerns I have with Morrison’s approach, I think it’s also legitimate to raise practical ones. I have been a member of Be The Bridge’s Facebook group for several years now. Because members aren’t allowed to share posts or screenshots, I won’t offer my observations and will only suggest that people join the group if they are are curious about it. However, I will share their public document “Whiteness 101” which supplies various tips that white members are expected to follow. In particular, these guidelines state:
- Don’t “whitesplain.” Do not explain racism to a POC. Do not explain how the microaggression they just experienced was actually just someone being nice. Do not explain how a particular injustice is more about class than race. It’s an easy trap to fall into, but you can avoid it by maintaining a posture of active listening.
- Don’t equate impact with intent. Yes, we all know your heart was in the right place and you meant well. But your words or behavior had a negative impact on those around you, and that’s what matters. Apologize and do better next time.
- Don’t demand proof of a POC’s lived experience or try to counter their narrative with the experience of another POC. The experiences and opinions of POC are as diverse as its people. We can believe their stories. But keep in mind: just because one POC doesn’t feel oppressed, that doesn’t mean systemic, institutional racism isn’t real.
- Do not chastise POCs (or dismiss their message) because they express their grief, fear, or anger in ways you deem “inappropriate.” Understand that historically, we white people have silenced voices of dissent and lament with our cultural idol of “niceness.” Provide space for POCs to wail, cuss, or even yell at you. Jesus didn’t hold back when he saw hypocrisy and oppression; POCs shouldn’t have to either.
- Don’t get defensive when you are called out for any of the above. When a POC tells you that your words/tone/behavior are racist/oppressive/triggering, you stop. Don’t try to explain yourself (see #6.) Don’t become passive-aggressive or sarcastic. Don’t leave in a huff. (It may be helpful, however, to inconspicuously step outside/go to the restroom and take a deep breath.) Remain cognizant of the dynamics of white fragility, and take note of how it usually shows up in you.
We can see how these guidelines can easily be used to shut down disagreement from whites and even from people of color who try to dissent from the group’s prevailing orthodoxy.
And perhaps that is my greatest fear surrounding the contemporary conversation on racial reconciliation. I worry that our unity around the central theological truths of the gospel is being replaced by unity around a dogmatic commitment to a particular vision of social justice. In this regard, the endorsements in the front of the book by Jen Hatmaker and Lisa Sharon Harper are telling. These are women who are certainly “justice-minded” but are well-outside the bounds of historical Protestant/evangelical theology.
Should we be concerned about the noticeable theologically progressive drift of many Christians who have embraced “social justice”?
But will we be accused of “giving cover to white supremacy” for asking expressing this concern?
And if we’ve reached that point, the church’s health is in serious danger. Open theological dialogue is like the church’s immune system, forcing us to constantly re-evaluate the ideas we’re encountering and subject them to the scrutiny of Scripture. Shut down that debate, and we open the door to all manner of false teaching.
If she reads this review, I hope Morrison will take it in the spirit it’s intended, not as an attempt to stymie racial reconciliation, but an attempt to root it in the gospel, in charitable discussion, and in the teaching of Scripture, without which we’ll be unmoored from the only source of true reconciliation: Christ himself.