Do Whites Need Corporate Repentance for Historical Racial Sins?

by Dr. Neil Shenvi and Dr. Pat Sawyer

Q. 87. What is repentance unto life?

A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.

— Westminster Shorter Catechism

Amid recent discussions of racism, discrimination, and injustice, Christians are asking questions about corporate guilt and repentance: “Are modern-day Whites guilty before God because of the sins of their ancestors?” “Do they need to corporately repent for these sins?” Our thesis in this article is that the answer to both of these questions is no. Whites are not corporately guilty for their ancestors’ racial sins (much less the sins of historical strangers) and do not need to corporately repent for them.

In what follows, we’ll first give several justifications for this thesis. Then we’ll explain why these ideas, although often suggested with good intentions, will ultimately be harmful to the church and to society. Finally, we’ll offer a better model for understanding guilt and repentance with regard to the sin of racism today.

As a side note, when we refer to Whites, we’re referring to the group of people with light-colored skin and predominantly European ancestry who are raced as “white” in our society (with the understanding that race is a social construct).

White Corporate Guilt and Repentance

In arguing that Whites bear guilt for historic sins like slavery, some Christians appeal to three main arguments.

First, they contend that we can see collective sin and collective repentance in passages such as Exodus 20:5-6, Exodus 34:6-7, Numbers 14:18-20, Ezra 9:6-15, Nehemiah 1:4-7, and Daniel 9:1-19.  Therefore, they argue, there is biblical precedent for ancestral guilt and repentance for the sins of our ancestors even if we are personally innocent of these sins. In the same way, a particular white person may not be guilty of slavery, but they still bear the guilt of historic Whites’ participation in, defense of, or ambivalence towards slavery.

Second, some Christians will argue that because all human beings bear the stain of Adam’s original sin, it is therefore possible for us to be counted guilty as the result of sins that we did not personally commit. Conversely, we can see the doctrine of corporate solidarity in the fact that Christ’s righteousness can be imputed to us, despite the fact that we are not personally righteous and did not personally attain that righteousness. This idea of corporate solidarity may be unpopular for some given the place of individualism in American society, nevertheless it is often presented as the basis for white corporate responsibility for historic sins such as slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, redlining, denial of GI Bill benefits, and others.

Third, some Christians argue that because Whites receive unearned advantages (i.e. white privilege) from historic injustices, they are morally guilty today and are complicit in racism, even if they aren’t actively racist themselves. This guilt and complicity then demand confession and repentance.

Why are these justifications flawed and inadequate? We offer six reasons.

Argument 1: Explicit Biblical Counterexamples

While there are several examples of a form of corporate repentance in the Bible, there are also numerous explicit statements about the non-transferability of guilt from child to parent or from parent to child. Notice Ezekiel 18:14-20:

Now suppose this man fathers a son who sees all the sins that his father has done; he sees, and does not do likewise… he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. As for his father…he shall die for his iniquity. “Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

Similar statements can be found in Deut. 24:16 and Jeremiah 31:27-34.

Any doctrine of ancestral guilt must account for the proper exegesis of these passages. If sin cannot be transmitted from parent to child or from child to parent, how much less can it be transmitted to us from unspecified strangers, whom we have never met, who have no connection to us, and whose actions we abhor? It should also be pointed out, even though it should go without saying, that the son who is personally innocent of his father’s sin, is nowhere exhorted that he still needs to repent for his father’s sin because where there is no sin and guilt, there is no need for repentance.

Note that biblical examples where people experience God’s collective judgment do not contradict this principle. God does indeed judge nations for their collective behavior. Yet his judgment for particular sins falls on people whom God recognizes are individually innocent of those sins (see, for example, Ezekiel 21:3). We also see this in everyday life: a parent’s sinful behavior often results in consequences that fall on an innocent child. Yet we do not infer that the child must have been guilty of the particular sin in question because of her parent’s sin that resulted in her suffering. In addition to the fact that God at times in his sovereign wisdom chooses to bring his temporal judgement upon those He regards as righteous in the wake of his judgment of those he regards as wicked (Ezekiel 21:3), God also at times in his sovereign wisdom chooses to spare those he regards as righteous from the temporal judgement he is bringing upon the wicked all around them. God expresses this explicitly via the examples of Noah, Daniel, and Job in Ezekiel 14:13-16. These differing scenarios underscore the fact that God does not regard anyone as guilty and unrighteous relative to a certain sin unless they are actually guilty and unrighteous relative to that sin regardless of how his judgment is being worked out in time and space.

What about God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:17, Numbers 14:18)? These texts have nothing to do with holding someone guilty or morally accountable for someone else’s sin. These texts simply underscore that the sins of parents often end up being the same sins their children commit. For example, children who grow up with an alcoholic parent are at a higher risk of becoming an alcoholic themselves than those who don’t. This is partly due to how God has judged the sin of alcoholism of the parent but it is never divorced from the sinful choices the child has personally made relative to alcohol abuse and alcoholism. As John Piper states, “The visitation of the fathers’ sins on the children is not a simple punishment of innocent children for what the fathers did. The children themselves are always thought of as sinful and rebellious as the fathers’ sin is worked out in their lives” (“Does God “Visit the Sins of the Fathers on the Children”?, Desiring God, 2/1/2000).

Argument 2: Ongoing Sin During Corporate Repentance

Second, the frequently cited texts on “corporate repentance” speak about current and ongoing sins, not sins of the past that have ceased. The language is actually quite explicit in these passages: “From the days of our ancestors until now, our guilt has been great” (Ezra 9:6), “confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against Thee; I and my father’s house have sinned” (Neh. 1:6) “We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land…for because of our sins and the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and Thy people have become a reproach to all those around us” (Dan. 9:5-6, 16).  When his prayer is finished, Daniel comments: “I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel” (Dan. 9:20). It is important to note here that Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel are confessing their own sins along with acknowledging the sins of those they are representing.

But would it be correct to argue that Whites today are linked to historic sins like slavery because of their present-day racism? No. The key problem here is in conflating different sins. A person who entertains a racist thought is indeed guilty of sin, but they have not committed the same sin as a man who kidnaps a woman and chains her to the hull of a slave ship. These two sins are light-years apart.

Imagine a man who was a serial domestic abuser but who has repented of and rejected that behavior completely. If he speaks an unkind word to his wife one day, he is indeed guilty of sin, but we would not insist that he is now again guilty of domestic abuse and must again repent of domestic abuse. How much less would we insist that a man who has spoken unkindly to his wife is now guilty of his great-great-grandfather’s domestic abuse or the domestic abuse of some random stranger of 100 years ago who has the same color skin?

We also note that in texts where we see an indictment of people with an action they did not literally commit, their indictment is rooted in the fact that they were complicit in or in agreement with or failed to demonstrate disagreement with the sinful action in question. We see this, for instance, in Acts 2 when Peter indicts the “Men of Israel” (v. 22) who witnessed Jesus (“in your midst” v. 22) and the “miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him” (v. 22) with the charge of “you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (v. 23). (We highlight, Peter uses the term “you” and not “we”, even though he was likely present at the crucifixion or at least in the immediate vicinity of it). This principle is demonstrated again in Acts 4 and 5 by laying the charge of the crucifixion of Jesus at the “rulers and elders of the people” and “the Council”. An example of this relative to our topic would be those who stood by in agreement while a lynching took place or those who did not disagree with or contend against slavery, even if they did not own slaves themselves.

We also see how there can be continuity of sinful behavior across time when the type and category of the past sin in question is still maintained and actively expressed by people in the present. We see this dynamic in Matthew 23 as Jesus excoriates the scribes and Pharisees with a series of woes that culminates in him tying their egregious, actual, present sin and sinful complicity against his righteous prophets and wise men to similar sins in type and quality that have been done in the past and specifically done by the Pharisees. An example would be when certain white power groups who are not presently carrying out lynchings still have the same hatred of Blacks as the groups’ past members. Upon the establishment of this connection to lynchings as a group and the continuation of the same species and quality of hatred towards Blacks, they could be legitimately indicted with the charge “You (the present group) carried out lynchings”! But what must be understood in the above examples is that there is actual sin operative in the present in explicit fashion in the current individuals of the same type and quality as those of their group in the past. Where that is actually the case, repentance is needed and required for the current and present sins that have continued from the past.

Argument 3: Covenant Community

Third, a major difference which makes Israel disanalogous to modern-day Whites is Israel’s status as a covenant community. “Whites” are not a covenant people any more than “redheads” or “Spanish-speakers” are a covenant people.  The correct analogue to Israel’s corporate confession is the Church’s corporate confession that she has failed to keep God’s commands.  As God’s new covenant people, all Christians can confess that they have failed to keep God’s commands, failed to admonish one another in love, and failed to bear one another’s burdens. But that reality applies to all Christians, not just white Christians or black Christians or male Christians or female Christians. And we must underscore, in the context of corporate confession, there is only corresponding guilt and accountability of sin for any specific individual to the extent that the specific individual actually sinned. 

A similar argument works against the appeal to original sin and imputed righteousness as justifications for White “corporate guilt.” The missing ingredient here is federal headship. Adam’s guilt is imputed to all human beings because he is our federal head by nature. In contrast, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to Christians because he is our federal head by grace. We are born into sin in the first Adam. We are born again into righteousness in Christ, the second Adam (1 Cor. 15). Just as Whites or redheads or Spanish-speakers are not a covenant people, so also there is no “federal head” for Whites or redheads or Spanish-speakers. All human beings are either “in Adam” or “in Christ,” as we see in Romans 5.

Argument 4: Privilege Does Not Entail Guilt

There are numerous problems with the idea that privilege entails guilt. First, many people besides Whites benefit from the legacies of unjust laws and institutions. For example, modern-day Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, and even African immigrants benefit from wealth generated and institutions that developed under slavery and Jim Crow. If participation in such systems morally taints Whites and necessitates repentance, why doesn’t it also taint these groups? We can hardly argue that they are absolved because they are personally innocent of transgression, since this same argument is not used to exonerate Whites.

Second, the mechanism by which many Whites derive benefits from historical racism is usually vague and imprecise. Millions of white immigrants entered this country decades after slavery was abolished. And even though the poverty rate for Blacks today is much higher than that of Whites, in terms of absolute numbers there are roughly twice as many Whites living in poverty as Blacks. Thus, it seems difficult to argue that -say- a German Jew who fled to the U.S. during WWII or a homeless, disabled white veteran living in Alaska bears corporate guilt for benefiting from slavery in some unspecified and indirect way.

Finally, Jesus himself was a man living in a highly patriarchal context where he experienced many unearned advantages due to his gender. Yet he did not sin, was in no sense complicit in sin, and did not attempt to directly dismantle the systems and structures that provided him with male privilege. Therefore, the experience of privilege, even privilege which results from injustice, cannot entail guilt or the need for repentance. Likewise, if we argue that Ezra, Daniel, and Nehemiah were actually guilty of sin because of their corporate membership in Israel, would we contend that Jesus was actually guilty of sin merely because of his corporate membership in Israel?

To argue this way undermines a proper understanding of sin and even our Christology.

Argument 5: Logical Consistency

Another problem with the call to “corporate repentance” is how inconsistently it’s applied. Oppression and injustice are sins, but they are not the only sins, nor are they the only sins in view in passages like Exodus 20, Ezra 9, Nehemiah 1, or Daniel 9. Sexual immorality, theft, murder, and idolatry are also sins. Yet what demographic group is free from such sins, either historically or today?

Consider how horrific it would sound if we insisted that a half-Indian like Neil bore corporate guilt for the caste system and the treatment of the dalit? Or that all Native Americans bear corporate guilt for their ancestors’ animistic religious beliefs, many of which are still held today? Or that all Blacks bear corporate guilt for high abortion rates among Blacks? These claims are so appalling that we hesitated to even type them out; yet these are the views we must hold if we believe that “ancestral guilt” is a biblical category. If we hesitate to hold half-Indians, or Native Americans, or Blacks responsible for the moral failings of their ancestors, we should hesitate to do the same for Whites.

One response to this argument is that Whites benefit from their ancestors’ past sins while these other groups do not benefit from their ancestors’ past sins. However, the contemporaries of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel did not benefit from their ancestors’ sins (and even suffered for them); so if such passages are used to argue for corporate guilt, they must be applied not only to white guilt, but to half-Indian, Native American, and black guilt as well.

Argument 6: The Nature of Repentance

Finally, in the Bible, the word repentance connotes a change of mind leading to a change in behavior. When we repent, we turn away from our sin and turn to Christ, necessarily producing the outward fruit of repentance in our actions. Yet given this definition of repentance, it becomes logically impossible for anyone to repent for sins which they have not actually committed because no one can “change their mind” about sins which they already abhor nor can they cease to commit actions which they have never started.

If a white person becomes convinced that they bear corporate guilt for their ancestors’ sins, how is repentance possible? Certainly, they can repent for their own racist attitudes and they can turn away from racist actions that they have committed, but they cannot repent for sins which someone else committed.

For all these reasons, we should reject the claim that Whites bear corporate guilt for the sins of their ancestors or that they need to enact corporate repentance for these sins. If a particular white person realizes that they have sinned racially against a black person, or anyone else, they should repent and seek forgiveness. But their sin is not imputed to Whites in general and in perpetuity. While we agree that the church should lament the grievous sins that have been historically committed against people of color, should repudiate these transgressions, and should pursue the healing of these injuries, we can do so without stating or implying that any individual is guilty of and needs to repent for sins they did not commit.

To be clear, we agree that it’s important for organizations and institutions to repudiate their previous sinful actions or false beliefs, as when the SBC repudiated its explicit endorsement of slavery, precisely because -as an organization- they are acknowledging that their previous position was false and are officially turning from it. However, even here, it should be understood that God does not hold a random SBC member (White or Black or Hispanic or Asian) guilty of or accountable for sins which he did not commit. Similarly, the question of reparations is complex and can be considered entirely independently of the question we’re addressing: namely, whether modern Whites are guilty before God for historic sins.

Why Does It Matter?

Some Christians might hear these arguments and wonder if they’re beside the point. They might ask: “If notions of corporate guilt and repentance will lead white Christians to be more sympathetic to their brothers and sisters of color and more zealous for justice, isn’t this just theological hair-splitting? Even worse, will it just provide an excuse for indifference or a cover for racism?” Here, we have to underscore that if an idea is false and unbiblical, Christians must reject it. Full stop. The Christian faith doesn’t allow for a pragmatic attitude towards Scripture which measures the truth of doctrines by their utility.

But second, the doctrines of corporate guilt and repentance will have serious effects on the health and unity of the church, particularly with respect to how we approach the issue of “racial reconciliation.”

Biblically, there are two macro understandings of reconciliation.

The first type refers to the reconciliation that Jesus accomplished on the cross, which takes place primarily between God and human beings (2 Cor. 5:19, Eph. 2:16, Rom. 5:10, Col. 1:20, etc..) and secondarily between Christians and other Christians (Eph. 2:14, Gal. 3:28, Col. 3:11). We have been (past tense) reconciled to God through Christ and we have been (past tense) reconciled to each other through Christ. This reconciliation was completed once and for all through the cross and resurrection and must be the basis for all efforts towards Christian unity.

The second type of reconciliation the Bible discusses involves the cessation of hostility and the restoration of fellowship which needs to occur whenever a relationship is wounded due to sin. When any person has sinned against another person in time and space, there does need to be a practical expression of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation (Matt 18:21-22, Luke 17:3-4). Interpersonal reconciliation and the full restoration of relationship can only occur when the sinning party has confessed his guilt and has repented. Moreover, if the sinning party professes repentance, but does not bear the fruit of changed behavior, there remains a question of the genuineness of their repentance. This second type of reconciliation did not happen once-and-for-all; thus, it is must be the type of reconciliation that is in view when people are called to pursue “racial reconciliation.”

However, if we combine this understanding of reconciliation with a claim of white corporate guilt rooted in historic sins, the effects are disastrous.  In the realm of racial reconciliation, this formulation entails that Whites and Blacks are automatically estranged, not because of personal sin on the part of individuals, but because of the ostensible corporate guilt of Whites. To restore relationship, Whites must confess to sins they did not personally commit and must pledge to demonstrate behavior in keeping with that confession. Alarming questions arise: in what specific way should their behavior change given that they haven’t actually committed the sins in question? And how can we determine whether it has changed sufficiently, or in the appropriate way(s)? What (or who) determines if true repentance has been achieved?

Moreover, this view entails obvious absurdities. Does a white wife need to be reconciled to her black husband? Has there always been an unacknowledged estrangement at the heart of every interracial friendship? If a black person enters a new church, do white members need to immediately seek her forgiveness? These questions show that such an approach to racial reconciliation is based on a faulty premise. Moreover, it is completely foreign to the model of the Bible.

For example, at the time that the New Testament was written, the Roman Empire was actively oppressing Jews and crucifying them by the thousands.  Yet Roman Christians were never told that real reconciliation could only occur after an extended period of confession, repentance, and justice. On the contrary, the New Testament church was told that reconciliation had already taken place once and for all and that they were all one in Christ (Jn 17:22, Eph. 2:14).  While actual, personal sin can remain a barrier to reconciliation and while our (sinful) mutual mistrust may take time to overcome, it contradicts Scripture to claim that reconciliation cannot be achieved until ancestral sin (much less the sin of historical strangers) is confessed and repented of.

A Better Way

As we’ve shown, the way that many Christians are conceptualizing racial sin and racial reconciliation is unbiblical and will ultimately be harmful for the church. Yet the problems they are trying to address are real and urgent. In this final section, we’d like to suggest that there are categories for sin and reconciliation that can address these problems without committing us to unbiblical assumptions and ideas.

Sins of omission

We suspect that many Christians are inclined to adopt the category of “ancestral guilt” because they are concerned that white Christians are failing to take a sufficiently pro-active attitude towards opposing racism and working for justice in our society. While we’ve argued that this ends-justify-the-means approach to theology is deadly, we also agree that this is an area of potential deficiency. Yet instead of adopting the unbiblical category of “ancestral guilt”, we should simply point people to the biblical category of “sins of omission.” The Bible affirms not only that we can sin by doing evil, but that we can sin by failing to fulfill our moral obligations (Lk. 17:10, Jas. 4:17). Because the Bible enjoins Christians to seek justice, love mercy, protect the vulnerable, care for the poor, comfort widows and orphans in their distress, do good to all men, and love our neighbor as ourselves, there is no shortage of biblical commands where we daily miss the mark.

Consider the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan was not responsible for the condition of the man who was beaten and robbed and lay bleeding on the road. He bore no moral guilt for what happened. Yet Jesus’ explicit injunction in this parable was that we are to “go and do likewise” if we are to fulfill God’s command to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” If we “pass by on the other side,” then we have fallen short of the glory of God. Two points need to be underscored.

First, while the category of “sins of omission” should indeed compel us to seek the good of our neighbor, this obligation falls on all Christians equally, not just on white Christians. On the one hand, it is true that Whites -on average- have significantly more wealth, resources, and access to opportunities than Blacks -on average (“Examining the Black-white wealth gap, The Brookings Institution, 2020; “Demographic trends and economic well-being”, Pew Research Center, 2016). Therefore, it follows that Whites -on average- will bear a greater responsibility (Luke 12:48). On the other hand, it would be false to argue that all Whites are absolutely privileged over all Blacks. There are many poor, uneducated, powerless white people and many wealthy, educated, powerful black people. Our responsibilities track with our present personal advantages, not with our ethnicity. Therefore, it would be false to argue that every white person is morally obligated to “divest from their white privilege” and that they are committing a moral wrong if they fail to do so.

Second, the demands of God’s law and the weight of our moral responsibilities should humble us, not exalt us. We all come before God as sinners who have failed to love our neighbors as ourselves, who have failed to “go and do likewise,” who have failed to live a perfectly just life. As long as we think that “those people” have failed to keep God’s commands, we will exalt ourselves, look down on our brothers and sisters, and fracture the Church. But when we realize that we also have failed to keep God’s commands, we will be able to extend grace to one another and come together at the cross as fellow sinners who have found the Savior.

Racial Reconciliation

Some Christians have suggested that “racial reconciliation” is a contradiction in terms since individuals reconcile, but races do not. While this is a valid point, it’s better to construe the phrase “racial reconciliation” to mean “the reestablishment of trust between individuals from different racial groups where there had been mistrust” (alternatively, a phrase like “racial unity” might better convey the correct meaning).

This definition has several advantages. First, it affirms that reconciliation happens between individuals, but also recognizes that it’s meaningful and even necessary to speak about groups. To use an extreme example, it would make sense to say that after the Rwandan genocide, there needed to be reconciliation not merely between particular individuals with no discernible ethnicities, but between Hutus and Tutsis. The suspicion that a Tutsi experienced towards Hutus in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide would be understandable, even if he recognized that -in Christ- this hurt could be healed. We can see such alienation and suspicion between groups in the Bible, whether between Gileadites and Ephraimites (Judges 12), Jews and Samaritans (John 4), or Jews and Gentiles (Acts 10).

Second, this definition recognizes that particular individuals do not need to be reconciled merely because of their skin color or their ethnicities. A black husband and his white wife do not need to be reconciled simply because one is black and the other is white. More generally, a random white person and a random black person who have not specifically morally wronged one another and have no basis for genuine mistrust do not need to be reconciled. It does not take much imagination to see the plethora of necessary implications for the Church (and society) that flow from this principle.   

Finally, this understanding of “racial reconciliation” means that it is every Christian’s responsibility, even if they personally harbor no feelings of mistrust. If a woman has experienced a horrible sexual assault, men should not be offended if she feels a residual anxiety around men. Of course, it would be wrong for her to uncritically embrace these feelings and come to regard all men as ipso facto rapists. But men, especially Christian men, should make every effort to show her gentleness, love, and sensitivity, out of a desire to honor Christ and rebuild her trust.

In the same way, white Christians -even if they are not racist and have many positive relationships with black family, friends, and acquaintances – should not be offended if a black person mistrusts them because of horrible personal experiences with racism. Like the woman in our previous example, a black person with such understandable anxiety must check their mistrust before it grows into a slanderous and sinful feeling towards all whites based on a false assumption. Yet white Christians -and indeed all Christians- have a duty to display gentleness, love, and sensitivity, out of a desire to honor Christ and promote unity within the church.

In conclusion, we should be very careful in how we parse issues of guilt, repentance, and reconciliation. We sympathize with Christians and Christian leaders who are passionate to see the church in the vanguard of demonstrating racial unity, care for the vulnerable, and a desire for just laws. But we must always allow our theology to be governed by and reformed to Scripture. A small rudder steers a large ship and a small deviation in doctrine can have large ramifications. Let’s hold on to both grace and truth, trusting that God will enable us all to love one another deeply and be “salt and light” to our communities and nation.

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