By Michael Rhodes
Confessing Our Sins and the Sins of Our Fathers
The world once again witnessed American racism in the 2020 murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. These killings leave many Americans wondering how to respond. For white Americans like me who believe the Bible is Holy Scripture, perhaps our response should start with this:
“Lord, we confess our racism and the racism of our fathers.”
Admittedly, this may be a hard pill to swallow. But as an American and the incoming Lecturer in Old Testament at Carey, I want to share why I believe Scripture might be calling Americans to this kind of intergenerational confession, and to invite you to consider whether there might be similar dynamics in Aotearoa.
The kind of confession I’m calling for strikes Americans as strange. Most of us don’t know anybody who calls themselves a racist, and repenting of sins we didn’t commit strikes us as misguided. Both aspects of this confession, then, require some explanation.
First, when Americans think of racists, we often think of neo-Nazis and Klansmen. But the racism we need to confess isn’t confined to hate-groups. The racism we need to confess is an ideology that implicitly or explicitly places all people on a racialized hierarchy that holds white people at the top, black people at the bottom, and everyone else somewhere in between. It’s a racist ideology that has seeped into America’s individual psyches, as well as our culture, systems, and institutions. It’s often referred to as white supremacy.[i]
But second, if the language of white supremacy sounds unnecessarily harsh, for many Bible readers, the idea of confessing the sins of one’s ancestors is even more problematic. “You cannot repent of a sin you didn’t commit,” so the argument goes.
Revisiting Intergenerational Confession
This idea that you can’t repent of something you didn’t do seems common sense to us. More importantly, some passages in Scripture seem to agree. Jeremiah looks ahead to a day when people will be punished strictly for their own sins (Jer. 31:29), and Ezekiel suggests that that day has already arrived: “Behold, all souls are mine,” the LORD declares, “the soul who sins shall die” (Ezek 18:4). Moving from the Hebrew Bible to the New Testament, Paul’s declaration that Christians have received God’s “not guilty” verdict might make us understandably anxious about focusing on guilt we’ve allegedly acquired from our forebears.
The problem is that another set of Scriptures explicitly commands God’s people to confess their forefathers’ sins, and indeed seems quite comfortable with the notion that people can face judgment for the iniquities of their ancestors. When Yahweh presents his resume to Moses on Mt. Sinai, he declares in the same breath both his generous, compassionate character and his commitment to punishing the guilty for up to four generations (Exod 34:7). After announcing a long list of terrifying judgments that await Israel if they reject Yahweh’s covenant, Leviticus declares that God will nevertheless offer forgiveness to his people if “they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers” (Lev 26:40). Both Daniel and Nehemiah seem to have gotten the message; living in the aftermath of God’s people’s widespread rebellion, both repent of their own sins and the sins their ancestors committed long before they were born (Neh 1:5; 9:2; Dan 9:16).
One strategy for dealing with this diversity of opinions in Scripture is simply to pick the one we like. For those of us interested in submitting our lives to the [full witness of Scripture] Word of God, however, picking and choosing just isn’t really an option.
A second approach, then, is to recognize what Dru Johnson calls the pixelated nature of the Bible’s teaching. Drawing on the analogy of digital photos, Johnson points out that such photos are made up of hundreds or even thousands of smaller, individual images or pixels. Each pixel captures a true and essential aspect of the “full picture.” Taken individually, some images may seem quite different from others. But when we take a step back, each individual pixel contributes to the overall picture.
If Americans want Scripture to shape how we reflect on our current racial crisis, I suggest we take a hard look at biblical texts that emphasize the need for the people of God to repent of the sins of their ancestors. While there are many dynamics at work in Scripture’s depiction of intergenerational sin, I want to focus on just two.
Inheriting the Obligation to Repair[ii]
Leviticus 26:40-44 suggests that one reason the present generation needs to repent of the sins of their forebears is that sin creates a rupture that must be repaired. What’s required is not just that the present generation confess their sins and the sins of their ancestors, but also that they “make amends (yirṣû) for their iniquity” (26:41b, 43). If the damage one generation does is not fixed in their own day, that damage does not simply disappear at their death. The wrong must be righted, and the job may well fall on their descendants.
The wrong that must be atoned for may be a wrong committed exclusively against God. But the reality that later generations inherit the obligation to repair an earlier generation’s sins also applies to sins against one’s neighbors. This type of intergenerational repentance stands at the center of Leviticus 25’s depiction of the Year of Jubilee. The Jubilee legislation declares that every 50 years, any Israelite family that has acquired the land of any other Israelite family must return it to them. Though some Israelites may well have lost their land because of natural disasters or poor management, the fact that the text repeatedly warns the Israelites not to “oppress” (tônû) one another makes it clear that losing your land through injustice was a real possibility (Lev 25:14, 17). In such situations, the Jubilee would often require the next generation to repent of the sins of their fathers by repairing the wrong that their fathers had committed.
To understand this, we must remember that male household heads probably only had a life expectancy of around 40 years. Men would be well into adulthood before they started making decisions about land management.[iii] As a result, if one household unjustly cheated another household out of their land, both the oppressor and the oppressed individuals involved might well be long dead by the time the Jubilee Year rolled around. In that circumstance, then, the Jubilee would require the children to confess and make restitution for the sins of their fathers by restoring the land their fathers had stolen to the descendants of the ones from whom it was stolen.
In other words, sometimes the Bible suggests we have to repent of the guilt of our ancestors because we have inherited the obligation to fix their mistakes. That they’re dead does not change the fact that the debt remains outstanding. The Year of Jubilee teaches us that to continually refuse to repair our ancestors’ sins is to make them our own.
Leviticus, then, demands that we confess our own sins and the sins of our fathers. In our American context, I suggest this means that I must confess my own white supremacy and the white supremacy of my ancestors. Why? Because the economic injustices perpetrated by the white community against the black community still benefit white households and still harm black households.
White American Christians violated Scripture’s clear teaching by depriving black people of the rewards of their labor during slavery, of their land during Jim Crow, and of opportunities for wealth building through homeownership and higher education in the post-war years. Those economic injustices continue to affect black households today, who have on average one-tenth the net worth of white households.[iv]
Moreover, this legacy of economic injustice continues to benefit white households. The “primary sources of the capacity for sustained wealth building for most people [in America]” are inheritances, economic transfers between generations, and the “economic security borne of parental and grandparental wealth.”[v] One direct consequence of economic injustice against black people is that white ancestors have far more wealth to pass along to the next generation.
How then can we escape Isaiah’s searing indictment that the “plunder of the poor is in our houses” (Isa 3:14b)? The fact that we did not originally put that plunder there does not change the fact. We would be rightly disgusted by the child of a Nazi proudly displaying priceless art his father plundered from the Jews during the Holocaust.[vi] Must we white American Christians not also examine our own troubling economic legacy? Leviticus calls God’s people, including us, to confess intergenerational economic sins by repairing them through costly social and economic action.
Repenting of Our Solidarity with the Sins of Our Ancestors
Second, the Bible recognizes that because every individual is shaped by their community and culture, every generation tends to have a certain “solidarity” with the sins of their forebears.[vii] While there’s something obvious about the idea that we humans pick up bad habits from previous generations, the New Testament authors identify a deeper, darker reality. We stand in solidarity with our ancestors’ sin because, like them, we were once slaves to Sin (Rom 6:20a). Here Paul describes sin not simply as an immoral act, but Sin with a capital S, Sin as God and humanity’s demonic enemy. In our slavery to this hostile enemy, we presented our bodies as “instruments” or “weapons” (hopla) of injustice and unrighteousness (adikias; Rom 6:13a).[viii] Crucially, the apostle recognizes that the sinful patterns we learned under Sin’s lordship linger on even after Christ offers his us forgiveness and delivers us from Sin’s enslaving power.
That’s why Paul challenges Christians to present their bodies to God as weapons of righteousness and justice (Rom 6:13b).[ix] This, too, is an act of intergenerational repentance. Under Sin’s lordship, the sinful habits of our ancestors have worked themselves deep into our minds, bodies, and hearts. Repentance requires us to celebrate God’s grace in our lives by rooting out those sinful habits and heart patterns wherever we can find them. Indeed, God both demands this kind of repentance, and enables us to practice it by his empowering Spirit.
Scripture’s way of reasoning about this aspect of intergenerational sin finds a contemporary ally in social scientific discussions of racism in our society. Researchers have identified an astounding amount of data on discrimination against black people. The exact same resume gets twice as many callbacks from an employer if the name at the top is Brendan rather than Jemal. Doctors given statistically identical patient histories were significantly less likely to recommend helpful heart procedures to black patients than to white patients.[x] However, the same social scientists who perform these studies recognize that many, perhaps most, of those perpetuating these racial inequities do so unintentionally. Social scientists describe this phenomenon as “implicit bias.” Though we may have worked quite hard to address our consciously held racial stereotypes, our subconscious has been warped and twisted by racism. And sometimes, particularly when we make decisions at speed, that implicit racism overrules our conscious convictions.
This is precisely the kind of solidarity in intergenerational sin that Scripture identifies. Moreover, Scripture pulls back the curtain to show us that such sinful solidarity is encouraged by our demonic adversaries: Sin, Death, and the Devil. Scripture, then, demands that I confess that white supremacy is a deadly sickness my ancestors carried with them as they created culture, founded institutions, built schools, told stories, and gathered in churches. I live and work in the world they helped to create, and I must confess that I have been infected by their contagion.
Such repentance can’t be done in the abstract. When God’s people practice intergenerational, confession in the book of Nehemiah, they do so in painstaking detail. To that end, I want to conclude this essay by trying to practice what the Scriptures preach.
I confess that my family tree includes Robert E. Lee—a 19th century confederate general who oversaw the massacre of black Union soldiers and used torture to discipline slaves—and a 20th century newspaper man who used the power of the pen to advocate for the establishment of the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial that valorized Lee and others like him. I confess that the church I was raised in maintained an explicit policy of racial segregation into the 60s.[xi] I confess that I inherited the kind of economic legacy granted to white veterans like my beloved grandfathers, but denied to their black veteran colleagues.
And I confess that I have personally been affected and infected by these sins of my ancestors. I confess that life lived in segregated spaces taught me to trust white voices over black voices. I confess that I was three years into a career in urban ministry in a majority black neighborhood before seeking out a black mentor. I confess that for far too long, I found myself predisposed to look for other explanations besides racism when my black brothers and sisters presented stories, stats, and experiences of racial prejudice. I confess that ever since I learned about implicit bias, I have caught glimpses of such bias in my own heart.
I do not repent of these sins as some kind of public shaming or virtue signaling. Nor does my repentance of my ancestors’ sins mean ingratitude for the gifts they’ve given me. I am deeply grateful for my parents, who have committed their lives to Jesus, wrestled with His Word, and followed it wherever it led them. I am grateful that the same church that barred black people from attending in the 50s introduced me to the idea of corporate, intergenerational confession of racism in the 90s.
But nor is intergenerational confession just about naming those sins. It’s about turning from them. It’s about offering our whole selves as “weapons of justice.” It’s about embracing a commitment to root out white supremacy in our hearts and working to undo the social and economic havoc white supremacy has wreaked in our world. For me that has meant seeking to root out the white supremacy in my heart through submission to black leaders and mentors, and seeking to repair the damage of white supremacy in our world by investing in economic action to support black institutions, leaders, and businesses, as well as investing in homeownership for black households.[xii]
Ancient Israel needed God’s Word to guide them towards intergenerational repentance and repair. The American church needs the same today. What about the church in Aotearoa? What intergenerational failures need to be repented of and repaired? As an American, I do not know. But I am grateful to be joining a team at Carey that’s committed to finding out. If you want to join that conversation, check out:
- Resources on theology and race at the Centre for Lifelong Learning
- The “Theology Race, and Church” postgraduate course, taught by Andrew Picard and Christa McKirland
- The “Kingdom Economics” postgraduate course, taught by Sarah Harris and myself.
For Christians, the good news of God’s kingdom isn’t that we escape the task of repenting of and repairing our intergenerational sins, including the sin of white supremacy. The good news is that we’ve been forgiven for failing this (and every!) task, are presently empowered by the Spirit to embrace it, and can look forward to the day when the King will return and finish it.
This essay was originally published, in a slightly expanded and modified version, in The Biblical Mind.
[i] For a fuller exploration of the racist, oppressive ideology I am referring to here as white supremacy, see Chanequa Walker-Barnes, I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision of Racial Reconciliation (Eerdmans, 2019), 43-62.
[ii] The language of “repairing” sins, particularly economic ones, may well remind readers of the idea of reparations. While I believe that the ideas presented here do contribute to a compelling biblical case for reparations, but the arguments I am making do not depend on making such a case.
[iii] A figure suggested by Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, Library of Ancient Israel, Douglas A. Knight, ed. (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 37. They base their calculations in part on the fact that the king’s life expectancy seems to have been a mere 46 years, and “the common person had to survive under harsher conditions than those enjoyed by the kings.”
[vi] For a brief overview of the history of art stolen from the Jews by the Nazis during the Holocaust, see: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/recovering-stolen-art-from-the-holocaust
[xi] See Stephen R. Haynes, The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation (Oxford University Press, 2012) in its entirety.
[xii] For some very initial thoughts on how individuals, churches, and businesses might begin this work, see chapters 5-8 in Michael Rhodes and Robby Holt, with Brian Fikkert, Practicing the King’s Economy: Honoring Jesus in How We Work, Earn, Spend, Save, and Give (Baker, 2018).