“It is my fear that, though we may not embrace an outright substitutionary atonement theology of Jesus, we have embraced a substitutionary atonement theology of Dr. MLK Jr. That is to believe that Dr. King existed in his life solely to die to pay off the sins of white racists, and that because of his death, we don’t have to do any work beyond believing in what a nice fellow that Dr. King was. What a nice fellow that Dr. King was. With that dream of his and all. Sure glad he ended racism so that I don’t have to do the hard work.”
This is a quote from my friend Lindsey, a United Church of Christ minister. When I read it, it resonated deep in my heart. The story of Jesus calls us to honesty at every turn, honesty about our need for Beloved Community and our need to get serious about shifting that community from ideal to lived reality.
You’ve heard the word repentance used in religious talk before. It’s always been framed as humans who are irretrievably broken turning from their brokenness to God. As part of honesty about the Beloved Community, I want to reclaim that word. What if repentance is turning around, in its literal senses? Turning around from racism calls for deep introspection and accountability. Anti-blackness springs up all around us and can even creep into our own thinking and speech if we’re not vigilant. But this is the work.
Anti-blackness doesn’t just look like calling people racist names. It’s also things, like blaming Black people for the situations in which they find themselves, situations that often cost them their lives. If he had just complied. He shouldn’t protest by not saying the Pledge of Allegiance. If he hadn’t run from the police. If he hadn’t been playing in the park. One way that the anti-blackness shows in these judgments is that white people do the same things without paying these high prices; it’s expected as part of daily life that white people can do these things. It’s considered taking a chance, however, if Black people do these things.
It takes some effort to notice the layers of oppression that bring us to this place. Do you remember being taught in school that Columbus discovered America, as though it wasn’t populated with developed indigenous societies? Do you remember slavery being blamed on the South, when in fact, Northerners made choices to be complicit with slavery and benefit from it, to keep peace at the cost of Black lives.
The repentance we are called to is specifically turning away from glossing over these truths in order to recenter white supremacy. We are called to more than just blandly appreciating King’s Beloved Community and to acting boldly, without apology, for its creation. Repenting of anti-blackness means ending narratives in which Black bodies and Black lives fail because they do not comply with whiteness.