Ought I to Repent of Being a White Male?
Over the years of my life in modern (or postmodern) American academics I have several times read and heard that white men ought to “repent” of being white and male.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
I have long been a strong supporter of some liberation theologies. That is so much the case that one of my former students wrote a book (that was published and is in print) about liberation theologies pointing to me as one of very, very few self-professed “evangelical” theologians supportive of liberation theologies. I have taught elective courses about liberation theologies and invited knowledgeable advocates of various types of liberation theology to speak. I have taught courses in which I required the students to read books or articles by liberation theologians. I have taken entire classes to events about “Black Lives Matter” and women’s liberation and Hispanic/Latin American liberation theology.
None of that means that I have never been critical of some aspects of certain theologies of protest and liberation. However, I have long and very intensely expressed support for the works of especially moderate feminist, Latin American, black, Hispanic, and other liberation theologians.
One thing I always tell students, however, is that, as a person who enjoys white male privilege, it is difficult for me to express liberation theology in the way they need to encounter it. Liberation theology is normally theology done by the oppressed; it arises from their experiences of oppression. So I point them toward resources where they will either read or hear liberation theologians themselves speaking about liberation theology out of their own experiences of oppression.
However, I admit that I bristle a bit when told that I ought to repent of being white and male.
Now, look, before someone jumps on this and tells me I don’t understand what that call to repent means, let me tell you that I do know what it means to some liberationists. I’m not sure it means the same thing to all. In fact, I think I have discerned three distinct meanings of the call for white people and males to repent for being white and/or male. They follow…
First, I discern that some people who call me (and others, of course) to repent of being white and/or male mean that I should repent of simply having white male privilege in a racist and sexist society—regardless of what I do with that privilege. Simply having it is something to repent of.
Second, I discern that some people who call me (and others, of course) to repent of being white and/or male mean that I should repent of enjoying white male privilege. How this differs from simply having it is subtle, but I detect this difference whenever a liberationist says he or she knows white people and males (or people who are both) who don’t need to repent of that status because they don’t enjoy the privileges that come (in this society) with being white and/or male. Usually these individuals are said to be in “solidarity” with the oppressed in spite of having white and male privilege. This is something evident to oppressed people; only a person who belongs to an oppressed class can decide the difference.
Third, I discern that some people who call me (and others, of course) to repent of being white and/or male mean that I should repent of not using my privileged status for the equality and empowerment of oppressed people. I have heard, for example, some black theologians identify certain white-skinned males as “black.” James Cone called for white people to “become black” and he didn’t mean change their skin color. This perhaps takes the call to repent a step further from the second meaning, beyond just solidarity with to active participation in liberation.
I do not think I have ever read or heard anyone (in the academy, among liberationists) call white people and/or males to repent only for being Caucasian or only for being biologically male.
The issue in the background of these calls to repent is privileged status in a society where some people are underprivileged and disadvantaged solely because of their race, ethnicity, economic status and/or sex.
Some feminist theologians have said that privilege is the original sin. I think that many liberationists would agree. And they are not the first to believe it and even say something like it.
Earlier examples would be the early Quakers (Friends) who insisted on referring to everyone as “thou” which, in their time and place, was the common English translation of the German “Du”—the informal form of “you.” Today, of course, that use of “thou” has flipped. We tend to think of “thou” as a way to address God and perhaps, occasionally, someone with high privilege. Originally, however, in older English, “thou” was a very informal form of saying “you” and the Quakers consciously used it for God and everyone—even those with high and mighty privilege. They did not believe in hierarchy even though they were respectful of all people (after an initial phase in which some of them interrupted Anglican church services, etc.). The early Quakers, and some still today, are opposed to unearned privilege and perhaps social privileged status altogether—especially among Christians.
Walter Rauschenbusch, the main theologian of the Social Gospel movement in the United States, raged against unearned privilege in his writings. Even when privileged status was earned, he did not think it was reason for anyone to “bow and scrape” to privileged people. His impulse was away from hierarchy altogether and toward a society of equals—especially among Christians but eventually (hopefully) among all people.
Now, returning to the question, ought I to repent of being white and male?
I reject any idea that I or anyone else should “repent” of anything they cannot help being. I do not believe in collective guilt (as I have argued here before). To me, it is simply an irrational idea that has the (perhaps unintended) effect of watering down the very concepts of guilt and repentance.
I agree only with the third meaning of “repent for being white” (and or male) above. If I have privileged status, social power, and do not use it for the benefit, empowerment, of oppressed people, I should repent.
Now, I realize that some liberationists and others will respond that I still do not understand the dynamics of privilege in a power-stratified society and that I am letting myself off the hook too easily.
My response to them will be (is): Maybe; I’m open to listening (again). However, I will also say to them that calling for any group to “repent” of being what they cannot help being, because they were born that way, is counter-productive to their own cause. I have heard some fundamentalist Christians argue, for example, that homosexuals are sinful, guilty, condemned and going to hell solely for having that sexual orientation regardless of what they do with it. I have strongly opposed that view and that claim whenever I have heard it. I do believe that sexual orientation is not usually a choice.
Another way in which the claim that white males (for example) ought to repent—without the qualification of the third meaning above—can hinder liberationists’ cause is that it turns people who might otherwise be sympathetic and helpful “off” and away from participating in the liberationist cause.
Finally, my response to anyone who calls whites and/or males to repent without the qualification embedded in the third meaning given above is simply to say it changes the meaning of “repent” in a way that makes it simply a matter of mouthing some words (viz., “I repent of being white” or “I repent of being male”). Then it does not mean what “repent” has always really meant: To turn around and go a different way. A person born Caucasian or male simply cannot turn around and go a different way if they are called to “repent” simply of being biologically male or ethnically Caucasian.
Here I am calling on oppressed people, and those who speak for them, to stop saying “Repent of being white” or “Repent of being male” (or both) without explaining what they mean. Many people have no idea what that means other than simply saying “I’m sorry for being white” or “I’m sorry for being male” and surely it means more than that! What does it mean? To me the only meaningful meaning of it is “Repent of not using your privileged status to empower disadvantaged people.”
But a problem is that many people who do call on me to repent of being white and male simply have no idea what I have done or am doing to empower disadvantaged, marginalized, oppressed people. They simply “see” that I am Caucasian and male and assume that I am guilty and call for me to repent. This is offensive to me and they should repent of doing that if they wrongly assume, without knowing me, that I am one of their oppressors.
In a highly stratified society where privilege tied to race and gender exists, people with privilege based solely on race and/or gender should throw the weight of their privilege behind movements and efforts to abolish such automatic, unearned privilege. If they don’t, and especially if they use their privilege to perpetuate the stratification based on unearned privilege, they should repent. On the other hand, simply to call all people with privilege to repent of simply having it is to misuse the true meaning of “repent.”
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