Racial reconciliation can never be confused with the white dominant culture shedding crocodile tears while offering deep felt apologies. Unfortunately, this has been the pattern employed by my denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention.
In 1845 Southern Baptists split from their northern counterparts over the issue of slavery, specifically, over debate as to whether a slaveholder could be appointed as a missionary to Africa.
After the Civil War, Southern Baptists had a hand in establishing the Ku Klux Klan. It should not be surprising that it was normative for Southern Baptists to oppose Civil Rights during the 1950s and 1960s by supporting segregation. As late as the 1970s, many churches excluded blacks from their congregations.
Nevertheless, when the Southern Baptist Convention assembled in Atlanta in 1995, it issued the following apology to all African-Americans for its racist past and asked for forgiveness.
“We lament an repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest, and we recognize that the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past; and … we apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime; and we genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
The resolution received a standing ovation from the roughly 20,000 messengers attending the convention. Accepting the apology on behalf of all African-Americans was Gary Frost, the only black person at that time on the convention’s Executive Committee.
But the question to consider is if Frost, or any other individual for that matter, can accept an apology for all the Africans who lost their lives during the Middle Passage?
Can any one person speak for all the black women ever raped by their masters? Can one person truly represent the generations upon generations of slave descendants who have been systematically locked out of decent housing, education and health care?
In short, who can speak on behalf of the injured party? To whom should the oppressor address such an apology, and who has the authority to forgive?
Apologies are always nice, but as Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us, “If you take my pen, what good does an apology do if you still keep my pen?”
Asking for forgiveness can easily become an antidote for the guilt of the privileged white culture that may be quick to elicit mea culpas and profound apologies but refuses to tamper with the self-perpetuating structures that continue to benefit whites at the expense of their compatriots of color.
When we consider that a vast majority of Southern Baptists are religious and political conservatives, who usually vote for political candidates and policies that are detrimental to people of color, we must ask what good their apology accomplishes if they continue to support political initiatives that reinforce the racism and ethnic biases of the present social structures.
How can real societal change come about when churches continue to employ their ties to cultural and economic power structures that limit the capacities for abundant life for all people?
Efforts toward reconciliation in such Spirit-void churches ignore the lived experience of marginalized communities. While grandiose pronouncements may be made on Martin Luther King Day against the evils of racism and ethnic discrimination, real change rarely comes about in these churches.
Confessions of past sins that prevent reconciliation are meaningless, unless a church is actively involved in dismantling the very social structures designed to provide it with privilege. Only by losing its privileged space within the culture can the church hope to gain a place at God’s table.
Church as community requires not just individual confessions of sins, but communal confessions of complicity with the sins of oppression and injustice.
While individual pleas for forgiveness are important, even more important in bringing about real change in the world is corporate penitence that commits to letting “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.