This is one of a series of posts (intended to be read in the order above) focused on exploring the issue of race and how The Gospel shapes our beliefs and response. Racial reconciliation is a common name for this topic, and although it “is not the gospel or the central focus of it, it is a qualitative application of the gospel in function and practice” (Eric Mason).
“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.“”
One thing I’ve struggled with since being awakened to some of the racial issues in my heart is negatively comparing my “awakeness” to other people I consider less awake. If someone seems to have racial prejudice or doesn’t agree with the things I agree with or maybe is abrasive toward the race conversation, then I look down on them.
In addition, I frequently have to guard against, and repent from, trying to “impress” people of color by “proving” that I’m part of the “good” group of white people who are awakened to the racial realities of our culture.
In both of these cases, among other struggles, I’m much like the Pharisee in the parable Jesus told. I’m creating a category of good people and bad people based on a moral bar I’m setting. I am operating as if I think “I’m not like other men” who I believe aren’t meeting a standard I feel I’m achieving.
“Dr. Robin DiAngelo…is also helpful when discussing self-righteousness. Though she approaches this topic from a secular perspective, it’s intriguing how clearly her ideas intersect with Jesus’ teachings:
For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist – we don’t engage in those acts….In large part, white fragility – the defensiveness, the fear of conflict – is rooted in this good/bad binary. If you call someone out, they think to themselves, “What you just said was that I am a bad person, and that is intolerable to me.” It’s a deep challenge to the core of our identity as good, moral people.
There’s a lot in this quote, so let’s clarify it. It’s very difficult to recognize the presence of something unhealthy within us if it isn’t overtly obvious (moral or immoral singular acts). To survive the pressure that self-awareness creates, we develop defense mechanisms in relation to contradictory acts.
One powerful defense mechanism is to judge only what is most behaviorally observable in our lives. However, when we live like this, we protect ourselves from the weight of genuine self-examination and all its implications. For example, if we allowed ourselves to see how deep the roots of greed go into our hearts, we would make changes in how we spend money and what we do with prized possessions. If we instead focus on a singular moral act, such as a financial contribution to a charity, it’s easier to ignore the countless ways in which we take rather than give.”
“The Pharisee split the world into binary categories of good/bad and in/out. So do most white people. According to DiAngelo’s words above, we too often allow our identity to “rest on the idea” that there are good white people with whom we long to be associated and bad white people whom we choose to shun…
The first manifestation of self-righteousness, according to Jesus’ parable, is that we place too much confidence in our own sense of rightness. Whereas the Pharisee did this by drawing a circle around the way his group attended to the detailed obedience of the Torah, I did it by drawing a circle around those I saw as being awake to racial justice. Consistent with classic in-group/out-group behavior, I worked hard to prove that I belonged to this group that I deemed to be awakened to race and active to address it. So I became borderline obsessive about achieving the approval of those whose opinion on race mattered to me. This included just about every person of color I knew and white people I admired who were doing the work of reconciliation and justice. I would brag, pontificate, share tales of my exploits, and do just about anything I could think of to prove to them that I was an enlightened contributor to the movement of racial reconciliation…
According to Jesus, the second manifestation of self-righteousness, as well as its telltale sign, is looking down on those who live contrary to the values of our in-group. It was obvious to me who belonged to the out-group category of bad people: every white person that didn’t care about racial justice. I took some sort of twisted pride in distancing myself from those I deemed as unenlightened, and I thought this enhanced my standing as one of the good white people who got it. I eventually discovered how dangerous this self-righteousness is and made a commitment to find a way out.
I want to be sure to emphasize the threat self-righteousness poses to healthy identity development. As explored at multiple points, we are our best and most redeemed self when our identity is rooted in our status as beloved children of God. When our sense of belonging rests on anything else, we lose touch with that redeemed self. As important as the racial awakening journey is, we must remain aware of the ways we form an evolved sense of identity based on group identity. We are drawn to probe that we belong to the good/in-group, and we are tempted to judge those in the bad/out-group. This has a major impact on the development of our cultural identity journey, and the faster we can spot the presence of self-righteousness the better.” (Hill, p. 129)
as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
This sounds depressing, and it is a sobering set of verses. However, it actually can be encouraging because it shows we’re all on a level playing field. No one can brag or boast about how good they are because at the end of the day, no one is good. It humbles us knowing that we don’t have solid ground to stand on when it comes to our awakeness or our passion for equity and justice. For every “good” or “right” thing we do or say, there are countless other things we aren’t even aware of that need to be redeemed. At the end of the day, we are all in desperate need of grace, and this points us to The Gospel.
There is only one who is good. Jesus lived the perfect life we couldn’t live. He was the most racially awake person ever. He brings justice to the nations (Isaiah 42:1-9). He made the way for us to be reconciled to God and be with Him for eternity. Jesus is our only hope, and His mercy and grace is so powerful that it can cover every single human being who’s ever existed. Therefore, we don’t have to project our “goodness” and play the exhausting game of trying to be on the “good” side. Instead, we can identify with the tax collector who, “standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!‘”
And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
“So repentance is beautifully simple and straightforward. It is to come home to the Father. It is to confess our sin and to bask in God’s grace. It is to turn away from self-driven efforts to build an identity and to allow the grace and love of God to serve as our foundation.”
“Jesus, on the other hand, never asked them to prove their righteousness. He already knew they weren’t righteous. And he certainly didn’t ask them to portray themselves as healthy. He had already identified them as sick. Ironically, all they needed to do to be righteous was admit they weren’t. All they needed to do to become healthy was admit they weren’t. The cure was right there.
That’s why repentance is such great news for the hungry heart. Once you realize you’re sick, you stop trying to act healthy. And you go on the search for the cure. When you discover that the cure was already searching for you, an explosion of gratitude makes sense.
That’s why I so regularly and comfortably repent for the sins of white Christians – both for mine and for the sins of my community. It isn’t because I think I’m better than everybody else or that I’m trying to prove that some bad white Christians out there need to be chastised. No, I repent all the time because I believe I’m surrounded by the sickness of racism. I see the sickness in the ideology of white supremacy and have no doubt that it has infected me. I see the sickness in the narrative of racial difference and have no doubt it has infected me. I see the sickness of systemic racism and have no doubt that I contribute to it in ways I’m not aware of. I’m surrounded by sickness, and I am sick. I am in need of the great Physician. It’s the only hope I have to be healthy.” (Hill, p. 132, 139)
This reality, that Jesus actually came for the sick, not those who believe they are healthy, is so freeing. We can rest knowing that we don’t have to compare ourselves or seek to join a mythical good white people grouping. We can ask God to help us see our sin, confess and repent. We can rest in His grace while pursuing reconciliation and justice. We are motivated and comforted by His love because we know we aren’t the savior and He has everything in His control. We can move toward people we consider “unawakened” with empathy instead of judgement. We can extend the grace that was given to us in our own sin.
At the end of the day, there is a real enemy to battle against, and it’s not people.
“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Our aim is not to avoid all the “bad” white people. We have a battle at hand against spiritual forces of evil that have produced a system of racial hierarchy in our culture. Therefore, let’s ask God to help us in this battle. Help us to find our identity in being His beloved child and not place our confidence in our own abilities to be righteous. Let’s ask God to continue to help us see what we can’t see in us and in the world around us. Let’s ask God to give us the guidance, wisdom, and courage we need in order to be a minister of reconciliation in this battle.