Denial

What I'm Learning
  1. Why is it necessary to talk about this?
  2. Mourn With Those Who Mourn
  3. More Than The KKK
  4. Normalization of White Culture
  5. White Guilt
  6. White Fragility
  7. A Colorblind Church in a Diverse Kingdom (Aurlyn Wygle)
  8. Denial
  9. The Ability to Walk Away

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).


In posts two through four, we explored common racial tensions that are present in our culture. In particular, we saw that there is a widespread, quiet, underlying belief that white people are more valuable than people of color. In addition, we saw that white culture is the normalized, majority culture in America, and this normalization combines with the racial hierarchy beliefs to cause inequities and injustice at all levels of society.

Over the last several posts, we’ve explored common responses to this reality including white guilt and white fragility. Further, we saw that many people, in an effort to avoid offense, choose to take the colorblind stance and say that “everyone bleeds red,” or “I don’t see color.” Although this may not come with ill-intentions, it still misses the mark and can actually make it more difficult to see harmful underlying beliefs.

In this post, we will explore another response that is prevalent among individuals and our culture as a whole. That response is denial.

“Though an individual choice to pursue wisdom and rebuff foolishness is important, we must recognize the depth of denial that grips our nation as a whole. It doesn’t seem to matter how much exposure white America has to racial injustice or how many encounters we have with systemic inequality, we can’t seem to snap out of our collective slumber and admit the faults in our foundations.” (Hill, pp. 71-72)

If you were to ask most white people if they think racism is still an issue in our culture, a large percentage would say yes. However, if you asked those same people if they believe they contribute to this reality, almost everyone would say no. How is this possible? For one, I believe we tend to think of racism as only extreme examples like the KKK, and this prevents us from seeing the more quiet tension brought about by the underlying racial hierarchy beliefs in our culture. We know that racism is bad, and extreme examples are really bad, so there’s no way upstanding people like us can be racist or have racial tensions inside us. There isn’t a category in our minds for other forms of dangerous beliefs that do just as much damage to people and systems.

Also, it’s hard to find a space where people can actually be honest and confess their true beliefs about race. Being labeled racist feels like a scarlet letter that can’t be shed, and this fear affects a large number of white people in my opinion. So, although I believe most are simply blind to their true beliefs (I know I was), the fear of the racist label also contributes to blindness and/or creates a barrier to honestly inspecting our hearts (this describes me as well).

In addition, our nation has tried to lighten the narrative around our racial history. For example, we have a tendency to sugarcoat slavery, sometimes calling it things like “indentured servitude” instead of talking about what it really was, a brutal, inhumane system that ripped apart people and families for financial gain. We celebrate Christopher Columbus for “discovering” America even though millions of people already lived here when he arrived. And, when we do talk about dark eras in our racial history, many times we quickly look for ways to show that we have moved past it in triumph.

Therefore, with all of these individual and cultural factors at play, we often outright deny or redirect attention away from the current state of race relations. Instead of facing the full truth, we decide to move on, ignore, say, “why are we talking about this when real racism exists in other places,” or just don’t go there thinking it will help alleviate a sore spot. However, when we choose to deny our sin, or we take a colorblind approach to race, we are missing an opportunity for true healing and unity. We can only recover and grow when we face our sin head-on and repent.

Countering Denial

1 John 1:5-10, 2:1-2

“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.  But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

How do we counter denial?

  1. We need to ask God to help us see. I believe most people who are in denial simply cannot see the part they play in this. Therefore, if we can’t identify where we have contributed, we need to ask God to search our hearts and reveal potential blind spots (Psalm 139:23-24). If we’ve never thought through the possibility of our contribution to racial strife, we shouldn’t be quick to say we are without sin and potentially deceive ourselves (1 John 1:8).
  2. Walk in the light. “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” When the Holy Spirit makes us aware of our sin, we need to bring it to the light. How can we do this? Confession. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We must confess, genuinely, honestly, and fully, our sin as individuals and as a culture. The Christian life is one of continual confession and repentance, and the issue of race is not exempt.

Maybe we’ve personally and collectively failed to mourn with those who mourn. Maybe we haven’t honored the image of God in people of color by seeing them as inferior intellectually or inherently dangerous. Maybe we’ve carried implicit bias that has led to an inequitable view or treatment of others. Maybe we’ve been indifferent or passive toward this issue. Maybe we’ve been in denial. Maybe we’ve had a racial awakening but claim to have dealt with it and can move on now, effectively moving back into denial. Bring these to the light. Confess to God and share your confession with other people.

  1. Be careful not to move on too quickly from our confession. I want to be delicate here. I’m not saying fall into shame (see White Guilt). There is no condemnation for those in Christ, and Jesus has cleansed all of our unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

With that said, there is a place for reflecting upon and mourning our sin (Matthew 5:4), and it can look like a form of worship called lament. What is lament? We’ll get to a full post later on, but here’s a preview.

“The Hebrew poetic material of the Bible falls into two broad categories: praise and lament. Whereas praise poems express worship for the good things God has done, laments are prayers of petition arising out of need. Lament in the Bible is a liturgical response to the reality of suffering and engages God in the context of pain and trouble…

Rah says it like this: The crying out to God in lament over a broken history is often set aside in favor of a triumphalistic narrative. We are too busy patting ourselves on the back over the problem-solving abilities of the triumphant American church to cry out to God in lament. American culture tends to hide the stories of guilt and shame and seeks to elevate stories of success . . . which results in amnesia about a tainted history. The reality of a shameful history undermines the narrative of exceptionalism, so it must remain hidden…

The praise vs. lament dichotomy shows us why the dominant-culture church often moves quickly toward denial when faced with its historical sins of racial oppression. The process of unearthing our painful history of racial oppression inevitably creates space for guilt and shame, which make human beings uncomfortable. Without a theology to support lament, we become paralyzed in the search for balance and often turn back to the triumphalist narrative as a crutch. Rah references Brown to underscore this point, effectively bridging shame and lament. When speaking of the inability of the dominant culture to have honest conversations about race, Brown says, “You cannot have that conversation without shame, because you cannot talk about race without talking about privilege. And when people start talking about privilege, they get paralyzed by shame.”

So one of the primary reasons American Christians (white, in particular) are unable to deal with the shame stage of the cultural identity journey is we have a feeble lament theology. We’re conditioned to celebrate those who experience success and triumph while screening out the message of those who suffer. We too often become “one who sings songs to a heavy heart” (Proverbs 25:20). We’ve been groomed to search for quick and easy answers to complex problems, and we rarely have the ability to appreciate the act of crying out to God in brokenness and pain.” (Hill, pp. 107-109)

Lament can help us resist the urge to move on too quickly from our confession. We realize the weight of our sin, want to see it uprooted in our life, and we cry out to God in acknowledgment that we are empty handed. We come to Him knowing that we don’t have a good answer for our sin. What’s been done can’t be taken back, and we don’t have the power to change it ourselves. We don’t know what steps to take to move forward, and we come to God not trying to find answers from within ourselves but only answers from Him.

Lament is a healthy and acceptable form of worship, and it’s displayed throughout the Bible. The book of Psalms is filled with lament, there are numerous places in scripture where people put on sackcloth and ashes to express mourning, and there is even an entire book of the Bible called Lamentations. Reflecting and mourning in lament is an appropriate response to our sin and complement to our confession.

Why?

Why should we do all of this? Why face this issue head on when it’s painful? Why go there if we really don’t think we need to?

There are many reasons, but for one, I believe God is laying before us the path to fullness of life. He is showing us the way to more joy in Him. When we confess, healing occurs, and the beauty of the Gospel shines through. In 1 John 1:9, it says Jesus is faithful to forgive us, and He’s also faithful to cleanse us. When we confess, we enter the light which casts out darkness, and the truth sets us free (John 8:32). Confession brings freedom!

In addition, we have truer fellowship with God and each other. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another…” Confession breaks down relational walls, and it allows us to go deeper in relationships with each other. We don’t have to keep arguing about whether or not these racial realities exist, but instead we can begin to work together to unify. We can move forward together because we have truer fellowship. All of this brings more relational fullness, and again, more fullness of life.

No doubt, this is scary, and there still may be earthly consequences for our sin. Confession isn’t always met with open arms by other people, and honestly, we can’t expect others to always be ready for our confession. At the end of the day, what we’ve done or believed is hurtful, and people are rightfully affected.

However, we can rest knowing that Jesus is our advocate, and we stand before God uncondemned because His blood covers us. This truth allows us to continue to push forward even when it’s difficult. We can put away denial, step forward, pursue reconciliation with our brothers and sisters, and run toward justice for others.