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Anselm and Bozo Discuss Generational Guilt, Corporate Repentance, Restitution, and Reparations

17 Jul

In your town’s future? Maybe just some other kind of restitution? What to think?

 

[still not writing current posts for the blog… this one was done a good while back, and seemed good to put up sooner rather than later]

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Background to discussion:

In Pastor Reed Depace’s article, “A Burden Removed: A Biblical Path for Removing the Racism of Our Forefathers,” published by Thabiti Anyabwile on the Gospel Coalition website, he quotes Leviticus 26:40-42:

“But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, so that I walked contrary to them . . . then I will remember my covenant.”

…and asks “Is this something a congregation should consider? Should a congregation repent of the sins of their forefathers?”

Article from November of last year.

 

Depace says that when he took over a PCA congregation in Montgomery, Alabama, he and the elders felt that God was “walking contrary” to them and not blessing the congregation. This prompted a deeper look at the congregation’s history, and here he discovered the past racism of the church. For example:

“As late as 1974 our elders and deacons were still affirming their intention to not allow backs to join or attend any services at our church. Numerous other racist attitudes and decisions littered Historic First Church through the civil-rights era. In fact, these attitudes and actions only began to disappear from our records in the late-1970s…”

Could things like these be repented of? Depace goes on to make a distinction between generational guilt (there is none, per Ezekiel 18:20!) and generational corruption. Of the latter he says:

“…there are numerous warnings that God ‘visits the iniquities’ of forefathers on their descendants (Exod. 20:5; 24:7; Num. 14:18; Deut. 5:9; Lev. 26:39-41; Isa. 14:21; Isa. 65:6-7; Jer. 14:20; 32:8, and so on). The notable examples of Daniel (Dan. 9:8, ff.), Ezra (Ezra 9:6-7, ff.), and Nehemiah (Neh. 9:16, ff.), each confessing their forefathers’ iniquities, gives strong evidence that God both fulfills the warnings and the promises attached to ‘visiting the iniquities.’”

While a congregation should not be expected to repent in order to remove guilt for the sins of its forefathers, he says, for them it was important to repent in order to deal with the ongoing corruption of the community brought forth by those particular sins:

“Was repenting of these:

  • Acknowledging the wickedness of those sins,
  • Acknowledging God’s righteousness in visiting the corruption of those sins on us,
  • Trusting that in Jesus there is cleansing from the corruption of these, and
  • So confessing the sins of our forefathers,

The gospel-rooted resolution before us?”

He shares some of the ways the congregation has been blest in recent years because of the repentance of the community. For example, he mentions the following:

“Over the last few years we have been contacted by numerous former members of our church, and even some of the descendants of former members, who had all taken a stand against Historic First Church’s racism and had been driven out of the congregation for doing so. The experience of asking them to forgive the sins of our forefathers brought healing and, in some cases, a believable gospel witness from a church with a previous reputation of hypocrisy.”

Before reading the conversation between Bozo and Anselm below jumping off this article, consider reading the whole piece below.

Or, alternatively, just explore more Depace’s distinction between generational guilt and corruption in the endnote following this sentence.[i]

The full article.

P.S: In addition, note that I also touched on some of the downfalls of some kinds of corporate repentance, with some help from C.S. Lewis, in a recent sermon I did: “Woke to the World’s or the Word’s Whispers?”

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900 years later, they’re back!

 

Bozo:

What do you think of the article, “A Burden Removed: A Biblical Path for Removing the Racism of Our Forefathers,” that I shared with you the other day?:

https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/thabiti-anyabwile/burden-removed-biblical-path-removing-racism-forefathers/

I must say, for the most part, it strikes me as sound…. That said, do you see any problems?

Anselm:

I am reminded of the line from Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks…”

Bozo:

Anything in particular that you find really objectionable? Do you find the distinction he makes between no guilt for generational sin but the presence of generational corruption to be fallacious?

Anselm:

If an approach to the proclamation of the gospel is based upon dealing with the sins of the past, where is the line to be drawn? The sins of five years ago? Ten? Fifty? Three hundred?

While well-intentioned, I don’t see how it can ultimately be played out, for when is “full atonement” finally accomplished? When will they know they have done enough? And when will those offended concede that enough has been done and some sort of rapprochement occur…

And does it really do anything at all, except make the ones working on it feel better about themselves? So the quote from Hamlet…

The building itself, a “construct” (both architectural and theological) is a product of the past–and a stark reminder of it. Here I am reminded of feelings toward colonial architecture in Africa…

How about simply dealing with the reality of the now, and refusing to define what is the social structure at this very moment with definitions and concepts of the past?

Bozo:

Perhaps they would answer because you are being utterly and willfully naive if you deny that the past has shaped the future for better or worse. What do we believe Jesus is speaking about in Matthew 23:32 if not this kind of thing? I mean, we don’t think He is importing and imputing guilt from the past onto them: he is talking about cultural practices that are systemic and passed on, creating more sin and evil. I did not get the impression that this article was about thinking anyone’s justification should be questioned, but more about the hard realization of sanctification and the utterly new life that Jesus calls us to.

Anselm:

I don’t disagree. My concern was simply about how actually to address past sins in the “now”. For the past always shapes the now. Always! There has never been a time when it has not.

So, for example, should the ranchers in Wyoming, admitting some sort of guilt for dubious land appropriation by their grandparents from the Indians, return the land to a Sioux tribe? Or should the Sioux now, simply admit that they really are not entitled to the land? For what would the Sioux Indian say when approached with the gospel: “I am not going to enter that church until our land is returned to us?” And if the land actually were returned, would they?

And if the rancher must admit, that in order for the sins of the past to be expiated, he must give away (not sell) the land inherited from his parents, and move into town, when he had nothing to do with that appropriation, would he say: “I am never going to enter that church again!”?

The complexities here are staggering. If we approach the situation in this way…

What does this mean?!

 

Bozo:

I recently saw someone say: “In the church, let biblical social justice flow from love! In the political realm though, I’m not a SJC[hristian]. There I want to see law & order – & that driven by a compassionate protector-spirit. Justice for past wrongs? As is politically feasible. It’s a fallen world.”

I appreciate this. That said, I also want to agree with you. I think, for me, given that there must be a statute of limitations on these things when it comes to doing actual righting of wrongs with material goods and wealth (otherwise, you are right: absolute chaos), the most justice that we can often hope for in a fallen world is for the ancestors of those who have gone before us to forthrightly admit, and acknowledge those wrongs… and to make it clear that we do not want to be a part of them going forward…

But also that “no… that doesn’t mean I am going to give you back the land that was unfairly taken from you 150 years ago…That would not be fair to my children or to yours. I think you are going to have to depend on God to be the justice-maker in the end, and to give you what He thinks you deserve in the life to come based on how well you have handled these thorny matters here….”

Anselm:

I do wonder how much we can leave up to the vengeance of God. In other words, so much of what we are talking about really should be left up to God.

A common theme in Chinese theater is vengeance–lifelong, and often supra-generational vengeance. Indeed, it is a driving theme in many, many movies. Why? Vengeance means justice. But what it also means is hatred and death so often to the one seeking it. And also there is this: Once such vengeance has been achieved, and justice served, an emptiness sets in, for vengeance does not accomplish what it is hoped it actually will accomplish.

So when one generation insists on justice for a past generation’s wrongs, what they are seeking, ultimately, is not justice, but vengeance. Thus the question: If we were to take this route, would there ever be enough that could be done?

So as Christians, we could, theologically, insist on dealing with the now. Of addressing the situation as it now stands. For the fact of the matter is, if we focus on addressing the past, we can conveniently avoid dealing the present. In other words, we can ignore the situation of the person in front of us, if we rectify what happened to that person’s ancestors.

But that is, I would suggest, ultimately the realm of God.

Bozo:

I agree with what you say. It seems justice and vengeance kind of goes hand in hand. In a fallen world, part and parcel of one another.

That said, the Chinese, for all of their obsession with order and, to a large degree, natural law, are not really a Christ-informed and shaped people. They just aren’t. There are aspects of cruelty in these elite Asian cultures that would seem pretty unthinkable to us.

And what about this?: God is our Avenger as well, and I don’t think by that the Lord means to make us into Psalm 137-hungry people…

And… justice, after all, might also have a very practical dimension, as we see with the everyday things that happen in the now. Truth be told, we are often squeamish about addressing these things in the now as well: “Why not let yourself be cheated?” (I Cor. 6) Principle, or weakness?

OK Paul, but it would be nice if my brothers, my neighbors, would then fight on my behalf so that I am not cheated… driven into the ground more than I already am…

Hope this makes some sense.

So, that article again. Does it fail theologically? Or just in practice? A bit of both? Is the whole distinction about repenting of guilt vs. corruption flat-out wrong?

Anselm:

True repentance is both a sorrow for sin and the desire not to sin in such a way again. True repentance therefore eliminates corruption, i.e. culturally sanctioned sin.

But the concept of corruption is simply too politically powerful. Let’s say, for example, that I would repent of racism and try every day then not to be a racist. “That is not enough” would be the cry of the politically savvy who ultimately, somehow, want the things that I have, the position that I have, my place in society, my “power and authority” etc. So they continue:

“You are, ultimately, corrupt. That is, the culture of which you are a part and from which you cannot extricate yourself culturally sanctions sin. Therefore, even though you as an individual have repented, you are not even, ultimately, aware of the depth of your corruption, and so cannot comprehend, really, what it means to repent! Why? You do not know how to NOT be a racist! Therefore, all that you can do is to turn over your institution, your wealth, your position, to ‘us’, and you…simply…go…away.”

To a certain extent it reminds me of what happened during the communist revolution in Russia. Yes, there was rampant corruption. But it seems to have been governmental corruption obviously understood and exposed. Its existence, however, was used as an excuse to rob the wealthy of everything they owned–even those who were not corrupt.

Granted: We can talk about culturally sanctioned sin. But again, once it is recognized and exposed, then what?

Bozo:

“True repentance therefore eliminates corruption, i.e. culturally sanctioned sin.”

Agreed. At the same time, we also know that there is always more.

Of course people come to faith in Christ without repenting of all the sin they actually have. They confess the sins they know — which are more than enough to damn! — even while much more work, more need for renovation, remains. In each one of us. Luther more than most church fathers got to the heart of the matter…and by pointing out, brilliantly, how things like marriage and children shows us our sin more and more….

Is the fact that some might politically take advantage of this kind of knowledge that we increasingly come to attain — in this or that context — an excuse to not promote and nurture such repentance — such deeper awareness of sin?

Furthermore, let’s just talk about individuals here for a moment: would it be wrong for an individual to take the opportunity of another individual’s increasing awareness to make them aware of something they have done which was never really appropriately addressed, dealt with (perhaps something where a kind of restitution would be appropriate)? Must that always be seen as a bad thing people do?: “take advantage…”

I also do not want to be taken advantage of in bad and nefarious ways, and I think it is Christ-like to not want to be taken advantage of for the sake of the ones one is charged to care for and protect.

That said, I think my question above remains…. Is the fact that some might politically take advantage of this kind of knowledge that we increasingly come to attain — in this or that context — an excuse to not promote and nurture such repentance — such deeper awareness of sin?

I am not saying of the past, by the way, that I think that any people who lived in a sinful culture and did not directly confront it, either individually or corporately, are any more guilty than many of us today who lack courage and vigor as regards this or that. I think it does us well to realize that many persons may nevertheless have given more or less brave confessions of the truth, thinking, speaking, and acting in subtle ways to undermine the current situation, try to make improvements as one sees one’s self as able to do so, etc….

And I also get not wanting to promote a victimization mentality. At the same time Scripture itself seems to say that sometimes it is not altogether wrong to see yourself as a victim…:

But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.

Anselm:

The chief problem with this line of thought would seem to be somehow signaling out racism as an unconscious cultural sin. For every Christian who has ever lived has confessed the sins that they know, and confessed the sins that they have learned to know, while at the same time, remained ignorant of sins that they themselves did not realize to be sins.

Indeed, if we ever became truly cognizant of the extent of the sin within us how could we continue to live? But that is another issue…

So the matter at hand is what is to be done with the sin of which we are not aware, sin specifically which was viewed to be civilly righteous at one point [i.e. not sin], but has now been exposed to be civilly unrighteous and identified actually to be sin.

Well, for the individual, he or she repents, and if possible, compensates. Here we think of Zacchaeus. Wonderful.

Corporately, we can think of the social changes within the Roman Empire which occur because of the ascendancy of Christianity. Good.

But what if someone should use the exposure of a culturally-entrenched sin for a sinful purpose, chiefly, theft? In other words, what if Jesus is preached expressly for the purpose of acquiring Zacchaeus’ wealth?

Another way of putting it: What if a Christian’s piety is used against them politically for nefarious purposes? (I think this is what happened with a seminary President I am aware of: It was assumed that since fighting his illegal firing would be viewed by him to be “unchristian” he would not fight legally, but simply go away…He fought legally, and had to demonstrate that a Christian could indeed do such a thing…)

Here lessons could be learned from Luther’s comments on the Peasants Revolt. Yes, what they did was wrong. But was their initial treatment right? Their subsequent rebellion? Their wholesale slaughter? Their imprisonment and confiscation of wealth? Were not the princes and knights using the whole matter to grab more land and authority and power?

Bozo:

Yes, all true.

One more thing regarding this question I ask though (Is the fact that some might politically take advantage of this kind of knowledge that we increasingly come to attain — in this or that context — an excuse to not promote and nurture such repentance — such deeper awareness of sin?)

What is so interesting to me is how this kind of thing could only happen in a Christian-ized culture…. No one else would stand for it for a minute…

No mercy elsewhere….

Anselm:

A subtle point but I would think it would be true. Here we need only to think of the reaction by the churches in Germany to the rise of National Socialism: Some rejected out of hand and were imprisoned and murdered. Others sought to continue with the awareness of its evil but without its renunciation. Others cooperated with it and others promoted it.

And who profited politically after the war from whatever position they had taken over against it?

Bozo:

“The chief problem with this line of thought would seem to be somehow signalling out racism as an unconscious cultural sin. For every Christian who has ever lived has confessed the sins that they know, and confessed the sins that they have learned to know, while at the same time, remained ignorant of sins that they themselves did not realize to be sins.

Indeed, if we ever became truly cognizant of the extent of the sin within us how could we continue to live? But that is another issue…”

Those last two sentences are true enough! I could not agree with them more.

And I agree with the things you said earlier about the way people will wrongly seize on the guilt and corruption of others….  At the same time, I don’t think my core question goes away….

I don’t really see what is the problem here: “The chief problem with this line of thought would seem to be somehow signalling out racism as an unconscious cultural sin…”

I get that many remained ignorant of their sins. When I said:

I am not saying of the past, by the way, that I think that any people who lived in a sinful culture and did not directly confront it, either individually or corporately, are any more guilty than many of us today who lack courage and vigor as regards this or that. I think it does us well to realize that many persons may nevertheless have given more or less brave confessions of the truth, thinking, speaking, and acting in subtle ways to undermine the current situation, try to make improvements as one sees one’s self as able to do so, etc….

I was saying that of persons who *do realize, at some level,* the unique evils of the culture of which they are a part. Certainly, many persons in the past who were genuinely Christians have not had a palpable awareness of the evils that their culture takes part in (since our suppression of our knowledge of the truth is multifaceted and can go very deep). They may have even thought, for example, that very bad things that they were doing were OK (for example, I do not think that Scripture outright condemns slavery in any case, and I am quite sure that people who were real Christians, driven largely by their economic and/or social interests, may very well have thought that it was also OK to think that certain individuals — even whole distinct groups of people! — were born to be slaves!).

At the same time, this discussion is not about those Christians who were exceptional in realizing the sins of their own unique cultures. It is about we today, who, having a different perspective, are able to see the evils of the past and to not want to have a part in the residual contamination that is still with us (in the form of false ideas about what is right and good and true and beautiful).

You seem to be saying that we cannot do this because there is a danger in being taken advantage of in a bad way. I agree there is that danger, but am really trying to find a way for us to promote awareness of all sin and sinful ideas nonetheless…

Are we at an impasse then? I hope that you do not feel like this is an uncharitable take on my part.

Let me repeat what you said above, as I think the wider context of the quote I was responding to is important:

“The chief problem with this line of thought would seem to be somehow signalling out racism as an unconscious cultural sin. For every Christian who has ever lived has confessed the sins that they know, and confessed the sins that they have learned to know, while at the same time, remained ignorant of sins that they themselves did not realize to be sins.

Indeed, if we ever became truly cognizant of the extent of the sin within us how could we continue to live? But that is another issue…

So the matter at hand is what is to be done with the sin of which we are not aware, sin specifically which was viewed to be civilly righteous at one point [i.e. not sin], but has now been exposed to be civilly unrighteous and identified actually to be sin.

Well, for the individual, he or she repents, and if possible, compensates. Here we think of Zacchaeus. Wonderful.

Corporately, we can think of the social changes within the Roman Empire which occur because of the ascendancy of Christianity. Good….

But….

The thing is, I get why the “But” is important and much needs to be spoken about here. The wider question, though, remains, and there is always that nagging thought from Paul: “Why not let yourself be taken advantage of….” I’ll tell you Paul: “….because I need to provide and protect for my kids, especially when none of them — or none of my ancestors even — were really involved in race-based chattel slavery!” That said, as regards the nation as a whole admitting this, saying it was wrong, making restitution, etc…, that is a different kind of matter (and yes, one can arguably say much restitution has already occurred…).

Thinking now though of that church — the original article… that very concrete and not-so-abstract experience. It still seems very sound to me. And I don’t think anyone is taking advantage of them either….

Anselm:

There is no impasse. For I am not saying we cannot do such a thing. I am just suggesting that the methods forwarded so far to do it fall short for various reasons. Certainly where some gesture is possible that does not cause more harm than good I am all for it. But I think such situations would be few and far between.

An example from a book I recently read. David Scaer in his memoir “Surviving the Storms” suggests that members of a class who did not receive their calls 30 years ago and had to stay in Ft. Wayne for an extra couple of months after they graduated, instead of moving, should now be compensated monetarily. Is that going to happen? It would be a political challenge of great proportion. For if it did happen, that situation would have to be revisited and guilt placed appropriately on offending parties. But at the end of the day, would it accomplish anything? Would those students feel vindicated?

No. There really is nothing that can be done except to forgive. And forget.

And not do the same thing in the future.

Bozo:

That appeals to me.

But I hesitate again… and not because I feel that this is a salvation/justification issue…. (also: just because I don’t see it as this does not mean that others, even devout Christians, might not have doubts about their salvation/justification because of things just like this!)

Back to the brass tacks. You said of the article:

“While well-intentioned, I don’t see how it can ultimately be played out, for when is “full atonement” finally accomplished? When will they know they have done enough? And when will those offended concede that enough has been done and some sort of rapprochement occur…

And does it really do anything at all, except make the ones working on it feel better about themselves? So the quote from Hamlet…”

I said:

“I did not get the impression that this article was about thinking anyone’s justification should be questioned, but more about the hard realization of sanctification and the utterly new life that Jesus calls us to.”

And you said you didn’t disagree… it really is about practical matters (very terse summary). I agree — we must at some point have a “statute of limitations” — even in the church! Otherwise, I think that we will only perpetuate a cycle of resentment, anger, and “justice” which really is more like vengeance. And which never ends! At some point, we must trust the perfect justice-maker, the one who reconciled both justice and mercy at the cross!

So… the article. I think it’s good. The time is not so long ago…. it makes sense to do this. I think what the church did is good. I also don’t think it should be taken as a one-size fits-all thing, and I think that churches and others should be wary of the ways that articles could be taken advantage of by people for less than just reasons…

Anselm:

It is good the attempt was made. Time will tell if was simply an empty gesture of no long-term significance.

After all, the church often gets caught up with gestures, actions, movements, etc., that while significant for the moment, usually die out over time. Think here about the WWJD bracelets, the Purpose Driven church, the Prayer of Jabez, etc.

And then a second problem is this: If such a movement does take hold, and becomes the central focus of a congregation, does the congregation as church, over time, disappear, being replaced with a group that promotes one idea, one ideology, one endeavor, and that’s it?

FIN

…and if you enjoyed this article, you may also want to check out T.R. Halvorson’s recent articles at Steadfast Lutherans: “Systemic Adultery and Matriphobia: Our Guilty Silence”.

This piece by him, on cultural Marxism and critical theory, is also excellent…

 

Note:

[i] “The way out of the apparent contradiction here is found in the details associated with the words visit and iniquity. Rather than overwhelm you with the breadth and depth of these details, let me summarize them. One of three words used for sin in the OT, the Hebrew word translated iniquity, is used to express sin with its results. We are most familiar with the result of culpability. Sin makes us culpable before God, accountable to him for our rebellion against his law.

Yet there is another result of sin, one that is as common as culpability, but not often focused on. In addition to culpability, sin also results in corruption. This is the spiritual pollution, the contamination factor attached to sin. It spiritually infects others. A significant part of the Mosaic ceremonial law dealt with picturing the corruption result of sin:

And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness. (Lev. 16:21-22)

One of the reasons for church discipline is to protect the other members of a congregation from the corruption of the offending member’s sin:

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. (1 Cor. 5:6-7)

The corruption result of sin is so pervasive that there is nothing we can do to avoid it:

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. (Isa. 64:6)

The Hebrew word visiting explains how the sins of forefathers corrupt their descendants. The visiting in view is not some sort of social call, as if God were promising to drop in for milk and brownies. Instead, the word refers to a covenantal visiting: God visits on people, he gives them the experience of, the blessings or curses of his covenants to those in covenant with him, and their descendants. The fourth commandment (Exod. 20:5-6) illustrates the pattern of covenantal visiting succinctly:

“You shall not bow down to them or serve [other gods], for I the LORD your God am a jealous God:
[covenant curse] visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,
[covenant blessing] but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

It is quite simple: God gives to the descendants of those in covenant with him the corruption results of their forefathers’ sins. If the culpability result of sin is personal (it only attaches to the sinning individual), then the corruption result of sin is corporate (it also attaches to those in covenant relationship with the sinning individual).

Admittedly there are many more details that show this corruption result is basic to the nature of sin. But this is nothing more than the historic understanding of the church: God curses the descendants to follow in the sinful footsteps of their forefathers, sinning in related ways.

This explains why Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah were resolute in confessing their forefathers’ sins. They knew that God had promised to forgive those sins, not their culpability, but their corruption. So, they confessed and led their congregations to confess with them. Likewise, in the letters to the Seven Churches of Revelation, Jesus advises certain congregations to repent of sins committed only by some of their members (e.g., Pergamum, Rev. 2:13-17; Thyatira, Rev. 2:18-29; Sardis, Rev. 3:1-6). While not personally culpable for the sins of the few, all the members of these congregations were corrupted by these sins. Corporate repentance, confessing the sins of others to whom they were covenantally related, was Jesus’s gospel-rooted solution.”

 

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Posted by on July 17, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

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