The “Presence of Colored People”: A Reflection on Intergenerational Confession and Repentance

“We and our fathers have sinned” – Daniel 9:8

As many of you know, for about four years I served as pastor of a small congregation in Birmingham, AL. Taking the reins a week after my 27th birthday, I was idealistic, wide-eyed, naïve, and ambitious. But I found myself amid a very gracious congregation who was willing to come along side me and offer their support, encouragement, time, and energy. During my time there, we embarked upon all sorts of new efforts and initiatives in our shared life of worship and mission in the community. One of the more encouraging efforts we undertook was the renovation of our Narthex (some of you might call this a foyer or front hall). With a generous donation in honor of a recently deceased member of the church, a small, dedicated group of people took it upon themselves to paint the narthex, install some crown molding around the top of the walls, and beautifully frame a number of historical items from the church, which had been chartered in the early 1880s. The finished product was beautiful, and upon seeing it, I felt such a deep sense of pride and gratitude for the efforts of our congregation.

But as I admired the framed historical items, something caught my eye.

We had framed several original copies of session minutes from the early years of the church. (In the Presbyterian church, the session is a council of elders from the congregation who serve as overseers for the congregation. The minutes are a record of what is discussed at session meetings). I loved having these historical artifacts displayed, because it was a way of celebrating the faithfulness of God to multiple generations of people who had persevered for over a century to worship, make disciples, and serve the city of Birmingham. In one the earliest copies of session minutes (prior to 1900 if I remember correctly), the session gave updates on how things were going in the congregation and the community. I loved reading about the education of the young people in the congregation, for example. I also chuckled a bit when I read about their concerns about the circus in town. And then they listed another concern, which included (I paraphrase), “the presence of colored people.”

My heart sank into my stomach. I suddenly felt a complex mix of emotions I had not anticipated – embarrassment, disappointment, frustration, sadness. In one sense, there was nothing at all surprising about what I was seeing. Fear of “colored people” was a common sentiment shared by the people of that time and place (as it is in our present day, even if expressed differently). Moreover, there are similar memorabilia in churches all over country – prominent portraits of slaveholding or pro-slavery pastors and theologians, for example. And while I had long recognized the inherent problem with all such memorabilia, it was in this moment that the phenomenon was no longer “out there;” it was literally “in here.” It had powerfully, irreversibly, and without warning become part of my own personal narrative. Perhaps it was the cold, hard reality of the words written in pen, in someone’s hand. This fear of “colored people” was not hearsay, word of mouth, typed up in a history book, or a in T.V. documentary. This was living history, and I was being taken up into it in a flesh-and-blood, here-and-now manner that was very unsettling. What did this mean? How was this congregation treating “colored people” at the time this was written? What were the implications for us today? This was a congregation under my care and leadership. How could we, without noticing or acknowledging the words, place this item in the front entrance of our church, to display for all who enter our doors? Worse yet, did it mean that some people saw no problem with these words or the racism it represented? In any case, what message would this send? Did this mean we just didn’t care? Did it mean I didn’t care?

There is certain inescapability about the time and place we inhabit. We can only breathe the air that’s around us. We are all “men and women of our time,” as it is said. True enough. But in no way does this mean we are not obligated before God to acknowledge and confess the sins of previous generations, and to repent from those “iniquities of our fathers,” as Leviticus puts it. In saying this, we are not condemning previous generations in one fell swoop. We are, rather, endeavoring to tell the whole story and exhibit the confidence of the children of God to tell the whole truth about that story.  

One of the passages among many that is commonly raised when discussing the notion of corporate and intergenerational sin is Nehemiah 9. In the aftermath of the Feast of Tabernacles is the following scene:

 Then those of Israelite descent separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their ancestors…

The great scribe Ezra then leads a long prayer of national confession, which includes a recounting of their ancestors sins:

16 “But they and our ancestors acted presumptuously and stiffened their necks and did not obey your commandments; 17 they refused to obey, and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them; but they stiffened their necks and determined to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them. 

It is important to note, I think, that this long confession of sin is ultimately a way of praising God for his enduring mercy, forgiveness, and faithfulness. We read further, beginning in verse 29:

They turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their neck and would not obey. 30 Many years you were patient with them, and warned them by your spirit through your prophets; yet they would not listen. Therefore you handed them over to the peoples of the lands. 31 Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.”

While there are important theological discussions to be had about whether the “nation” of Israel is analogous to any modern “nation,” or to the church, or any other body of people, the point remains that God’s people through the scriptures have acknowledged both their individual and their corporate sins and have responded to God in confession and repentance. What’s more, if passages like Nehemiah 9 are any indication, such confession should be rooted in, and framed by, thanksgiving to God for his faithfulness to those who have come before us, to us in our current circumstances, and even to those generations upon generations that will come after us, despite our faithlessness.

In confessing the sins of my ancestors, I’m not simply acknowledging the flaws of previous generations and assuaging my feeling of guilt. I’m owning up to the fact that I am inextricably bound to my ancestors – whether by blood or by faith – and that they have played a role in shaping who I am, and who all of us are, including the good, the bad, and the ugly. In confessing the sins of our ancestors, we remind ourselves that we, too, are a people of a particular time in place that susceptible to forms of culturally conditioned prejudices, sinful discrimination, seemingly innocent complicity with evil, culturally acceptable indifference toward oppression, and a shortsighted, self-serving version of the truth about God and the world that conveniently advances one’s station in life. We all see in a mirror dimly, and that mirror is clouded with the world that we know (or don’t know as well as we think).

Corporate and intergenerational confession and repentance is not about blaming previous generations or assuaging one’s present guilt. Nor is it a matter of trying to distance one’s self from the painful realities that we are hesitant to face, as if to throw up our hands and say “hey it wasn’t me!” It is a matter of looking straight into the eyes of our complex historical forces, acknowledging the truth about them, confessing how these forces continue to shape us, how we continue to feed those forces, repenting by asking God to redirect our vision and our steps, and giving all glory and honor to Christ for his astounding mercy and grace. In this act of confession and repentance we strive to pass on a faith to our children and our children’s children that recognizes the multi-generational faithfulness of God to a people that nevertheless falls short so frequently.

Upon seeing the framed picture in the Narthex, I immediately removed it and placed it on the floor in the back corner of my office. A few months later I took a new call to a new ministry opportunity, having never raised the issue with my congregation. It’s one of the great regrets of my call to ministry over the last seven years. God, I confess my own silence even as I confess the iniquities of those generations before me. We are a sinful people despite your enduring faithfulness. I give you praise for you have shown great mercy to me in Christ. Teach me, and all of us, to confess more boldly, forgive more graciously, and trust in your abounding steadfast love unto all generations.   

No Comments

Post A Comment

mahjong ways 2