Repenting of Systemic Racism
What Josiah can teach us about changing the future and repenting of the past.
When Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, speaks at churches, she says, “We’re all sinners.”
Everyone in the congregation nods.
Then she continues, “And we’re all criminals.”
“Everyone just stares at me kind of bug-eyed,” she said, in an interview with Krista Tippet.
Why is it easy for us to nod at the idea of “sinner” and get flustered by “criminal”—especially when most of us break the speed limit? Given God’s holiness, shouldn’t the word “sinner” make us more uncomfortable than any other?
Hearing Alexander, I considered another word that flusters many Christians: racist.
When I speak to other white people about race, saying any part of our current reality is “racist” often short-circuits the conversation. “I’m not a bigot,” one friend insists. “I have plenty of black friends,” another will say.
Part of me agrees. After all, these friends aren’t bigots. They have real, genuine relationships with people of color, and desire only the best for all people, regardless of skin color.
As do I. But still, my heart troubles me.
I took a test available online that gives you an idea of how much implicit bias you have against various groups and discovered I have moderate unconscious bias against African-Americans.
My Spanish-language Bible study reveals biases against Latinos. There, I frequently confront my quiet stereotypes—that only white people are savvy at helping their kids succeed, that only white people are interested in healthy eating or that a Hispanic kid with baggy pants is a thug.
In God’s eyes, saying “raca” is murder, and lust is adultery. Shouldn’t my “subtle” racism make me drop to my knees?
So why do we protest the word “racist” instead of repenting?
I think it’s partially because repenting of something ugly overwhelms us. Thank goodness we have a Biblical model for such repentance: King Josiah.
In 2 Kings 22, Josiah starts restoring the temple after his father and grandfather neglected it. In the midst of construction, Josiah’s high priest finds the book of the Law and reads it in front of the king.
Upon hearing it, Josiah tears his clothes in grief. He sends for the prophet Huldah to help him. Her response is even more brutal.
When thinking of our own country’s long struggle with race, I find Josiah’s story instructive.
Repentance Holds Us Accountable for History
Before Josiah’s reign, two generations of Judeans neglected to teach the law. Josiah and his subjects literally didn’t know any better.
God still holds them responsible for the sins of their fathers. To our Western ears, that might sound unfair, even if generational sin is a constant Biblical theme.
Like Josiah, we inherited sin not of our own making. Yet it’s very much our problem.
Saying things are better now is no excuse. Josiah could have said the same—after all, he was trying to restore the temple before he discovered the Law. God required hard repentance anyway.
Repentance Involves Hard Listening
Josiah, grieved by his discovery, sent for Huldah and listened as she blasted him with more bad news.
Josiah could have tuned out her negativity—especially when the sins didn’t happen on his watch, and he’d already done so much to change things.
Instead, he listened.
As I’ve recognized my prejudices and biases, I’ve started studying the history of race in our country. It’s harsh. I’m a history nerd, but I’d glossed the horror of slavery and its brutal legacy, and remained largely ignorant of systemic mistreatment of other ethnicities.
It’s hard to listen to these stories. But if we take Josiah’s story seriously, we must patiently listen—and then take action.
Repentance Requires Confronting Systems
Once Josiah hears Huldah’s words, he acts. He burns Asherah poles, deposes priests and dismantles idolatry for 20 years. Josiah demolishes a complex, idolatrous system.
Systems span generations. When our ancestors set up a sinful system, we carry on sinning unless someone dismantles it with tireless energy. That’s why holding children accountable for the sins of their fathers makes sense.
Josiah also teaches us who should dismantle systems.
Repentance Requires Action from Those In Power
Josiah confronted a system that, as king, benefited him enormously. But his leadership was crucial—how can anything change unless those with power take action?
In our own country, black people and other people of color largely lead the way on racial justice, even though they’ve historically had little institutional power. Though some people and some white institutions have taken brave steps, we have not, as a people, stepped up as Josiah did.
If white people created racist systems, God tasks us with the primary responsibility for challenging them.
Repentance Requires Multiple Generations
Josiah’s story is ultimately a tragedy. When he dies, his own son goes right back to the idolatrous systems Josiah worked to eradicate.
I once assumed that the Civil Rights movement had taken care of the sins of previous generations. Josiah’s failure reveals my naiveté.
Between slavery and versions of Jim Crow, we’ve experienced nearly 350 years of state-supported racism in America. Josiah, in contrast, inherited a fairly new problem: His father and grandfather wreaked havoc for only 57 years.
Yet 20 years of Josiah’s sustained effort wasn’t enough.
If Josiah couldn’t accomplish change in one generation, how can we assume we did?
Repentance Benefits Everyone
Confronting a system that benefits us might feel like a loss. We have to listen to hard stories, let go of some power, face discomfort and change our habits.
But in God’s economy, repentance always unleashes blessing. We can trust God to give us treasure when we align our hearts to His.
A country seeking deep healing will find God’s shalom. Confronting hard stories will grow our empathy and enable rich relationships across ethnic divides. And the church will become more and more like Christ.
Josiah bravely confronted a problem not of his own making with everything in him—and God called him righteous. Can we as a Church follow his example?