Bearing My Great-Great-Grandfather’s Guilt

dark-bibleYesterday I tried to make the case that, as white Americans, we need to be sensitive to the discrimination and injustices that black Americans have suffered. Denying slavery, Jim Crow laws or racial profiling doesn’t ease tensions; it simply serves to confirm perceptions that we neither understand nor care to understand what black Americans have collectively endured.

The bulk of discrimination, sadly, was and is all too real. Contrary to popular opinion,  however, a percentage of the injustice seems to be their perception (possibly augmented by past experiences) rather than actual injury.

The two examples I cited yesterday underscore this point. The young man that I called “boy” projected racist motives onto my remark even though I had no way of knowing the connotation of what I’d said. He perceived the racial slur that most people mean, and therefore assumed that I was also making a racial slur.

Similarly, my then fiance’s comment that every black person in the south can point to a tree where one of their ancestors was lynched may have been hyperbole. Someone I respect sent me a Direct Message on Twitter after reading yesterday’s blog post, mathematically challenging the claim my ex made. Possibly, my ex had heard so many accounts of KKK lynchings that it certainly seemed like every black person in the south could point to a lynching tree.

Perception can often affect beliefs, and therefore magnify anger. From what I’ve read, this magnified anger came out at the MLK50 Conference last week in the form of demands that white American evangelicals adopt an attitude of continual repentance for the sins our ancestors committed against blacks.

My great-great-grandfather immigrated to the United States during the Irish Potato Famine, settling in Georgia. He was 16. Soon after, he fought in the Civil War with the Confederacy. For years, I struggled with guilt and embarrassment that he essentially fought to preserve the sin of slavery. I also felt guilty and embarrassed that my grandmother occasionally expressed racist sentiments.

Scripture, however, teaches that each person is accountable for his or her own sin, not for the sins of his or her predecessors.

14 “Now suppose this man fathers a son who sees all the sins that his father has done; he sees, and does not do likewise: 15 he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife, 16 does not oppress anyone, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 17 withholds his hand from iniquity, takes no interest or profit, obeys my rules, and walks in my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. ~~Ezekiel 18:14-17 (ESV)

If God doesn’t hold me responsible for the sins of my grandmother or my great-great-grandfather, why should anyone demand that I live in perpetual repentance for what these two did? If Christ’s blood completely atoned for my sin, why should anyone hold me responsible for sins that my ancestors committed — sins that have absolutely nothing to do with me?

The assertion that I must continually repent for sins that I didn’t commit goes directly against the Gospel. Jesus dealt with my sin at the cross. Only He knows whether or not my grandmother and great-great-grandfather had saving faith, so He will judge them accordingly. Yes, actions like theirs devastated American blacks, and the repercussions extend to our present time. But the guilt isn’t for me to own.

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