Yes, You Should Feel Guilty About Slavery – But Not For the Reason You Think

April 17th, 2018 / By: Barry Creamer | Criswell College President / comments

Racial reconciliation has become a hot topic in evangelical circles over the last few years. While some things seem to be universally agreed upon—for instance, the evils of slavery, the oppressive inequality of Jim Crow—it seems that we are still out of sync as believers when it comes to how we should think about and deal with the sins of previous generations.

Some would argue we are innocent, just so as long as we did not personally own a slave, hang the sign for a “colored” water fountain, or pull the trigger of James Earl Ray’s rifle. To those who take this stance, I would simply ask you to consider the implication of the prayer we find in Daniel 9.

Daniel—one of the righteous venerated in Ezekiel 14:14, and arguably one of the most blameless characters found in Scripture—confesses as a participant in the corporate guilt and shame of his people:

4 I prayed to the LORD my God and made confession, saying…5 we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. 6 We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. 7 To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame, as at this day, to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you. 8 To us, O LORD, belongs open shame, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against you...

Notice the repeated instances of the first-person as Daniel intones his confession, one he makes again and again up through the 15th verse of that text. As an individual, he expresses corporate contrition on behalf of his fathers and the rest of his people for what they had done generations prior. Though he was “technically” innocent, he confesses personally, acknowledging his responsibility for sins committed decades before he voiced this prayer.

The contrast between Daniel’s shame and the rebuttal of my beloved brothers and sisters in Christ is remarkable. While Daniel includes himself as a participant in the sin of his fathers, the attitude of so many believers is, essentially, “Why should I feel guilty about what I did not personally do?” The distinction between these attitudes becomes even more apparent when we notice the remarkable juxtaposition of Daniel 9 with Ezekiel 14.

The Ezekiel passage introduces the idea that the righteousness of an individual can spare them from a corporate judgment, but even these most righteous examples (Noah, Daniel, and Job) appear to be exonerated, so to speak, by the skin of their teeth. God’s judgment against the entire land is so inescapable that even the most righteous representatives imaginable—men who had demonstrated their faithfulness surrounded by everyone else’s turpitude—would have escaped with their own lives, but only their own.

We might be tempted at this point to think that, because they would have been spared because of their own righteousness, we should conversely not be judged because of someone else’s guilt. That erroneous thought misses the actual meaning of that text, which is not that Noah, Daniel, and Job are representative standards of righteousness. Rather, Ezekiel is using these paragons of righteousness to make the point that no one would be spared the judgment of a land so condemned.

The more important point, however, is this: the man whose righteousness sets him in such a rarified position of blessing is one who, far from pushing back against his corporate guilt, embraces and confesses it. The blamelessness that sets him apart is the very thing that compels him to acknowledge that he, too, is guilty of his ancestors’ shame and treachery.

So why should we take responsibility for what we did not personally do? I suppose my answer to that is based on the only understanding I’ve found for Daniel’s prayer: we should feel a sense of guilt about our ancestors’ participation in slavery and the Jim Crow south for the same reason we feel a sense of pride about our ancestors’ participation in creating a country with the liberties we love. You can’t take one without the other.