Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance and confession. Ash is spread on our foreheads in the shape of a cross, as a reminder of Jesus' death and a call to repent from our sins. There is something humbling about recognizing when we've failed or fallen short. And where have humans fallen short more often than when it comes to the societal sin of White supremacy? White supremacy is the belief that Whiteness (people, culture, skin, etc.) is inherently more important than non-White culture. Systemic racism is a vehicle by which White supremacy is delivered, day in and day out.
The notion of systemic injustice isn't new to contemporary times. In Luke 4:18-19 Jesus stands in the Synagogue and utters these words "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (NRSV). In Jesus' historical context, Rome was the dominant power. Roman citizens' cultural values were the norm. And Roman military, political and economic might was used to subvert and marginalize all other ethnic, cultural and religious groups. Jesus' own people were subject to this imperial violence. So, when Jesus stands and proclaims freedom for the oppressed and captives, he is very much speaking about freedom from social and political violence. Freedom was needed then, and it is still needed now. (I unpack the link between this text and our present injustice in more depth here.)
We're less than a year removed from the violent and unjust deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, at the hands of police officers, and the protests that ensued afterwards. Yet in the time since, we've seen the justice system fail to hold officers accountable.
While the systemic injustice that Black people face in the United States is well-documented and largely unaddressed, there is another side to the sin of White Supremacy: the erasure of Black excellence.
We've been inundated with images of poverty and violence within Black communities. We've seen the videos of the killing of Black people innumerable times in recent history. Our media has even taken us back in time and pulled up the grisly narratives of enslavement and segregation, so that we might relive or reckon with our national past. What is too often missing, even erased, are the narratives about Black excellence and brilliance. Yes, Black people face systemic injustice, but we also create amazing art and music, spark global movements, invent culinary masterpieces, contribute to science and philosophy (including from Africa — antiquity through U.S. modernity) and much more.
The sin of White supremacy leads to a singular narrative about Blackness that is incomplete at best. To repent of this sin means we must challenge the narratives we hold and expand our awareness. Truth be told, this sin has cost White people a great deal, because our humanity is bound together. To miss out on Black goodness is to experience goodness incompletely. Whiteness has tried to define humanity by excluding all that doesn't fit into its narrow parameters — not realizing that in doing so, the exclusion degrades and shrinks the humanity of all people. Therefore, this call to repentance isn't just a turning away from prejudice, bias and violence. It is turning towards divine wholeness. It is an openness to revelation and wonder that was previously missed.
Repentance must happen because it is just. It must happen because Black humanity is worth being witnessed. It must also happen because White humanity depends upon true repentance. There is a mutuality of wholeness that must be embraced.
So, what if, this Ash Wednesday, we burned our idols of White supremacy and celebrated our liberation with Jesus with the anointing of the black ash cross on our foreheads?
What if repenting meant our congregations made a more intentional effort to uplift and honor Black narratives? What if it meant highlighting Black heroes? What if it meant wrestling with texts from Black Liberation or Womanist theologians? What if repentance looked like seeking out examples of Black excellence, intelligence and power and bearing witness to the collective greatness that emanates from Black culture, despite more than 400 years of oppression and White supremacy?