Sins of the Fathers
The topic of race in the United States is one that never lurks far from the forefront of the nation’s collective conscious. Conversations on this topic rarely become heated; they usually begin there and accelerate in intensity and vitriol. The shooting death of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and the homicide of Eric Garner in New York, both at the hands of police, have stoked the fires of debate beginning back in the dog days of summer and continuing without relent into the closing days of the year. But if these and other events, such as the shooting death of twelve-year old Tamir Rice, have become fodder for the rage machines, they have also served as a catalyst for helpful and necessary conversations. The fact that tragedy must often serve as the catalyst for conversation is, in itself, a tragedy of a different kind and shape.
While some might debate whether or not the present day U.S. still has a significant racial divide that needs to be addressed, there is no such debate in regards to the U.S. of old. The honest student of history will be one who is swift to acknowledge that it was rife with racial injustice. The black man has been made the bearer of burdens, the butt of poor humor, and the blight of white society on many occasions and in many ways from the dawn of U.S. history even into its most recent annals. Rather than engage in a fruitless debate as to the distance that does or does not exist between America’s past and present in regards to racial inequalities and intolerances, there is another avenue of inquiry to pursue in connection with this topic: The topic of proper reconciliation between races.
There seems to be a unique paradigm applied to racial reconciliation that is used in few other areas if any. Traditionally the mere cessation of abuse is not sufficient means to bring about reconciliation between the victim and their abuser. The mere passing of time from the offense to the present is not balm enough to soothe the pain. And yet, that is quite nearly the exact position taken by many white, conservative evangelicals when it comes to reconciliation between their race and the ones their predecessors so horribly wronged. This approach has a myriad of problems, not the least of which is that it ignores the council of Scripture in regards to the means by which reconciliation is attained and, in doing so, also ignores the importance God places on the matter.
While it is clear that Scripture maintains that all followers of God ought to be swift to forgive and that such forgiveness is not predicated on any show of repentance or regret on the part of wrong-doer, it is also clear that forgiveness and reconciliation are not interchangeable concepts. To forgive, as the word is used in the parable of the unjust servant in Matthew 18, means to send away or lay aside. It carries with it the image of a monarch waving his hand to dismiss a problem or a subject so he can go about his day. In short, to be forgiven is to receive an invitation to leave without fear of further consequences or reprisals.
Compare this to the Jesus’ words on the necessity of reconciliation in the Sermon on the Mount. When He instructs his followers to seek reconciliation even ahead of worship, He uses a term that means to purposefully bring about a change in a relationship. Unlike forgiveness, which has to do with the parting of ways, reconciliation is about bringing together that which has been separated. And while it is the imperative of the wronged to forgive, it is the responsibility of the wrong-doer to seek reconciliation. The victim is certainly not forbidden from seeking to initiate reconciliation, but the Bible does not place that imperative upon them.
The biblical mandate to forgive is not conditional upon any behavior on the part of the perpetrator. Nor is the responsibility to seek reconciliation dependent on the receiving of forgiveness; they are both expectations that God places on each party independently. They also have as much to do with each party’s relationship with God as with each other. In Mark 11 Jesus links forgiveness to the presence of God’s power, imploring his disciples to first forgive their transgressors before seeking God’s empowerment in their circumstances. In Matthew 5 He places more importance on reconciliation than on the offering of worship, noting that an offering brought before God with the knowledge that the offering-bearer has offended a brother is a gift best left unoffered. The greater glorification of God is in reconciliation, not in rote religious rituals.
It is only when both responsibilities are met that two parties, once opposed, can be joined in fellowship. When either side stubbornly refuses to meet their God-given mandate, then, despite the best efforts of their counterparts, a breach will remain and that side which ignores their role will suffer the consequences.
When Joshua conquered Canaan following the forty-year trek through the wilderness, he allowed Israel to be deceived into signing a treaty with the Gibeonites, a local populace marked for destruction by God. Years later Saul, the first king of Israel, attempted to bolster his reputation within Israel by eradicating the Gibeonites from the land (an attempt that failed in all areas). Now, in the waning years of David’s reign, God had applied disciplinary pressure to Israel in the form of a three-year famine. To end the famine David seeks first the face of God and then the atonement of the Gibeonites so that Israel may once again prosper unhindered by judgment.
His first attempt at a settlement is rebuffed as the Gibeonites claim they want neither material payment nor punitive retribution. Upon David’s insistence, however, they ask for seven of Saul’s descendants to be handed over to them so that their lives can serve as payment for the ruptured treaty. So it came to be that at the time of the barley harvest, the blood of seven noblemen watered the fields of Israel and restored the vitality of the land.
This is a brutal account, one totally void of mercy or forgiveness. The Gibeonites know they can demand a great deal from David due to his commitment to reconciliation, and they take advantage of this fact. While it is natural to wonder why God permitted the Gibeonites to extract such a high price from Israel, it is worth pointing out that David has reigned for close to forty years at this point. This transgression has been marked on Israel’s account for nearly half-a-century and it is common knowledge to all of Israel, including David. For over half his life he has reigned knowing that his kingdom owed a debt to the people of Gibeon and it was not until the cost of ignoring the debt grew too high that he was forced to action. When he finally addressed the issue there was no fellowship restored between the two peoples because the people of Gibeon were unwilling to forgive. They collected their blood debt and returned to their role as Israel’s manual laborers.
David’s actions were not inadequate, however, because the ulterior goal was met. Israel fulfilled her duty to those she had wronged, restored her honor, and restored her fellowship with God.
Today, the U.S. stands in a position similar to that of David as he left the presence of God. The wrong perpetrated by his people was apparent. Its consequences were obvious. His people were being destroyed by his forty-years of unwillingness to act on a known sin. He had no idea what measures he would have to take to demonstrate Israel’s desire for reconciliation to the Gibeonites, but he knew, by divine edict, that it was his imperative to take that step. The response of the Gibeonites was irrelevant to what he had to do. Whether his sincere attempt was rebuffed or accepted, his duty before his kingdom and his God was to make it.
For centuries the black man was grossly and unapologetically mistreated by the United States. Her government, her institutions, her people, and, yes, even her churches were complicit in this wrong and therefore share in the burden of reconciliation. By the time David stepped out of his palace to address his people concerning the famine, an entirely new generation had arisen to lead Israel and this generation bore the brunt of their father’s sins and weight of setting it right. The passing of time did nothing but add compounded interest to the debt Israel owed. Is it anything but foolishness to assume it would have a different effect on the debt owed from the U.S. to the people used so roughly in her rise to prominence? Is the white man so naïve as to think a wrong ignored is a wrong set right?
Set aside for a moment any difference of opinion that exists concerning the current fate of black people in America. To what extent racism does or does not exist is irrelevant here. For centuries it reigned in this country and that is a debt that demands attention. Consider the possibility that, just as Israel’s forty-year refusal to take ownership of their wrong brought about severe consequences on an entire nation, so the U.S.’s unwillingness to pursue this same end might be wreaking unrecognized havoc on the country.
On its families.
On its churches.
Remember that Jesus said that His people are not to bring offerings to his altar with unreconciled accounts on their consciences. If the witness of the Old Testament is any indication, the unreconciled accounts of the fathers do indeed pass on to their sons.
Reconciliation must be made. And it must be made without any expectations on how it will be received. Some may very well reject it and if that is the case then the best that will be accomplished is the uneasy truce that existed between Israel and Gibeon. But the accounts of God’s people will be cleared. And His altar will open to their offerings.
But there are those in the black community who have already forgiven, who stand waiting for their white counterparts to approach, as David did, and ask “What shall I do…(to) make atonement?” And between these two parties, the forgiver and the reconciler, stands the One who was both. The Divine Victim who took both burdens upon His shoulders so that fellowship between man and God could be restored. He will not abandon His people in their efforts to do the same between their fellow man.
But what how is reconciliation accomplished? How far is far enough? What would reconciliation between the white church and the black people even look like? Those are excellent questions to ask and even better questions to ask of those with whom you should be reconciling. That’s where all this has to begin, sitting down, face-to-face, and having a conversation.
Sometimes a rift can only be mended with a cross.
Other times a table will do the trick.
 This is documented in Joshua 9.