Do Modern Day "Whites" Need to Repent for the Sins of Their Ancestors?

Am I guilty of systemic racism because I’m an American whose skin color happens to be white? Am I guilty of bigotry and racism because white Europeans who first came to America owned slaves?

Multitudes would loudly declare, “YES”! My response is “NO”!

From a Christian perspective, those arguing that Whites bear guilt for historic sins like slavery, appeal to three main arguments.

First, they contend that we can see collective sin and collective repentance in passages such as Exodus 20:5-6, Exodus 34:6-7, Numbers 14:18-20, Ezra 9:6-15, Nehemiah 1:4-7, and Daniel 9:1-19.  Therefore, they argue, there is biblical precedent for ancestral guilt and repentance for the sins of our ancestors even if we are personally innocent of these sins. In the same way, a particular white person may not be guilty of slavery, but they still bear the guilt of historic Whites’ participation in or defense of slavery.

Second, some Christians will argue that because all human beings bear the stain of Adam’s original sin, it is therefore possible for us to be counted guilty as the result of sins that we did not personally commit. The idea of corporate solidarity is often presented as the basis for white corporate responsibility for historic sins such as slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, discrimination, etc.

Third, some Christians argue that because Whites receive unearned advantages (i.e. white privilege) from historic injustices, they are morally guilty today and are complicit in racism, even if they aren’t actively racist themselves. This guilt and complicity then demand confession and repentance.

While there are several examples of a form of corporate repentance in the Bible, there are also numerous explicit statements about the non-transferability of guilt from child to parent or from parent to child. Notice Ezekiel 18:14-20: “Now suppose this man fathers a son who sees all the sins that his father has done; he sees, and does not do likewise… he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. As for his father…he shall die for his iniquity. “Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” Similar statements can be found in Deut. 24:16 and Jeremiah 31:27-34.

From a Biblical perspective, unlike ancient Israel, “Whites” are not a covenant people any more than “Red-headed Irish”, “brown-skinned Indians” or “Spanish-speakers” are a covenant people. Like Old Covenant Israel’s corporate confession, the Church’s only corporate confession is that she has failed to keep God’s commands. But that reality applies to all Christians, not just white, black, red, yellow, male or female Christians. There is only corresponding guilt and accountability of sin for any specific individual to the extent that the specific individual actually sinned.

Pastor Sam Storms writes, “We should renounce, repudiate, and disavow the sins of our ancestors or our contemporaries with whom we are in close relationship. We should make it clear by confession and behavior that we want no part of that sort of wicked behavior, that we wish never to repeat such sinful activity, and that we choose to distance ourselves from the destructive consequences that follow upon the sinful behavior of our ancestors or contemporaries. But to “renounce” the sins of others is not the same as “repenting” for the sins of others.

“It’s important to remember in all this that none of us is held guilty by God for the sins of our ancestors or contemporaries, unless of course we ourselves contributed to their sins (those of our contemporaries) by encouraging them to behave wickedly or by choosing to repeat in our own lives the sinful behavior of theirs. But God will not hold me guilty for the sins of my ancestors nor will he punish or judge me for what they have done.”

The call to “corporate repentance” is hypocritically and inconsistently applied. Oppression and injustice are sins, but they are not the only sins, nor are they the only sins in view in passages like Exodus 20, Ezra 9, Nehemiah 1, or Daniel 9Sexual immorality, theft, murder, and idolatry are also sins. Yet what demographic group is free from such sins, either historically or today?

Dr. Pat Sawyer observes: “Consider how horrific it would sound if we insisted that a half-Indian like my colleague, Neil Shenvi bore corporate guilt for the caste system and the treatment of the dalit? Or that all Native Americans bear corporate guilt for their ancestors’ animistic religious beliefs, many of which are still held today? Or that all Blacks bear corporate guilt for high abortion rates among Blacks? These claims are so appalling that we hesitated to even type them out; yet these are the views we must hold if we believe that “ancestral guilt” is a biblical category. If we hesitate to hold half-Indians, or Native Americans, or Blacks responsible for the moral failings of their ancestors, we should hesitate to do the same for Whites.

“One response to this argument is that Whites benefit from their ancestors’ past sins while these other groups do not benefit from their ancestors’ past sins. However, the contemporaries of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel did not benefit from their ancestors’ sins (and even suffered for them); so if such passages are used to argue for corporate guilt, they must be applied not only to white guilt, but to half-Indian, Native American, and black guilt as well.”

It is false to argue that all Whites are absolutely privileged over all Blacks. There are many poor, uneducated, powerless white people and many wealthy, educated, powerful black people. Our responsibilities track with our present personal advantages, not with our ethnicity. Therefore, every white person is not morally obligated to “divest from their white privilege” nor are they committing a moral wrong if they fail to do so.

As a Christian, whose skin, by no choice of my own, happens to be white, I want to take a knee continually and humbly – not with BLM Marxists, or multi-millionaire sports or movie stars, with fist clenched and raised toward heaven, but with hands opened and raised to Almighty God in personal confession and repentance, and ultimate surrender and dependence upon Him.

As Christians, God is continuously - at times more intensely than others - trying to enlighten us to His way of thinking so we can continu­ally walk His way. When turning is required - adjustments, change - we must do it. From this definition, we can see that repentance does not necessarily have to involve sin. Repentance involves a continuous turning of my mind to get an ever-increasing kingdom thinking, supernatural, biblically based, mindset. Anytime He adjusts us to His way of thinking through a revelation of the Holy Spirit, which should happen regularly, this is repentance. We can then turn and go His way. My entire lifestyle should be one of repentance as I continually learn His ways. In this manner, we can live a life of repentance without being plagued by condemnation or a guilt complex concerning the sins of ancestors that I have no knowledge of.