Should We Repent of Our Grandparents’ Racism? Scripture on Intergenerational Sin

The recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd have left many Americans wondering how to respond to violence against black and brown people in our society. For white people like me who believe the Bible is Holy Scripture, perhaps our response should start with this:

“Lord, we confess our racism and the racism of our fathers.”

Admittedly, this may be a hard pill to swallow. Most of us don’t know a single person who calls themselves a racist, and repenting of sins we didn’t commit strikes us as completely misguided. Both aspects of this confession, then, require some explanation.

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First, when we think of racists, we often think of neo-Nazis and Klansmen. But the racism we need to confess isn’t confined to such explicit, and widely rejected, hate-groups. The racism we need to confess is an oppressive ideology that implicitly or explicitly places all people on a racialized hierarchy, with white people at the top, black people at the bottom, and everyone else somewhere in between. It’s a racist ideology that has seeped into our individual psyches, as well as our culture, systems, and institutions. It’s an ideology responsible for much of the very real harm we’re witnessing on our television screens, in our social media feeds, and on our streets. It’s an ideology commonly referred to as white supremacy.1For a fuller exploration of the racist, oppressive ideology I am referring to here as white supremacy, see Chanequa Walker-Barnes, I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision of Racial Reconciliation (Eerdmans, 2019), 43-62.

But second, if the language of white supremacy sounds unnecessarily offensive or overly harsh, for many Bible readers, the idea of confessing the sins of one’s ancestors is even more problematic. “You cannot repent of a sin you didn’t commit,” so the argument goes. 

Revisiting Intergenerational Confession

This idea that you can’t repent of something you didn’t do seems like common sense to us. More importantly, some passages in Scripture seem to agree. Jeremiah looks ahead to a day when people will be punished strictly for their own sins (Jer. 31:29), and Ezekiel suggests that that day has already arrived: “Behold, all souls are mine,” the LORD declares, “the soul who sins shall die” (Ezek 18:4). Moving from the Hebrew Bible to the New Testament, Paul’s declaration that Christians have received God’s “not guilty” verdict might make us understandably anxious about focusing on guilt we’ve allegedly acquired from our forebears. 

The only problem is that another set of Scriptures explicitly commands God’s people to confess their forefathers’ sins, and indeed seems quite comfortable with the notion that people can face judgment for the iniquities of their ancestors. When Yahweh presents his resume to Moses on Mt. Sinai, he declares in the same breath both his generous, compassionate character and his commitment to punishing the guilty for up to four generations (Exod 34:7). After announcing a long list of terrifying judgments that await Israel if they reject Yahweh’s covenant, Leviticus declares that God will nevertheless offer forgiveness to his people if “they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers” (Lev 26:40). Both Daniel and Nehemiah seem to have gotten the message; living in the aftermath of God’s people’s widespread rebellion, both repent of their own sins and the sins their ancestors committed long before they were born (Neh 1:5; 9:2; Dan 9:16).  

One strategy for dealing with this diversity of opinions in Scripture is simply to pick the one we like. That, Joel Kaminsky argues, is exactly what interpreters of the Bible have often done. Because we live in a society that values individual autonomy above all else, both professional exegetes and everyday Bible-readers often play up the texts that emphasize individual sin, and downplay the idea of corporate or intergenerational sin.2Joel S. Kaminsky, Corporate Responsibility in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield Academic Press, 1995),179-188.

For those of us interested in submitting our lives to Scripture, however, picking and choosing just isn’t really an option. Indeed, we should be particularly suspicious of picking a scriptural theme that appears to support the historically unique hyper-individualism that characterizes our culture.

A second approach, then, is to recognize what Dru Johnson calls the pixelated nature of the Bible’s teaching.3Dru Johnson, Biblical Philosophy: An Hebraic Approach to the Old and New Testaments (New York: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).  Drawing on the analogy of digital photos, Johnson points out that such photos comprise hundreds or even thousands of smaller, individual images or pixels. Each pixel captures a true and essential aspect of the “full picture.” Taken individually, some images may seem quite different from others. But when we step back, each individual pixel contributes to the overall picture.  

If we want Scripture to shape how we reflect on our current racial crisis, then I suggest we take a hard look at biblical texts that emphasize the need for the people of God to repent of the sins of their ancestors. What’s going on in these passages? How does one generation become responsible for the guilt of a previous one? And what might that mean for us today? Though there are many dynamics at work in Scripture’s depiction of intergenerational sin, I want to focus on just two.

Inheriting the Obligation to Repair4The language of “repairing” sins, particularly economic ones, may well remind readers of the idea of reparations. The present essay focuses on how Scripture shapes faith communities to think about repairing present injustices committed in the past. These reflections no doubt have implications for contemporary theological dialogue about the case for reparations, but the arguments I am making do not depend on making such a case. 

A closer look at Leviticus 26:40–44 suggests that one reason the present generation needs to repent of the sins of their forebears is that sin causes a rupture that must be repaired. What’s required is not just that the present generation confess their sins and the sins of their ancestors, but also that they “make amends (yirû) for their iniquity” (26:41b, 43). If the damage one generation does is not fixed in their own day, that damage does not simply disappear at their death. The wrong must be righted, and the job may well fall on their descendants. 

The wrong that must be atoned for may be a wrong committed exclusively against God. But the reality that later generations inherit the obligation to repair an earlier generation’s sins also applies to sins against one’s neighbors. This type of intergenerational repentance stands at the center of Leviticus 25’s depiction of the Year of Jubilee. 

Want to learn more about the Year of Jubilee? The Bible Project published a podcast episode about this radical socioeconomic refresh. Learn more about the book of Leviticus in their video.

The Jubilee legislation declares that every 50 years, any Israelite family that has acquired the land of any other Israelite family must return it to them. Though some Israelites may well have lost their land because of natural disasters or poor management, the text’s repeated warnings that the Israelites should not “oppress” (tônû) one another makes it clear that losing your land through injustice was a real possibility (Lev 25:14, 17). In such situations, the Jubilee would often require the next generation to repent of the sins of their fathers by repairing the wrong that their fathers had committed. 

To see this, we must remember that male household heads probably only had a life expectancy of around 40 years. Men would be well into adulthood before they started making decisions about land management.5A figure suggested by Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, Library of Ancient Israel, Douglas A. Knight, ed.  (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 37. They base their calculations in part on the fact that the king’s life expectancy seems to have been a mere 46 years, and “the common person had to survive under harsher conditions than those enjoyed by the kings.” As a result, if one household unjustly cheated another household out of their land, both the oppressor and the oppressed individuals involved might well be long dead by the time the Jubilee Year rolled around. In that circumstance, then, the Jubilee would require the children to confess and make restitution for the sins of their fathers by restoring the land their fathers had stolen to the descendants of the ones from whom it was stolen.

In other words, sometimes the Bible suggests we have to repent of the guilt of our ancestors because we have inherited the obligation to fix their mistakes. That they’re dead does not change the fact that the debt remains outstanding. The Year of Jubilee teaches us that to continually refuse to repair our ancestors’ sins is to make them our own.  

Leviticus then demands that we confess our own sins and the sins of our fathers. In our context, I suggest this means that I must confess my own white supremacy and the white supremacy of my ancestors. Why? Because the economic injustices perpetrated by the white community against the black community still benefit white households and still harm black households. 

White Christians violated Scripture’s clear teaching by depriving black people of the rewards of their labor during slavery, of their land during Jim Crow, and of opportunities for wealth-building through homeownership and higher education in the post-war years. Those economic injustices continue to affect black households today:

  • 135 years after the end of slavery, black Americans still owned a meager 1% of the total wealth of this country.6Dalton Conley, Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America, 10th anniversary ed. (University of California Press, 2010), 25. 
  • Today black households have a mere one-tenth the net worth of white households.7William A. Darity and A. Kristen Mullen, From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century (University of North Carolina Press, 2020), 31. 

Moreover, this legacy of economic injustice also continues to benefit white households. The “primary sources of the capacity for sustained wealth building for most people [in America]” are inheritances, economic transfers between generations, and the “economic security borne of parental and grandparental wealth.”8Darity and Mullen, Here to Equality, 34. Intergenerational transfers of wealth account for somewhere between 26% and 50% of an American “adult’s wealth position.”9Darity and Mullen, Here to Equality, 36. One direct consequence of economic injustice against black people is that white ancestors have far more wealth to pass along to the next generation.

How then can we escape Isaiah’s searing indictment that the “plunder of the poor is in our houses” (Isa 3:14b)? The fact that we did not originally put that plunder there does not change the fact. We would be rightly disgusted by the child of a Nazi proudly displaying priceless art his father plundered from the Jews during the Holocaust.10For a brief overview of the history of art stolen from the Jews by the Nazis during the Holocaus, see “Holocaust Restitution: Recovering Stolen Art“. Must we white Christians not also examine our own troubling economic legacy? Leviticus calls God’s people, including us, to confess intergenerational economic sins by repairing them through costly social and economic action.

Repenting of Our Solidarity with the Sins of Our Ancestors

Second, the Bible recognizes that because every individual is shaped by their community and culture, every generation tends to have a certain “solidarity” with the sins of their forebears.11The language of solidarity comes from Mark Boda, ‘Return to Me:’ A Biblical Theology of Repentance, New Studies in Biblical Theology, D.A. Carson, ed. (IVP Academic, 2015),155. Perhaps Yahweh announces judgment on the third and fourth generation in Exodus 34:7 simply because that’s how many generations would likely coexist in a typical Israelite household. The Bible recognizes the commonsense reality that children absorb the sinful habits, thought-patterns, and practices of their family and culture. Morally speaking, we wake up in a world in which, as the apostle Paul alludes, we’ve already been conformed to the world around us (Rom 12:2). We do not emerge into moral self-awareness as blank slates, but as sinners already shaped by the sinfulness of those who’ve come before us. 

There is a sort of terrifying logic to Scripture’s depiction of “the fathers’ sins [being] added to those of the children.”12Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 23-27: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, ABC (Yale University Press, 2001), 2327-8. Sin grows across the generations like a snowball grows rolling down a hill. That’s why Jeremiah calls out his present audience both for their fathers’ sins and because they “have done worse” than their fathers, even as they have followed in their footsteps (cf. Jer 16:10-13).

The New Testament authors add another angle to our understanding of this solidarity with the sins of our fathers: we, like they, were once slaves to Sin (Rom 6:20a). Here Paul describes sin not simply as an immoral act, but Sin with a capital S, Sin as God and humanity’s demonic enemy. In our slavery to this hostile enemy, we presented our bodies as “instruments” or “weapons” (hopla) of injustice and unrighteousness (adikias; Rom 6:13a).13As scholars recognize, the Greek word adikias includes the ideas of both injustice and unrighteousness. This can be seen in Paul’s unpacking of the language in terms that include wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice, murder, deception, the invention of evil, and ruthlessness (Rom 1:29-31). Crucially, the apostle recognizes that the sinful patterns we learned under Sin’s lordship linger on even after Christ offers his people forgiveness and delivers them from Sin’s enslaving power. 

That’s why Paul challenges Christians to present their bodies to God as weapons of righteousness and justice (Rom 6:13b).14Though the Bible uses one term here, that term refers to what we mean by both righteousness and justice. This, too, is an act of intergenerational repentance. Under Sin’s lordship, the sinful habits of our ancestors have worked themselves deep into our minds, bodies, and hearts. Repentance requires us to celebrate God’s grace in our lives by rooting out those sinful habits and heart patterns wherever we find them. Indeed, God both demands this kind of repentance, and enables us to practice it by his empowering Spirit. 

Scripture’s way of reasoning about this aspect of intergenerational sin finds a contemporary ally in social scientific discussions of racism in our society. Researchers have identified an astounding amount of data on discrimination against black people. The exact same resume gets twice as many callbacks from an employer if the name at the top is Brendan rather than Jemal. Doctors given statistically identical patient histories were significantly less likely to recommend helpful heart procedures to black patients than to white patients. One study showed that police demonstrated racial bias in video-game style simulations in which they had to decide whether a person was armed and dangerous or an innocent bystander. In that same study, civilians performed even worse.15See Sendhil Mullainathan, “Racial Bias, Even When We Have Good Intentions,” New York Times (Jan. 3, 2015).  

All of these studies identify situations where black people suffer based on the color of their skin. But there aren’t enough Klansmen on the planet to explain all of this injustice. The same social scientists who perform these studies recognize that many, perhaps most, of those perpetuating these racial inequities do so unintentionally. Social scientists describe this phenomenon as “implicit bias.” Though we may have worked quite hard to address our consciously held racial stereotypes, our subconscious has been warped and twisted by racist ideology. And sometimes, particularly when we make decisions at speed, that implicit racism overrules our conscious convictions. 

This is precisely the kind of solidarity in intergenerational sin that Scripture identifies. Moreover, Scripture pulls back the curtain to show us that such sinful solidarity is encouraged by our demonic adversaries: Sin, Death, and the Devil. 

Scripture, then, demands that I confess that white supremacy is a deadly sickness my ancestors carried with them as they created culture, founded institutions, built schools, told stories, and gathered in churches. I live and work in the world they helped to create, and I confess that I have been infected by their contagion. 

Practicing Repentance of Racist Ideology

Confessing our sins and the sins of our ancestors can’t be done in abstract generalities. When God’s people practice intergenerational, corporate confession in the book of Nehemiah, they begin with the call of Abraham from more than 1,000 years prior. They then confess the sins of their ancestors in painstaking detail, beginning with the exodus generation and working their way back towards their own day. Apparently, repenting of our ancestors’ sins requires us to repent of “particular sins, particularly.”16Westminster Confession of Faith, XV.5. While the language is sometimes taken to refer to “individual” sins, the proof texts cited suggest both corporate (Nehemiah 9, Daniel 9) and individual sin (Psalm 51) are indicated. Duke Kwon has cited this same portion of the Confession to call for corporate repentance. And so, I want to conclude this essay by trying to practice what the Scriptures preach.

 I confess that my family tree includes Robert E. Lee—a 19th century confederate general who oversaw the massacre of black Union soldiers and used torture to discipline slaves17See Adam Serwer, “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee,” The Atlantic (June 4, 2017).—and a 20th century newspaper man who used the power of the pen to advocate the establishment of the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial that valorized Lee and others like him. I confess that the church I was raised in maintained an explicit policy of racial segregation into the 60s.18See Stephen R. Haynes, The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation (Oxford University Press, 2012) in its entirety. I confess that I inherited the kind of economic legacy granted to white veterans like my beloved grandfathers, but denied to their black veteran colleagues.

And I confess that I have personally been affected and infected by these sins of my ancestors. I confess that life lived in segregated spaces taught me to trust white voices over black voices. I confess that I was three years into a career in urban ministry in a majority black neighborhood before seeking out a black mentor. I confess that for far too long, I found myself predisposed to look for other explanations besides racism when my black brothers and sisters presented stories, stats, and experiences of racial prejudice. I confess that ever since I learned about implicit bias, I have caught glimpses of such bias in my own heart.     

I do not repent of these sins as some kind of public shaming or virtue signaling. Nor does my repentance of the sins of my ancestors mean ingratitude for the gifts they have given me. I am deeply grateful for my parents, who have committed their lives to Jesus, wrestled with His Word, and followed it wherever it led them. I am grateful that the same church that barred black people from attending in the 50s introduced me to Dr. John Perkins, the legendary pastor and founder of the Christian Community Development Association, some forty years later. It was Dr. Perkins, after all, who first showed me that we confess the sins of our ancestors because Scripture itself demands nothing less, and it was within the walls of my church that I first learned what this looks like.  

Intergenerational confession, though, isn’t just about naming our intergenerational sins. It’s about turning from them. It’s about offering our whole selves as “weapons of justice.” It’s about embracing a commitment to root out white supremacy in our hearts and work to undo the social and economic havoc white supremacy has wreaked in our world. For me, that means, among other things, extirpating the white supremacy in my heart through submission to black leaders and mentors. It means spending my social capital in support of movements aimed at creating a racially just society. And it means seeking to repair white supremacy’s economic wrongs through costly economic action in support of black institutions, leaders, and businesses. If the details of how to do this are up for debate, the demand that we repair our ancestors’ economic wrongs is not. Indeed, that demand is written into the very text of sacred Scripture.19For some very initial thoughts on how individuals, churches, and businesses might begin this work, see chapters 5-8 in Michael Rhodes and Robby Holt, with Brian Fikkert, Practicing the King’s Economy: Honoring Jesus in How We Work, Earn, Spend, Save, and Give (Baker, 2018). 

For Christians, the good news of God’s kingdom isn’t that we escape this task of repenting of and recovering from our intergenerational sins, including the sin of white supremacy. The good news is that we’ve been forgiven for failing in this task, are presently empowered by the Spirit to embrace it, and can look forward to the day when the King will return and finish it.

End Notes

1. For a fuller exploration of the racist, oppressive ideology I am referring to here as white supremacy, see Chanequa Walker-Barnes, I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision of Racial Reconciliation (Eerdmans, 2019), 43-62. 

2. Joel S. Kaminsky, Corporate Responsibility in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield Academic Press, 1995),179-188.

3. Dru Johnson, Biblical Philosophy: An Hebraic Approach to the Old and New Testaments (New York: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming). 

4. The language of “repairing” sins, particularly economic ones, may well remind readers of the idea of reparations. The present essay focuses on how Scripture shapes faith communities to think about repairing present injustices committed in the past. These reflections no doubt have implications for contemporary theological dialogue about the case for reparations, but the arguments I am making do not depend on making such a case. 

5. A figure suggested by Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, Library of Ancient Israel, Douglas A. Knight, ed.  (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 37. They base their calculations in part on the fact that the king’s life expectancy seems to have been a mere 46 years, and “the common person had to survive under harsher conditions than those enjoyed by the kings.”

6. Dalton Conley, Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America, 10th anniversary ed. (University of California Press, 2010), 25.

7. William A. Darity and A. Kristen Mullen, From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century (University of North Carolina Press, 2020), 31.

8. Darity and Mullen, Here to Equality, 34. 

9. Darity and Mullen, Here to Equality, 36. 

10. For a brief overview of the history of art stolen from the Jews by the Nazis during the Holocaust, see: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/recovering-stolen-art-from-the-holocaust

11. The language of solidarity comes from Mark Boda, ‘Return to Me:’ A Biblical Theology of Repentance, New Studies in Biblical Theology, D.A. Carson, ed. (IVP Academic, 2015),155.

12. Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 23-27: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, ABC (Yale University Press, 2001), 2327-8. 

13. As scholars recognize, the Greek word adikias includes the ideas of both injustice and unrighteousness. This can be seen in Paul’s unpacking of the language in terms that include wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice, murder, deception, the invention of evil, and ruthlessness (Rom 1:29-31).

14. Though the Bible uses one term here, that term refers to what we mean by both righteousness and justice. 

15. See Sendhil Mullainathan, “Racial Bias, Even When We Have Good Intentions,” New York Times (Jan. 3, 2015), available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/04/upshot/the-measuring-sticks-of-racial-bias-.html?_r=0

16. Westminster Confession of Faith, XV.5. While the language is sometimes taken to refer to “individual” sins, the proof texts cited suggest both corporate (Nehemiah 9, Daniel 9) and individual sin (Psalm 51) are indicated. Duke Kwon has cited this same portion of the Confession to call for corporate repentance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3&v=ejNaO_ec_Uk&feature=emb_logo.

17. See Adam Serwer, “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee,” The Atlantic (June 4, 2017), available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/06/the-myth-of-the-kindly-general-lee/529038/

18. See Stephen R. Haynes, The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation (Oxford University Press, 2012) in its entirety.

19. For some very initial thoughts on how individuals, churches, and businesses might begin this work, see chapters 5-8 in Michael Rhodes and Robby Holt, with Brian Fikkert, Practicing the King’s Economy: Honoring Jesus in How We Work, Earn, Spend, Save, and Give (Baker, 2018).

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