Voluntary Debtorship: A Call to White Christians in Response to Racial Injustice

One of the most vexing problems facing modern society in the United States is rising consumer debt – things like credit cards, auto loans, and student loans.  Recent studies indicate that while home mortgage debt has declined since 2007, consumer debt has reached a jaw-dropping, all-time high of 3.2 trillion dollars.

consumer debt

In that sense, we of all people should really have a good idea what it means to be in debt.  When the billing statement reads, “Balance due,” whether we want to admit it or not, we are debtors.

According to financial planners, waking up to this reality is incredibly painful.  So painful, in fact, that many people spend all of their time pretending like it isn’t the case.

They ignore the repeated warnings of creditors.

They dodge their phone calls.

They hang up on bill collectors.

They rant and rave at the tactics they employ to get their attention.

They explain to everyone how creditors don’t understand them and their situations – that they’re somehow not personally responsible for the debt with which they’re charged.

They can even acknowledge that some or all of the debt is their own, but simply throw up their hands as to how it’s going to be re-paid, and may even cry foul when creditors don’t pat them on the back for these admissions in themselves, and still expect restitution.

But at the end of the day, they are in the debt of their creditors, whether they like it or not.

The great news is that once people acknowledge their debt, they can begin the process of repayment – a process which is ultimately often very productive for them personally.  They begin to be able to acknowledge their history and how they got in the mess to begin with.  Then they begin to re-evaluate their present, and to see how what they’re doing currently is impacting their standing.  And at best, they chart a new course of action for the future.

But again, we cannot get out of debt until we acknowledge we are in it.

I think there is a lesson here to be learned about the debtorship of racial injustice.

There are those of us who, right on our Facebook and Twitter feeds, in our churches and at our jobs, haven’t even gotten so far as to admit that systemic racial injustices based on our nation’s grievous and sinful past and present exist, let alone move toward repentance and reconciliation.  Millions of Africans died en route from Africa to the U.S.; slavery lasted for 246 years (1619 -1865); from slavery’s official end until 1945, “well over one hundred thousand black people were re-enslaved through the convict-leasing system, in which whites arrested blacks for minor crimes such as changing employers without permission, vagrancy, engaging in sexual activity or loud talk with white women;” “about 5,000 African-American men, women, and children were lynched by white mobs” (source).  Yet, somehow these folks believe these facts have literally no bearing on our current laws, systems, and corresponding attitudes.  It is a willful denial of reality.

And there others of us who, having acknowledged the injury of our forefathers, cannot acknowledge our own injurious behavior, or see ways in which we are complicit in the ongoing subjugation of black peoples in this country, even unknowingly.  These are folks who sleep under a blanket of white privilege whilst asking African-Americans why they can’t shut-up about the cold already.  These are folks who respond with shock and awe at the suggestion of their culpability in the mess that is race relations in the U.S.

And finally, there are still others among us who have acknowledged both our nation’s and our own historical and present offenses, but are so desperately looking to “fix” things that it seems we have far more interest in relieving our personal discomfort than in seeing the offended party healed.  This is akin to an unfaithful spouse who, after being caught cheating, says, “Well, we’ve got that out in the open and I’ve said I’m sorry – can’t we just move on?!”  It is very, very naïve.

Like the stall and stymie tactics used toward financial creditors, the fundamental difficulty for so many white persons in the US is their refusal to admit that we are in the debt of our black brothers and sisters.

We find ourselves somehow involved with the history of everything from literal slavery, to the denial of suffrage and civil rights, to direct and palpable offenses of police brutality and intrusiveness.  But because we tend to conceptualize our involvement as abstract only, so many white persons can’t fathom how they could be held individually responsible for the debts of our collective past and present.

We must realize that, just like in the financial world, not all debts are forgiven on death – many of them pass to heirs.  Our skin color makes us co-signor to the debt of racial injustice.  In this sense, we must be willing to re-conceptualize our involvement as much more concrete.

I suspect this notion will offend a great many people, but it’s true nonetheless.

This is where the utter upside down nature of the cross and God’s magnanimity in the person of Jesus Christ are most relevant, in that he surely bore no responsibility in the debt laid at his charge.  Yet, he voluntarily took that yoke upon himself because he loved us.  He subjected himself to our form, made our debt his own, and in so doing, became a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28).

This makes one wonder, what would it be like if white persons in the United States, as a group and as individuals, began to voluntarily own debtorship to our black brothers and sisters in this same way, whether or not we view ourselves as somehow personally responsible?

In discussing this possibility with white friends, some have balked because they believe such a position provokes “white guilt,” which they assert (rightly, I think) is supremely unhelpful in moving the cause of race relations forward.

But “white guilt” is unhelpful because it is really not guilt at allit isn’t a measured and humble acknowledgment of offense aimed at reconciliation, but a perverse, morbid, and inwardly focused rumination by the offender tantamount to toxic shame and self-flagellation.

“White guilt” actually inhibits healing for victims because its focus is still on the offenders, rather than the victims and the offenses.  It is a dishonest, self-congratulatory overture that leads to shame, helplessness, and inaction.

But what I’m suggesting is exactly the opposite. 

That is, white people don’t need to simply “feel guilty,” nor spend time navel-gazing about how loathsome they are.  No one is helped by this. 

handsIn Christ’s acceptance of our debt, we can find no vestiges of self-interest, no efforts to let himself off the hook simply because he publicly felt badly.  In fact, Christ’s voluntary debtorship was the converse — an act of compassion, empathy, and certainly, social action, in that he took on “the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).  Christ acknowledged reality as the source of existence, and cried out for a response beyond mere sentiment – a response he was willing to personally make.

The key ingredient here is humility.  Whereas “white guilt” is self-aggrandizing and a proverbial tearing of garments to earn the esteem of others who might marvel at us and our sorrow, the kind of humble willingness to become voluntary debtors requires us to die to ourselves, to the perceptions of others, to our rights, and to our privilege, in myriad small and large ways.

This means more and more dialogue with the offended.  More and more willingness to listen.  More and more willingness to creak the door open on the possibility that we are wrong and they are right.  And more and more recognition that the conversation is never, ever over, even when we think it ought to be, and perhaps, especially when we think it ought to be.

It means that during this process we must be willing to be offended, as we most assuredly will be.  Sometimes this offense will come deservedly — as in, the discussion will offend our misguided sensibilities and challenge us to think outside our privilege.  And sometimes this offense may come maliciously — as in, injured persons will respond in anger or fear and out of their own pain.

But in either case, we must put the bit in our mouths and accept the offense, because this is the path to reconciliation.  And, to quote some of the world’s finest amends-makers,  “Under no condition do we criticize such a person or argue…We are there to sweep off our side of the street, realizing that nothing worthwhile can be accomplished until we do so, never trying to tell him what he should do. His faults are not discussed. We stick to our own” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p.77-78).

In so doing, we might be caused to ask, “Will enough ever be enough?  Will we ever be able to repay this debt?”  The answer is, no, not if “enough” means to “make whole again.”  On an individual level, that must be the work of God – we are just the footmen doing our part regardless of the outcome, because it is what debtors do.  And we must recognize that even when God somehow makes someone “whole” again, it looks quite a bit different after an offense than it did before – ask anyone who considers themselves healed from rape or abuse.

On a societal level, absolutely, unequivocally, noit will never be enough.  But a hundred or two hundred or five hundred years from now, things might look a heck of a lot better than they do now.  This present-future oriented posture is nearly always the mark of the high calling of Christ — we must be willing to plant seeds, the fruit of which is unlikely to be tasted by our children or our children’s children or theirs.

And we must recognize that we can only move forward when given permission, and when the vestiges of individual and systemic racism have been eradicated from our lives and our power structures.

In short, we can only move forward when the debt has been acknowledged, and when the debt has actually been paid.

That’s how debtorship works.


Header image courtesy Pixabay, used under creative commons license.

Consumer debt image courtesy of Business Week, used under creative commons license and linked to original source.

Racial hurdles image courtesy of Facebook user.

“I looked at my hands today” image courtesy of Deviant art user regklubeck.

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Author: Ryan Thomas Neace

Ryan Thomas Neace is a counselor, professor, husband, and daddy. Please contact him for counseling via skype or in-person at ryan@changeincorporated.org.

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  • Rachel Heston-Davis

    Thank you for your thoughts, Ryan. I appreciate them so much.

    Do you have any advice for those of us who are very action-oriented and struggle with the thought that we may not see the fruits of our actions in this lifetime? How does one not give in to discouragement about that? I know that on some level, this is a question that applies to many areas of life for all Christians. For some reason, it seems especially poignant for me on this issue.


    • Ryan Thomas Neace

      Rachel — thanks for reading! And thanks for your question — I think it’s a fair one, and certainly one that’s been brought up by a number of people in response to what I’ve said here.

      Not long before his death, Yasser Arafat was on television speaking to the Palestinian people, and in one of many rallying cries, said something to the effect of, “Ishmael will be avenged.” That is to say, he was talking about the historical biblical enmity between Ishmael and Isaac as if it began the day before.

      I bring this to your attention to point out that in the information and technology age, and particularly in the West (perhaps more so than the east, vis a vie the above), where we integrate new and more information, new iterations of products (I.e., your cell phone will be obsolete in about a year), etc., our sense of time has become correspondingly skewed. We tend to forget, for example, that less than a hundred years ago, women couldn’t vote in this country. We tend to forget that black persons weren’t fully granted the right to vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Black persons have been lynched in the last 50 years. Etc.

      So, I think part of not giving into discouragement means we must reorient ourselves to reality. I.e., Though life seems to change at a dizzying pace, in fact, when it comes to emotions, social mores, etc., it passes very, very slowly. This is only discouraging when we refuse to accept this as a reality, and operate under the assumption that it isn’t true. That probably doesn’t provide much balm, but I think it’s a helpful starting place.

      Beyond that, a second reality I think we must accept is that discouragement is an understandable reaction to just how slow people are to change, and to try to not make discouragement and action mutually exclusive with one another. They are different parts of the same change process. So, it isn’t that we musn’t feel discouraged, just that we musn’t give up the fight.

      Finally, I think we must accept the reality that, perhaps contrary to our tendency to revere and romanticize persons whom we deem to have made a large impact on the cause of various forms of social injustice (MLK, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, etc.), in any given age, at any given time, we are only called to impact the world in the small way that we can. I.e., We are not all called to be MLKs, Gandhis, or Dorothy Days. You are called to be Rachel. I am called to be Ryan. In that sense, we must ask ourselves, what is required of me, just for today? And then we must be satisfied that we have done whatever we were called to do, regardless of the outcome, knowing that God is as much seeking to transform us in the process as he is others or the system itself. For every person we hold in high esteem as a hero, there are thousands of persons whose names we will never know, who nonetheless followed the path precisely laid out for them.

      To make this practical and by way of closing, I have labored greatly over what my role is to be here in St. Louis. I just returned here a little over a year ago (I grew up here for the first 18 years of my life), having been located in Virginia and Tennessee for the past 17 years (I am 35 now). Since that is the case, my social network and direct involvement with the black community is substantially less weighty than what I would like for it to be, and certainly, less so than what it was when I lived in VA and TN. As a result, I’ve had to ask myself, as I said, “What is required of me, in light of who I am and where I am right here, right now, just for today?” Part of this is undoubtedly the writing that I’m doing, and the rest is being fleshed out on a day to day basis as I try to understand what God would have me do and be. Truly, what else can I ask of myself?

      So, when you ask how to not “give in,” there is no blanket formula, I don’t think, other than to say that we must be utterly convicted in our guts, in our heart of hearts, that the path we are on, the action we are taking to stand against social injustice, is in fact the path that has been laid out for us.

      I hope this is helpful in some way.

      • Rachel Heston-Davis

        Thank you, thank you and thank you for a thoughtful response. I’m going to ponder all of this for a few days. This, by the way, is another thing that our fast-paced society has made us forget to do 😉

        I somehow missed the fact that you are a St. Louisan. Me too! (Well, the Metro-East area, anyway).

  • anonamous

    This whole notion of indebtedness is ridiculous. Human history is full of mans inhumanity to man. Do the Russians and much of eastern Europe own the jews for well over a 1000 years of anti-semitism? Do the hutu’s owe the tutsi’s for their genocide in Rwanda? Do the people from the south owe me because my great-great grandfather died during the civil war due to their unjust pursuits?

    Is my debit now paid to black people because my wife is black and I will have to deal with the pain of watching my children face discrimination from both communities because they don’t fit in either?

    The answer is no. If I have injured someone, then to that person I must make amends. However this notion that sweeping all white people into the same bucket so they can owe a debit that some of their number have caused is just beyond belief. The undeniable mistreatment of black people by some, perhaps a majority of whites over the past 400 years is indescribably horrible, but during that time we’ve had countless other human atrocities committed by man on mankind. I however am responsible for my actions, not my forefathers and am accountable for what I do to make the world a better place.

    Taking on the debit of others is not helpful. Taking a stand against injustice as I see it day to day is helpful, regardless of what I supposedly “owe”.

    • anonamous

      Just to clarify with regard to the hutus and tutsi’s, I’m referring to generations after and individuals not involved in the genocide.

      • Ryan Thomas Neace

        None of your comments here center on the primary thesis of the piece — that such a notion of voluntary indebtedness (in the event that you don’t feel something is owed) is an outgrowth of a Christian ethos. You’ve missed the boat in a rather large way in that sense. Beside that, the notion of individual responsibility is helpful on a person to person level, but not when trying to address large and systemic problems — its just grossly inefficient to the task. Of course everyone is responsible for their own actions when dealing with here and now behavior (I injure you, I owe you a debt), but history shows that on a macro level, we’re also held responsible for quite a bit more, whether we want to be or not.