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.

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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