Ought I to repent of being white and male?
I have had this question posed to me in one form or another on several occasions over the years.
As I explained in my previous post, I think I have discerned three distinct meanings of the call for white people and males to repent for being white and/or male:
1. I should repent of simply having white male privilege in a racist and sexist society – regardless of what I do with that privilege.
2. I should repent of enjoying white male privilege.
3. I should repent of not using my privileged status for the equality and empowerment of oppressed people.
I reject any idea that I or anyone else should “repent” of anything they cannot help being. I do not believe in collective guilt (as I’ve discussed before).
To me, it is simply an irrational idea that has the (perhaps unintended) effect of watering down the very concepts of guilt and repentance.
I agree only with the third meaning of “repent for being white” (and/or male) above. If I have privileged status and social power and do not use it for the benefit and empowerment of oppressed people, I should repent.
Now, I realize that some liberationists and others will respond that I still do not understand the dynamics of privilege in a power-stratified society and that I am letting myself off the hook too easily.
My response to them will be (is): Maybe; I’m open to listening (again).
However, I will also say to them that calling for any group to “repent” of being what they cannot help being because they were born that way is counterproductive to their own cause.
I have heard some fundamentalist Christians argue, for example, that homosexuals are sinful, guilty, condemned and going to hell solely for having that sexual orientation regardless of what they do with it.
I have strongly opposed that view and that claim whenever I have heard it. I do believe that sexual orientation is not usually a choice.
Another way in which the claim that white males, for example, ought to repent – without the qualification of the third meaning above – can hinder liberationists’ cause in that it turns people who might otherwise be sympathetic and helpful “off” and away from participating in the liberationist cause.
Finally, my response to anyone who calls whites and/or males to repent without the qualification embedded in the third meaning given above is simply to say it changes the meaning of “repent” in a way that makes it simply a matter of mouthing some words (that is, “I repent of being white” or “I repent of being male”).
Then, it does not mean what “repent” has always really meant: To turn around and go a different way.
A person born Caucasian or male simply cannot turn around and go a different way if they are called to “repent” simply of being biologically male or ethnically Caucasian.
Here I am calling on oppressed people, and those who speak for them, to stop saying “Repent of being white” or “Repent of being male” (or both) without explaining what they mean.
Many people have no idea what that means other than simply saying, “I’m sorry for being white” or “I’m sorry for being male” and surely it means more than that.
What does it mean? To me, the only meaningful meaning of it is, “Repent of not using your privileged status to empower disadvantaged people.”
But a problem is that many people who do call on me to repent of being white and male simply have no idea what I have done or am doing to empower disadvantaged, marginalized and oppressed people.
They simply “see” that I am Caucasian and male and assume that I am guilty and call for me to repent.
This is offensive to me and they should repent of doing that if they wrongly assume, without knowing me, that I am one of their oppressors.
In a highly stratified society where privilege tied to race and gender exists, people with privilege based solely on race and/or gender should throw the weight of their privilege behind movements and efforts to abolish such automatic, unearned privilege.
If they don’t, and especially if they use their privilege to perpetuate the stratification based on unearned privilege, they should repent.
On the other hand, simply to call all people with privilege to repent of simply having it is to misuse the true meaning of “repent.”
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Counterfeit Christianity” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a longer version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here.