It’s one of those quotes I struggle with. Hiding in plain sight in the many volumes of Ellen White’s writings, this audacious statement, originally penned in 1896, jumps out at the conscientious reader. “The American nation,” she wrote, “owes a debt of love to the colored race, and God has ordained that they should make restitution for the wrong they have done them in the past.”
But as challenging as this thought would have no doubt been to those to whom she originally wrote it—remember, this was in 1896—what she added in the next sentence was even more convicting. “Those who have taken no active part in enforcing slavery upon the colored people are not relieved from the responsibility of making special efforts to remove, as far as possible, the sure result of their enslavement” (Review and Herald, January 21, 1896).
Admittedly, much like the original audience, such an idea cuts against the grain of my privileged, European background. And even more to the point, it cuts against the grain of my individualistic, libertarian-leaning American mindset—where “every man for himself” and “live and let live” are foundational mantras of the mythic “American dream.”
After all, if I had been living in 1896 and I was one of the elect who had “taken no active part in enforcing slavery,” why should any “responsibility” fall upon me to make restitution for the wrongs that had been tragically committed upon those who were enslaved? They can have my prayers—but it’s not my job to right other people’s wrongs.
Not to mention that over a century has passed since Ellen White originally penned those words! I wasn’t even living during the times she wrote.
The challenge is that we have been shaped more by the worldview of western individualism than by the worldview of the Bible—a challenge that evaded Ellen White, who was, of course, firmly grounded in the Hebraic underpinnings of Scripture. This blessed woman, resisting the gross individualism that has shaped American culture for centuries, understood the very critical and important concept of corporate solidarity and repentance.
Simply put, she recognized that, according to Scripture, we are all part of the “great web of humanity,” a term she used often, where my brother’s situation is not just his situation but my situation as well. In many senses, I am, as the title to the article from which the opening quote derived, “my brother’s keeper.”
The Bible is saturated with this corporate thinking from cover to cover, starting right in Genesis 1—where the godhead itself is referred to in both singular and plural terminology, right alongside each other. The same single God who said “Let Us make man in Our image” (Genesis 1:26) created “man” (singular), but as “male and female” (v. 27).
This is further bolstered in Genesis 2 where, given more detail, we read that God took a rib from Adam’s side, made Eve, and then joined the two together, to live as “one flesh” (v. 24).
Such a pattern is repeated throughout the Hebrew Bible, in practically every chapter. When God calls Abraham in Genesis 12, for example, He declares that, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (v. 3). Abraham understood the implications, of course. He himself would not physically encounter every family in the entire world, personally doling out blessings. But he recognized that through his extended family—ultimately, of course, through Christ the Savior—that every family in the whole world would be affected by the blessing. Even though Abraham, as an individual, would not be physically enacting the blessing, it was as though he would be the one doing it through his family.
This is a concept that our Jewish brothers and sisters understand better than we do, since they’ve had a little more success in resisting the individualistic mindset of the West, as well as the Greek-influenced philosophy that preceded it. And, I would dare say, it is something that our black brothers and sisters have understood better as well, since oppression tends to galvanize a people because of their shared trauma.
Recognizing this underlying Scriptural motif has tremendous implications for the way we interact with racial reconciliation. Not only should it give us a greater empathy for our oppressed brothers and sisters, but it leads us toward a shared responsibility, regardless of whether we feel that we, ourselves, have engaged in racist behavior. Just as white people cannot simply look at black people as “the other,” neither can we simply point to other overtly racist white people and call them “the other.” We are them! Their wrongs are our wrongs. And their need for repentance is our need for repentance.
We see this pattern repeated throughout Scripture as well. Very frequently biblical characters actually repented on behalf of others—engaging in a sort of “corporate repentance.” In Nehemiah, for example, we see this played out among those of Israelite heritage after they returned to Jerusalem from exile. Nehemiah records that “those of Israelite lineage separated themselves from all foreigners; and they stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers” (Nehemiah 9:2, emphasis added).
This was something that Nehemiah himself had done at the beginning of his book as well. After receiving news that the wall in Jerusalem had broken down, Nehemiah dropped to his knees, began to weep, and cried out to God in deep anguish. He reminded God that He was a God who keeps covenant, and then he “confess[ed] the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against You. Both my father’s house and I have sinned” (1:6, emphasis added).
Nehemiah felt a personal responsibility for not only his own sins, but the sins of his father’s house and “all the children of Israel.”
Nehemiah had no doubt learned from the example of Daniel, who epitomizes this corporate attitude. In one of the most heart-rending prayers in all of Scripture, uttered from the bowels of the captivity in Babylon, he cried out to God with the same pathos, confessing on behalf of his people. “We have sinned and committed iniquity,” Daniel cried out, “we have done wickedly and rebelled, even by departing from Your precepts and Your judgments. . . . O Lord, to us belong shame of face, to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, because we have sinned against You” (Daniel 9:5, 8). Notice all of Daniel’s uses of the first plural pronouns “we” and “us.”
He was very comfortable with the shared corporate responsibility and sought to be a corporate mediator on behalf of the whole nation. Daniel had no “us and them” mindset. The sins of his people were also his sins, and he longed to rectify them.
We see the greatest manifestation of this in the life and death of Christ, of course. The cross is the greatest act of corporate repentance the universe has ever witnessed! Had Christ chosen to distance Himself from our sin and leave repentance in our hands, we would not even be alive! Essentially, when Christ went to the cross, it was as if He was saying, “My bad,” despite being individually innocent. Our sin became His sin.
Indeed, even before we ourselves knew we needed to repent, Christ repented on our behalf.
Ellen White brings out this staggering thought when referring to an event that took place long before the cross. Christ practiced this posture throughout His life and ministry, including at His baptism. Ponder this thought and reflect on the incredible practical implications:
“Christ came not confessing His own sins; but guilt was imputed to him as the sinner’s substitute. He came not to repent on His own account; but in behalf of the sinner. . . . As their substitute, He takes upon Him their sins, numbering Himself with the transgressors, taking the steps the sinner is required to take; and doing the work the sinner must do” (Review and Herald, January 21, 1873).
Of course, it bears mentioning that while repentance includes “confession,” it is also much more than that. Repentance is not only something we confess with our lips, but something we live with our lives. So, too, with corporate repentance. When we experience repentance on a corporate level, we not only admit past mistakes but also seek to rectify them—regardless of whether we were the ones who actually committed the wrongs to begin with.
This is because corporate repentance is also trans-generational according to the biblical model (remember that Nehemiah and his cohorts not only confessed their own sins, but the sins of their fathers). If previous generations have committed wrongs, until we acknowledge and make attempts to rectify those past wrongs, reconciliation can never fully take place.
It should perhaps go without saying, but still needs to be said, that such a recognition pulls the rug out from underneath self-righteousness and jugmentalism. When we practice a shared responsibility, we no longer point a finger at others, but identify ourselves with their sin. It’s not their sin; it’s our sin—not only because we share a corporate identity, but because we recognize that we ourselves, given the right circumstances, are capable of committing the same atrocities.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his aptly named Life Together, brings out this powerful point. “Anybody who lives beneath the Cross,” he writes, “and who has discerned in the Cross of Jesus the utter wickedness of all men and of his own heart will find there is no sin that can ever be alien to him. Anybody who has once been horrified by the dreadfulness of his own sin that nailed Jesus to the Cross will no longer be horrified by even the rankest sins of a brother. Looking at the Cross of Jesus, he knows the human heart” (Life Together, p. 118).
This is true of Christ as well!
Identifying with our corporate humanity, taking on our flesh and facing the temptations we face, He is able to “sympathize” with our weaknesses and has no judgment toward us, knowing that He faced the same trials and temptations and that He too could have really fallen. It is because of this that we can come “boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
And all of this is good and awesome and powerful news!
There is a path to racial reconciliation through corporate identity. We can enter into another’s experience insofar as we can recognize the challenges and struggles they face, and then together seek to rectify wrongs, regardless of personal culpability.
Compelled by the corporate sacrifice of Christ, we can follow His example.