Yesterday, I had the chance to hear a brief talk by Elisabeth Vasko (who teaches theology at Duquesne), here at Providence College: “Perfectionism and Moral Innocence: Re-examining White Christian Complicity in the 21st Century.” As someone who drank long (and early) at the well of the late Augustine, I can’t help but appreciate one of her central points. She noted that white folks tend to cling to a position of innocent ignorance with regard to race, and that claiming a certain expertise about race or race theory (rehearsing, for example, their own consciousness-raising experiences regarding race) can, ironically, be precisely as a way to do that.
The trouble with things like racism—when it’s understood not simply as the collected, unfortunate attitudes of certain individuals, but rather a systemic, sinful reality that we breathe like oxygen—is that there really is no climbing out. The way in which our history with race has shaped us goes to some of the most basic ways that we think and behave. As Prof. Vasko noted, even when we mean well, white folks can actually end up reinforcing a racist structure. Not that it is difficult to understand the impulse to establish one’s innocence, of course. Prof. Vasko noted that we live in a cultural moment when we all seem to be desperately seeking immunity from critique. (And, to be fair, after all, there’s a lot of it.)
(For you theology-types, by the way, I can’t recommend strongly enough that you buy, read, and grapple with the claims of the Rev. Dr. Willie James Jennings, who argues in his new book, The Christian Imagination, that our history with race has shaped our theological work, in particular.)
In the very last sentence of her talk, though, Professor Vasko spoke a hope-filled word that opens up new imaginative world: “repentance.” To repent means finally to give up all our delusions of innocence, to embrace the fact of our guilt. The very old-fashioned category of “true contrition” is captured in the prayer still repeated by penitents in the confessional: “My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart.” This is real sorrow, the sorrow of knowing both the sin and its effects.
In the movement of Christian repentance, though, this real sorrow happens against a real horizon of hope. It is only in this way that it avoids another very serious sin, the sin of despair.
Just today, my students and I were reading the famous description given by Dante of the souls in Purgatorio:
And later you will see those who rejoice
while they are burning, for they have hope of coming,
whenever it may be, to join the blessed…
To know that we are far from what we should be is a painful suffering, a baptism by fire. But in the light of that greater hope, well, even we racists rejoice.