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The Iniquity of Our Fathers

Apr. 10, 2023

by Greg Massey

Last week the Tennessee House of Representatives, in a party-line vote, expelled two of its members for “disorderly behavior.” Those voting to expel were mostly white; the two expelled representatives were both black. One can argue, as many people have, that race had nothing to do with it. The two representatives violated House rules on decorum and deserved to be expelled. One can argue, as many people have, that race had everything to do with it. To cite one example of a possible double standard, four years ago the House leadership declined to expel a white representative who faced credible allegations of having committed sexual assault.

Two presuppositions may help us better understand what happened in Nashville last week. First, that those of us who are white and southern born and bred at least consider the possibility that we carry prejudices that are so ingrained in our consciousness that we can deny that a problem exists. Second, that we pay careful attention to what God tells us about the legacy of sin persisting over multiple generations.

Before proceeding, it’s important to note that racism is a national problem, not confined to one region of the United States. It’s also important to note that over the past half century there has been considerable, measurable progress in race relations in the United States. Finally, it’s important to note that the South has its own specific burden of racism, tied to the historical legacies of slavery and segregation. Despite progress in race relations, the sinful legacies of slavery and segregation continue to affect many white southerners.

I feel confident in making that assertion because I am a white southerner who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. I question whether most of us white southerners who grew up in those years (and earlier) have been able to shed fully the damage done to our young selves as we grew up as part of the dominant group in a racist area of the country.

Here are two examples of what is at work from last week’s controversy in Nashville. During Thursday’s House debate, the white sponsor of the resolution addressed one of the black representatives facing expulsion: “That’s why you’re standing there, because of that temper tantrum that day. Because of that yearning to have attention. That’s what you wanted.  Well, you’re getting it now.”

After the votes, the state political party applauded its representatives for upholding “the rule of law” and referred to the “adolescence and immature behavior” of the two expelled black representatives.

The words we choose to use in moments of tension have connotations that extend beyond our conscious thoughts. Consider the language used by the representative and by state party officials: “temper tantrum” and “adolescence and immature behavior.” Those phrases are loaded with historical meaning. Embedded in white domination during the years of slavery and segregation was language attributing to blacks an infantile, childlike nature. Blacks deserved their submissive place because they were unruly children. It is striking that whites supporting the expulsion of the black representatives used similar language, casting two adult black men as unruly children.

If pressed, the Tennessee representative and the state party’s officials would probably say the same thing a woman said in a recent political focus group. In one minute, she went from stating emphatically, “I’m not racist,” to talking about how she was bothered by seeing too many interracial couples on TV. In some cases, those who shout, “I’m not racist,” are not racist. But how many whites are in denial about the racism in their hearts? Did the choice of words last week by Tennessee political leaders carry no racial connotations? Or were those words additional evidence that many of us carry in our spiritual DNA the iniquity of our fathers?

Those of us who are Christians should not be surprised that racism persists in the hearts of white southerners, whether we can admit it or not. When He passed before Moses, Yahweh announced that He visited “the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (Exod. 34:7). Is it possible that the iniquity of our fathers is still with us, even if we were not personally complicit in the sins of slavery and segregation?

In denying that we have a continuing problem with racial prejudice, white southerners—let me be more specific: we who are white southern Christians—are ignoring God’s revelation. He told us that the legacy of sin continues for generations. We see that repeatedly with patterns of abuse in families. Why would we expect that slavery and segregation would not leave a similar legacy?

So what are we who are white, southern, and Christian to do? Prayers of repentance are an important starting point. Asking God’s Spirit to expose any prejudice embedded in our hearts.

It may also be helpful to pray a different type of prayer: intercessory prayer. We need to think consciously about the people who make us uncomfortable, those who are different from us, those, perhaps, we dislike, or, if we’re honest, might even hate. Then we need to pray for those people, praying as specifically as possible, identifying specific individuals from the group against whom we’re prejudiced.

Perhaps we might have segregated ourselves socially from those unlike us. We might not know specific individuals to pray for. In that case, we can start with spontaneous prayer for the person unlike us that we encounter at the gas station or the grocery store. When we’re praying for others, it’s hard not to empathize with them. We may begin to see them as fellow sinners in need of a Savior rather than as a social and political enemy that needs to be defeated.

God desires that His people live the abundant life in Christ now. We can’t enjoy that abundant life if we’re harboring prejudices against others different from us. It’s well past time for fewer denials—“I’m not racist”—and more introspection and honesty with ourselves. There’s no place for prejudice in the kingdom of God.