Godly Sorrow Over Racism | “Two Sorrows”

In his second letter to the dysfunctional church in Corinth, Paul makes mention of their commendable response to a previous letter. He describes the letter as being “severe” and “painful”—the cause of “hurt.” (7:8-9) Paul admits that he second guessed himself in sending it, saying, “I was sorry at first, for I know it was painful to you.”

Scholars suspect that there is actually a missing Corinthian letter—maybe the most severe one. But we know something of the dysfunction and shame of this church from Paul’s first letter. Of course, Paul famously critiques their petty infighting and posturing over giftedness and devoutness, pronouncing that, devoid of love, these seemingly spiritual acts are empty and hollow. (1 Cor. 13:13) He calls them to a solidarity which resembles that of a body, in which every part has indispensable value, concluding his analogy, “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad.” (12:26).

Amidst the salacious, factious, and pretentious smorgasbord of sin afflicting this ailing church, Paul approaches a serious specific issue asking, “Do you want to disgrace God’s church and shame the poor?” (11:22) He is speaking to the way this church handled its Communion gatherings; the sacramental breaking of bread and drinking of wine ordained by Jesus to denote the common union of his earthly people. But they had segregated it by class; stolen this meal away into their own homes; made of it a social club. “When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat.” (11:20) Think about that. This was not a faulty way of doing Communion, it was not Communion at all. Why? They had excluded the marginalized; “some go hungry while others get drunk.”

Paul puts this matter of inequality and exclusion around the Lord’s table quite severely,

“Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy way will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A person ought to practice self-examination before eating of the bread and drinking of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgement on themselves.” (11:27-29)

When we eat the bread and drink the wine, we declare that the body is one; it is an expression of solidarity and unity that is meant to reflect something actual. As David Swanson writes,

“None of this is theoretical. Our decision to reject defective discipleship that fosters segregation for reimagined practices that lead us toward solidarity with the body of Christ has real-world impact on countless fellow members of the body.”

The Corinthian church had actually rejected their radical commitment to body solidarity! How do we know this? When one part suffered, other parts felt nothing—they were numb to it. In actuality, it was worse. They were not oblivious to or obscured from the suffering part; they were effectual agents—beneficiaries. This is what Paul was denouncing. And insofar as this segregating, depriving principle was in place, their gathered worship had nothing to do with true Communion in Christ. They were not only denying to suffering of the body, they were causing and exacerbating it. They were making God’s church a disgrace.

Imagine, then, if the Corinthian church had filed away Paul’s letter, dismantled its force through fancy systematic theology, or overlaid a free market economic ideology on top of it? What if they had sent Paul a return letter saying, “Paul, these people are only suffering because of their own lack of personal responsibility.” Imagine a church in which Paul’s severe letter was thus blunted; its pain and sorrow rejected; the harms and blasphemies it denounced left in place. If you are an American Christian, you needn’t use your imagination—this is our story.

I cannot here outline the enormity of insidious and cruel ways the White church has participated in racism and White supremacy to disgraceful, blasphemous ends. There are resources such as Jemar Tisby’s recent book The Color of Compromise (also a Prime Video lesson series), Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah’s Unsettling Truths, and many, many others—written by Christian and non-Christian scholars alike.

But, as Tisby sets forth his study, he weightily observes,

“Historically speaking, when faced with the choice between racism and equality, the American church has tended to practice complicit Christianity rather than a courageous Christianity. They chose comfort over constructive conflict and in so doing created and maintained a status quo of injustice.”

Tisby quotes historian Caroyln DuPont, “Not only did white Christians fail to fight for black equality, they often labored mightily against it.” Tisby also make clear that the White American Church’s egregious historical compromise toward and tolerance of White supremacy and racism has had pivotal periods of contingency, during which it might have acted in obedience to Jesus but failed to do so: “white supremacy in the nation and church was not inevitable. Things could have been different.”

For this reason he writes in a holy hope to elicit what Paul called “godly sorrow” or “godly grief”—to prompt the American church to seize upon her diminishing moments with greater urgency and righteousness than ever before. “This kind of grief is a natural response to the suffering of others. It indicates empathy with the pain that racism has caused black people. The ability to weep with those who weep is necessary for true healing.” The sorrow to which Tisby is referring is the sorrow Paul rejoiced to see in the response of the Corinthian church to his severe and hurtful letter.

Ever since I began seeing the streets flood with people after the death of George Floyd, I have had an unshakable and, I believe, divine burden that this is one such contingent moment for America and for the American church—a moment when godly sorrow must be awakened through severity and pain. The church’s tolerance of and complicity with racism and White supremacy are, to quote Martin Luther King, “Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up.”

And so we return to Paul’s subsequent letter to the Corinthians; the one that followed the painful one he was nearly unwilling to send. “I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am glad, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you were sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way.” (2 Cor. 7:8-9)

Here we must start where Paul starts, with an evaluation of sorrows. Whenever a harmed party learns that the perpetrator of their harm is sorry, it becomes a fragile juncture indeed. Paul makes it clear that there are two types of sorrow: one exceedingly good and productive, the other deceptive and lethal. They can be known by their fruits.

So if you care passionately about how the church will respond to its historical and present companionship with White supremacy and racism, then you might actually be averse to the notion that this moment merely calls for “sorrow.” But let me briefly note the quality of the “godly sorrow” which Paul here celebrates, “See what this godly sorrow produced,” Paul declares: earnestness, concern, indignation, alarm, longing, zeal, and a “readiness to see justice done.” (7:11) I would like to spend another piece reflecting on the nature of this sorrow but I will simply note that it is both potent and prolific. It is from God and it indefatigably pursues those things that please him because it has adequately grieved over those things that do not—from a place painfully vivid understanding.

If you are more skeptical of my thrust here—maybe even resentful—let me note, after a subsequent section focused on generosity, Paul writes, “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality.” (8:13) In this statement Paul anticipates the contemporary sentiment, “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” So let us set aside the our mere distaste for discomfort and threats to our accustomed way of life. Paul’s own letter evinced the hard truth that the Gospel would, more often than not, overhaul earthly lifestyles.

May we keep in mind, as I wrote earlier, that history bends toward an eternity of total ethnic inclusion and honor; a life without sorrow that can only come about when “the old order has passed away.” Part of the blindness of the White American church is an aversion to discomfort and mortification along with an intractable delusion regarding our own claims to innocence. Godly sorrow cannot penetrate nor take root in this hard-baked soil, and our Enemy will gladly swoop in and carry away these painful truths as a bird.

There is much reason for much sorrow, and if this moment calls for for godly sorrow, then we must be very clear about our sorrows. There are, after all, many expressions of sorrow and contrition being voiced at present: from pulpits and podiums, blogs and vlogs, and within the sprawling social media landscape. Many “I’m sorry”s, many laments, much posting, much soul searching, and endless vows to listen, learn and do better. There have been many, many tears, which, in White Evangelicalism, is the gold standard of sincerity. And there has been much rightful skepticism toward all this—call it the “when Black people are in pain, White people join book clubs” phenomenon. Which is to say, none of this outright exhibit the hallmarks of godly sorrow.

But does it exhibit the hallmarks of worldly sorrow? Paul isn’t precisely clear about what worldly sorrow is, yet he contrasts it starkly with the godly type saying, “godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” By way of deduction, we can know it is patently not of the same nature as the godly type. Explicitly, we know worldly sorrow produces death.

This must mean it is ephemeral and, to take Paul’s cues, not entirely sincere. It may be the sorrow of being caught in acts or, otherwise, in the unfashionable state of being socially out of step. Any sorrow over the complicity of racism and White supremacy that is predicated on fashion or the superficialities of wanting to be seen a certain way can only be worldly and transient—it may have the materials of penance but not repentance. It can be preempted by boredom or a short attention span. Such sorrow leads to death.

So too the sorrow of mere sentimentality must not escape our scrutiny. While sorrow is evinced by sentiment, not all sentiment is substantive. It may be that you just don’t like when people are angry at each other, don’t like feeling embarrassed by your ignorance, don’t like seeing ugliness exposed. You may even be genuinely sad over the horrible images of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery’s killings (as is fitting), yet without a sense that you yourself have been accomplice to this very Black-life-devaluing enterprise! The tears of this sorrow are the tears of crocodiles, who seem to weep while devouring their prey. Such sorrow leads to death.

Without doubt, there is a performative sorrow as well. It resembles the disingenuous and functionally atheistic “acts of righteousness” Jesus bid us beware of in the Sermon on the Mount—“righteous deeds done publicly in order to be admired by others.” (Mat. 6:1) These have no value before God whatsoever, for they have nothing to do with God. They are entirely horizontal. Any likes, retweets, shares, or follows that come of this sorrow hold its only value. Such sorrow leads to death.

Jesus made mention of pretentious giving, praying, and fasting—all manner of “seeking God”—and emphasized the non-hypocritical feature of true “acts of righteousness.”

Still let us recall the word from Isaiah 58 about fasting:

 Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
    and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
    and a day acceptable to the Lord?

 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?”

Friends, this must go even beyond personal piety to social concern, solidarity, and a “readiness to see justice done,” or even our seemingly intimate times with God prove themselves largely farcical. How one emerges from times of fasting, prayer, and, yes, even lament is the measure of sincerity—and of the value God places in them. Apart from living justly, such sorrow leads to death.

Because I have spent so much time in Reformed circles, I know the rejoinder to this by heart. “Oh, but I am totally depraved!” we groan. “My ‘righteous deeds’ are only as filthy rags apart from the blood of Jesus!” Stop that! You know you are missing the point—more like evading the point. This Puritanical chicanery has never been consistent with a Gospel morality nor even a cohesive theology. True though the salvific proposition may be, it was never, ever meant to undermine the Gospel project of “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ,  who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Tit. 2:13-14) Such sorrow leads to death.

Look back over the history, and one of the most alarming, grievous features of the White American church is the inexhaustible ingenuity toward such ploys; a playbook of evasive maneuvers toward confronting these the twin travesties of Black and Indigenous dehumanization. These ploys themselves deserve unfathomable grief.

Friends, as I write these words my own heart has been under bombardment; for I have cried many tears, made many posts, felt many sentiments, shared many resources, marched many marches, joined many webinars, read many books and articles, watched many documentaries, attended many prayer meetings, made many friendships, even moved my family to the south side of Chicago. None of this amounts to the proof of godly sorrow. As a middle class White man, I can only say that godly sorrow over White supremacy and racism is something for which I must constantly make time and space—even then, I am more likely than not to underestimate their wickedness in ways that manifest themselves in complacency. As a middle class White man, I can always deny this solidarity, even if I inwardly mourn my complicity. Such sorrow leads to death.

But I am asking in the repeated, importunate way the Savior tells us to ask for justice! (“And will not God give justice to his chosen, who cry to him day and night?”, Luke 18:7) I am asking for justice to be conceived in hearts, gestated in churches, and born into the world. I am asking God to perform a merciful miracle of godly sorrow in our day; that we may rip away our old garments of White supremacy and racism, and “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator.” (Col. 3:10) Though it happen through much pain, yet it shall lead to something unspeakably beautiful.

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