When it comes to race, many white American Christians start from a place of ignorance – ignorance perpetuated by assumptions and stereotypes caused by isolation and lack of proximity to communities of color. As these Christians move from a state of racial ignorance to racial awareness, they begin to reflect inwardly. They ask questions like, “How could I have been so unaware?”, “What role have I or my family played in contributing to our racialized society?”, etc.
During this awareness phase, reflection often turns into guilt. The sociological term is “white guilt.” As Christians, we recognize that reflection and awareness are key in moving toward communities of color in pursuing racial justice and racial reconciliation. What ultimately turns reflection and awareness into action is not white guilt but biblical lament. To better understand why we need lament and not guilt, I’ll unpack each concept below.
What is White Guilt?
Simply put, white guilt occurs when white people feel guilty about the historical and contemporary atrocities committed against people of color. The textbook definition of white guilt is “the individual or collective guilt felt by white people from harm resulting in racist treatment of people of color by whites both historically and currently” ( “Psychosocial Costs of Racism.” Journal of Counseling Psychology. p. 249-262).
Coming to terms with a history and culture that has advantaged one group to the detriment of other groups is guilt-inducing. I dare say it even leads to shame. However, that guilt and shame are part of coming to terms with the painful reality of our racial past. It’s part of the grieving process. Both emotions are natural when dealing with sorrow and grief. Some white people assume “racial justice” is really about society making white people feel personally rotten for the sins of our past. This assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth. The motivation behind bringing to light the pain caused by racism is to help more people see and empathize with the plight of people of color. As a result of that pain and empathy, the hope is white brothers and sisters will join in creating a more just and equal society.
Feelings of guilt and shame are normal and part of the healing process. The 400-year-wound of racism is deep, and we should expect a lot of pain on the road to healing. We often see guilt and shame experienced in areas unrelated to race. For almost two decades, survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks have wrestled with “survivor's guilt.” Because they survived these horrific acts, they now feel guilty they lived and the co-worker in the next cubicle didn’t. The 9/11 survivor's guilt is less stigmatized because it’s experienced by individual people. White guilt is less accepted because it’s a social problem with corporate implications.
If I’m experiencing white guilt as a Christian, what do I do?
In one sense, white guilt helps those in the majority culture feel the weight of the racial injustices of our past. However, white guilt is unhelpful in two major ways:
1. If we only focus on individual actions of the past, white guilt can cause us to minimize social and structural brokenness today. Someone who only recognizes historical racism will often ignore current injustices altogether. They believe, “I’ve never owned a slave or stole land from a Native American, so my hands are clean.” This person fails to understand how they have benefited from the institutions that participated in those atrocities. When someone takes a posture of defensiveness, healthy conversations are impossible. Circular arguments replace constructive dialogue and focus only on worst-case scenarios (i.e. owning slaves, stealing land, taking part in klan rallies, etc.).
2. White guilt can place the full weight of injustice on the individual, making them believe they alone are responsible for righting every wrong. White guilt leads to paralysis, which prevents actual racial justice and reconciliation from taking place. In the most tragic circumstances, the paralysis of guilt leads a person to constantly consume content and narratives that reinforce their feelings of guilt. In this unhealthy form, racial justice becomes a type of self-flogging. A better, biblical way for Christians in the majority culture to work through racial injustices is through lament.
What is Biblical Lament?
Though people can and should individually lament, biblical lament is corporate. Pastor Daniel Hill explains lament as “a beautiful and needed resource because it has a unique way of remaining awake to sorrow without succumbing to it. Lament allows us to grieve injustice but not fall into despair. We can be awake to the pain of the world but still press forward in faith because of another beautiful word at the center of the gospel: hope.” (p. 158) Lament is found throughout the Bible, particularly in the Psalms and the Book of Lamentations. Psalms 6, 71, and 86 show us three markers of lament:
1. Lament cries out to God in despair. “I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears” (Psalm 6:6 NIV).
In response to historical and present injustices, white guilt moves us to focus inwardly on ourselves instead of outwardly on God and others. True lament starts by recognizing the same pain and suffering but then looking to God amid the heartache. While white guilt creates paralysis and despair, lament moves us to seek deeper intimacy with God.
2. Lament runs to God for help. “God, do not be far from me; my God, hurry to help me” (Psalm 71:12 CSB).
White guilt tells us to sit with hundreds of years of societal pain and then, “go fix ourselves.” Lament recognizes, acknowledges, and confesses the same suffering but then looks to God for deliverance. Lament uniquely recognizes that the problems of racial injustice are so large that only God has the power to truly bring about justice and unity.
3. Lament responds to God in trust and praise. “Arrogant foes are attacking me, O God; ruthless people are trying to kill me — they have no regard for you. But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Psalm 86:14-15 NIV).
While white guilt leads people to hopelessness, lament starts with sorrow but leads to trust and praise. Praise does not mean a guaranteed happy ending in this lifetime but trusting in God’s goodness even if we don’t get the resolution we hoped for. Lament uniquely allows us to feel the heartache of our broken reality while holding on to hope because we rest in the salvation of Christ, the character of God, and the remembrance of His deliverance. Maintaining hope in the midst of sorrow enables us to move from grief to action.
4. Lament brings people of different ethnicities together in solidarity and promotes racial equity. Dr. Soong Chan Rah, author of Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, in an interview shares how lament “provides a positive mediating narrative. It brings us together across the boundaries. If I can enter into lament alongside someone with a different background,” he writes, “we find a sense of equality. My own journey has been about sitting at the feet of African American, Latino, and Native American mentors, to see how our narratives overlap.”
Feelings of guilt are normal and part of grieving. White guilt becomes poisonous when it leads not to empathy but self-justification. At its worst, it can be a toxic mix of overwhelming guilt without hope. Biblical lament acknowledges the pain of the injustice, cries out to God for help, and moves God’s people to tangibly seek racial justice and reconciliation.
To better understand and grow in practicing biblical lament, check out these resources:
How to Use Your Whiteness for Racial Justice Pt. 1
In 2017, Pastor Daniel Hill wrote White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to Be White. White Awake is equal parts memoir and blueprint, helping white Christians better identify racial blindspots, systems of racism, and opportunities to pursue racial justice and reconciliation. Daniel Hill...Learn More