What Do We Do With Guilt?

I think some of the most difficult conversations about reconciliation have to do with the fact that once we realize the scale of wrongdoing, or become aware of the burden that someone else had been shouldering for us, etc., particularly when there is no easy way for recompense that we become quite paralyzed with what to do. And this happens along all the lines of injustice.

For instance, with race in America, you can either take the weight of 400 years of slavery, and as someone of Western European descent, be completely overwhelmed by the profundity of what it means to have every structure of society work against certain peoples but not you and feel guilty or you can be somewhat dismissive about it. After all, the legal and constitutional blind spots have been filled now, so it could seem a little silly to dwell upon the past when things were broken. And these postures, guilty vs. post- (race, gender, class), could be applied to other injustices as well. But either extreme doesn’t lend itself to a healthy response from where I sit.

But I think whenever it is that moment of deep realization sets in where you suddenly find empathy and you see yourself either participating, contributing, or complicit in some brokenness of the world — guilt is a good response to start with. I don’t think it’s good to stay there, but I think it allows for self-awareness and self-evaluation that needs to happen. Again, it doesn’t need to be something we personally have committed; it’s simply a recognition that someone(s) paid for my benefit. I know that many white people I come across today, even having spent my life in the South, have never owned a slave. My parents, being Korean immigrants who served in immigrant churches, never mistreated Black folks to my knowledge, but even my parents know at some deep level that they benefited from the Civil Rights Movement; they have the sense they would have been treated far differently if they had arrived in 1920 vs. 1970.

I will say that being dismissive or simply shrugging off grave injustices is not only not helpful, but about as un-Christian of a response as I can imagine. Although this is purely anecdotal, I’ve never met a self-aware, emotionally healthy bigot. Most bigots I’ve witnessed are unable to empathize or even locate their own emotions. I think Jesus was moved constantly for people who hated him. He wept for Jerusalem and he asks for forgiveness from the very crowd that begs for him to be crucified. By what shred of righteousness do we dare muster the audacity to be smug about the sufferings of others?

But that recognition of having benefited unfairly needs to lead to more than guilt, it needs to lead us to responsibility. It needs to lead us to engagement and the far more difficult work of not simply tolerance, but inclusion. This is where I find that churches are way behind. The homogenous unit principle and the directives to grow big and in number, along with the fiscal necessity of staying solvent (and gasp, profitable), have made the aesthetic work of the kingdom building via church planting very difficult. It does not surprise me then that groups like the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Ba’hai, who celebrate their diversity and offer it as evidence of their truth, turn up their noses at the history of evangelical Christianity in America. As one pastor once told me, these cults are being born out of the very sins of the church. Perhaps it began with pride, that is now turned to an impotent and indecisive place of guilt, but the fact of the matter is that we have to rise above the guilt and get to the relationship so that fellowship in Christ might be borne.

Guilt needs to become transformed to responsibility.

What do you think of Tim Wise’s response to the question of guilt? I don’t think he’s using a Christian rubric for answering the question, but I think it relates to the context of reconciliation and all the more so because of what Christ has done for us. So while my answer would be vastly different from Wise, the response may sound similar.

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About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come. View all posts by David Park

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