On racial justice, individual guilt, and institutional responsibility

Now let’s turn back to race. If an institution—such as a city or state—relentlessly segregated neighborhoods and schools, the guilt for that segregation rests with both the institution and the individual leaders who ordered the injustice. New leaders don’t share the guilt of the old leaders, but they do assume the institution’s responsibility to ameliorate the harm. Just as a corporation doesn’t address the consequences of its pollution merely by ceasing its pollution, neither does a government address the consequences of its segregation merely by ceasing its discrimination.

Here’s the challenging part for millions of American Christians. Many of our institutions actively inflicted racial harm as well. Entire denominations were founded in whole or in part to provide a religious home for slave owners. Religious institutions vigorously defended Jim Crow and enacted their own segregationist policies. And this isn’t ancient history. The Supreme Court’s Bob Jones case, which held that the IRS could revoke the university’s tax exemption because the school prohibited interracial dating and marriage, was decided in 1983. I was 14 years old when that happened.

So just as cities, states, and the federal government should dedicate energy and resources into addressing and correcting the consequences of historic harm, so should the institutions of the American Christian church. When I’m a member of a church, I’m not just an individual, I’m part of an institution, and that institution has its own enduring, divine mandates to “act justly” in its country and community.