Jesus was sinless, guiltless, and perfect. Right? Jesus didn't need forgiveness for anything. Right?
So why does Jesus pray, "Forgive us our sins"?
John the Baptist was baptizing "with water for repentance." People would come to him, confess their sins, and would get dipped in the Jordan River.
And then Jesus shows up to the Jordan River. For baptism. The baptism of repentance.
In Western culture, sin has been reduced down to the individualism that sits at the core of our society. Sin is about what I the single person do. My success is about what I the individual accomplishes. Every man is an island, Simon and Garfunkel be damned.
Individual sin is real, no doubt. But it is not the only sin that exists. There is also social (systemic, corporate) sin. Theologian Millard J. Erickson writes:
We may become quite sensitized to God’s displeasure with our individual sins, but be considerably less aware of the sinfulness of a group of which we are part. Thus, some persons who would never think of killing another human being, taking another’s property, or cheating in a business deal may be part of a corporation, nation, or social class that in effect does these very things. Such persons contribute to these evils through financial involvement (by paying taxes or dues), direct approval (by voting), or tacit consent (by not disagreeing or registering opposition). (Christian Theology, 659)
This is why the prophet Daniel, although called righteous and loved by God, is able to pray, "We have sinned and done wrong...we have rebelled..we have refused to listen" (Daniel 9:5-6). Daniel isn't merely praying for his individual sin, but for the corporate body he's a member of.
This concept of corporate sin is how Stephen condemned the entire Sanhedrin of murdering Jesus when they themselves were not the ones who nailed him to the cross (Acts 8:52).
It's also how Jesus condemns Pharisees for actions taken generations before:
Upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation (Matthew 23:35-36).
We may look at that say, "Well that's not fair!" But that assumes that only individual sin and righteousness matter and nothing else. As Christians, we should hope that's not the case or otherwise Jesus' atonement for all sins was also merely for Himself and no one else.
I believe that this awareness of social, systemic sin is why Jesus felt the need for a baptism of repentance and to pray, "Forgive us our sins." Jesus walked on roads built by Roman slaves. He was a construction worker who most likely worked on Roman buildings in the Decapolis that would be used for evil purposes.
Was Jesus individually, personally guilty of sin? No. And yet Jesus - by virtue of being a human being - could not help but participate and benefit from systems of oppression and evil.
What does this have to do about racism?Racism and prejudice are often confused with each other. Prejudice is "an attitude based on limited information, often on stereotypes." Racism is a race prejudice plus social and institutional power to oppress based on that prejudice (see: https://www.dismantlingracism.org/racism-defined.html)
When people say, "I'm not racist," what they probably mean is, "I'm not aware of actively holding and perpetrating any race prejudices." And, you know what, I am not the Holy Spirit, I don't know the inner-workings of your heart. I won't try to convict you of your prejudice. Not my job.
However, to say "I'm not racist," with the definition above in mind would mean, "I am not to be held guilty for a culture that defines reality to validate and advantage white people while oppressing People of Color" (https://www.dismantlingracism.org/white-supremacy-culture.html). And that's what I'm trying to argue against here.
In order for things to change, we have to
1) Not only acknowledge a culture of white supremacy and racism;
2) Confess our guilt for participating in, benefiting from, and holding up the structures that cause black and brown people to be disadvantaged, oppressed, and killed.
If white supremacy is only ever someone else's problem, then change the social change necessary in the United States (and beyond) won't happen. Racism is my problem. I'm guilty of it. I pray as Jesus prayed, "Forgive us our sins."
Is This Too Reductionistic?
If we say that all white people are racist and guilty of white supremacy, then are we collapsing terms to the point of no longer being helpful? Am I guilty in the same way that Officer Chauvin is guilty of murdering George Floyd? Am I a white supremacist in the same that Dylan Roof is a white supremacist?
No. We can maintain a distinction between ethical guilt and legal guilt. According to Jesus, I am ethically guilty of murder when I hold anger in my heart for someone. I am ethically guilty of adultery if I look at someone with the intention to lust. That doesn't mean that Jesus expected us to set up our judicial systems to imprison heart crimes. But it does mean that I am guilty of more than just my physical actions against others.
That's why I think we should not shy away from words like racism and white supremacy. Yes, we need to make distinctions between those who actively, intentionally harm others and those who harm others through inaction, indifference, or ignorance. But a white supremacist murdering someone does not somehow relieve me of my own guilt of white supremacy.
What Then Should We Do?
I look to the example of Jesus:
1) Jesus received the baptism of repentance. Jesus confessed, "Forgive us our sins." Jesus "fulfilled all righteousness" not merely by being sinless, but by also repenting and asking forgiveness of the social, systemic sins He played a role in by the mere fact of being a human within society and culture. If Jesus repented and confessed of sin, then how much more should I?
2) Jesus "went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him" (Acts 10:38). Jesus' earthly life showed us what it looks like to see God's will being done on earth as it is heaven. Jesus brought healing, food, and companionship to the marginalized, the oppressed, and (whenever they were willing) the oppressors. He called out the ruling oppressors for their sin, both individual and systemic. And, by virtue of being the Christ, He
He stripped all the spiritual tyrants in the universe of their sham authority at the Cross and marched them naked through the streets (Colossians 2:15).
Jesus' followers then took the ramifications of that victory and began to show the sham authority of the physical rulers as well. We must do the same.