Virtual Voices

When racists repent

Culture

Maybe 2010 will be the year that I will not be referred to on the internet as a "negro theologian." My hopes for 2009 have already been dashed, and I wonder, at times, if it will ever stop. Some blacks I know would find it hard to believe that it is possible for a white racist to change his or her views like former Ku Klux Klansman Elwin Wilson did when he flew to Washington, D.C., to apologize to Rep. John Lewis for beating him in Rock Hill, S.C., 48 years ago.

ABC news reported the following:

Wilson, a young, white, Southern man, attacked Lewis, a freedom rider for Martin Luther King, in the "white" waiting room of a South Carolina bus station.

The men had not seen each other again until Tuesday when, with "Good Morning America's" help, Wilson approached Lewis again -- this time offering an apology and a chance to relieve a burden he'd carried for more than four decades.

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"I'm so sorry about what happened back then," Wilson said breathlessly.

"It's OK. I forgive you," Lewis responded before a long-awaited hug.

While watching the video clip of this story, I was struck by the powerful account of what changed Wilson's views on race and what prompted his desire for reconciliation. Everything changed for him when a friend asked, "If you died right now do you know where you would go?" Wilson responded, "To hell." After being changed by the reality of grace of God, he began to publicly apologize his previous racial views and actions. Wilson even has the Christian maturity to pray for President Obama even though he says, "I didn't vote for him."

Wilson recounts past actions with some regret: "I had a black baby doll in this house, and I had a little rope, and I tied it to a limb and let it hang here." However, in the spirit of Matthew 18, he met Lewis to ask for forgiveness and pursue reconciliation.

Wilson has been harassed and attacked for publicly repenting of his racism. In a CNN interview, he told of a telephone call he received from a college student: "He said, 'You are [a] slummy black n dog.' And he just kept on talking. He told me, he said, 'Here you are with KKK, took an oath, and here you are going back on your word and against the white people.'"

Rep. Lewis said what Wilson did in coming to him shows "the power of love and the power of grace, and the power of people to be able to say, 'I'm sorry.'" The gospel is indeed powerful (Romans 1:16-17), and, as see in the book of Galatians, the gospel transforms race-hatred into racial solidarity. We all long to see the gospel change people so that the racial slurs of the past are no longer a part of public discourse.

Anthony Bradley
Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of theology and ethics at The King's College in New York and serves as a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He is author of Liberating Black Theology. Follow Anthony on Twitter @drantbradley.

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