I’m not perfect, just forgiven!

If you were an American Christian in the 1990’s, you probably had a low-quality t-shirt with this saying brandished across it in bubble letters with cartoon flowers, or maybe a boxy metallic font with faux bolts on the corners, because of course 90’s Christian merchandise must always be gendered. While I didn’t actually have the t-shirt – probably because with $25 in my pocket at the Christian bookstore, I opted for a couple DC Talk and The O.C. Supertones cassettes instead – I’m pretty sure it was proudly displayed on the cover of my Trapper Keeper in hand-lettered White Out.

Honestly, I believe the heart of this message is admirable: I’m still learning and in process, but I am saved by grace and made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ. That’s good stuff! But how often has the church used this message to ignore our faults and refuse to grow?

The Problem

Growing up in the Pentecostal tradition, I have been a part of countless worship services marked by passionate prayers, expressions of spiritual gifts, prophecy, healing, tears of brokenness, and tears of joy. Weeks-long revivals that call for spiritual renewal and faithful return of our gaze to Jesus. Admonition and exhortation from pastors and laypeople alike. Testimonies – oh the testimonies! I am proud of my background and all I have witnessed and experienced. Many of those services, however, have left congregants – as the saying goes – so heavenly minded they’re no earthly good. Spiritual experiences give the believer confidence in her or his salvation and the love of our Father, and maybe that is needed. But is our prophetic tradition leading to Damascus road encounters that knock us off our feet and reveal where we have been painfully wrong? Read about the tragedy of our prophetic shortcomings here.

The Moment

One of those moments for me came on August 9, 2014. At 12:02 pm local time in a town nearly 500 miles from my home, Michael Brown was fatally shot by Officer Darren Wilson, sparking a string of protests and riots both in Ferguson, Missouri, and across the country in response to claims of police brutality against black men and women. Shortly after the shooting on that Saturday afternoon, I learned of the incident through a cell phone video I saw being shared on Facebook. The video showed Brown’s body lying in the street for nearly four hours after he was shot, crowds forming, witnesses shouting, women crying. And if I’m honest with you, my first response was not compassion; it was anger.

But I wasn’t angry about the disproportionate number of African Americans who are killed by police, the systems of poverty and injustice that perpetuate criminality in communities of color, or the dissonance between the emotion of a black neighborhood and the coolness of the white LEOs. I was angry at Brown’s community for dishonoring him by taking video footage. I was angry with civil rights activists for making this spectacle into a publicity stunt. I was angry with protesters for being too violent, too loud, too angry themselves – if they really wanted to be heard, why couldn’t they just be decent about it?

Frustrated by the media coverage in Ferguson, I texted my best friend – a woman of color – to vent. I suppose if the conversation had been in person she may have punched me in the jaw, but it being over text she was undeservedly patient with me. In the end, she asked me to simply listen to understand rather than respond.

“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry…” James 1:19

Not because I am a wonderful person, but because I love my friend, I went back to the story with an open heart. I read and heard different voices than I had been accustomed to entertaining. I looked past what I wanted to see and saw the heart of God in the marginalized, right where it has always been. And just like that, I was knocked off my horse, blinded in the street, sent along another path so that only the Holy Spirit could open my eyes.

The Pain

I won’t pretend like that was an enjoyable experience. Realizing that I both carried unspoken prejudices and benefited from a power system set up to favor my whiteness – which, yes, put me on the spectrum of being racist – hurt like the rod of discipline is supposed to, “for the Lord corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:12). But I was wrong. I could have taken that pain and built up walls to protect myself, turned to my regular sources to fortify my argument, blocked out those voices of disagreement to insulate my echo chamber… but how would any of that help me grow? Are we so comfortable with “I’m not perfect, just forgiven!” that we despise correction when it is right in front of us?

“One who listens to life-giving rebukes will be at home among the wise. Anyone who ignores discipline despises himself, but whoever listens to correction acquires good sense.” Proverbs 15:31-32

Most recently, a rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, VA, turned violent when James Fields, Jr. allegedly drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing one woman and injuring 19 others. The President of the United States did not respond as quickly or appropriately as many (including myself) would have liked to have seen. All across the news, in communities, on social media, and even in churches, people are being asked to make a stand in the face of overt racism, and this appears to be even harder for some people than addressing the covert racism we have been dealing with since Jim Crow. Why is that?

Because it hurts. Being honest about the complex marriage between Christianity and white supremacy hurts. But if we ever want to see again, we have to allow ourselves to be knocked from our horses and face the pain of our past. We surely are not perfect, but when we recognize and repent of our sins, then we will be forgiven.

Note from the Editorial Team:
Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.

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Author: Mary Beth Unthank

Mary Beth is a stay-at-home mom to four wildly wonderful children, and she serves with her husband as middle school pastors in their hometown of Knoxville, TN. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Religion from Maryville College and over a decade of ministry experience. In her abundance of free time, she enjoys scrolling through Facebook, using the bathroom alone, and folding clothes that will never be put away.

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