Can guilt be redemptive?: A Response to Eula Biss’ White Debt

by Andrew Packman

Eula Biss published “White Debt: reckoning with what is owed – and what can never be repaid – for racial privilege” in the New York Times Magazine on December, 2015. Some members of the Constructive Theologies Project are bringing their own perspective to critically engage with this essay. The following is Andrew Packman’s response to Biss’ article.


Can guilt be redemptive?: A Response to Eula Biss’ White Debt

Eula Biss has written a great essay in the New York Times Magazine. I hope you read it. And then I hope you read this series of Constructive Theologies Project responses. If we are going to gain any insight into the complicated realities of race in America, we’re going to have to think with and against the brightest commentators in the public square. By engaging critically with one of those commentators, our hope is that these responses push the conversation forward.

Biss is the author of three books and an Assistant Professor of Instruction in the English Department at Northwestern University. Her probing, artful exploration into the condition of white life in the United States, entitled “White Debt”, presses beyond the usual suspects of white complicity and white privilege to shed light on the material basis of both. Take away the economic gains white folks have illicitly obtained from African Americans over the last several centuries and you have neither complicity nor privilege. So to understand what it means to be white in America means to bring into focus both this immense material debt and the extremes to which white folks go to forget about it.

This renders the most basic meaning of whiteness not in terms of ethnicity, skin tone, DNA signature, or economic class. It’s a moral problem. To be white is to enjoy a privileged set of social benefits and to conveniently forget that those benefits are the fruit of a long history of evil.

Biss is at her best when she traces the contours of this moral problem. But when she turns to recommend a response to it, I’m less convinced.

By her lights, guilt is just the thing we need to keep white folks honest. She follows Nietzsche here, who argues that human beings forget things unless they cause us pain. Like Nietzsche, Biss believes that guilt sears our consciousness with the memory of those debts we’d rather forget. Unlike Nietzsche, she thinks that this is potentially redemptive because “[g]uilt is what makes a good life built on evil no longer good.” Her hope is that these pangs of conscience will remind white folks that what we have was illicitly obtained.  And once we remember that debt, Biss thinks the way has been cleared for white folks to repay it and, eventually, to have that guilt absolved.

I’m […] compelled by a freedom that would allow me to deserve what I have. Call it liberation, maybe. If debt can be repaid incrementally, resulting eventually in ownership, perhaps so can guilt.

The problem here is that, unlike one’s mortgage, moral debts cannot be so easily repaid.

Try to imagine what might count as adequate recompense for murder? If the assailant spent the rest of his years in prison, paying off his “debt to society”, this hardly clears the moral balance sheet. When blood is shed, an absolutely unique and therefore irreplaceable life is blotted out of existence. No dollar figure, nor even the reciprocal taking of the murderer’s life, could ever add up to cover the loss.  

Now consider what could count as repayment for America’s history of enslavement, Jim Crow, and the blatantly racist housing, lending, and employment practices that persist into the present. Even if we could calculate the dollar figure for centuries of stolen labor and property, we still have not even begun to touch the irretrievably lost value of human possibility and freedom.

The problem here is that when we seek to, as Biss puts it, “deserve what we have”, we take aim at a human impossibility. Not only do we personally commit moral infractions that can’t be undone, but we also inherit the infractions of our forbearers that collectively shape and distort our world. So long as one remains concerned with racking up and balancing off moral debts and credits, none of us will emerge with a positive balance.  We simply don’t have the right kind of funds.

This is why the figure of the guilty white person, hell-bent on endless, ill-fated attempts at self-exoneration is as tragic as it is common. No quantity of righteous deeds ever absolves us. The stain of guilt remains.

And theologically, this is why the Reformers took such pains to denounce works righteousness. Any attempt to justify oneself is bound to end in tragic failure. With our redemption at stake, it’s no wonder that guilty white people unthinkingly instrumentalize others in the feverish pursuit of moral purity.

But what if moral purity weren’t the goal of white life? What new options would appear if, instead of trying to deserve what we have, we acknowledged it as humanly impossible?

When Luther referred the work of justification to a good and gracious God, he refigured his picture of human life from a guilt-ridden pursuit of an unattainable ideal to a gratitude-fueled responsibility to and for our neighbors. No longer consumed with the impossibility of balancing the moral ledger sheet, we morally ambiguous creatures were freed to turn our attention to the equally ambiguous work of loving our neighbors. Instead of constantly failing to prove our own goodness, Luther recommends that we first acknowledge the goodness of what’s been given to us even though we don’t deserve it. And in light of our gratitude, we can seek to be responsible with what we have and can never deserve.

You might be thinking, “Gratitude is precisely the wrong emotion to feel. How can we be grateful for a life that is ‘built on a bedrock of evil’?” I don’t mean to say that we should be grateful for the evil means by which we have come to have the good things we have. To live this life responsibly demands that we reckon with the cold, hard facts of history and cast moral judgment on evil when we see it. But moral judgment pertains to the use of goods, not to the goods themselves. In the case of both ill-gotten and nobly-gotten goods, goods they remain. Those things to which white folks have privileged access (protection under the law, education, health care, property, employment, wealth, political power, etc.) are still goods. If they weren’t, there would be nothing wrong with their unequal distribution. White people have no reason to feel guilty for desiring, or for that matter, possessing these goods. On the contrary, we have every reason to be grateful for them. And in light of that gratitude, responsibility demands that we do everything in our power to ensure that all enjoy these goods equally.

This does not mean that we should completely exclude guilt from the picture. We should feel guilt when we possess these goods irresponsibly, when we turn a blind eye to how we came to possess them, and when we pay no regard to the present injustice of their distribution. In each case, guilt is the right moral emotion.

But the theological insight is that guilt is only rightly understood within the larger context of the grateful reception of goods and the freedom to use them responsibly. In other words, we are not saved by guilt alone. Redemption lies not in the incremental repayment of historical guilt like a mortgage, but in the gracious and fragile possibility of a gratitude-fueled responsibility that aims at justice for all.

If the condition of white life is forgotten debt, the path towards racial justice demands a reckoning with history and memory. But guilt is not the only way to call to mind that which we received through no merit of our own. Like guilt, gratitude for the raw givenness of our lives can remind us that we are not the sole provider of the good things we have, nor should we be their sole beneficiaries. But unlike guilt, gratitude acknowledges the goodness of what we have, in spite of its moral ambiguity. And with this acknowledgment, white folks might find the moral courage to move beyond the impotent denial of our power and seek to exercise it responsibly.

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