Religion and Self-Reflection: Being A Christian and Participating in Yom Kippur

I am an African American Christian woman who participated in Yom Kippur this year. I unplugged from the world beginning at sunset Wednesday, September 16, to sunset Thursday.

Two friends had interesting responses to my choice. One commented on how wonderful the world would be if repentance and forgiveness were a regular practice instead of reserved for one day a year. The other one poo-pooed all organized religion, unaware of the gifts we receive from their common practices.

A few gifts from organized religion:

  • Buddhism — meditation and mindfulness
  • Christianity — God is with us in the person of Jesus Christ
  • Islam — prayer life that positions God as sovereign above everything
  • Judaism — self-reflection and seeking forgiveness as a communal activity

My first time acknowledging Yom Kippur was October 1995, the day OJ Simpson was acquitted of murder.

I’m careful to not assume the role of God’s mouthpiece concerning, well, anything.

I’m also careful to pay both attention and homage to the Universe’s ‘trick bag’ — it’s deep.

On the subject of (in)justice in America, three situations stand out for me. In 1963, four little Black girls headed downstairs for Sunday School in Birmingham. Eight years earlier, a little Black boy spoke to a white woman in Mississippi. In 1968, a 20-year old Black woman walked down a street in Indiana.

They were all heinously killed.

So in 1995, when a rich man was acquitted for murdering his ex-wife and her friend, I felt the same as my fellow ‘uncolored’ neighbors when four baby girls, Emmitt Till, and Carole Jenkins were murdered: many thoughts, lots of prayers (NOTE: “uncolored” is a phrase coined by Lorraine Hansberry; I’m currently devouring Looking For Lorraine, by Imani Perry).

But when OJ was acquitted on Yom Kippur, I pondered the question of atonement. What is it? Should nations atone for their sinful history?

While I listed three documented murders, there are tons more not documented. And we feel the weight.

To help me grapple with the concept of atonement and how to direct a nation towards self-reflection, I enlisted a sermon written by African American icon John Chavis, “Letter Upon the Doctrine of the Extent of the Atonement of Christ” (published by J. Gales & Sons in 1837; currently housed in the UNC Wilson Library Special Collections Vault).

Born free in 1763, a Revolutionary War veteran, preacher, and teacher, Rev. Chavis founded several schools throughout North Carolina. He studied philosophy at what would eventually become Princeton University and was ordained to preach in 1800 by the Presbytery of Lexington, Virginia. Driven by purpose and responsibility to America and his community, in 1808, he opened a tuition-based, private school in his home teaching Black and white students.

However, despite being recognized as one of the best in the state, in 1831, his schools were shut down. During a post-Nat Turner power-flex (translation: a rebellion where slaveholders experienced the wrath of Black men who were sick of white men raping Black women, molesting Black girls, and sanctioning the practice of buck-breaking), white legislators throughout the South wrote laws forbidding a Black man to preach or teach.

As an African American woman, a daily prayer-warrior, and an avid Bible reader (mostly of the prophetic and poetic texts), I entered the 2021 Yom Kippur period of self-reflection and fasting with one gnawing question for my cultural and spiritual ancestor John Chavis: “how, Sway?” How did you live, love, and resist in a period of American history where your needs were regarded as insignificant?

What may I glean from your legacy that helps me to live, love, and resist in the current period of time where American leaders are working to flatten the story, and quash the parts where they pillaged, raped, molested, and murdered?

Should this nation atone? If so, how?

Here are a few reflections I embraced from Rev. Chavis’ sermon.

  1. Whether moved by love or self-gratification, we all make choices. And those choices have a future. And a story. And, sometimes, a body count with corresponding generational trauma.
  2. When we are made aware of the fault, how we move from that point can facilitate healing or extend (and multiply) grief.
  3. While the “common reader” (Chavis’ description) may get lost in atonement rhetoric, every person — from infants to elders — knows when they are loved and when their needs are met.

I began my Yom Kippur self-reflection kneeling bedside, crying and whispering, “Show me ‘me’.” After reading Chavis’ sermon, I cried some more. He was genuine in his convictions and love for building God’s kin(g)dom on earth (emphasis on kinship is mine). He understood, embraced, and preached the fundamentals of Christian doctrine. He publicly challenged problematic theology (**ahem, Calvinism**), while never challenging their love for Jesus, nor the fruit born from their actions.

But every Christian who double-downed on slavery and the raping, molesting, and buck-breaking practices incorporated within that demonic institution, then calling it “God’s will”, Rev. Chavis also had a word: “how, Sway?

His sermon systematically broke down his beliefs, acknowledging the challenges and counter-challenges of God’s plan to save the world (i.e., is it universal or limited?; is it for everyone or only a few folks chosen before they were born?). He also confirmed this conversation was rooted in philosophical thought and could only be engaged accordingly.

In other words, by design, his sermon was a dialogue between philosophical thinkers.

As for me, a self-professed “common reader”, I am still rattled by how they diminished an honorable man — a prophet and a patriot — and ultimately killed him, too. But his legacy of love, rooted in his faith in Christ, lives on. He chose to love. Also, he chose to speak up.

And that is what I’m doing — loving and speaking up, helping others to not be silenced by guilt or shame for what has happened in this country.

As hard as it is to face, we shouldn’t ignore it, for there is no peace without resolving the conflict.

And resolving the conflict requires that we examine what happened. After examination, we should then reflect on whether our beliefs and practices have been in service to the common good or to self-gratification. I define the “common good” as the practice of doing to others what you want done to you and not doing to others what you don’t want done to you.

Our influences and life practices meet and flow from our diverse cultural, faith, and embodied experiences. And when we share them, they become part of the hope chest for all of humanity.

In the end, my self-reflection during Yom Kippur has gifted me the insight to call for everyone who cares about the common good to acknowledge their faults, seek forgiveness, and accept that as it goes with us, so it goes with the world.

The world is weary. But it’s watching.

(Want to learn more about releasing attitudes of guilt and shame? Join Alexus Rhone for Guilt, Shame and Storytelling.)



Revolutionary artist. Artistic theologian. Fan of all things “Golden Girls”. Curator of true, first-person narratives. “Truth Meet Story” -

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Revolutionary artist. Artistic theologian. Fan of all things “Golden Girls”. Curator of true, first-person narratives. “Truth Meet Story” -