Author’s Note: I understand that the issue of race is a sensitive topic in America. Attempting to discuss it (especially via a text document) can lead to misunderstandings. I am choosing to engage in this topic because of friends, and because of the current events in our country. Thinking biblically about contemporary issues is something I have tried to do and continue to do through this blog. I seek only to understand and to help. I hope that any detractors will be gracious in their assessment.
There is a renewed focus on race and racism in America. There was the killing of a young, black jogger, Ahmaud Arbery, after a pursuit and confrontation by two white men. Former Vice President Joe Biden was hammered over a poorly worded jest. Four Minneapolis police officers were fired after a black man died while in their custody (video shows an officer using his knee to pin the victim’s neck to the ground). And finally, a white woman lost her job after a video of her confrontation with a black man in Central Park went viral. (In connection with her firing, the company she worked for stated, “We do not tolerate racism.”)
Regardless of whether these incidents were actually racially motivated or racist, they have reopened the floor for some to criticize the racial divisions that still exist in our country.
While targets of their criticism can be myriad, Christians have been called out for not pursuing “racial reconciliation,” a theory that whites and blacks (primarily) should be more integrated in personal friendships and churches than they are, and should be more equal in the broader society.
“This theology and sociology–to establish primary relationships across race, challenge social systems of injustice and inequality, confess historical, social, and personal sin, and accept apologies and move past bitterness–is offered as the solution to [a society dominated and divided by race].”Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, p. 127.
Note: I do not recommend this book, but am citing it for the purpose of clarity and honesty about the topic.
This reconciliation, it is suggested, can only take place when one group apologizes for historical wrongs committed against the other, and actively seeks to dismantle discriminating and prejudiced “social structures.” The Bible is cited (frequently out of context) to support the idea that the Church should play an active role in “reconciling” races (see Ephesians 2:14ff).
Racial reconciliation, it is claimed, has been unsuccessful because of the racism (or bias; I will use these terms interchangeably) that still exists within the Church. Quotes from Christian leaders of the past are used to show that the Church has been historically complicit in the ongoing struggle for “racial equality.”
Personal experiences of individual acts of racism are recounted to strengthen the argument. From there, critics conclude that, since there is an historical record of racism, and since they have witnessed instances of individual acts of bias, then the problem remains “systemic” throughout the Church.
That conclusion is applied at the local level. If a church congregation does not reflect the complexion of its community, critics may point out, then it is an indication they have either failed to make reaching other races a priority (which is considered “wrong”) or there still exists racial bias within that congregation.
A complete evaluation of racial reconciliation is beyond the scope of this article. Some underlying presuppositions will be challenged below. However, our focus will primarily be how Christians should respond to race/racism as it relates to the Church.
Certainly having inter-ethnic friendships is a good thing. But, to suggest that bias is the reason why more Christians don’t have them judges people unfairly.
It’s true that we should all recognize the shortcomings of our predecessors and not defend what was clearly wrong (although we should learn from their mistakes rather than judge them). But, it is misguided to suggest that churches today automatically operate under the “bad” influence of good men from their past.
It is right to criticize (and denounce) a local church that purposely avoids reaching select people in its community. But, it is slanderous to suggest (without any inquiry) that a church that doesn’t happen to look like its community has done so purposefully and is, therefore, guilty of racial bias.
These are thorny and difficult matters. To be fair, there are race issues in our country today. However, racial bias is hardly as systemic as it is presented to be, especially within the Church.
I would like to suggest three possibilities for how American Christians could respond to race issues.
As with most accounts of interracial violence, many people conclude (sometimes too quickly) that racism is the cause. (The interracial violence which gets the most play is white-on-black, despite the fact that whites are more than twice as likely to be the victim of black violence, and more whites than blacks are shot by police on average.) When racism is addressed by the media and politiphiles though, it isn’t just about doing wrong to someone who’s skin color is different than yours. More often than not, it is addressed as a ‘systemic problem of oppression in a society of white privilege.’
There is much criticism that could be leveled against critical race theory and intersectionality from which these ideas come, but here are two ways racism, according to these views, is at work in our society.
The concept of implicit bias is that people do not act out of conscious racism, but behave based on subconscious racism. The individual himself may not even realize the racist impulses at work deep below the surface. This implicit bias is the reason for issues such as police aggression towards people of color, poverty, and unfair hiring practices, just to name a few.
The implicit bias test (IAT) has now been largely defunct; but because it fits nicely within the politicized concepts of race and racism, misinformed citizens at all levels of society continue to play the implicit bias card any time interracial conflict arises (or is alleged to have arisen).
The accusation of unconscious bias is especially sinister. Once someone has been labeled as a racist, there is hardly any way to recover from it; it is impossible to prove a negative. Sadly this tactic has been used by some to destroy the lives and careers of good people who just happened to unintentionally say the wrong thing at the wrong time.
Racial disparity refers to different levels of representations between races in a given field. Statistics are used to prove this difference between races. For example (and this is a made-up disparity as far as I know), blacks receive prison terms 73% longer than whites who commit the same crime. This (made-up) statistic shows that there are “different levels of representation” in prison terms between races.
Another statistic might be that though 34% of MBA graduates are black and 50% are white, only 10% of business executives are black while 75% are white. (Again, I have made up these statistics for the purpose of showing what a disparity is. Any correlation to actual statistics is entirely unintended and coincidental.)
Statistics like these are cited to prove that disparities in our society exist because of race. These disparities are then used to bolster the claim of implicit bias. Implicit bias leads to disparities, and disparities prove implicit bias. (Never mind the circular reasoning; you’re being too logical.)
However, you cannot prove causation just by observing a disparity. (It is undeniable that there are racial disparities in our country. What is missing from most criticisms of these disparities, however, is any suggestion that behaviors may play a role in creating them.)
Addressing racism in the above-mentioned ways is typical of liberal media outlets, politicians, and elitist academicians, but probably not the way Christians should address it.
From a Christian perspective, clear instances of racism (not suspected instances) should be publicly denounced for what they are: a manifestation of original sin that lies in the heart of every human being. It is wicked and should be repented of. (I am not talking about “microaggressions” or perceived slights. Christians are to “esteem other better than themselves” (Philippians 2:3) which means we should be giving the benefit of the doubt, and clearly and politely inquiring about such perceptions.)
A well-meaning person might suggest that “we just stop talking about ‘race,’ and it won’t be an issue.” While the person making that statement may mean well, they aren’t considering reality. Race is a construct that our society has been force-fed for so long that it’s nearly impossible for us to not think about others in terms of race.
Race is counted in college admissions and student bodies. Is there an acceptable level of diversity among your college’s student body?
Race is counted in law firms and businesses. What percentage of your partners or executives is black?
Race is counted in NFL head coach and general manager positions. Why aren’t more “qualified people of color” being hired?
Race is counted in prison populations and arrests. Why are there more blacks in prison?
Race is represented in our nation’s government (see the “Black Caucus”) and politics. Who will win the “black vote”?
We as a country have been brainwashed to see race as a differentiating factor between us. It is how we are segmented and how we often (unfortunately) segment ourselves. Rightly or wrongly, it is considered by some to be a fundamental aspect of their identity. It is hard to see how we can just ignore that across the board.
It is certainly a worthy goal to move beyond “race” as an identifier of persons and a fundamental aspect of our identities. An ideal society would stop fixating on our differences and rather emphasize our common humanity. Achievement and merit would replace racial preferences. The common thought would be, “Who cares what color her skin is? Who cares what shape his eyes happen to be? That’s another human being I’m looking at and interacting with. Do they need help? What can I do?”
I do not recommend measuring someone by their ethnicity when you meet them or get to know them. But, unfortunately, the politicization of race makes the idea that we can just ignore it unrealistic.
Though Christians should continue to model the kind of “color blind” treatment of all people (consistent with the Gospel), we should also recognize that a person being viewed as a certain race can shape his or her life experiences (without believing those experiences are only because of race, or buying into the faulty idea of systemic racism). Sensitivity to the issues and empathy for our brothers and sisters should characterize churches.
A third way of responding to race in our country takes the long view of dealing with the overall disease of which race/racism is merely a symptom…
Promoting Sound, Biblical Theology
Christianity is culturally relevant in whatever culture it is found. However, not every aspect of a culture is consistent with Christianity and therefore should be challenged (see Titus 1:12-13). The way to challenge culture is with clear, contextual Bible teaching/preaching and consistent Christian living. These two have clearly been absent from our country, especially as it regards race.
Race is a cultural construct: it is not inherent to mankind, but a manufactured categorization with strong links to Enlightenment and evolutionary thinking. The very concept of race(s) is not even consistent with Bible doctrine. Rather than swallowing the line about race(s) that our culture is feeding us, we should be finding out, What does the Bible actually teach about race?
But even that question is only a start because when we are addressing race issues, we are merely addressing symptoms. The underlying disease is comprised of our ignorance of Bible truth and, consequently, our failure to live out a biblical worldview.
The Bible is the tool for both personal and cultural transformation, but you don’t get the latter without first dealing with the former.
For example, the Church would have answers for a lot of the problems we face as a society (not just regarding race) if it would reclaim and proclaim a biblical anthropology (doctrine of man). Consider what a survey of this doctrine reinforces:
- Origins: Mankind is a race (not races) of created (not evolved) beings. Part of their unique creation is the fact that they bear the image of God, setting them apart from and above the animals. This image secures for each human being inherent dignity and is the basis for both our treatment of one another and our submission to God (Genesis 1:26-27; 9:6; Acts 17:26; James 3:9-10; Matthew 22:15-22).
- Nature: Human beings are a plurality in unity (Genesis 1:26-27), displaying two distinct but complementary genders (Genesis 2:7, 18, 21-23; First Corinthians 11:8-12), and whose existence is both material (body) and immaterial (soul/spirit). Each possesses a free will, and acts as an individual with individual responsibility.
- Purpose: Human beings exist for God’s pleasure and for God’s glory (Revelation 4:11; First Corinthians 10:31). This dual purpose can be fulfilled, in part, through vocation (work) and through evangelism.
- Condition: Human beings are fallen creatures, tainted by original sin that influences their thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and all relationships (Jeremiah 17:9; Psalm 51:5; Romans 5:12, 19; Ephesians 2:1-3). In this sinful condition, humans are separated from their righteous Creator, guilty and condemned before Him (Romans 3:19-26).
- Need: Mankind’s greatest need is salvation (Romans 1:16-17), a gift offered to all of mankind (Romans 5:15, 18; First Timothy 4:10) but which can only be secured by faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12; Romans 6:23). This salvation restores our broken relationship to God (Second Corinthians 5:17-19; Colossians 1:20-22) enabling us to love him and others as we should.
Each of these aspects could be further outlined to address the shortcomings of our self-perception and our view and treatment of one another as races. Do we love our neighbor as ourselves? Do we even see other people groups as our neighbors?
True, doctrinal instruction for transformation takes time. It takes leadership (pastors and evangelists). However, in the absence of this kind of teaching another solution has been pushed: a message of political activism supported with theologically worded explanations (see above). That message is little more than a revival of Social Gospel ideas, which were both theologically liberal and post-millennial.
Christians do need to respond to race issues.
They need to respond to them biblically, without concerns of upsetting the status quo.
They need to respond to them personally, without regard to social implications.
They need to respond to them honestly, without politicized explanations or fear of reprisal for speaking the truth.