He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. (John 15:2)
Defensiveness is one of the branches that God has needed to prune in my life. Despite growth in this area, it is a persistent little vine that keeps trying to rear its ugly little head and choke out the fruitfulness of the branch. Partly, this is because I am human. I think being defensive is a natural response of our human flesh and something that we all struggle with to some degree. Without completely psychoanalyzing myself, I think that my disposition and life experience make me particularly prone to this sinful attitude, without the work of God’s spirit in my life. By the grace of God, I have mostly learned to control my tongue and typing in this area, but it is an area where I need sustained grace and strength from God.
In the first post of this series, I provided a systematic exploration of how the Bible addresses the topic of racism. Throughout scripture, we see that God’s plan of redemption is for people from all tribes, tongues, and nations and leaves no room for either personal prejudice or institutionalized systems of racism. Of course, as is always the case, sinful humanity falls short of God’s plans, desires and intentions. This includes both individual Christians and the corporate church.
The topic of racism has been at the forefront of the national conversation this year. While I have observed many instances of honest self-reflection and confession of past failures of commission or omission, I have also witnessed examples of defensiveness at both the individual and corporate level. The purpose of this post is not to provide a mea culpa of all the ways in which Christians and the church have fallen short of the vision of racial reconciliation, integration, and peace that God sets forth in scripture. Nor is to condemn individuals or the church as being pervasively and inherently racist, as some voices in the conversation are doing. Instead, the purpose is to cut the root of the vine of defensiveness, which I think is a prerequisite to pursuing the shalom peace of God.
At the individual level, the good news of the cross of Christ should be a death blow to the attitude of defensiveness. Embedded in the central message of Christianity is the truth that “there is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:11-12). None will be justified by their good works because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), but through repentance and faith in Christ, “a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” (Romans 3:28). No one will be able to provide a defense before God. Our only defense is to place our trust in the righteousness of Christ that is imputed to us through faith in him.
Even after turning from sin and trusting in Christ, we will battle against sin during this life. Writing to believers, the Apostle John writes, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:8-10). This verse does not give the Christian freedom to continue to live in unrepentant sin nor does it provide grounds for living a life that is void of spiritual growth and sanctification. We should strive to grow in godliness and Christlike character in this life, with the realization that we will still fall short and that our hope is not in our moral perfection, but in his atoning sacrifice for us. When that sinks deep into our souls, it should eliminate the crutch of defensiveness.
For the Christian, this should apply to all areas of our lives, including racism. We should not defend ourselves by claiming that we are color-blind or that we don’t have a racist bone in our body. To put it bluntly, I find that people who make such claims are often people who have chosen to live in places where they only interact with people who look and sound just like them. If we are honest with ourselves and look deep within ourselves, I think that we will see that our thoughts and the attitudes of our hearts condemn us. As Jesus teaches through multiple examples in the Sermon on the Mount, following God’s law is not merely about conforming to external standards, but is about the internal condition of our hearts.
A few years ago, there was an unfortunate incident in which a teacher in the school system where I teach was caught on video yelling at students and using the N-word in her tirade. She was rightfully fired. There is no defense for her words and the school system absolutely made the correct decision. There was no other way forward. However, it saddened me to see the vitriolic response to her in the comments section of articles reporting on the incident. Since we had a mutual friend, I wrote an email to express that, while I fully supported her termination, I did not demonize her and that I understood how a person who entered an urban school system with good intentions could be led to dark thoughts, and eventually harmful words, through a discouraging and defeating teaching experience in a cross-cultural setting. I am thankful that some of my inner thoughts have not been broadcast for the whole world to hear, as her words were. I believe that honest reflection would lead everyone, regardless of race, to the same conclusion.
Thus, when engaged in conversations on race, such a realization, along with the fact that we are only righteous through Christ, should cut off defensiveness. When white Christians are told to acknowledge our privilege or to abandon our fragility, the first response should not be defensiveness. That does not mean that we have to accept every charge that is brought against us or that there is not room to oppose certain views and philosophies, but it does mean that we should not enter conversations with the goal of defending our own righteousness. We live in a racialized society. Humans have the natural ability to recognize patterns. To some extent, all people of all races, even Christians, are going to struggle with personal prejudice. I think there is freedom in acknowledging this, asking the Holy Spirit to help us grow in this area, and ultimately clinging to God’s mercy and promise for our righteousness and justification.
While I have reached a point where I don’t take offense at a personal level, I do feel more defensive when charges of racism are brought against the church. I feel an immediate impulse to say, “Well, what about the abolition movement? What about Christian civil rights leaders? What about all the schools, hospitals, charities, and relief organizations that have been built by Christians?” Partly, I interpret these allegations as being threats to the truthfulness of the gospel and the Christian worldview. While it is true that some do reject Christianity due to the failings of either individual Christians or the church, my fears are misplaced and I think that these are not good reasons to reject Christianity. To determine whether Christianity is true, we should not look to the conduct of the church, but answer the objective question whether Jesus rose from the dead. Yes, the church should shine as a city on a hill, but as discussed previously, it will also be full of redeemed sinners, not to mention those who may claim the name of Christ but do not actually follow Christ. As with the Christian, we should not expect perfection from the church.
Still, the impulse to defend the church remains. Over the past few months, I have frequently heard Christians refer to the Biblical principle that each individual is responsible for their own sins, not the sins of their ancestors.
The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them. (Ezekiel 18:20)
One does not have to deny this principle to also recognize many instances in which leaders of high character led corporate confession of current sin or confessed the sins of their ancestors. Daniel, who would rather face the lion’s den than fail to honor God in prayer, confessed the following after realizing from Jeremiah’s prophecies that the Jews would be exiled from Jerusalem for seventy years due to the sins of their fathers:
Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws...Our sins and the iniquities of our ancestors have made Jerusalem and your people an object of scorn to all those around us...Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act! For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name. (Daniel 9:4-19)
Similarly, after hearing that the walls of Jerusalem were still in ruin, Nehemiah offered the following lament while still in exile in Persia:
Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses. (Nehemiah 1:5-7).
From examples such as these, we can pull out two principles that are important in the present day. First, while we may not have directly committed certain sins in the past, we are not free from the consequences of those actions or inaction. Yes, we were not directly involved in slavery and there were certainly Christians and churches that fought against slavery, but there were others that used the Bible to justify this treacherous institution and to claim that blacks were less than fully human. To think that we are free from the consequences of those grievous sins is naive. Likewise, we may not have stayed silent during the Jim Crow years or while neighborhoods were redlined and intentionally segregated, but we would be foolish to think that we are free of the consequences of those eras.
Second, we are not as innocent as we think. Both Daniel and Nehemiah include themselves and their current generation in their confession. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day built tombs to honor prophets that had been mistreated and sometimes even killed by their ancestors, yet they were the generation that would kill the Messiah. I think that we often think more highly of ourselves than we ought. We assume, “If I had been alive in the 1800’s, I would have been an abolitionist. If I had been alive in Nazi Germany, I would have hidden the Jews and plotted against Hitler. If I had been alive as America expanded westward, I would have fought for the rights of Native Americans.” And some of us would have. Many would not. It is easy to point a finger at the sins of the past, yet fail to miss the failures of the present. At the very least, as the body of Christ, we should be able to admit that we have been too indifferent to the racial inequality that exists in our country. The fact that Sunday morning is one of the most segregated times of the week testifies that we have not taken racial reconciliation as seriously as we should.
Both individually and corporately we should be able to throw off the chains of defensiveness without putting on the shackles of shame. We should be able to say that we are children of God who are clothed with the righteousness of Christ, yet we still struggle with the sin of personal prejudice. Our hope is not in our own perfection, but in that of Christ. As a church we should be able to confess that in the past and the present, whether by action or inaction, we have not sought racial peace, justice, and reconciliation as we ought. Still, the church is a city on a hill, the body of Christ, a force for good in the world, and the herald of the gospel.
By throwing off the weight of defensiveness, we should be able to listen with a genuine desire to learn, understand and grow. Yet, we should not be ashamed of the message with which we have been entrusted. I believe that the church boldly sharing and living out the gospel is the only hope for cultural transformation and lasting peace and reconciliation. That is the subject of my next post.