Sunday, December 6, 2020

Racism and the Cross

“You don’t have to know a lot of things for your life to make a lasting difference in the world. But you do have to know the few great things that matter, and then be willing to live for them and die for them. The people that make a durable difference in the world are not the people who have mastered many things, but who have been mastered by a few great things.”

Seeking a path to peace

Pastor John Piper started his stirring “Don’t Waste Your Life” sermon, which was delivered to thousands of college students at the Passion Conference in 2000, with these powerful words. This challenging address had a profound impact on the lives of many young Christians, including my own, and I think the opening lines continue to be relevant in the current day. As people survey the current landscape of our country, I believe that there are many who want to make a difference in the world and help bring forth a more just, peaceful, and equitable nation and world. Regarding the topic of racism, I believe that there are many people who want to work towards a world free of racial inequality, injustice and animosity.

This series has been exploring the topic of racism from a Christian perspective, first unpacking the extensive Biblical teachings that undermine both personal and systemic forms of racism and then considering how an understanding of the gospel should cut the root of defensiveness and lead towards the freedom of being able to confess and repent when we have fallen short in the area of racism both individually and corporately. However, this series would not be complete if it did not offer a solution and a way forward.

I humbly admit that I do not know “a lot of things” when it comes to the topic of racism. Although I have lived, worked, and traveled in multicultural settings for over a decade, there are many things that I don’t know both intellectually and experientially. I certainly don’t pretend to know what it is like to be a racial minority in America, nor do I know the ins-and-outs of every policy or institution that might be relevant to this discussion. However, I do know one “great thing” that I believe has the power to address the problem of racism at its core – the gospel of Jesus Christ.

What is “the gospel”?

A clarification of the definition of “the gospel” is needed before we dive in. The word gospel simply means “good news”, but like many words, I think that it is important to be specific and define our terms. Relevant to the discussion of racism, people may mean different things by words such as injustice, oppression, white supremacy and even the word racism, itself. Similarly, people might mean different things when they refer to “the gospel.” Some may refer to a general sense in which God is loving, gracious and accepting towards all people. Others may point to Jesus’ death as primarily a demonstration of sacrificial love meant to expose the dangers of political power and claims of absolute truth. Although this description is admittedly brief, my explanation of the gospel from a post on the Christian worldview hopefully gives clarity to how I am using the term.

God’s plan of salvation, which is foreshadowed throughout the Old Testament, was accomplished through Jesus’ death by crucifixion and subsequent resurrection. This good news, or gospel, forms the foundation of the Christian worldview. Entire books have been written to expand upon the depths of the gospel, but in short, the good news is the answer to the following question: How can sinful people have fellowship with a holy, just God? “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and the just punishment for these transgressions is eternal separation from God (Romans 6:23). Yet, God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8). As a result, God demonstrates his justice in punishing sin through Christ’s atoning sacrifice and his mercy in forgiving sinners through faith (Romans 3:25-26). This free gift of salvation is available to all who “declare with [their] mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in [their] heart that God raised him from the dead.” (Romans 10:9). The Christian worldview is built upon the foundation of this good news.

Examining two paths forward

I want to be clear that racism is evil. Although we may not all agree on its definition, pervasiveness and various forms, there is general agreement across our nation that racism is a great moral plight. Yet, there is a whirlwind of voices leading the way forward, resulting in confusion about the role of the church in response to racial tension and injustice. I believe the church’s response must be rooted in proclaiming the hope and redemption that is found in the gospel. There are other voices providing different solutions and approaches. I believe that these perspectives largely come from a place of good intentions, seeking to address real problems, however, I believe that they lead to vastly different outcomes than a gospel-focused approach. For the sake of clarity, I will juxtapose the solution offered by the gospel against the general message being offered by the world (though I recognize that it is impossible to fully represent the range of different perspectives and solutions).

Two views of the problem

To understand a proposed solution, we must first understand the nature of the problem being addressed. I admit that I do not understand every aspect of racism and have not experienced racism as a minority, but I believe that racism in both personal and systemic forms is a symptom of a deeper-rooted disease: sin.

We must first understand that sin is fundamentally rebellion against God. “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:11-12). We were created to love God with all of our hearts and to glorify him, but our nature, which we inherit from Adam (Romans 5:12), is to follow our passions and desires and to seek our own glory. This leads to vices such as hostility, strife, jealousy, rivalries, dissensions, and division (Galatians 5:20), which, when practiced on the basis of race, provide a pretty good definition of racism. That we do not do the good that we know we should do, but instead do that which we know we should not do (Romans 7:19), is a universal part of the human experience, even by those who would not label it as sin. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Our conscience reminds us of this reality. We all desperately need a savior.

There are competing ideologies that identify a different fundamental issue. The main problem is not the oppressive nature of our own sinful nature and rebellion against God, but the pervasive and persistent oppression of marginalized identity groups by dominant identity groups. This way of thinking divides people based on an array of different identities according to gender, sexual orientation, gender preference, physical ability, and of course, race. The oppressors in the dominant group will by nature oppress the marginalized group, not necessarily by committing unjust or cruel acts, but by wielding hegemonic power, or the ability to shape the cultural norms and values of society. With regards to racism, white Americans are the dominant group and whiteness is the ultimate disease that has plagued our country since its inception.

Two views of the solution

As in medicine, it is important that we correctly identify the underlying cause of an illness and not merely its symptoms. Worldly ideologies may make some correct observations about outward symptoms, such as racial hierarchies and power structures being used to justify the atrocities of slavery and Jim Crow, but if they do not correctly identify the underlying disease of sin, then they will not be able to offer a path that leads to lasting peace and reconciliation.

However, if we recognize that the foundational problem is the sinful and wicked heart of man, then we can point to the sufficient solution of the redemption, forgiveness, and transformation that comes through faith in Christ. God’s plan of salvations was prophesied centuries in advance. In the 7th century B.C, the prophet Isaiah wrote, “He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5). The Apostle Paul explains, “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Our initial healing is in our relationship with God. Though we were rebels and enemies of God, Christ died for us so that we might be cleansed from our sin and clothed with his righteousness, able to enjoy fellowship with a holy God. It is essential to understand that in order to be reconciled with each other, we must first be reconciled with our Creator.

Being reconciled to God through Christ transforms our heart and desires. Believers are encouraged to “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:24). Our right relationship with God enables us to pursue reconciliation with others and to put the needs of others above our own. We are to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than [ourselves]” and to “look not only to [our] own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4).

This is not just an abstract, theological theory. The transformative power of the gospel led to reconciliation between groups of people who experienced ethnic tension that equaled if not surpassed that found between blacks and whites in America. Writing to a diverse church in Ephesus, the Apostle Paul wrote, “But now in Christ Jesus, you who were once far off (Gentiles) have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both (Jews and Gentiles) one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace.” (Ephesians 2:13-15). In other words, Christ made a bridge between two hostile groups. Through a shared identity in Christ, there can be unity between drastically different people. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28). Having been reconciled first with God, we are able to pursue lasting peace and reconciliation with others that is built on the foundation of our shared identity as children of God and members of the body of Christ.

The solutions being offered by the world are much different, and I fear they will only lead to constant and increasing division, dissension and unrelenting guilt, as will be explained in a couple of paragraphs. In vague terms, the solution is to dismantle the power of the oppressor group and the scourge of white supremacy, which doesn’t necessarily mean confronting people in white hoods carrying Confederate flags, but can also mean de-normalizing “white values” such as “objective, rational linear thinking” or the belief that “hard work is the key to success”. I must admit that I am confused about how this practically looks in the real world, but there have been calls to action, such as movements to defund the police or to decolonize school curriculums. It seems that there has been much more focus on tearing down existing institutions and cultural norms, so I remain confused about the vision for the rebuilding effort.

This is not to say that we should not give a critical evaluation when certain racial groups are being inequitably served by public institutions or when there are disparities in education, health, housing, etc. For example, the achievement gap among racial groups in America has been pervasive and should lead to changes in educational funding and policy. However, I fear the current path of focusing on racial identity will only lead to a revolving struggle for innocence and an endless supply of guilt. The following passage from Kevin DeYoung’s article Thinking Theologically About Racial Tensions: Sin and Guilt articulately illustrates my concerns.

“I’m reminded of something I read in Shelby Steele’s remarkable book The Content of Our Character: ‘I think the racial struggle in America has always been primarily a struggle for innocence’ (5). According to Steele, one of America’s most honest and trenchant voices on these matters, both races understand that to lose innocence is to lose power, and given the way the racial debate has been fostered in this country, one’s innocence depends on the other’s guilt. Consequently, racial difference has become the currency of power. To maintain their innocence, ‘blacks sting whites with guilt, remind them of their racial past, accuse them of new and more subtle forms of racism.’ And in return whites try to retrieve their innocence by discrediting blacks and denying their difficulties, ‘for in this denial is the denial of their own guilt’ (145).

For whites, it can feel like redemption is always out of reach. If you don’t have animus in your heart, you have implicit bias that you can’t see. If you haven’t personally done anything against black people, other whites have, and you bear their shame. If you speak out, you should have listened. If you stay quiet, your silence is violence. If you do nothing tangible to counter injustice, that’s sinful indifference. Try to take the lead in fixing things, you may want to check your privilege. Your institution shouldn’t be all white, but it shouldn’t engage in tokenism. You should celebrate diversity, but without cultural appropriation. And any disagreement with the fundamental contours of this one-way conversation is just another manifestation of white fragility.

In other words: guilty, guilty, guilty.

And for blacks, it must feel like even the barest recognition of the ongoing effects of racism is a bridge too far for most whites. Because whites are often preoccupied with their search for innocence, they fail to muster even meager sympathy or understanding for black pain. If you want to talk about policing in America, we will bring up black homicide rates in Chicago. If you want to talk about criminal justice reform, we will mention the black abortion rate. And if that doesn’t adequately move the guilt from our shoulders to yours, we can always talk about our black friends, insist that we are color blind, or weaponize pull quotes from Thomas Sowell.

In other words: guilty, guilty, guilty.”

A few closing thoughts

Obviously, it would be foolish to deny that whites have caused far greater harm to blacks in America’s history. Yet, despite often good intentions to address real issues, I struggle to see how the current path of increasingly focusing in identity differences, not only racially but in a host of other areas, leads to lasting peace and reconciliation. How does it lead to freedom from guilt? How does it cut the rope in the tug-of-war for innocence? How does it abolish the finger-pointing and self-justification, and instead lead to unity around a shared identity? I don’t see positive answers to these questions.

However, the power of the gospel accomplishes all these things. As I said in the introduction, I don’t pretend to know everything (or even a lot of things) about racism, but I do claim to know one great thing: Jesus died for sinners that they might be reconciled to God, freed from the chains of sin, and able to pursue reconciliation with others. The gospel ends the struggle for innocence, because through the gospel we realize that we are ultimately in the same boat – sinners in need of a savior. There is no need to defend our own innocence because we recognize that our righteousness does not come from ourselves or our good deeds, but from Christ. Having experienced the sacrificial love of Christ and received a transformed heart, we are able to sacrificially love others, even those who are greatly different from us or who have caused us great harm. Even those who otherwise would be our enemies. This is a way forward. This is a path to peace.

How does this path look practically in the real world? For the church, it means that being gospel focused should be a core value and primary mission. It might seem like a given, but I fear that it is not in all churches or the lives of all Christians. This is not to say that every sermon, song, book or conversation needs to be directly focused on the gospel, but the gospel should be the center of both our corporate fellowship and private devotions. Christians never outgrow the gospel. We need to be continually reminded that God first loved us and sent his Son to die for us, that we have been greatly forgiven based on no merit of our own, and that our righteousness does not rest in secondary identities or in our performance, but in the free gift of grace that we receive through Christ. This frees us to sacrificially love others as God has sacrificially loved us.

It also means that we recognize that what the world needs most is not structural change or the dismantling of oppressive identity groups, but inner transformation that comes through the gospel and the experience of the love of God. This does not mean that non-Christians cannot make valuable observations or contributions toward overcoming racism. It does not mean that we ignore racial minorities’ felt needs or physical realities. Yet, it does mean that what the world needs most is to be reconciled with God and freed from the guilt of sin, enabling lasting peace and reconciliation with others.