Race & Faith (3): Mutual Responsibility

In the first installment of this series I articulated a desire for God’s people (especially his Baptist people) to foster a healthy racial unity-in-diversity as a way of reflecting the gospel and previewing his future kingdom. It recognized that we have a long way to go in this area, and that we need to map out a biblically based and sociologically sound model for achieving this sort of racial unity-in-diversity. The second installment evaluated four secular models, observed by George Yancey, for understanding racism and found each of them insufficient. In the present installment, we will trace Yancey’s proposal that the biblical doctrine of human depravity is key to a right understanding of racism (chapters 6–8 of Beyond Racial Gridlock).

In chapter six, Yancey argues that we must reconstruct the American conversation on race and racism and do so in an overtly Christian manner. He writes, “I believe that racism is a problem that requires specifically Christian insight” (77). Christian insight is necessary because Scripture alone teaches the doctrine of human depravity, a doctrine that explains the origins and nature of racism (78). Informed by this doctrine of depravity, Yancey proposes the mutual responsibility model:

The mutual responsibility model takes our sin nature into account and puts obligations on both majority and minority group members, because the sins of both the majority and the minority contribute to racial tension. I do not mean that the obligations of both groups are identical. They are not. However, unless both the minority and the majority live by Christian principles, we are doomed to live alienated from each other. (80)

Yancey argues that sin motivates humans to build their own kingdom rather than God’s; to be self-centered rather than God-centered. This egocentrism operates in the evil we know as racism. Racism operates from a position of mistrust between people because people are, at the core, sinful (82–84). (I agree with Yancey about “mistrust,” and hasten to add other several other complementary components of the racism engine, including ignorance, hate, negative familial influence, and cultural malformation).  However, once people of all races recognize this fact, “we can find Christ’s gift of salvation” (82). Yancey concludes the chapter by noting that once we trust God’s grace in Christ we can confess our sin, including the sin(s) of racism (83–85).

In chapter seven, Yancey addresses “Sin Nature and European Americans.” He notes that this topic is an awkward one for him because he is a person of color writing about white Americans (88). So he proceeds (accurately and graciously in my opinion) to provide evidence of historical and institutional racism among European Americans. Even though many, if not most, contemporary European Americans have not personally committed terrible acts of racism (e.g. slavery), Yancey claims many have benefited from those sins (89). Yancey points out how the U. S. government’s Federal Housing Administration Loan Program (started in 1937), which was designed to provide loans for middle-to-low income families, denied loans to black families who wished to integrate into white neighborhoods. As a result wealthy whites, rather than blacks, purchased suburban homes. “The program helped facilitate . . . white flight from poor inner city neighborhoods” (91). Such institutional racism has had devastating effects on the economies, educational systems, and crime rates of large cities throughout America (91–93).

The answer to these ills, rooted both in individual sin and corrupted structures, is a proper understanding and appropriation of Christ’s redemption in general and his forgiveness in particular. Such forgiveness only comes by way of repentance. Thus Yancey argues for corporate repentance, that European Americans display personal “sorrow for the historic and contemporary mistreatment of people of color” (95). European Americans must, according to Yancey, seek to put themselves in the places of minority groups in America. Instead of seeking to be color blind or to avoid discussion of “race,” white Americans can recognize the sins of ill-gotten gain, a recognition which can catalyze reconciliation between them and black Christians (95–99). And vice versa.

In chapter eight, Yancey discusses “Sin Nature and Racial Minorities.” He notes, “People of color are strongly tempted to deny any responsibility for racial healing.” This often takes place because, “racial minorities have been and continue to be victims of racism.” However, victims of racism have a sin nature too, and usually have sin of their own which should be recognized (100). With this in mind, Yancey explores the ways in which minorities use their race to sin against the majority. He then describes how Christians of the majority and minority can seek reconciliation through corporate forgiveness.

Yancey demonstrates how minorities can use their race for sinful advantage over the majority. Minorities, he argues, often play “the race card” (101–104). For an example, Yancey cites Glen Kehrein,[1] who reports how he (a white man) once confronted a black minister for an adulterous affair the minister had started. Rather than confess, the minister accused Kehrein of racism; the race card was in full play. Yancey thus describes playing the race card as “an intentional attempt to use one’s racial status to escape responsibility to deny one’s sin” (101). This kind of strategy, Yancey notes, is “our problem, not the problem of majority group members.” Furthermore, Christians of minorities must battle this kind of covering of sin, Yancey argues (103).

In order to fight such sin, Yancey explores the minority side of the mutual responsibility model. First, he addresses the question of reparations. He disagrees with such policy unless it ensures and does not repress the possibility of positive race relations (106). Second, and most significant, Yancey explores the responsibility that Christian minorities have to extend forgiveness. “If white Christians approach us with an attitude of corporate repentance, we must reciprocate with an attitude of corporate forgiveness” (108). Such mutual responsibility absolves the supposed right of either group to blame the other. Yancey states, “It sounds easier to forgive than to repent until you realize that when you forgive, you give up the right to have an ace to play later” (109). Forgiveness cannot be withheld; it must be extended. For Yancey, this is the only way to move forward in a position of respect and equality with one another.

Yancey is right that any model for understanding race and racism must grapple with the biblical doctrine of sin. Sin is individual, but also manifests itself in corrupt societal structures. Further, sin and depravity are universal, with manifestations in majority and minority cultures. In the next post we will explore Yancey’s constructive proposal which builds upon the person and work of Christ as it seeks racial unity-in-diversity.

[1] Raleigh Washington and Glen Kehrein, Breaking Down Walls: A Model for Reconciliation in an Age of Strife (Chicago: Moody Press, 1993), 83.

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