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.

Race & Faith (2): Four Secular Models for Dealing with Racism

In the previous installment of this series, we noted that evangelicals have not quite made the progress we might think we have in terms of overcoming racism. One reason is that many of us have not crafted a biblically informed and conceptually clear model for understanding race and racism. If we give any sustained thought to race and racism, we tend to adopt secular models and assume that they are compatible with a Christian framework for thinking through the issues.

In the United States, four models dominate the discussion of race and racism: colorblindness, Anglo-conformity, multiculturalism, and white-responsibility. Each of these models is “secular.” Moreover, each of the models stems from one, or both, of two deficient definitions of racism. These definitions do not account for the full biblical teaching on sin and redemption. None of the models are shaped by the Bible’s storyline, and therefore none of them are fully sufficient for addressing race and racism.

Yancey thus begins by noting how the four predominant models for dealing with racism stem from two contrasting definitions of racism: individualism and structuralism. The individualist’s “understanding defines racism as something overt that can be done only by one individual to another. This definition relies on the concept of freewill individualism . . . . The individualist definition of racism holds that racial strife is the result of an individual choosing to act in a racist manner” (20). Citing work by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, Yancey notes that white evangelicals are especially prone to adopt this definition because evangelicals have a strong concept of personal sin (21).

The structuralist definition, however, holds that “society can perpetuate racism even when individuals in the society do not intend to be racist. The structuralist viewpoint rests on the idea that humans are affected by the social structures in which they live.” (21–22) Again citing Emerson and Smith, Yancey observes that blacks are more likely than whites to be structuralists. Yet the difference is even more acute among evangelicals: “white evangelicals are even more individualistic than other whites, and black evangelicals are even farther apart than whites and blacks in general” (23). Yancey argues that both of these definitions on their own “ . . . ignore the spiritual dimension of sin. They are secular definitions.” (24).

Emerging from these two definitions of racism are four secular models for dealing with racism. Yancey describes the models and evaluates them, finding each one insufficient for building a Christian understanding of racial unity and diversity. The remainder of this post includes a brief summary of his description and evaluation of each model.

Yancey first describes the colorblindness model. Its proponents claim (or imply) that, “to end racism, we have to ignore racial reality. Advocates of colorblindness contend that efforts to alleviate our economic racial divide only elevate the importance of race, which in turn only reinforces the negative power of race in our society” (29–30). Yancey notes that politically conservative Christians often baptize this secular view because they believe the individual is (largely) responsible for his or her own flourishing in society. The strengths of this model are twofold: its laudable goal (for individuals to stop being racist) would certainly improve our society, and it helps minorities avoid looking for racism where it does not exist (32–33). Yet Yancey finds marked weakness in this model. Advocates of this view are, at best, naïve about their own ability to deal with the historical effects of racism. Further, this model can also lead to distortions that actually perpetuate racism. Also, and more subtly, Yancey sees the possibility for an incipient avoidance of racial equality in this model (34–36). Finally, a certain doctrine of sin, which errantly tends to locate the causes of racial disunity exclusively in the individual, underlies this view (39).

Second, the Anglo-conformity model overlaps with the colorblindness model in that its proponents assume “that minorities’ lack of success cannot be blamed on contemporary racism.” That is, “If racial groups can obtain relative economic equality, then conflict between them will lessen or even disappear” (41). In other words, in this view non-Anglo persons should seek the sort of upward economic and social mobility that many whites have. Racial problems are class (economic) issues. Once the class-economic problems are alleviated, usually through government-sponsored programs, the race problems will likewise be alleviated. Positively, this model acknowledges economic realities and it looks for minorities to take the lead in solving the ills of their families and neighborhoods (45–46). However, the model has several weaknesses: it puts too much emphasis on economic solutions, devalues minority cultures by making such a big deal out of Anglo culture, and finds itself so tied to a certain view of capitalism that any alternate economic proposals find no place in the discussion. Even though many Christians have adopted this view, Yancey argues that it comes up short of the humble nature of Christianity, which eschews rather than gobbles up power (51).

Third, the multiculturalism model seeks to build a “society in which distinct racial and ethnic groups preserve their own identities.” Examples of multiculturalism include the use of multiple languages on official government forms, and the way primary school curriculum (especially history) represents multiple cultures. Yancey finds that this model helpfully tries to correct many of our society’s “Eurocentric excesses” (55), and allows minorities to both know and critique their own cultures from within. Yet ironically, under the multiculturalist model minorities tend to degrade the culture of the majority (57). Yancey finds this reality working its way into Christian perspectives, as the work of Randy Woodley and Clarence Shuler illustrates (60–61). Again, the problem with this model is how its relativistic impulse overrides the Christian claim of moral right and wrong. Thus, minority cultures go un-critiqued while the majority culture is perpetually on the hot seat.

Fourth, the white-responsibility model places the blame for racism squarely on whites (64). In this perspective, “racial minorities can have prejudice, but they cannot be racist because racism requires structural power” (65). The dominant group, i.e. whites, hold the structural power. This model emerged from the civil rights movement that birthed ethnic studies programs in American colleges. These in turn gave birth to critical race theory, which argues that racism is an inherent part of American culture (65). Proponents of white responsibility therefore seek to change the power structures in our country. Yancey notes that the greatest strength of this model is its observation of the subtle ways a single group can dominate society and so other groups. However, this model discounts the responsibility of racial minorities: if the majority is always at fault, then minorities have no responsibility. Further, it “alienates whites who do not already feel a significant level of racial guilt” (69). Finally, and most significantly, it ignores the fact that all people––majority or minority––are sinners. As such, it is hard to call the Christian version of this model “Christian.”

Yancey weighs the secular alternatives and finds them wanting. He is right to find them deficient.

I agree with him and will voice that agreement in the last post of this series. I will also offer an additional line of argument.

Before doing so, however, in the next two blog posts we will turn to Yancey’s proposed model. His model seeks to diagnose the problem of racism by building a more full-orbed biblical doctrine of sin, and then by encouraging us to embrace a “mutual responsibility” model. In this way Yancey hopes to bring healing to our racially divided communities.

Race & Faith (1): A Prayer for Racial Unity and Diversity in our Churches

Over the course of the past twenty years, I have filled the pulpit of several hundred churches in the United States. Those churches belong to more than 20 denominations, though most are Southern Baptist. During this twenty-year stretch, I cannot remember more than, say, 20 churches that were multi-racial. Although I rarely encountered churches that were overtly racist, increasingly I have come to recognize the monochrome racial uniformity of our churches as an obstacle to the gospel. What is true of our churches often is true also of our seminaries.

For the past twelve years, I have been a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where I also currently serve as Provost. For better and for worse, our seminary reflects the Southern Baptist churches that created and support it (especially the churches in the South), and which populate its classrooms with budding ministers of the gospel. I am profoundly grateful for Southern Baptist churches and recognize the myriad ways in which they represent well God and his gospel. However, my love and appreciation for our network of churches causes me to reflect upon ways in which we do not yet reflect well God and his gospel, and one of those ways is racial unity and diversity.

Each semester when I sit on the platform for convocation and graduation, I notice the overwhelmingly white sea of faces. Similarly, when I preach in our churches, I am reminded that MLK’s famous statement still holds true: the Sunday hour of congregational worship does appear to be in many communities the most segregated hour of the week. This segregation appears as an odd anomaly in the midst of our broader American social and cultural context, where Anglos, African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans live, work, and play alongside of one another. Each semester I pray that God would bless us by making our seminary a preview of his new creation kingdom in which all tribes, tongues, peoples, and nations will worship together.

As the faculty and administration at Southeastern we are working to make our seminary environment hospitable to non-Anglo students. We seek to teach to and for the concerns of non-Anglo students. Thus, I have been doing some reading toward that end. Among various books on race and racism, George Yancey’s Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility stands out, providing a very helpful introductory treatment of racial unity from a Christian perspective.[1] Yancey’s book was in fact so helpful that I decided to craft a five-part blog series on race and faith, of which this post is the first installment.

Yancey argues that Americans in general, and Christians in particular, have not quite made the progress we might think we have in our battle with racism. Yancey argues that racial issues, not unlike life/death issues, are moral issues (11). However, while many evangelical Christians possess clear categories for conceptualizing and evaluating other moral issues (such as life/death issues; and can clearly articulate, for example, why abortion is immoral), Yancey argues that most Christians have not worked out moral categories or responses for racism. He writes, “My reading of secular and Christian literature on issues of race has not uncovered any unique stance on the part of the Christian church. When Christians write and speak about racial issues, they sound much like their secular counterparts. Instead of initiating our own solutions to the problem of racism, we merely copy the solutions offered by the rest of the world” (11).

Yancey recommends, however, that evangelicals more than most people should understand the doctrine fundamental to understanding racism—human depravity. “To understand how to best eliminate racism, I propose that we start with the Christian doctrine of human depravity. Secular solutions are incomplete because they ignore the reality of human depravity and our sin nature” (13).  For this reason, Yancey devotes the first part of his book to describing and critiquing four secular solutions to racial gridlock. In the second part Yancey provides his own constructive Christian treatment of the issue. Yancey’s categories and arguments are helpful enough that they will form the backbone of the current blog series.

[1] George Yancey, Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006). Yancey is associate professor of sociology at the University of North Texas, and is an African-American.

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