Race & Faith (5): Concluding Reflections

Race matters, and it matters to God. In this blog series I have attempted to address a less-than-optimal situation that often exists in conservative evangelical (e.g. Baptist) circles. In this situation race and racism are not given much attention, and our limited discourse about race and racism often are shaped by secular rather than Christian categories. I drew upon George Yancey’s Beyond Racial Gridlock in order to understand the shortcomings of four predominant secular models and to build a constructive Christian model for understanding race and racism.

In light of Yancey’s book, I offer two responses. Each response both supports and supplements Yancey’s thesis and concerns. First, the relationship between the Christian faith and secular discourses shapes this conversation. The philosopher William Hasker has rightly noted three different approaches relating one’s faith to a given field of knowledge or area of discourse: compatibilism, transformationism, and reconstructionism. These three approaches, in fact, can be seen as points on a spectrum. On one side of the spectrum are compatibilists who see a deep resonance between the Christian worldview and a given field of knowledge. In the middle of the spectrum are transformationists, who recognize that an academic discipline yields some true and helpful insights, but argue that it needs to be reshaped by allowing the Christian worldview to change some of its core principles or claims. On the other side of the spectrum are reconstructionists who see a deep and abiding tension between Christian teaching and an academic discipline; they believe that one must rebuild that discipline from the ground up, on overtly biblical grounds.

My own view of the spectrum is that a person’s approach to a given area of discourse depends upon the field one is dealing with. For example, one might be a compatibilist in relation to the disciplines of mathematics or English composition (since those disciplines might not, in their current state, be in a state of opposition to Christian teaching), while at the same time being a transformationist in relation to history (which is perhaps a mixed bag right now) and a reconstructionist in relation to literary criticism (which is now very much marked by all sorts of infelicities).

If I am reading Yancey correctly, his approach to this particular issue is along the lines of the transformationist model. The American evangelical conversation on race and racism has yielded some true and helpful insights, but needs to be reshaped by allowing the Christian worldview to change some of its core principles or claims. Yancey calls the Christian community to construct a more biblically informed model rather than adopting wholesale one of the available secular models. Yancey does so by highlighting the doctrine of depravity (to explain racism as a spiritual and social ill) and the life of Christ (to point to the healing that Christ Jesus brings). This transformationism is undergirded and shaped by Christian doctrines such as creation, redemption, and restoration, to which we now turn.

Second, the doctrines of creation, redemption, and restoration should undergird and shape our treatment of race and racism. The biblical storyline begins with creation and wends its way through the fall on the way to telling the story of redemption in Christ Jesus and the final restoration of all things. Each of these plot movements proves significant for building a Christian treatment of race and racism. I will focus on creation and restoration.

God’s creational design includes and invites unity-in-diversity. God called into existence the material world and shaped it by his Word, continually affirming its goodness along the way. Part of its goodness is its unified diversity. As Abraham Kuyper noted, God gives each domain of nature an “infinite diversity” and an “inexhaustible profusion of variations.” He writes, “Where in God’s creation do you encounter life that does not display the unmistakable hallmark of life precisely in the multiplicity of its colors and dimensions, in the capriciousness of its ever-changing forms?”[1] This infinite diversity extends beyond the non-human aspects of creation to his imagers, among whom God distributes diverse appearances, aptitudes, and talents. This multi-splendored diversity finds its unity in Christ who holds all things together (Col 1:17). God’s creation is a cosmos (richly diversified, yet coherently unified whole) rather than chaos, and God’s Word helps us to see the order and unity that undergirds our communal and cultural life. Therefore a fruitful theology of race will not minimize creational diversity by seeking to be “colorblind.” Neither will it subvert creational unity by elevating one race above another.

Furthermore such unity-in-diversity will be present on the new heavens and earth. One of my favorite passages in all of Scripture is Revelation 5. In this chapter, God gives the apostle John a breathtaking and beautiful vision of worship in the heavenly court that will one day characterize all of creation, in which there will be Christ-worshipers from among all tribes, tongues, peoples, and nations (5:9). Because of human depravity—and the racism that stems from that depravity—God killed his Son and in so doing made the way for racial unity and the subversion of racial arrogance. As Rev. 5:9 tells us, “they sang a new song, saying: You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation.”

This passage culminates a major theme of Scripture: the God we worship is so profoundly true, so deeply good, and so compellingly beautiful that he will claim for himself worshipers among every type of person who has ever lived on the face of the earth. If God were worshiped merely by one race in the United States, his glory would be diminished. But as it is, he is worshiped by white, black, Asian, Hispanic, and Native Americans. This unified worship is an object of God’s delight. Christ shed his blood to win white and black worshipers, so that he could delight in their unified worship. As John Piper puts it, racial unity is first and foremost a “blood of Christ” issue and only secondarily a social or political issue.

When our churches have the opportunity to become multi-racial but neglect the opportunity in order to remain racially divided, when they prefer to be monolithically uniracial, we send a message that is diametrically opposed to the gospel.[2] In effect, we say, “Christ is a tribal deity whose gospel is not powerful enough to transcend racial barriers, and whose beauty is not great enough to woo admirers from all races and cultures and teach them to worship together.” For this reason, we need to pray hard and work hard for a powerful display of Christian unity between believers of all races—Caucasian, African American, Asian American, Latino, and Native American. On this year’s Martin Luther King national holiday, may we drop to our knees and pray that God will glorify himself among our churches, and will do so first of all by teaching us to worship him alongside of one another.

[1] Kuyper, “Uniformity,” 34.

[2] In some contexts, multi-racial worship may not be possible or preferable because of language barriers. In other cases, it may not be possible because the cultural context is itself uniracial.

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Race & Faith (4): The Life of Christ

As noted in the previous posts, secular models fail biblically and properly to point the way forward in creating an environment hospitable to racial unity-in-diversity. They fail for various reasons, but they especially fail to understand human depravity, which underlies racism. They also fail to account for the life of Christ, which overcomes racism. In the most recent installment of the series we addressed human depravity. In this post we address the life of Christ.

In chapter nine, Yancey looks to Jesus for elements of the mutual responsibility model. He claims that we can learn much from Jesus because Jesus was at once part of a majority group, the Jews, living under the foreign rule of the Romans. Yancey finds the heart of reconciliation in Jesus’ high priestly prayer (John 17; 114). From Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), Yancey observes that Jesus surpassed all the weaknesses, while keeping all the strengths, of the four secular models for dealing with racial issues (115–118). Jesus also dealt in grace and truth in his interactions with Romans, those “in power” over him and other Jews. At the same time, however, he did not try to overthrow Caesar (120; cf. Matt 22:15–22).

The life of Jesus, therefore, illustrates the motives Christians should seek in mutual responsibility for racial reconciliation: “In Jesus we see the balance that we rarely see in our society. We see a man who, whether he was part of the majority or minority, sought relationships but also addressed issues of power . . . in all of his encounters with people of different groups, Jesus never deviated from the truth” (122–123). Thus, Jesus provided different lessons for majority and minority groups. “To those in the majority Jesus showed that it is inappropriate to focus on the maintenance of their own social position. . . . To people of color Jesus showed that even though he had concerns about societal evil, political revolution was not the heart of his ministry” (124). The next chapter addresses why Christians often fall short of Jesus’ example.

Yancey, in chapter ten, points to a subtle but powerful aspect of our sin nature that hampers any hope of racial reconciliation: fear. Out of fear of others and not God we can do things either to please them and gain favor, or excoriate them and gain emotional safety. Fear thus creates a vicious circle of dysfunction in race relations: “Whites are afraid of being labeled racist. . . . As a result, whites avoid addressing racial issues . . . .” On the other hand, “People of color . . . fear they will be ridiculed when they bring up their racial concerns.” This causes minorities to look for someone to point out racism and seek justice. Often times, “as a result, people of color begin to support leaders who foolishly play the race card but who at least uphold the importance of racial justice” (127–128). What, then, can Christians do to counteract this nexus of fear?

Yancey states that Christians “should work harder to create safe places in our churches” where we can “rid ourselves of the fears that drive racial mistrust” (132). Yancey proposes that the mutual responsibility model can help create such an environment. By applying corporate repentance and forgiveness to private and public discussions on race, churches might eventually become such environments. What is more, Yancey remarks that this environment must begin in our own hearts. After describing his fairly natural but racially motivated response to a news report of a police shooting of a man (“I hope that man was not black,” Yancey thought), Yancey discovered a scary but vital point: “racism is in me” (135–137). For racial reconciliation to begin, we must search our hearts for the sin that may lie buried deep within.

Chapter 11 contains Yancey’s conclusion to his argument for mutual responsibility in race relations. In responding to the question, “what would a Christian solution look like?” Yancey replies honestly: “I cannot say” (138). He can only sketch out some implications of his mutual responsibility model. Yancey theoretically applies this model to a controversial topic, affirmative action. He recognizes that it is not a popular answer for most whites. Yet rather than ask if Christians should support affirmative action, Yancey claims “we should ask whether or not this program serves the interest of all races” (142). There is no uniform “Christian” answer. Rather it is about Christians repenting, forgiving, and sacrificing for one another. “The Christian solution is not a direct answer but an attitude which leads to the correct answer. It is not unlike the attitudes of both partners in a good marriage. Both partners take into account the interests and needs of the other so their relationship thrives. A marriage in which one partner must acquiesce all the time is not healthy” (143).

According to Yancey, there are, however, some practical steps that Christians can take to demonstrate a Christian attitude of the heart. First, we need more multi-racial churches (144–145). Second, we need to belong to and create social networks (not only online, in person) with people of other races (145–146). Third, “we must reconsider how we participate in the political process” (147). Elevating one’s political party and goals above Christian fellowship does not hold promise for racial reconciliation. Fourth, we need Christian academic institutions––colleges, universities, and seminaries––that engage in honest, charitable discourse on race issues and reconciliation (149). Yancey concludes with the acknowledgement that he has painted an incomplete picture; his mutual responsibility model requires us to fill in the painting (150).

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.