Christ and Culture: Race & Racism

By March 13, 2022March 20th, 2022River Christian Training

Welcome back. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more controversial! I talked about gender and church leadership this morning and this afternoon, we are going to talk about race and racism.

This week, we are going to finish up with our little trilogy on Theological Anthropology.

As a refresher, Theological Anthropology is the area in systematic theology that deals with God’s view of the human person. And so naturally, these issues are very personal. Sexuality, gender, race and ethnicity.

From the outset, I should say that I am not an expert in the area of race. I’ve read some about the issues we’ll discuss today, but I’m by no means a subject matter expert. But what I can do is go to the Bible and think through how the Bible guides us in navigating these pressing concerns.

Race and racism, particularly in its American context is among the most hotly contested issues in American public life.

And of course- why would it not be, given our history?

Condoleezza Rice often speaks and writes about what she calls America’s birth defect: slavery. Other writers speak of slavery as America’s “original sin.” The mistreatment of Blacks in America didn’t go away after the end of the Civil War… the subjugation and supposed inferiority of Black Americans was reinforced through the White Supremacist structures of the racially segregated era of Jim Crow. Of course, the issue of race doesn’t only concern that of Whites and Blacks in this country… we can also talk about the mistreatment of Native Americans or Asian Americans.

Today, we can talk about racial disparities in incarceration or police brutality, and criminal justice.
There’s a debate in public schools right now over what’s called Critical Race Theory. There’s the whole discussion over “white guilt” and “white privilege.”
In Christian circles there is a lot of talk over what’s called racial reconciliation or multi-ethnic churches.

If I were to go through each of those issues… it would be an enormous amount of information and data. You could have a whole semester class just going through each of those.

So, what I want to do today is to instead give us a biblical framework for thinking about race and racism… Now, along the way, we will discuss some of those issues… but it’s simply impossible and impractical to attempt to do justice to all of them here.

Foundational to our framework for understanding race and racism is the Bible.

Some people would say “how can you say the Bible is foundational to understand race and racism when people have often used the Bible to reinforce racial prejudice or justify slavery?” Some people in culture or even those in the church believe that Christianity is a “white, Western, imperialist religion”

Unfortunately, the fact that people have misused the Bible is a sad fact of history. Christians can’t run from our history—especially when that history is full of failings. A professor at Southern likes to say, the historians job is to tell the truth. This is something that even our denomination—the Southern Baptist Convention must come to terms with. For those who don’t know- the SBC has its origins in support of slavery in South. We were complicit in this. We must be honest with our history.

I’d encourage you to go read the Resolution on Racial Reconciliation on the 150th Anniversary of the SBC… from 1995. Where we publicly acknowledged and repented of our complicity in racism. Or, go and read the Report by Southern Seminary on Slavery and Racism in the history of Southern Seminary… published in 2018.

As that report outlines, the founding faculty of that school – all four of them were deeply complicit in slavery (owning slaves themselves) and committed to the defense of slavery.
And this is not a defense of this reality— but this would also be true of almost any university at the time. Princeton for example…This shows us how ubiquitous slavery was in early America.

And this is one reason why it is so important to study history. Because, we look at the past and can make judgements based on our perceived moral superiority on what we would consider such “obvious” matters today… but the reality is that we too are prone to have blinders. We make judgments knowing that we too will be judged. So looking at the failings of the past helps us have moral clarity in the present.

But… SBC history is also comprised of repentance and humility and it tells the story of God’s amazing grace.
I mean—it really is remarkable to consider a denomination that has its origins in support of slavery would elect its first Black president to lead the convention in 2012. And it wasn’t posturing or symbolic. Mentioning that is not to suggest we’ve overcome all our issues in terms of race— far from.

Nevertheless, it really is a story of God’s redemption and his amazing grace. Today, the SBC is the most ethnically diverse Protestant denomination in America.

So, while it is true that there have been failings—Major failings—I’m not minimizing the failings… throughout Church history… the idea that Christianity is a White, western religion is simply ahistorical. … It doesn’t actually reckon with the New Testament record (which shows that the faith was multi-ethnic from the beginning). Let us not forget that Jesus was in fact a Middle Eastern Jew—despite what Western Art depicts. ☺

Looking at the data today and the trajectory of global demographics and the future of Christianity… the trend is that women of color actually make up the majority of the world’s Christians.

All of this reflects God’s heart for people of every tribe, and tongue and nation—that they might know Christ and join in Salvation’s song.

Because this topic is so complex… let me give a brief outline of what we’ll seek to cover today.

First, before we get much further, we need to provide a few definitions of key terms. Then, I will present a biblical framework for thinking about race. We will also look at a biblical affirmation of what some call human particularity and how that stands in contrast to intersectionality, a central concept we find in Critical Race Theory. And finally, we’ll end with a Christian assessment on CRT as a worldview.

Definitions:

There’s a very important New Testament word “ethne.” Sometimes translated peoples or nations.
Most famously used in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19, where Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

“panta ta ethne” “all the nations” or “all the peoples.” (pan—panoramic, full scope)

Ethne. We can see the etymology of where we get our English word, ethnicity here.

So, “ethne” doesn’t refer to a Nation State per se (like the USA)… but rather people groups. People united by shared customs, kinship, socio-cultural, and linguistic factors. And specifically, in the context of Matt 28, “ethne” is most likely used to highlight Gentiles, that is non-Israelites.

Jesus was the light for revelation to the Gentiles… his gospel is the good news that people of every tribe and tongue and nation can share in the covenant promises of his redemptive work on the cross.

I think that Greek word is helpful for us today in our discussion of race and ethnicity.

What is the difference between race/ethnicity? Are they synonymous? Now, these terms have been debated, but here is how I think about them.

Traditionally, the word race has been narrowly used to focus on biological and genetic differences among people—separating and classifying people by physiological features. The word ethnicity has focused more on cultural or linguistic differences.

In this discussion, I prefer the term ethnicity…because I think it fits in the biblical framework better with its emphasis on multi-ethnic peoples. So basically, the Bible doesn’t separate people based on physiological features alone… it speaks of diverse peoples in the sense of socio-cultural ethnic groups: Jews, Samaritans, Syrophoenician, Gentiles, etc.

Yes, there are biological distinctions (but often these are arbitrary) because we all belong to the single human race—we are all made in God’s image.

Let’s define racism. What is it?

Racism is an ideology that creates a hierarchy of superiority and inferiority among ethnic groups.

What makes it so heinous is that it ignores our basic common humanity and falsely classifies people into superior/inferior groups drawn along superficial lines.

Systemic Racism is the idea that the legacy of racism (whether it be from White-Supremacist structures of Slavery and Jim Crow) still leaves ripple effects in society today (psychologically, economically, politically, socially, etc.)

So- to believe in systemic racism doesn’t mean you are “woke.” I simply think it’s a reality. An example of this would be housing and African Americans. Jim Crow was a racist system against Blacks… and they were kept from getting loans and kept out of certain neighborhoods. This led to generational socio-economic problems… even though today housing laws have changed. We are still dealing with the ripple effects of the racist legacy.

Now, I don’t think systemic racism means that every institution in America is actively racist and seeking to oppress ethnic minorities. I would push back against that definition. However, I would acknowledge the serious, disastrous social effects of our racist history.

And lastly, as a point of clarification… I think it is important that we think theologically about racism. Sociology is helpful. But, we cannot reduce racism to a purely sociological phenomenon. We must think of racism in theological terms.

That is, racism is a result of sin and the total depravity of man. Now, that truth should not be misused to minimize the reality of sociological problems… “this is a sin issue.” But, we cannot forget that we are dealing with something deeper than mere sociology.

So, racism is a universal problem that affects us all because all of us are marked by sin. Racism can occur in various forms, individually or systemically… and in any ethnic group. Therefore, we need a theological solution to this… And the Bible—the gospel—the good news of Jesus Christ is really the liberating path that offers hope and redemption to the grievous sin of racism.

Biblical framework on Race: Foundational Texts

The Bible teaches that every human life is sacred—and of equal and immeasurable value as human beings are made in the Image of God (Gen 1:27)

One feature of the image of God is that we are uniquely created for relationship with God.
And this would extend to all ethnicities. All embodied image bearers are made for relationship w/ God.

In terms of the salvation offered to us through Christ—we are all equal—

Galatians 3:28 says, “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.”

This is not advocating for sameness or uniformity— but rather it is suggesting when it comes to our standing before Christ—no human marker of identity privileges one person over another.

Another important text, especially among Black abolitionists and later integrationists during Jim Crow was Acts 17:26 “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth…” It appeals to our common humanity.

Each of us, though sharing a basic common humanity, are also uniquely designed by God. The Psalmist proclaims “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.”

This reveals to us how each individual person has been wonderfully made by God to reflect and represent him in the world.

Biblical Framework on Race: Redemptive Kingdom Diversity

Those are some isolated texts… but it’s also helpful to think about themes throughout the Bible.

Jarvis Williams is a professor of New Testament at Southern Seminary (He is Black) He’s written a book called Redemptive Kingdom Diversity. This would be a great book if you’re looking for a biblical theology about the multi-ethnic people of God.

Biblical theology is the big storyline of the Bible. So he goes from Genesis to Revelation to show how God’s desire has been to restore diverse humanity’s vertical relationship with himself and horizontal relationships among other people.

Bible’s affirmation of Human Particularity
So, those are some foundational texts and concepts to understand a biblical framework for thinking about race and ethnicity. And in them, we see how God has made us individually and uniquely in God’s image.

As we think about how God has intricately designed each one of us we can properly and rightly think about what our friend Gregg Allison calls “human particularity.”

Allison would say that human particularity refers to the human individual.

Each one of us is a unique individual human being. Now, that doesn’t mean we are autonomous and only accountable to ourselves… That’s not the kind of individuality I’m talking about. I am emphasizing the particular features of my embodiment.

Yes, Elizabeth and I are “one,” but I am a unique individual just as she is… I am not her. She is not me. You get this—it’s very basic.

Human particularity would explore all the facets of our particularity—large and small details of our existence.

Here are some common features of how we can think about our particularity: (from Allison’s book Embodied: Living as Whole People in a Fractured World)

Race/Ethnicity
Family/kinship
Time/Space (geography)
Social Context
Story (personal narrative)

So… here are the particulars of my identity:

I am a white male of English ancestry. I was born in Abilene, TX to Jim and Patty Lewis. I have an older brother and sister. I am married to Elizabeth. I am 30 years old and belong to the millennial generation. I am from the Midwest, and was raised in Kansas. That environment has certainly shaped my outlook on the world. In terms of my social context, I belong to the middle class; politically, I am a conservative; I am a PhD student at a Southern Baptist seminary and would consider myself an evangelical Christian. And my story would be how I would tie all of those aspects of my particularity together.

It’s a great exercise to think through the particularities of who God has made you to be. It’s pretty remarkable, even in this room, the diversity we would see.

Now, what I’m describing can sound somewhat similar to what’s called “intersectionality.”

Human Particularity stands in contrast to Intersectionality and Critical Race Theory

Intersectionality is one of the concepts that belongs to Critical Race Theory

So, this calls for some definitions.

What is CRT? Is it a myth? Is it a threat to Christianity? What is it?

CRT belongs to a wider academic discipline known as Critical Theory.

Chances are you hear things that are associated with Critical Theory even if you’re unfamiliar with the discipline. Critical theory is especially prevalent in the modern university—it’s opened up entirely new academic disciplines: queer theory, post-colonialism, women’s studies, etc.

And it brings a whole vocabulary with it: heteronormativity; hegemony; cisgender; ambiguity/fluidity; whiteness…

But rather than understanding it purely as an academic discipline or political movement or an ideological phenomenon… It really is best to understand it as a worldview—it is a comprehensive worldview for interpreting reality… We will discuss CRT as worldview more here in a little bit.

But essentially this is a worldview that interprets reality through a Marxist analysis of power. (I use that term Marxist as a descriptive term, not as a pejorative label). Christians need to be cautious with throwing around labels when we discuss things like this… because we can easily be misunderstood or misconstrued.

A traditional Marxist analysis is economic. It looks at class distinctions through the lens of power—the working class and the super wealthy. It categorizes people into “oppressed” or “oppressor.”

So Critical Theory would take that same dialectic of power—between the oppressed and oppressor and apply it to various social contexts… whether it be in matters concerning race/ethnicity, sex/gender, etc.

In literary theory—you take something beautiful like a Jane Austen novel—and you scour the text looking for hidden structures of power.

You take this view and apply it to the social sciences, and you are looking for ways those in powerful positions seek to hold on to their power and keep others in submission.

A central concept to CRT is what is called intersectionality.

I remember at WSU in my Men and Masculinities class the Graduate TA had a t-shirt that said something about how “the revolution will be intersectionality!”

Intersectionality is commonly attributed to feminist thinker Kimberle Crenshaw… from an article in 1989.

Here’s a definition: “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”

Here’s a definition that you’ll understand: It’s about how various aspects of our identities overlap and can create greater degrees of discrimination or privilege.

For example, it is argued, not only do women face discrimination, but women of color. And not only women of color, but trans-women of color… and so forth, across various aspects of our particularity. The discrimination or privilege compounds on itself.

There is actually an intersectionality score website you can visit online. According to that—my intersectionality score is 4…(a low score is bad) so according to that I am 99% more privileged than others. When it told me my score, it also told me: “Please give more to those less fortunate.”

Here in a little bit, I’ll talk about some of the deficiencies with the critical worldview… but what am I supposed to do with that information? If that’s my “problem” (I am privileged) … How do I find redemption? What is the solution? I can beat my chest and repent of my privilege… I can “educate myself” … but all I can really do is “give more to those less fortunate.”

Now, as I said, human particularity can sound similar to intersectionality… what do we do with this?

I would say that the Bible affirms our particularities. … but the key difference, as Allison notes, is that intersectionality emphasizes differences that divide us. Whereas focusing on our particularity emphasizes the common aspects of our humanity— chief among them being our equal dignity and value as being made in God’s image.

Biblical affirmation of Human Particularity
Where do we find this in the Bible?
First, would be Acts 17:26: “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling.”

This verse illustrates a number of those areas of our particularity: race/ethnicity, family/kinship, time/space, social context.

God, in his sovereignty, has made us, born to the parents that he ordained… placed us in the specific time and place according to his good pleasure.

Psalm 139:13-16 beautifully expresses God’s intricate design for each one of us:

“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”

God has ordained every detail of our created being.

Or consider the particularity of Jesus’ incarnation.

Galatians 4:4 “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”

That is the fullness of time— time has been waiting for that moment. That’s the climax of history.

And Jesus’ particularity opened the door so that all peoples (all the ethne) could be beneficiaries of the covenant. He launched a global redemptive movement. So that people from every tribe and tongue and nation would be a part of God’s family.

So, in this respect diversity is part and parcel of God’s redemptive purposes. This is a kingdom diversity. From the beginning, God has been working to restore humanity after the fall—to make a new humanity—and that new humanity is exemplified in Christ. God has restored our relationship with himself, but it’s his intention to also restore relationships with one another. Jew and Gentile.

Love God, love people.

As we put on Christ, we are one. There is unity there—and it is not sameness or uniformity… but it is a rich diversity that displays the manifold working of God’s grace. We are God’s redeemed people.

CRT as Worldview

Now, I said I would talk about Critical Race Theory as a worldview and offer some criticisms. I think there are some pitfalls to this worldview.

My intent is not to be polemical. Polemical is using inflammatory and intentionally controversial rhetoric. That’s not my intent.

A worldview is the lens through which you interpret reality. And every worldview answers some of life’s basic questions.

What is reality? Who are we? What is our problem? What happens when we die? What is the meaning of life?

So, the Christian worldview, informed by the Bible, gives us a “metanarrative.” (Big Story) Creation-fall-redemption – re-creation.

We are made in God’s image. We are sinful in need of redemption. Christ’s blood atones for our sin and reconciles us to God and restores us to relationship with God.

Critical Theory ultimately gives us a metanarrative of moving from oppression to liberation.

The world is shorn of any transcendence and is flattened into purely social dimensions. So, there really isn’t a category of sin… it is just simply oppression and various social ills.

So, we live in a “fallen” world marked by oppression: heteronormativity, patriarchy, classism, white supremacy. That’s our problem. Social injustice.

How do we address it? Well, through political activism and protest. Through education and awareness.

What’s its eschatology (vision of the future)? History is marching/progressing to the “right side” to a utopic vision of justice, equality, and peace.

One of the major problems is that this functions as a religion. It tells a narrative that informs me of guilt… but it’s offers an entirely works-based form of redemption—but the sad thing is, you will never fully arrive at redemption. It is a narrative of all guilt and no hope.

I am white. I am guilty of whiteness (a systemic form of white supremacy by merely being “white”), and I will always be racist. All I can do is acknowledge my whiteness and my privilege—apologize for it, educate myself, listen to the voices of other ethnic minorities, but I will never eradicate myself of guilt… I can engage in various protests; I can stand in solidarity with others—I can post things on my Facebook wall… but I am always and forever guilty of being white.

At best, I can only do what my intersectionality score exhorted to do: “please give more to those less fortunate.”

It’s a narrative of collective guilt. You just have to look at the bloody history of the 20th Century to see how disastrous collective guilt is when applied in society.

That’s one of the major flaws of CRT as a worldview. It is a metanarrative of oppression-liberation…and it is a narrative of guilt and no hope, no redemption.

I want to share a lengthy quote from theologian Herman Bavinck… He was writing a hundred years before CRT… but I think what he says here is applicable to our current context:

“It is truly not Scripture alone that judges humans harshly. It is human beings who have pronounced the harshest and most severe judgement on themselves. And it is always better to fall into the hands of the Lord than into those of people, for his mercy is great. For when God condemns us, he at the same time offers his forgiving love in Christ, but when people condemn people, they frequently cast them out and make them the object of scorn. When God condemns us, he has this judgement brought to us by people—prophets and apostles and ministers—who do not elevate themselves to a level high above us but include themselves with us in a common confession of guilt. By contrast, philosophers and moralists, in despising people, usually forget that they themselves are human. When God condemns, he speaks of sin and guilt that, though great and heavy, can be removed because they do not belong to the essence of humanity. But moralists frequently speak of egoistic animal tendencies that belong to humans by virtue of their origin and are part of their essence. They put people down but do not lift them up.” (Reformed Dogmatics, III.327)

The Christian metanarrative speaks of condemnation but at the same time offers forgiving love in Christ. There is the possibility of repentance, atonement, and restoration.

Very different from “woke” ideology of all guilt and not atonement.

What aspects of CRT might prove to be useful connections for Christian engagement?

Leeman of IX Marks has written about this if you want to read more deeply. https://www.9marks.org/article/identity-politics-and-the-death-of-christian-unity/

CRT views the world as thoroughly marked by oppression and injustice.

Christians can affirm the pervasiveness of sin.

The doctrine of sin teaches us that we are sinful at birth—and all aspects of our being and our world are marked by the reality and tragedy of sin.

Christianity points to true unity, reconciliation, and hope.

CRT gives us a narrative of guilt with no redemption. Christianity gives us a narrative of guilt, forgiveness, redemption and transformation.

Justice is a central concern of the Bible.

Christians can squirm when you mention justice. But that shouldn’t be the case. Of course, that’s due to a reaction against liberal theology, etc… However, we should recognize that social justice flows out of orthodox (sound doctrine) Christianity.

I read a very fascinating book called Black Fundamentalists. It was about fundamentalism as a movement… The history says this was purely a white social/cultural movement… but that ignores the reality of Blacks who indeed embraced the label. So, it should be understood primarily as a doctrinal or religious movement that expressed itself in different social contexts.

So, the White fundamentalists took a militant posture toward cultural engagement and were embattled in school curriculum arguments over evolution in schools… but the Black fundamentalists, who shared the same conservative theological convictions were (because of those convictions) engaged in things like voting rights and racial equality.

My point is to say that their concern for justice (social activism) flowed out of sound doctrine.

Where do we go from here?

Well… I talked about this when we first talked about living in a post-truth age…

Bottom line: seek to be faithful in your sphere of influence speaking the truth in love.
That may sound simplistic… some people might say that answer is too individualistic… … I’ve already said in previous weeks that the Gospel must be holistic…

When either of spiritual/material needs are absent or skewed, people suffer and the gospel suffers. The gospel of Jesus must not merely be reduced to the liberation from spiritual enslavement to sin. Likewise, the gospel of Jesus must not merely be reduced to social amelioration in which the radical evil within the human soul is ignored or forgotten.

So in addressing these social challenges about race relations, I’m not at all reducing this to an individual sin problem…

Build relationships… advocate for social action as you may see necessary.

But faithfulness is in the realm of what I can control.

I can be faithful to love God and love others… as God brings people into my life.

Let’s give some time for questions…because I know you have them.

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