Thinking Christianly Together About Racism
It’s been fascinating, enlightening and at the same time, discouraging to read various responses to my essay on racism and justice, “No More of This” [Critique 2020:4].
I expected some people would disagree with what I wrote, of course. We are a highly fragmented and polarized people, both within and without the church, and highly politicized as well. It’s fertile ground for disagreement.
Francis Schaeffer said he thought it best to not respond to criticism. Henri Nouwen expressed the same thing in a letter to Fred Rogers after a critical article was published about Mr. Roger’s work in children’s television. Schaeffer preferred to give honest answers to honest questions while listening carefully to criticism to learn from it, but without responding. Minds tend to be made up.
In most instances I am uncertain I could say anything that would help. One critic, for example, acknowledged that Floyd’s death “was wrong, wrong, wrong.” He then went on to say, “George Floyd did more to harm the Black Community than I ever have. To be honest, I have nothing to confess along those lines, but I have plenty of other things I confess all too often with a cry of despair. George was a career criminal (multiple felons) who harassed and oppressed blacks. He robbed a black pregnant women with a gun held to her stomach. He threatened to kill the unborn baby with the gun, if that isn’t obvious. He had a scholarship to a college and quit before graduating. Although he didn’t deserve to die, he is not the angel that people say he was and he had opportunity to do something productive.” Would it help for me to say that I didn’t speak of his character or background because I find them irrelevant in a discussion of racism in American society? I believe, to use Bryan Stevenson’s words, “We are all more than the worst things we’ve ever done.”
Another criticism was that I shouldn’t “judge cops.” This one surprised me. Would it help if I reviewed what I actually wrote? I criticized the killing of George Floyd. I commended the police for quickly rescuing the semi-truck driver from the protesters after he had driven into their midst on the highway. I saluted officers who put themselves in harms way for the common good. I told of a personal experience with neighborhood policing, and how it both restrained crime and built trust. And I criticized one specific tactic used while arresting two nonviolent protesters on I-35 as they quietly and without resistance submitted to arrest, namely spraying chemical irritant in their faces at point black range. Would it help to say I do not accept the charge that this is an illegitimate judgment of police?
In reading the responses of my critics, however, two things came up that I do want to address. They get at the heart of what we mean by being discerning and faithful as Christians.
Shocked when I received the latest issue of Critique—I saw the cover and lost my breath. I did read your article and was in agreement with most of it, but I sensed a lot of anger not well thought out. If you think BLACK LIVES MATTER is an acceptable solution you have not done your homework and I can no longer support you and your ministry.
Please take me off your mailing list.
Several others also reacted strongly against the cover image, an artistic rendering of hands holding a cardboard sign with the words BLACK LIVES MATTER. Assuming it meant support for the organization, Black Lives Matter (https://blacklivesmatter.com), they also ended our conversation.
I can’t say this to them, obviously, but it would be helpful to reflect on this reaction. It represents, I suggest, a failure to embrace a biblical approach to creatively engage our world in terms our non-Christian neighbors are able to understand and appreciate. Let me explain.
Living in a pluralistic society means we are surrounded by neighbors, colleagues and friends who do not share our deepest convictions and values. This is similar to Paul’s situation when he visited the city of Athens. As Luke records the visit in Acts 17, we watch the apostle as he first establishes common ground with his pagan audience and then moves the conversation to challenge them to consider the claims of Christ. In other words, he first found ways of agreeing with them before disagreeing. He intentionally used their terms and means of expression, and their categories of thought so that they could appreciate and comprehend what he stood for. In this way he translated the truth into terms accessible to their non-Christian worldview.
Notice how St. Paul accomplished this. He found common ground with them in two ways. First, he identified their “unknown god” as the true God (17:23) he was wishing to speak to them about. And second, he applied the words of one of their poets to the God and Father of Jesus Christ knowing full well the poet was referring explicitly to Zeus (17:28). In other words, he intentionally entered their world, adopted their terminology, found common ground and then was in a position to be able to help them comprehend the radical claims of Christ as opposed to their idolatrous myths and practices. And notice the outcome: some scoffed, Luke tells us, some believed, and some wanted the conversation to continue (17:32-34).
We must learn from and follow St Paul’s pattern. We must adopt terms that make sense to our non-Christian neighbors and establish agreement before identifying areas of disagreement. Christians today are often seen as negative, disapproving and judgmental, quick to disagree. But disagreeing before finding common ground merely makes us seem disagreeable and closes off conversation. Culture warriors insist on choosing the terms of the discussion, refusing to stand for anything good with anyone who believes anything with which they disagree. The culture war mentality is disagree and dismiss. The winsome approach St. Paul demonstrated was, in contrast, agree, engage and challenge.
Francis Schaeffer taught that when Christians take a stand for truth or justice in a fallen and pluralistic world, we will be joined by allies and co-belligerents. Allies are those with whom we agree not only on the specific issue at hand, but all the way down to foundational beliefs and values. Co-belligerents, on the other hand are those with whom we gladly stand together on this specific issue realizing that on others we will disagree, perhaps strongly.
Interestingly, it is only White evangelical friends who assume I am supporting the organization when I say or display the term, Black Lives Matter. Everyone else assumes it means I support justice, equality for all, and an end to racism—and our conversation continues. And when the discussion touches on the issue of supporting organizations, I point out that we support the Equal Justice Initiative, have done so for several years and am glad to explain why.
I have read your Critique on “Black Lives Matter” many times and with each reading I get more depressed and discouraged, because it does not present anything new or different than I have read in any “progressive” news outlet. All your views are those of the woke white with all insight promulgated by Black Lives Matter as a political party (which it is).
This too is worth some reflection. I suggest it represents a failure to understand a biblical perspective on being politically faithful in a society dominated and polarized by competing political ideologies. Again, let me explain.
Timothy Keller answered a question in a column in The New York Times (9/19/18) that served as the title for the piece. “How Do Christians Fit into the Two-Party System?” His answer was succinct, and probably quite surprising to many evangelicals today. “They don’t,” he said. “The historical Christian positions on social issues don’t match up with contemporary political alignments.” He is correct. We represent a Third Way, characterized by sacrificial love, love of God and neighbor.
Os Guinness put it this way in The Dust of Death (p. 369):
How often in the contemporary discussion a sensitive modern person knows that they cannot accept either of the polarized alternatives offered to them! Left versus right, radical versus establishment, Marxist versus Anarchist, idealist versus pragmatist, practical revolution versus mystical revolution of consciousness, optimism with no basis versus realism verging on despair, activism versus escapism—all these are polarizations born of the loss of center, of the death of absolutes. In Christianity, however, there can be a Third Way, a true middle ground which has a basis, is never compromise and is far from silent.
As a result of this conviction that Christianity represents a Third Way, great streams of social thought flourished over the centuries. In one, Roman Catholic social thinking followed a tradition that flowed from Scripture and the apostles through St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas to modern interpreters such as Pope John Paul and Richard John Neuhaus. In a second, Reformed political philosophy followed a tradition that went from Scripture and the apostles, through St Augustine to the Protestant Reformers, especially John Calvin to modern interpreters such as Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd and James Skillen. On the level of practical policy recommendations, these two lines of social and political philosophy converge more often than not, though they arrive at their conclusions in slightly different ways. I have also benefitted from Anabaptist thinking that flows from Menno Simmons in the 16th century to modern interpreters such as Ronald Sider and Wendell Berry. More to my point here, however, this rich heritage of distinctly Christian ethical reasoning and political philosophy is largely unknown today in evangelical circles. As a result, evangelicals find a sense of political direction by aligning themselves with modern political ideologies, whether Left or Right.
This is not merely unnecessary; it is spiritually dangerous. As David Koyzis shows in Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies, from a biblical perspective the ideologies of Right and Left are idolatries. And for an example of how Reformed social thinking can provide a way to think clearly about an important issue in America today, read Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear by Matthew Kaemingk. He carefully demonstrates how to reflect on issues such as this, roots his reasoning in Scripture and Reformed tradition and shows how we can hold coherent Christian convictions about immigration based on love.
As you might guess, one practical result of this Third Way perspective on politics is that depending on the issue and where the dominant political ideologies and parties are at any given moment, we will find ourselves reaching conclusions that may agree, at least partially, with the agendas of either the Right or the Left. So, in writing about the value and dignity of the lives of the unborn some or many of my conclusions might be aligned with a Conservative political agenda. And in contrast, in writing “No More of This” about standing against racism and for equality for all, some of my conclusions end up more aligned with a Progressive political agenda. The first does not place me on the Right any more than the second places me on the Left. Nor does this practical reality delegitimize my position.
Racism and inequality have plagued America for 400 years. It pollutes America’s story and reputation, infecting both the church and the body politic with wickedness.
Tim Keller, in “The Sin of Racism—Life in the Gospel” (6/29/2020), lists the reasons racism is a sin. He first speaks of racism as breaking of the commandment of love and argues it is an assault on the image of God in us. Then Keller raises an idea seldom heard today. It provides a vision of hope that we need in these days of political uncertainty, nefarious culture warring, resistance to repentance and fear of change.
The new creation is a renewed material world, wiped clean of all death, suffering and tears, war and injustice, sin and shame (Isaiah 25:7-8; 65:17-25). It will be established at the end of time, but part of the good news is that this is brought forward partially into the present. Herman Ridderbos writes that the new creation in Galatians 6:15 is: “the new reality of the kingdom of God. Through Christ this new thing is not merely future-eschatological (Revelation 21:1–5, 3:12 and Mark 14:25) but is already present, is already in man. This new creation is first of all a gift, but it brings its task with it.”
Many Christians think that Jesus saved us merely through the cross, where he paid the penalty of our sin, and the resurrection was just a grand miracle by which God proved that Jesus was the Son of God. It was that–but far more (Romans 4:25). This inadequate view conceives of the gift of salvation in exclusively individualistic terms––as a new personal relationship with God and little else. But Jesus rose as the “first fruits” (1 Corinthians 15:20-23) of the future resurrection from the dead, and as such he brings us the Holy Spirit which is the “down payment” or “first installment” of the future renewed world and universe (1 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:14-16).
Through Christ’s resurrection we are united spiritually and vitally not only to him and to all others who believe, but to that future world cleansed of all suffering, tears, injustice, evil, and sin. The same power that will purify the universe at the end of time is what regenerates and comes into our lives now through the new birth (cf. word palengensia–in both Matthew 19:28 and Titus 3:5). The new heavens and new earth will not only contain saved individuals—it will have a new humanity without violence and conflict, war and injustice. The power of that new creation is partially but actually with us now. That is why Ridderbos can say this gift “brings its task with it.” We are to behave not according to the old age of sin and darkness, but to live in accordance with the world of light which is to come (Romans 13:11-14).
One of the marks of that new future world will be the end of all racial, ethnic, and national strife, alienation, and violence. God will say: “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance” (Isaiah 19:25)—a vivid expression of racial equality before the Lord in the new heavens and new earth. When Isaiah describes that new creation (Isaiah 65:25), he speaks of the nations and kings of the earth uniting before God (Isaiah 60:1-7). Revelation echoes this when it foresees the kings of all the nations bringing their glory into the City of God (Revelation 21:4) and the people of God consisting of “every tongue, tribe, people and nation” (Revelation 7:9).
These remarkable visions of the final new creation show that our distinct ‘peoplehoods’ and nationalities do mean something. They are so important that they will be carried over, not eradicated, into the new creation. They will be purified of all the sinful distortions, just as our bodies with their distinctions will be brought in and purified of all weakness and decay. It is this future—this new creation—that Christians must bear witness to and practice now, to the greatest degree that we can. The Bible shows us that one of the important features of that new creation is to practice equality of the races and the healing of their relationships, because “in Christ…there is neither Jew nor Gentile” (Galatians 3:26-28).
Keller is not merely saying that someday, when Christ returns as King to consummate his kingdom, all will be better. He is insisting on something far more radical. He is saying that the resurrection means that the kingdom has arrived. The future is yet future, but it is also now. It is incomplete now, but it is not absent, and it is the Christian’s great purpose to witness to Christ’s kingdom not just as something that is coming but as something that has begun. As we live in the reality of Christ’s resurrection, we demonstrate kingdom values in our lives. This is what being faithful in the ordinary means. So, as Christians we live in a multilayered sense of reality. We speak of the promise of a coming new creation and we live in it now as fully as we can, so that the hope of the future is made real by how we live. And we live by love.
May we be so gripped by the hope granted to us in the resurrection of Christ that this vision of a new creation be made real in our hearts and lives now by God’s grace.
Righteous and gracious Father,
Build your kingdom here
Let the darkness fear
Show your mighty hand
Heal our streets and land
Set your church on fire
Win creation back
Change the atmosphere
Build your kingdom here we pray.
Amen. (Rend Collective)