Paul L. Caron

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Why Christians Must Fight Systemic Racism

New York Times op-ed:  Why Christians Must Fight Systemic Racism, by Esau McCaulley (Wheaton; author, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (2020)):

McCaulley (2021)I wake up to messages on social media from other Christians calling me a racist, communist, false teacher. Such messages have become as ordinary as my cup of coffee before morning prayer. I receive them because part of my work as a Christian theologian addresses issues of systemic injustice. I never imagined such work would be controversial. Racism­ — personal and societal — still affects the lives of people of color in the United States. Part of the Christian witness involves addressing this among a host of other maladies.

Nearly every Christian of color I know who addresses these issues has been subject to similar attacks, no matter the nuance of our argumentation or the sources we cite. I have been accused of believing that all white people are irredeemably racist and of seeing humans as only victims or oppressors. None of this is true, but that does not seem to matter. They call us “woke,” but the disdain with which they use that word makes it feel like a stand-in for deeper and more cutting insults.

I remain puzzled as to why discussions of racism and injustice stir up so much venom from fellow believers. They do not simply disagree. They are angry. Despite this hysteria, there is simply no theological or historical reason for Christians to hesitate over acknowledging structural racism.

When people point out bias or racism in structures (health care, housing, policing, employment practices), they are engaging in the most Christian of practices: naming and resisting sins, personal and collective. A Christian theology of human fallibility leads us to expect structural and personal injustice. It is in the texts we hold dear. So when Christians stand up against racialized oppression, they are not losing the plot; they are discovering an element of Christian faith and practice that has been with us since the beginning. ...

Many fear that Christians who speak out against racism want to tear down America. That is not true; we are the fools who believe that America might better embody its ideals for all people. We are the people of hope. We don’t want destruction of any good thing; we want justice. Let us then set aside this tired drama and fear-mongering distracting us from real issues. The lines are stale and the plot predictable. Let’s instead write a different script and possibly a more just future for everyone.

Other New York Times op-eds by Esau McCaulley:

See also A Christian Vision of Social Justice: Social Change Can Be Pursued With Mercy and Hope

David French (The Dispatch), Structural Racism Isn’t Wokeness, It’s Reality:

Christians must not deny the full consequences of centuries of intentional, racist harm.

[Some congregants at McLean Bible Church] object to what they perceive as a pastoral embrace of critical race theory, and they assert that the Bible alone contains teaching sufficient to address America’s race problems. You can read the comprehensive complaint against [the pastor] and his team here and the allegations of teaching or advocating CRT here.  ...

The dissenters argue that the “solution to the ‘race’ problem in America is more Bible, not more sociology books. It is not the Bible plus a secular reading list, but sola scriptura.” It’s not just unwise to rely on secular scholarship to address American racism, they argue: It’s unbiblical.

This argument echoes tenets of the secular right-wing consensus on race—that racism exists only when there is individual malign intent, that remedies for racism should be limited to imposing consequences on individual racists, and that there is no intergenerational obligation to remedy historic injustice (“I’m not responsible for my ancestors’ sins”).

Under this mode of thinking, the concept of “equality under the law”—as mandated by the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act—is both necessary and largely sufficient to address the causes and consequences of centuries of slavery followed by generations of Jim Crow.

But on the core issues of American racism, [the pastor] is biblically and historically right, and it’s his detractors who are biblically and historically wrong. These “conservatives” have placed a secular political frame around an issue with profound religious significance. They’ve thus not just abandoned the whole counsel of scripture, they’ve even contradicted a core component of the secular conservatism they claim to uphold.

To understand the flaw in their argument, let’s first turn to biblical text. A pastor friend of mine recently reminded me of an intriguing and sobering story from 2 Samuel 21. During the reign of King David, Israel was afflicted with three years of famine. When David “sought the face of the Lord” regarding the crisis, God said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house.” (Saul had conducted a violent campaign against the Gibeonites, in violation of a covenant made with the Israelites many centuries before.)

Saul was king before David, and God was punishing Israel years after Saul’s regime because of Saul’s sin. It was the next king, David’s, responsibility to make things right. And so David turned to the remaining Gibeonites and said, “What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?”

The Gibeonites’ request was harsh—to hand over seven of Saul’s descendants for execution. David fulfilled their request, and “God responded to the plea for the land.”

Note the underlying conception of justice here: Israel remained responsible for its former leader's sins, and they were required to make amends. This is a consistent theme throughout scripture. I’ve referred to it before. In the book of 2 Kings, Josiah “tore his clothes” and “wept” when the high priest found the Book of the Law neglected in the temple. Why? Josiah said, “because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book.”

Josiah was far from alone. Daniel confessed the sins of Israel’s fathers. In the book of Nehemiah, the Israelites confessed the “sins and iniquities” of their fathers. In the book of Leviticus, God commanded the Israelites to “confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers.”

The reason for this obligation of repentance and atonement is obvious. The death of the offending party does not remove the consequences of their sin. Those who’ve been victimized still suffer loss, and if the loss isn’t ameliorated in their lifetimes, that loss can linger for generations.

Let’s apply this more concretely, to the United States of America. Enforcing the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause and passing the Civil Rights Act was (and is) necessary to end overt, legal discrimination, but it was hardly sufficient to ameliorate the effects of slavery and Jim Crow. These effects are so embedded in our system that powerful people often perpetuate those structures even when they lack any racist intent at all. ...

Time and again, there are non-racist reasons for wanting to maintain the structures racists created. Thus, you can begin to understand the cultural and political divide. A person who harbors absolutely no racial animus gets angry when they’re told they’re perpetuating systemic racism, or that racism can exist without malign intent. To be told you’re perpetuating racism when, in your heart of hearts, you know you’re making choices based on road safety, your child’s education, or the beauty of your environment can feel deeply offensive.

Conversely, a person who lives in the midst of the economic and educational deprivation originally created by racists are understandably angered when they’re told there is no racism present when powerful people repeatedly block reforms that would change the status quo. Justice fails when the same unjust outcomes are perpetuated, even though the newest generation of elites may possess different intent.

So how is a Christian to respond? First, let’s go back to scripture and recognize that the obligation to “act justly” is intergenerational. If there is injustice that predates our personal power, it is still our obligation to do what we can to set it right. Second, when you see these racist structures at work, you recognize that you need sociology, history, and economics to help understand not just their reality, but their remedy.

“Sola scriptura” doesn’t tell us how we should zone our communities, district our schools, or protect civil rights. Indeed, there’s an entire Christian doctrine of common grace that teaches us that truth can come from many sources. Even those “conservatives” who resist David Platt likely understand this in their daily lives. Is it the case that we can rely on non-Christian wisdom in, say, military strategy, trade policy, and law enforcement tactics, but when trying to untangle the effects of centuries of racial oppression, the Bible alone will be our guide? ...

Regardless of my ideology, the objective is justice. It’s not “conservative” justice or “progressive” justice. It’s simply justice. So if my ideology leads me astray, and the solutions I propose are inadequate to the enormity of the task, it’s my moral obligation to rethink my philosophical frame.

Finally, it is vital to approach the immense challenge of racial justice with an extraordinary amount of humility. Christians should not be so easily triggered by words that sound “progressive” or which they believe might be “inspired by CRT.” A movement that long derided the “snowflakes” on the other side now reacts as if allegedly offensive pastoral word choice is a microaggression all its own.

Moreover, no one person—no matter how intellectually or spiritually formidable—has discerned the single best way for our nation to “act justly” after so very many years of oppression. So approaching this topic requires grace. Every one of us will be wrong to some degree.

But even in the midst of all this complexity, some things are still clearly true. We still live with the legacy of the discriminatory structures our forefathers created. Our obligation to seek justice does not depend on a finding of personal fault. Christians must be open to truth from any source. And there is nothing—absolutely nothing—“conservative” about denying the reality of the consequences of centuries of intentional, racist harm. 

David French (The Dispatch), On Racial Justice, Individual Guilt, and Institutional Responsibility:

We aren't guilty of the sins of our ancestors, but we must still choose to work to repair the damage they did. ...

Even by the degraded standards of contemporary discourse, my Sunday essay last week triggered a volcanic reaction. I was called “loathsome,” “truly despicable,” and “odious” (among other things). In his Monday podcast, my friend Ben Shapiro engaged in an extended critique and (oddly enough) claimed that I was centering policy around “empathy” rather than justice and was abandoning the concept of equal protection of the law.

But this was fiction. That glow you saw on the horizon was the flames of a thousand burning straw men. It’s hard to imagine that Ben even read my essay before he recorded his response. I never even mentioned the word “empathy,” and I unequivocally declared equal protection of the law to be necessary to the ongoing work of racial justice. Not one of the relatively modest policy recommendations I made (increased respect for property rights to help block NIMBYism, increased school choice to increase educational opportunity, stricter enforcement of the Bill of Rights to prevent exploitation and oppression) contradicts the principle of equality under the law at all.

But the thing that really seemed to make people angry was the (completely false) inference that I was imposing intergenerational guilt for ancestral sin. Critics accused me of imposing “blood guilt” on white people. This is absurd, a bad-faith misreading of my argument. But this misrepresentation does give me an opportunity to discuss a vitally important concept that’s often overlooked within the church—the difference between individual guilt and institutional responsibility, including the individual responsibility to correct the consequences of enduring institutional injustice.

Individuals bear the guilt for their own sin, and even the Old Testament—where God frequently, clearly, and explicitly held nations responsible for institutional sin—contains passages like this, from Ezekiel: “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”

Part of the good news of the Gospel is the fact that Christ’s atoning sacrifice means that under his grace, the soul who sins shall not die, but shall inherit everlasting life. I’ve been critiqued for only quoting Old Testament verses to support my argument that acting justly is a biblical responsibility. But Christ’s death on the cross does not relieve from any institution the obligation to heal the hurts caused by unjust wounds. And Christ himself scolded religious leaders for neglecting the “more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.”

To put this is in basic moral terms that connect with the disputes of the day, if a child is taught that there is something inherently wrong with their “whiteness” because of the sin of white generations before him or her, then that’s profoundly wrong and unjust. Their whiteness does not make them guilty of anything. But that’s not the end of the inquiry.

As I’ve written before, my ancestors fought for the Confederacy. I’m not guilty of their sin, but I can lament their decision to wear gray and learn from their profound mistake. I can warn myself of the incredible pull of tribe over truth, and I can also feel a sense of responsibility to right enduring wrongs. And this is especially true when I consider my role not just as an individual but also a member of various existing institutions that have played historic roles in American injustice. ...

I am not guilty of my forefathers’ sins, but I’m part of a church and nation that has committed profound wrongs, and those wrongs have enduring consequences. 

Or, to phrase it in explicitly biblical terms, it is my moral obligation—in my turn on this earth—to “do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” Make no mistake; the sins of the past have consequences that still rob citizens in the present. It is the enduring obligation of the institutions that committed those crimes to address the legacy of their own misdeeds.

Faith, Legal Education | Permalink