Over the next week, ICCM will be sharing a four-part series on The Gospel and Race written by Grace Mosaic Elder Kenny Gibbs.
God’s mission is one of reconciliation. In Christ, God reconciled us to Himself. He’s taken us from death to life, and from being His enemies to His children. Further, Christ is in the process of reconciling all things to Himself. Thus to be people of Jesus is to be a people of gospel reconciliation – bringing things to their proper kingdom order and fullness.
At the same time, I don’t generally believe in American conversations about “racial reconciliation.” Racial categories in America were created for the purpose of “deconciling” (i.e. breaking apart) people from various ethnic backgrounds, and to subjugate Black and Indigenous peoples to those of European ancestry. Sadly, American churches remain largely segregated, and a significant proportion of Americans who identify as Christian support public policies that are harsh and exclusionary toward fellow image bearers (especially those with brown skin) seeking to come to the U.S. from other nations.
My heart is burdened that so many people who call on the name of Jesus support dialogues, policies and practices that mar the image of God – especially (but not exclusively) in ethnic minority populations. In Christ, God has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between the various peoples who make up the church, making former enemies brothers and sisters. Further, God is calling people from every nation, tribe, people group and language unto Himself. Thus, I press on for the gospel reconciliation that God won for us.
As a person who labors to see God’s reconciliation occur in the church and professionally I am often in conversations about issues of race: where we are, how we got here, and how we move forward. In these conversations, I regularly encounter a number of logical fallacies which, in my view, keep us from seeing the situation rightly, and making progress. We cannot make progress on an issue that’s not rightly understood.
Below, I attempt to bring a modicum of clarity about these fraught issues in the hope that in doing so the American church can move us beyond elementary teachings and on toward maturity. I will often focus on “Black” and “White” not to exclude others, but because I identify (and am identified) as a Black man, so I want to speak about that which I know experientially. Further, the “Black/White” dichotomy has been one of the starkest dividing lines in the history of our nation (largely due to the land theft from and genocide of Indigenous image bearers).
My prayer is that these words will help us as a church to move forward so that we might spread the aroma of Christ rather recreating the stench of the world. While I know this won’t break centuries of racial dynamics in America, I am praying that those who have ears will hear, those who have eyes will see, and that these words will be a blessing to the body. If the church is to carry out our ministry of gospel reconciliation, such that all of God’s image bearers and creation can flourish, then we need to let go of any discourses or ways of thinking that would stand in the way.
- Similar = same.
One fallacy is to try to make things that are similar the same. First, an example outside of race: religious bias in the U.S. It is possible to have bias against a person because of their religion. As a Christian who is a scientist, I have faced people in my profession who have anti-Christian views (including a grad school professor who in a lecture denounced “crackpot scientists” who believed in God). While this sentiment is similar to the anti-religious bias faced by a person of any faith, it is not the same as the biases faced by Jewish or Muslim brothers and sisters. Christianity is the dominant religion in the U.S. (mathematically and culturally). Islam and Judaism are not. Political leaders have announced policies seeking to ban Muslims from entry to the U.S., and commended violent White supremacists who marched in Charlottesville using the anti-Semitic slur “Jews will not replace us” as “fine people.” Christians in the U.S. do not currently, and have not historically, faced this same sort of state-sanctioned and enforced deprivation of rights because we are Christians. This is not to negate the pain that happens when a Christian faces bias because she or he is Christian (I have experienced it and I don’t like it). This is to say that it is not helpful to equate things that are qualitatively similar but are distinct by virtue of underlying position within society (in this case dominant versus minority religions).
It is a fact of U.S. history and the present that the collective experiences of people labeled “White” and “Black” have been (and often continue to be) different. “White” people have and continue to hold the vast majority of wealth and political power in the United States. Black people do not. Despite this reality, in conversations about race, I often find there is a tendency to make false equivalencies where none exist, and therefore stifle the process of reconciliation. Because of sin, any individual can have prejudicial animus against a person from another background. White people can have anti-Black animus. Black people can have anti-White animus. Both run counter to God’s call for us and should not be.
At the same time, while these are qualitatively similar, within the context of American culture they are ontologically and sociologically distinct. It has never been the case that the US government has used its power to enact a systemic program to harm White people, disenfranchise them, and deprive them of “life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness” because they are White. On the contrary, the Constitution enshrined the idea that Black people were less than fully human, and we continue to fight to ensure that the “self-evident” rights of citizenship articulated by our founders are applied to us. Thus, the impact of anti-White racial animus among Black people is not the same as anti-Black animus among White people. In moving the goal of reconciliation forward, we aim to tear down all bias while not creating a false equivalency between things that are not the same.
- Same Action = Equal Impact
A consequence of our racial history of treating people differently on account of race has been a move to treat everyone “the same.” However, it is a fallacy to believe that treating everyone “the same” means the impact is felt equally.
Again, an example outside of race: as the father of young children, I often am the recipient of expressions of their unhappiness. On one occasion when I told my three-year-old son he could not have a toy he wanted, he was angry and slapped me in the face with as much strength as he had (needless to say I was shocked and appropriate discipline ensued). If I was to, in anger, smack him in the face with as much strength as I had, it would be the same action (one of us smacking the other), but its impact would not be equal. That is, because of background differences between the two of us – age, maturity, physical strength, and position within our family – even if we do “the same” action, the impacts are quite different.
When it comes to issues of reconciliation, even if Black and White Christians are making sacrifices that appear “the same,” these are often not felt equally. For example, to be a Black person walking into a predominantly White church is not the equivalent of being a White person walking into a predominately Black church – despite the fact that both individuals are the minority in that context. Black people live in a country where the sociopolitical power structures largely are held by, and are often used explicitly to benefit, White people. In the professional world, Black people often work in environments where we are one of few Black people, and where the concerns we express as Black people are often marginalized as peripheral to the core missions of our industries. White people, by and large, do not. Thus, being a Black person who walks into a predominantly White space is not equivalent to being a White person who walks into a predominately Black space.
In moving God’s mission of reconciliation forward, it’s more important to focus on what is required to achieve the unity Christ came for rather than making sure the requests are “the same” across different groups. In reconciling us to Himself, Jesus did not do what was “fair.” Instead, being the only one who could do this work, He gave up his privilege and position to win us to Himself. Though rich, He became poor (2 Corinthians 8:9). Though all powerful, He became a helpless infant – born amongst animals to His unwed teenage mother (Luke 2:7). Though sinless, He became sin that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). As followers, particularly those who find themselves on the favorable end of a power differential (e.g., White brothers and sisters on issues of race), we too are to give up our position for the sake of being reconciled to our brothers and sisters.
- Single causality (i.e., if race is not the single cause, then we don’t need to talk about it)
One of the reasons that experimental science came to prominence was that it is often able to provide elegant explanations for natural phenomenon. In the lab sciences, we often take a reductionist approach, testing individual variables to determine which is the “cause” of the phenomenon. For example, we can see that single virus is the cause of an infection and then develop targeted interventions to prevent, or treat the damage. However, in science, and in most of life, the causes of phenomenon have multiple causes. Heart disease, for example, can be caused by the interaction of diet, exercise, and genetics. A factor can and often does play an important contribution to an outcome, even when it’s not the single cause of that outcome.
So I can’t say for sure that two black men were arrested at Starbucks in 2018, or that six-year-old Kaia Rolle was arrested in 2019, or that the police pulled out a gun on Jaylen Edwards for stopping beside his team’s bus in 2020 only because they are black. However, I can say that they did not, as image bearers of God, receive just treatment by authorities, and these types of incidents happen disproportionately to image bearers who are identified as Black.
If my White brothers and sisters would not accept this kind of treatment for themselves, their White sons and daughters, mothers or fathers, then the love of God compels you to not accept this for us – your Black brothers and sisters. Loving neighbor as self is not a concept we are to intellectually assent to – it is something we are to live out. Reconciliation requires tearing down any system that would stand in the way of any of God’s image bearers living the lives God calls them to – whether or not the injustice can be determined to have a singular racial motivation.
In the next part of this series, we’ll focus on four other logical fallacies that hinder the body of Christ from advancing God’s mission of gospel reconciliation.