Over the next week, ICCM will be sharing a four-part series on The Gospel and Race written by Grace Mosaic Elder Kenny Gibbs.
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. In Part 1 , I addressed three of these fallacies:
- Similar = same.
- Same action = equal impact.
- Single causality.
Here, I continue to identify and address discourses or ways of thinking that would stand in the way of gospel reconciliation.
4. Presence of good = absence of bad
Let’s say there is a couple where the husband yells at and demeans the wife 20% of the time, but also takes the wife on nice dates quarterly and publicly praises her monthly. Even though it’s the case that the husband does not yell at his wife 80% of the time and regularly praises her, we would still say that this couple has a problem. That is, despite the fact that there is good in the relationship, and that the majority of the time he’s not yelling, the negatives occur with enough regularity that it’s a truthful statement to say that husband yells at and demeans his wife.
Now extrapolate to racial dynamics in the U.S. Black people have made real progress in this country. Barack Obama was twice elected President. Oprah Winfrey is a billionaire whose rise was supported by the millions of White families who watched her every day for decades. I received a Ph.D. from Stanford at 27, despite my paternal grandfather having a 4th grade education in the Jim Crow South. The presence of all of these positive facts does not mean there aren’t real and serious problems that continue to happen across lines of race. Just as the wife would be on guard for whatever might trigger the yelling husband, Black people are often on guard due to both the systematic and seemingly random ways in which race can operate in America to our detriment.
In my experience, it’s not uncommon to hear a line of thinking that goes something like this: because we do not have chattel slavery, Jim Crow “colored only” signs, and Obama was president, the major detrimental impacts of racism are gone. That is, the presence of certain positives, and the absence of the most egregious aspects of American racism mean we’re now in a “good” place. However, the presence of good does not mean there is an absence of bad (just as the presence of bad doesn’t mean the absence of good). Our aim is both the presence of good and the absence of bad.
Jesus didn’t die for partial reconciliation, and we should not settle for it either. While it’s been the case that Christians (including Christians who identify as White) have been at the forefront of movements for the rights of Black people, it is also the case that Christians (especially Christians who identify as White) have been and continue to be at the fore of efforts to restrict the rights of people of color. This should not be. As followers of Jesus, our goal should be to maximize the good and remove the bad – not to be deceived into thinking that the ability of some Black people to make progress we couldn’t have made a century ago removes the continuing negatives we experience.
5. Racial problems will stop if we stop talking about race
I spent the better part of a decade doing cancer research. If you or a loved one was diagnosed with an aggressive but treatable form of cancer, and the doctor said, “This will be fine, we just won’t talk about it,” you would report the doctor for malpractice. We know that not talking about issues doesn’t make them go away. Like cancer, they just metastasize, and cause greater damage than would be done if it had been dealt with early.
As it is with cancer, so it is with racial dynamics in America and in the church. We can only make progress if we actually face the issues. We have to talk – a LOT. We have to talk—HONESTLY. We have to talk even when we’re tired of talking. Talking will not, in itself, solve any issue, but if we do not talk about the issues we have, there is no way we can move forward. Not talking about race in the face of racial disparity only perpetuates racial disparity. Newton’s first law says “an object in motion stays in motion unless acted on by an external force.” As it is in the physical world, so it is in the social world. Our words can be the external force that begins to break the negative and continual “motion” that occurs in the lives of Black and brown image bearers living under the weight of racial sin.
Words have power. So does silence. The Scriptures remind us that God created the world by speaking, and “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). So instead of running from the conversations, run to them, being “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1:20) with an eye toward using speech to do God’s work of reconciliation.
6. Interpersonal kindness will solve race problems.
In my experience, racism in the minds of many of my White brothers and sisters is thought of primarily as a matter of individual hatred. As a result, the way that racism goes away is by being kind to people of all races. I’m all for kindness. However, kindness alone will not move gospel reconciliation forward because of the multifaceted nature of racism. Even during the height of chattel slavery or Jim Crow, there were people who were categorized as “White” that were kind to people who were categorized as “Black” (and vice versa). However, kindness does not undo systems that have been designed to privilege one group and disadvantage another group.
As Michael Gerson noted in the Washington Post, there’s a mythology about racism in the U.S., particularly in largely White Christian circles that deny its existence and the power we continue to allow it to have:
The United States, the myth goes, used to have systematic discrimination, but that ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Racism is now purely an individual issue, for which the good people should not be blamed. This narrative has nothing to do with true religion. It has everything to do with ignorant self-satisfaction. It is neither realistic nor fair to ignore the continuing social effects of hundreds of years of state-sponsored oppression, cruelty and stolen wages. It is neither realistic nor fair to ignore the current damage of mass incarceration and failed educational institutions on minority groups. Prejudice and institutional evil are ongoing — deeply ingrained in social practice and ratified by indifference. Repentance is in order — along with a passion for social justice that is inseparable from the Christian gospel.
Kindness is good. Kindness is helpful. Kindness is a fruit of the Spirit. Yet kindness in and of itself is not sufficient for moving forward the project of gospel reconciliation. Action to dismantle systems of oppression is needed.
7. Secular methods will be sufficient to resolve a spiritual problem
God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). So too does He endow all image bearers – believers and non-believers – with talents that can be useful in achieving His redemptive plan. One of the gifts God has given us is the sciences – social and natural – which allow us to understand this complex world, and use the rules underlying how the world operates to bring about light from darkness, order from chaos, and to advance His grand redemptive plan. Thus, just as I can be seen by Christian and non-Christian physicians for my medical issues, I can use the resources of Christian and non-Christian thinkers to advance God’s mission on earth.
At the same time, we cannot achieve the mission of God using only secular means. The battle for gospel reconciliation along any line – including and especially racial lines – is a spiritual battle. When I think about the centuries of racial violence that have characterized the U.S., I recall the words of Paul in Ephesians 6:
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
So while we must educate ourselves and use every political and organizing tool available for the cause of justice, we must also pray and fast. We must avail ourselves of the whole armor of God, which is the only power that can demolish the spiritual strongholds of racism and White supremacy that continue to strangle so much of American life and the American church. Let us pray, and work, that God’s kingdom come and will be done on earth as it is in heaven.