Stop Missing the Point On Racial Justice
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 Black man in America, I often face the reality of racial injustice, ranging from the evening news to my own life. During the summer of 2018 – when I saw children locked in cages at the US Southern Border, and various ways “Living While Black” was being policed, I began to express my dismay to those around me. It was not uncommon for my White brothers and sisters – whether religious or secular, conservative or liberal – to respond to my dismay with a simple question: “Do you think that was because of skin color?” For those seeking to advance God’s justice in the world, it’s a question that misses the point.
The point of justice, defined by the Reverend Dr. Mika Edmonson at a recent church retreat as “protecting and restoring the rights of God’s image bearers, especially the most vulnerable,” is justice – across all lines. This includes racial justice. Our goal as followers of Jesus is not to divine the motives of the party carrying out the injustice, but to name the injustice and then participate in the work of repair.
A core challenge we have as Americans and as the church in America in talking about race or racism is that we approach the topic from different lived realities, and use the same terminology in wildly different manors. Is racism about personal hatred or a system rooted in history that privileges one group above others? One of the more helpful definitions I’ve found comes from the Reverend Duke Kwon, who stated:
Racism is the sinful devaluation (or overvaluation), subordination (or supraordination), and exclusion (or preferential inclusion) of God’s image-bearers on the basis of ethnicity, culture or race. It is an idolatrous ecosystem of beliefs, behaviors and social structures that assigns value or advantage based on ethnicity, culture or race. Racism is individual and systemic, behavioral and attitudinal, conscious and subconscious, explicit and implicit, active and passive.
In my experience, to assert that “race” is a contributing factor to an outcome, especially one where minoritized peoples are on the losing side, is treated as everything from an obvious reality for many people of color, to tantamount to making a criminal accusation for many White brothers and sisters. Being married to a lawyer, I’ve come to appreciate how there are different “burdens of proof” for determining if a party is guilty of the charges before them. Three that are particularly well known are:
- Preponderance – A requirement that more than 50% of the evidence points to a certain outcome (i.e. more likely than not). This is the standard in most civil cases.
- Clear and convincing – That the evidence is highly and substantially more likely to be true than untrue. This is employed in both civil and criminal trials.
- Beyond a reasonable doubt – This is the highest burden of proof, employed in most criminal trials, and means a juror must be able to say with moral certainty that the defendant is guilty of the charges.
My sense is that many Black people – especially those of us descended from enslaved Africans – tend to start from the place of preponderance. This is, it is more likely than not that race is a contributing factor in most situations, and especially situations where Black people or people from other minority populations end up on the losing side. It is not that we are “hoping” or “wanting” this to the case, it is just that our collective lived experience in this country tells us that race has and continues to be a core reality that shapes our lives, often to our detriment (even in the absence of individual animus).
On the contrary, I find a number of my White brothers and sisters (especially those who are skeptical of “liberal” positions taken in the popular culture) start from a different standard of evidence all together – beyond all doubt. That is, there’s a discomfort with indicating that race is (or might be) a factor contributing to an outcome (particularly one in which a person from a minority group is on the less favorable end) unless we know for sure. So absent someone saying, “I hate n-words because they’re n-words,” bringing up race is seen as something that’s seen as wholly inappropriate and unfair slander.
Assigning animus in the context of disparate racial outcomes is not the point – remedying the disparity is the point. While determining individual animus may be helpful for some on a psychic level, it does nothing about changing the lived experience of image bearers who are living under the weight of these unjust systems. It does not advance God’s work of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:11-21).
Race is an experience that’s not primarily linked to skin color – as evidenced by the mosaic of skin tones that people called “Black” have. Race, in America, is about power. Race is about how whole groups of image bearers are treated – and particularly how the church, state and private sector have attempted to rob people of color generally, and Black people specifically, of the royalty and dignity that God has endowed in us as image bearers.
As Christians, the Scriptures tell us that we are to be about God’s kingdom building project here on earth:
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. Genesis 2:15
This means that God put human beings on the planet to work in every domain so that the world thrives. Core to that thriving is ensuring that every image bearer has the ability to flourish and cultivate the gifts God has placed in her or him. Racism in all of its dimensions cuts against the core work of God on the earth. It undoes the gospel commands to love God, love neighbor, and do unto others as you would have them do to you. So if you’re interested in advancing racial justice, don’t ask if an incident happened because of skin color – ask if it is just. And when the answer is no, as it all too often is for Black people and other people of color in America, begin the work of repair.
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?