This is a question that’s caused some tension in my own denomination, and it’s bubbled to the surface yet again following the recent Sparrow Conference/ Ekemini Uwan controversy. (I’ll post a recap in the comments, for those unfamiliar with the incident in question.)
I offer a brief synthesis of my own evolving thoughts and reflections, in the hopes that some here may find them illuminating. God have mercy on me if any of this comes across as “whitesplaining,” when all I really aim to do is “work out my salvation with fear and trembling.”
1. If we’re going to talk about racism and injustice, it’s helpful for us to use words from the Bible—I’m thinking especially of the word “sin,” which helps us remember that injustice is the natural byproduct of the Curse of Adam/Mark of Cain. With that said, I don’t think it’s enough to say that racism is a “sin problem” and leave it at that. (The same tidy explanation could be given for murder, abortion, or cancer.) Rather, I think there is value in naming specific sins and elucidating the ways in which we have institutionlized, formalized, legitimized, and accommodated them in our lives, schools, churches, homes, and halls of government.
2. Likewise, if we are going to talk about solutions, it’s important to root them in what the Bible says—to wit, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which I will define here as a proclamation of historic fact: The Son of God died to reverse the curse of sin in our world and to set the cosmos to right. This is not just relevant to race/justice conversations but paramount, because it reminds us that oppression and injustice have an end date; as Julian of Norwich says, all manner of things shall be made well. The Gospel proclamation is essential for any Christian response to social ill.
3. Whatever your ultimate allegiances are—the Gospel, a political party, an ideology or value proposition of any kind—your actions will ultimately reveal and ratify them. (This is called “religion,” and we all have one; see David Dark’s book, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious.) The upshot here is that, if we internalize that Gospel proclamation, it has necessary overflow into our discipleship, our love for neighbor, and yes, our politics. The Lord Jesus described it in terms of “bearing fruit”—your life and your choices naturally bear witness to whatever gospel you believe. I think most evangelical Christians understand this on some level, but many choose to forget it where issues of racial justice are concerned, believing that the pursuit of justice/neighborly love can somehow be pitched AGAINST gospel faith. There doesn’t have to be conflict between believing the gospel and living your life against injustice; the relationship here is one of cause and effect. (Faith without works, etc.) I do not think the Church can grow in grace or in gospel power so long as we get hung up on this basic relationship between theological belief and practical implication.
4. I would define racism by using a common, classic definition—prejudice plus power. Racism, as formally defined, has a lot to do with systematic injustice and oppression. Thus, white people can certainly be on the receiving end of prejudice or bigotry, but I would not use capital-r racism to describe these instances. White people have long enjoyed power and privilege in this country, which makes it impossible for them to be recipients of systematic oppression.
5. I have no reason to question the existence of white supremacy, as I see its power summoned and its troops rallied on TV and on Twitter every single day. (“As if we need any more proof of the existence of Satan in the modern world,” Flannery O’Connor said; I may be paraphrasing slightly.) As such, I do not have any particular problem with the framing of “whiteness” as a power structure from which we must all divest, as per Uwan and also James Baldwin.
6. When it comes to supporting a president and a political agenda that enshrines and empowers white supremacy—for whatever reason (abortion, Supreme Court, “small government”)—I think the question to ask is simply: To what gospel are we bearing witness? To what evangelicalism do we testify?
7. While I do not believe everyone who identifies as a white/conservative/evangelical is a white supremacist, I do think there are scary ways in which white/conservative/evangelicalism, as an institution, has long protected white supremacy. I would commend to you Jemar Tisby’s book, The Color of Compromise, for a much fuller historic reckoning than anything I could provide.
8. I reject the notion that the church has a “spiritual mission,” but only because I do not see any way to distinguish between the “spiritual” and the bodily/physical/incarnate/”secular.” (The Gnostics tried this, and it would seem they still exert some impact on Western Christianity.) I would find common ground with anyone who says the primary goal of the Church is to proclaim the Gospel, but I would differ with anyone who denies the earthly overflow of this proclamation.
8b. In keeping with the last point, I do not affirm the doctrine commonly known as “the spirituality of the church,” which is invoked to dampen enthusiasm for racial justice concerns but somehow never comes up when conservative political projects (abortion, gay marriage) are on the table. This “doctrine” was conceived as justification for churches to remain silent on the question of slavery, which is really all you need to know about it.
9. It is impossible for me to understand how it is charitable, gracious, or constructive to demean a Christian brother or sister as a “Social Justice Warrior” simply for showing a good-faith concern for “the least of these.” My simple suggestion for anyone who uses SJW as a convenient pejorative: Stop immediately jumping to labels when you could/should be actually engaging with the complexity of a fellow image- bearer. (Not trying to sound preachy, as I do this myself sometimes.)
10. There are no neutral positions when it comes to justice; dismissing it as “not my concern,” “not the church’s business,” or “not within the scope of Gospel witness” is taking a side, and not the right one. In fact, I would describe it as antichrist.
11. It is my honest conviction that the reason these conversations rankle so many is because they call for an intentional dismantling of some of white/conservative evangelicalism’s most cherished idols—to wit, Republicanism, nationalism, and yes, as Uwan’s righteous word reminds us… whiteness. It’s often said that if we don’t kill our idols, we can be sure they’re killing us. I believe it.
12. The attitude I see a lot in my circles is that historic racism/injustice was definitely bad, but haven’t we all apologized/atoned for it by now? Can’t we just move on? And yet, when present-day instances of racial trauma are raised, the first instinct is always to deny, deflect, or negate them. There is a posture of defensiveness, a refusal to sit with the suffering of other human beings or to admit that we might be culpable in it, that strikes me as contrary to the spirit of repentance. So to the question of whether we’ve “done enough” to repent/atone, I think the answer is very clearly no.
13. I believe in the power of the Gospel to transform lives, kill idols, set captives free, and end the reign of sin. In fact, I believe it’s already happened/is happening/will happen. I pray that I might bear fruit accordingly.
14. I also believe Ekemini Uwan."