It appears that Pastor John MacArthur of Grace Community Church and the Grace to You empire has entered the fray of Racial Reconciliation (RR) discussions. In his recent blog post, “Social Justice and the Gospel,” Pastor MacArthur decries what he calls the current “social justice” movement within evangelicalism. In his words,
This recent (and surprisingly sudden) detour in quest of “social justice” is, I believe, the most subtle and dangerous threat so far.
Since there is not much substance in this particular piece, as it is only the first salvo in a series of blogs he intends to write on the subject, I don’t intend here to respond to his yet substantiated claims. (I also intend to muster enough strength to not be thoroughly annoyed by his consistent assumption that evangelical leaders are pushing “social justice”—a phrase I really only hear opponents using to align RR advocates against “Biblical justice.”) What I would like to briefly address is the claim that the movement today is fundamentally different than that of the 1960’s and 70’s, that in which he believed himself to have been a participant.
Pastor MacArthur spends the first half of the piece bolstering his Civil Rights bona fides by recounting his work with his “good friend” John Perkins some 50 years ago, and also his own personal experience of mistreatment for association with the Civil Rights movement. I do commend him for his work in this period, whatever it may have been. (Phil Johnson, executive director of Grace to You, has subsequently given us some information about what this work did and did not include. [Update: the accuracy of some of MacArthur’s claims have been called into question as well.]) But he is simply wrong when he contrasts the work of RR advocates like John Perkins with modern RR advocates. He argues that in the past, reconciliation was based on the truth that we Christians are already one in Christ, but that advocates now are mirroring “the jargon of worldly politics.” He writes,
The evangelicals who are saying the most and talking the loudest these days about what’s referred to as “social justice” seem to have a very different perspective. Their rhetoric certainly points a different direction, demanding repentance and reparations from one ethnic group for the sins of its ancestors against another.
This is simply indefensible; but it is unfortunately consistent with the half-baked reconciliation overtures of many white evangelicals who fancy themselves participants in racial healing. From the very beginning of the movement, RR advocates were concerned about white evangelicals’ willingness to condemn personal prejudice yet unwillingness to take action toward ameliorating the widespread social consequences of 450 years of racialized subjugation. As Carl Ellis, Jr.—certainly a member of MacArthur’s RR past—has put it,
Tears and hugs and saying I’m sorry is a good first step, but for me, the question is not one of changing the hearts of individuals as [much as] it is dealing with the systems and the structures that are devastating African-American people. (“Seedbed for Revival?” in Christianity Today 41:90.)
I believe I can say without qualification that this sentiment is shared by RR advocates past and present. John Perkins, one of the original group of pastors championing the Christian approach to reconciliation (and good friend of John MacArthur) says much the same:
There is a biblical command and a national command that we hold all people equal. The whole idea of the redemption we have from the Bible is the redemption of the Israelites out of their enslavement in Egypt. Judgment fell upon Pharaoh because of this enslavement. Americans take the history of enslavement too lightly because we have benefited from it. And now, we still don’t meet the biblical requirement where God says, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14). We have not repented deeply enough of the sin of racism.
[…]Racism is a sin in the face of the Holy God and of humanity bearing that face of God. We have not gotten deep enough to affirming each other as human beings. As a result we minimize the gospel. We are supposed to be new creations in Christ Jesus, a peacemaking force. We have to come back to brotherhood and sisterhood. We are beating around the bush and not coming to the biblical foundation. I’m calling for a deeper sense of repentance as a nation.
These are going to get worse. In our urban communities, situations are pathological. We will have more of what happened in Ferguson happening in other communities. (“John Perkins: The Sin of Racism Made Ferguson Escalate So Quickly”)
And what about specific actions with reference to policy, even “capitalism” itself?
People today have demonized affirmative action, you know: black folk were held in slavery all these years and now if we say that they get a job, if it’s ten white folks on the job and we say now, “hey, the population here is 50% white and 50% black, then why don’t we then get 50% white and 50% black,” then Whites are going to say there were 10 Whites already there and they’re going to say, “well, that’s affirmative action against us.” You get the idea….and in this case, affirmative action was an equalizer. But if you ask somebody about “affirmative action” they’re going to make it a demonized word, and that’s the same that we’ve done with “capitalism.” The person who has been so exploited by capitalism, if he says that capitalism is bad in the sense that media has ruined it, it’s to the media’s advantage to destroy that person…so just railing against it without us thinking about some form of alternative to it—at least some form of alternative in terms of how we can form some kind of an alternative that helps people. Again, I think good-thinking people would say that it’s hard to do that within the context of a capitalistic system; I believe there is freedom within—I believe there is freedom within it if people have the will to do it. (“An Interview With John Perkins”)
To be perfectly honest, I believe that Pastor John MacArthur—and probably the majority of white Americans—has bought into the notion of a post-Civil Rights color-blind America. Once, in their minds, equality of opportunity had supposedly been restored, legal segregation and overt discrimination outlawed, the principles of abstract liberalism guarantee that any serious disparities are to be laid in the lap of African Americans themselves. This story we tell ourselves fits nicely with our evangelical politically conservative commitments. As Tony Warner put it,
White evangelicals are more willing to pursue a white conservative political agenda than to be reconciled with their African-American brothers and sisters. It raises a fundamental question of their belief and commitment to the biblical gospel. (“Learn from Us” in Christianity Today 37:26)
And again, this is no exclusively modern sentiment; not some recent fabrication of anti-gospel “social justice warriors.” This has been the concern of Pastor MacArthur’s RR advocate associates from the very beginning. It is only white Americans, evangelicals in particular, who have decided that the social work was complete in 1968. Unfortunately, this is no new phenomenon. When America moved from slavery to the Reconstruction disaster, from Reconstruction disaster to Jim Crow, and from Jim Crow to our modern era of racialized social control, white Americans at each “victory” folded up their protest signs. That is, if they were involved at all. They (and we!) at each transition decided the “negros” had been given enough. To be sure, we white Americans still believe we have the unquestionable power to determine when the wound is healed, when equity has been restored, and when Biblical justice has been accomplished. All else is just anti-gospel “social justice.”
I look forward to interacting with the Pastor’s future posts.
[Edit: Though not particularly germane to the point of the piece, I had previously added in a link (~3pm on the 13th) that I believed was simply Pastor John MacArthur more fully telling his story of Martin Luther King’s death and surrounding events. Instead, it was actually a critique of his telling of the events, claiming he was not truthful. I cannot verify the claims of that post and assume the Pastor’s version is accurate. I deeply apologize that I linked it in haste, without verifying the message or its content. Once Phil Johnson pointed out that it was literally the opposite of what I intended, I deleted it (~10pm on the 13th). I am making no excuses and only can say before God and man that it was not my intention to disparage his former work, but to highlight it.]
Image via The Master’s Seminary