A few questions have come up over and over while discussing the issue of racial and ethnic reconciliation, so I’ve thought it best to pause my “What Is & Isn’t Being Said” series to offer some brief clarifications. Each should be taken quite narrowly, as addressing only that which is mentioned. E.g., below, this clarification does not address the wider social applications beyond the body of Christ, which will be addressed later. It also does not address the history of those who knew and preached the gospel, yet nevertheless promoted, defended, and preserved racist ideas.
“Racism Isn’t the Problem, Sin Is the Problem!” : A Brief Clarification
The problem isn’t ‘racism’, or any other ‘ism’ for that matter, but the congenital sin nature we each bear in our heart. The gospel makes this perfectly clear, particularly in Mark 7:17-23. Racism is ‘dealt with’ the same as any other sin. This is not rocket science, folks. SMH! (Darrell B. Harrison via Twitter)
I do not intend to pick on Mr. Harrison in particular, but his statement above does reflect a common sentiment among evangelicals. “Racism isn’t the problem, sin is the problem, and only the gospel can change the heart”; or, “racism is sin, and the only remedy for sin is the gospel.” Statements such as these seem quite correct on the surface. It is certainly true that all sin is from the heart. It is also true that only Jesus can change the heart. And it is true that the gospel is the only ultimate remedy for sin. But it seems odd, at least to me, to then conclude that a retelling of the gospel—in most evangelical cases narrowly defined as something like the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God—is the only remedy to be applied, or even suggested, and that little to no detailed discussion, research, or acknowledgement of specifics is required. We certainly don’t do this with other sins that plague the Church.
For example, if someone comes seeking help to be freed from the sin of pornography, we do not simply leave him with a retelling of the gospel message; I mean, this is a sin plaguing Christians after all, who do already know the gospel. Of course, we generally would begin by making sure the gospel is understood and believed. But then we would seek to study, even memorize, Bible passages—passages which do not literally and directly speak to the issue of watching pornographic videos on HD television and the like, but which provide condemnations, exhortations, and encouragements that can in principle be applied to the modern specifics of this sin. We might discuss what sins are at the root of these desires—lust, covetousness, hatred, inordinate desire for control, etc. We might next suggest accountability partners and/or specific modern technologies to prohibit access. We might discuss the where and when it occurs, if there are triggers, if there are circumstances that must be avoided, if the cell phone itself must be turned off, etc.
Further, we would probably couch this whole endeavor in the understanding of Biblical sexuality and God’s design for sex and marriage. We would also recognize the social circumstances that this sin has flourished in, including a sexualized culture, erosion of marriage and monogamy, the influence of art and media, the corrupt teaching of schools and universities, even false doctrines and unbiblical sexual ethics found in the Church. We would recognize the legal changes that have allowed for the epidemic, would recognize the growing technological advances involved, the increasing ease of access, and other aspects of our modern circumstance that have occasioned our fallen nature to indulge in this specific 21st century epidemic. And, to be honest, we’d probably include neurological, psychological, and sociological research to aid in the battle.
So, why do we not just say, “pornography is not the problem, sin is the problem” or, “pornography is sin, and the only remedy for sin is the gospel” and leave it at that? Well, the main reason we don’t is because the Bible doesn’t. The Bible addresses both the root of sin—the fall, the dead heart, and the concupiscence that follows—and the fruits that are sins, i.e., specific sins. Of the former we know that “the heart is desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9), that the thoughts of man’s heart “are only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5), that “from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness” (Mark 7:21-22). We know that the works of the flesh are “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Gal. 5:19-20).
But we also know that, e.g., the lust in fallen Adam’s heart was not identical to the desire to take Bathsheba by killing Uriah, nor the Corinthian desire for Aphrodite’s temple prostitutes, nor the temptation and toleration of “that woman Jezebel” in Thyatira—nor the desire to download perverse content from the internet, for that matter. In fact, when Jesus addressed the Seven Churches in the Book of Revelation, he addressed them each with their own peculiar trials, specific sins, and specific temptations that characterized their individual churches. Was the specific heresy of the Nicolaitans in the heart of every fallen man and woman since Adam, even before the heretic Nicolas was born? We can say definitely that the root of all heresy was in the heart, but this specific evil that Jesus calls out was in important ways quite new, and addressed only to a couple of the seven churches. As the Apostle Paul rightly says of fallen mankind, we are “inventors of evil” (Rom. 1:30).
The fact of the matter is, brother Harrison is essentially correct: racism is no different and should not be addressed differently than any other individual and culture-wide sin. Hatred, greed, envy, prejudice, lust, lust for power, and every other root of historic racism, were all to be found in the heart of fallen Adam (and every man since!); but I don’t think it makes sense to claim that, e.g., belief that those of African descent were inferior in intellect, inferior in morals, are lazy, dangerous, etc., was to be found in Adam’s heart. It is actually quite awkward to even say that “racism” was in Adam’s heart—at least racism as we know it. Racist ideas, biases, and prejudices about those of African descent were quite literally created over the course of a few hundred years, for the very sake of justifying oppressive practices, and are therefore of generally recent provenance (please see HERE and HERE). (The word “racism” didn’t even exist until about seventy years ago.) Given the actual history and development of racist ideas in our culture and society, we ought rather to look to the more pedestrian sins of the heart found in every man since the fall—as above—hatred, greed, lust, power, indifference, even general unwillingness to confront evil. And these ancient pedestrian sins of the heart have manifested in distinct and different ways throughout all of history, in different cultures, different nations, different families, and different churches. And just like Jesus and the Apostles deftly exegeted the sins of first century churches—identifying their specific, individual, communal, and cultural manifestations—so ought we to be aware of, study, and address our own specific, individual, communal, and cultural manifestations of those age-old sins of the heart.
To be clear, we should never settle with just saying, “racism is not the problem, sin is the problem,” or “racism is sin, and the only remedy for sin is the gospel.” The gospel of Jesus Christ is without doubt the only ultimate solution for sin. But if we want to be Biblical, we must go much further than a retelling of this message. Just as with our pornography example above, we must address racism through the Bible, through the actual history of racist ideas, through its social dimensions, through recognizing and addressing sinful structures and institutions, and through opposing false doctrine; in short, by all the means we make available to battle any other contextualized epidemic of sin. That is, if we really believe it is sin.