The racially important cultural tools in the white evangelical tool kit are “accountable freewill individualism,” “relationalism” (attaching central importance to interpersonal relationships), and anti-structuralism (inability to perceive or unwillingness to accept social structural influences). (Divided by Faith, p. 76)
When I first read Smith and Emerson’s book, Divided by Faith (a must read), this section stood out above all else. I had wondered why the concept of structural, systemic, or institutional racism was so forcefully dismissed by white evangelicals in general, and opponents of racial reconciliation in particular. The concept of a “tool kit,” stocked with limited methods of interpretation (even conceptualization), populated by fundamental beliefs and assumptions found within evangelical ideology itself, seemed a welcome explanation for the obvious hostility toward structural explanations. The logic seemed simple. Evangelicalism rightly sees salvation as an individual affair (though often with illegitimate emphasis); God saves sinners from sin; sin is the ultimate problem; only individuals can sin or be saved from sin; racism is wrong because it is sin; therefore, racism is also only an individual affair. As such, evangelicals can only process racism as an individual attitude or as individual actions. Evangelicals simply have no interpretive category for institutionalized, systemic, or structural racism. It makes perfect sense.
[For context, see “A Civil Rights Leader Is Accusing John MacArthur of ‘Lying’ About Where He Was When MLK Died.”]
As many discuss the accuracy of Pastor John MacArthur’s oft told experience with John Perkins and Charles Evers the night Dr. King was murdered, I’d suggest we need to keep in focus the hypocrisy involved in the very telling of these stories. MacArthur often offers such tales to bolster his Civil Rights bona fides before going on to criticize the so-called “social justice” movement in the Church. He prefaced his very first post in a series attacking modern Racial Reconciliation (RR) advocates with the same. Immediately after claiming, “[w]e were also shown the place where James Earl Ray stood on a toilet to fire the fatal shot,” he declares the following with bolstered accreditation:
Article 12, Mississippi State Constitution (1890):
Sec. 243. A uniform poll tax of two dollars, to be used in aid of the common schools, and for no other purpose, is hereby imposed on every male inhabitant of this State between the ages of twenty-one and sixty years, except persons who are deaf and dumb or blind, or who are maimed by loss of hand or foot; said tax to be a lien only upon taxable property. The board of supervisors of any county may, for the purpose of aiding the common schools in that county, increase the poll tax in said county, but in no case shall the entire poll tax exceed in any one year three dollars on each poll. No criminal proceedings shall be allowed to enforce the collection of the poll tax.
Sec. 244. On and after the first day of January, A. D., 1892, every elector shall, in addition to the foregoing qualifications, be able to read any section of the constitution of this State; or he shall be able to understand the same when read to him, or give a reasonable interpretation thereof. A new registration shall be made before the next ensuing election after January the first, A.D., 1892.
This is a continuation of our last post, “What Is & Isn’t Being Said: 8. Systemic Racism & the Narrow Spirituality of the Church.”
Meanwhile, a very different understanding of the mission and role of the Church had grown up in the United States. From the time African Americans began forming their own churches and denominations in the 18th century—due to abuse, violence, persecution, and egregious violations of the Communion of the Saints—they consistently rejected this narrow spirituality view, and for what should be very obvious reasons. The hypocrisy of the American Church was never lost on African Americans, whether slave or free, nor the spuriousness of their truncated “gospel.”
[To be fair, this is a long post, and it ends with “To be continued….” I do believe this is one of the most important discussions within modern conservative evangelicalism, so if you have the time and inclination, I believe you will be rewarded.]
To me, the existence of systemic or institutionalized racism, i.e., “polices, practices, and procedures of institutions that have a disproportionately negative effect on racial minorities’ access to and quality of goods, services, and opportunities” (Vernellia R. Randal), is a simple deduction from three premises:
- Well documented and vast social and economic disparities between black and white Americans, as well as continued neighborhood and church segregation.
- All racial groups are equal; in Ibram X Kendi’s words, “no racial group has ever had a monopoly on any type of human trait or gene—not now, not ever.”
- The majority of Americans are not overt racists, members of a neo-Nazi party, or intentionally discriminating against black Americans due to conscious prejudice and hatred.
If we are committed to the truth of the above three premises, then we must begin to look for explanations that do not—intentionally or unintentionally—assume the inferiority of any race. And a very short walk back through history gives us all the data we need: four hundred years of legal and de facto marginalization for the sake of exploitation accords perfectly with the circumstances we find ourselves in today; in fact, how could we expect it to be otherwise? Truly, God has been fantastically kind to this Nation, given our history. Much worse circumstances could have justly been predicted.
Example of Systemic Racism: “Narrow” Spirituality of the Church (NSoC)
I had promised in “What Is & Isn’t Being Said: 7. Individual vs. Institutional Racism” to give specific examples of systemic racism, both from church and society, to further explicate the concept. But I have decided here, rather, to focus solely on the church—particularly the Reformed and Presbyterian Church, of which I am a member.
The following is from Francis Fedric’s Slave Life in Virginia and Kentucky (1863), wherein he describes his own conversion to Christianity. It is just more confirmation of Peter Randolph’s conclusion quoted at length in an earlier post: “[a]fter such preaching, let no one say that the slaves have the Gospel of Jesus preached to them.”
As discussed in the LAST TWO POSTS of this series, the “true religion” is the revealed religion, the “preached” religion; it is “the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations” and is a religion which “we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom” (Col. 1:26,28). And as we will see, it is in fact the revealing and preaching of Jesus Christ Himself, in both Old and New Testaments, for “there is no salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12) and “no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him” (Matt. 11:27).
As such, we must next discuss what exactly “revelation” is. For starters, the Greek word we commonly translate “revelation” is apokalýptō, from the roots apó, “away from” and kalýptō, “to cover.” Literally speaking, it means to take away the cover, revealing what is hidden, veiled, or obstructed, especially the inner concealed make-up. In Greek texts it often means to show forth the unseen, immaterial, deep nature of something—what cannot be known by the senses alone.