The Gospel, therefore, is a public exhibition of the Son of God manifested in the flesh, (1 Timothy 3:16) to deliver a ruined world, and to restore men from death to life. It is justly called a good and joyful message, for it contains perfect happiness. Its object is to commence the reign of God, and by means of our deliverance from the corruption of the flesh, and of our renewal by the Spirit, to conduct us to the heavenly glory. For this reason it is often called the kingdom of heaven, and the restoration to a blessed life, which is brought to us by Christ, is sometimes called the kingdom of God… . (John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke)
The gospel is the power of God unto salvation. This is Biblically undeniable. But what is the gospel? There appears to be an underlying disagreement among Christians over this definition, fueling charges of both “Social Gospel” from one side and “Gospel-Only-ism” (or the like) from the other. The truth is, both of these systems obscure the true meaning of “gospel”; the former verging on Materialism and the eclipse of the individual, the latter verging on Gnosticism and the eclipse of community. I hope in this short series to offer some clarification, for I too believe that the gospel is the answer to all individual and social ills.
Just as “Blackness” was cobbled together out of various nations, tribes, tongues, and shades of brown—beginning with Gomes De Zurara’s bogus descriptions of African peoples as a beastly lot, in order to justify Prince Henry’s enslaving prowess—so “Whiteness” was cobbled together out of various nations, tribes, tongues, and lighter shades of brown to form the “White Race.” There simply was no such thing as “White People,” the “White Race,” or “Whiteness” as a concept associated with people groups until the turn of the 18th century.
Prior to the development of colonial governments in North America and the West Indies, people groups were largely identified by nationality; there were Irishmen, Englishmen, Germans, Italians, Slavs, Senegalese, Ghanaians, Malians, etc. At the beginning of the 17th century, these men and women worked side by side in the construction of the New World, primarily as indentured servants subject to the term of 6 years under British common law.
[T]here is nothing wrong with Black people as a group, or with any other racial group. That is what it truly means to think as an antiracist: to think there is nothing wrong with Black people, to think that racial groups are equal. There are lazy and unwise and harmful individuals of African ancestry. There are lazy and unwise and harmful individuals of European ancestry. There are industrious and wise and harmless individuals of European ancestry. There are industrious and wise and harmless individuals of African ancestry. But no racial group has ever had a monopoly on any type of human trait or gene—not now, not ever. Under our different-looking hair and skin, doctors cannot tell the difference between our bodies, our brains, or the blood that runs in our veins. […] Black Americans’ history of oppression has made Black opportunities—not Black people—inferior. (Stamped From the Beginning, p. 11)
As I’ve stated before, 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, including de facto neighborhood, school, 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.
Reading Dr. Anthony Bradley’s recent article, “The Great Commission Christianity Keeps Blacks Away From Evangelicalism,” I was reminded of the section of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics entitled, “The Whole Person as the Image of God.” Bavinck is careful throughout to capture all that it means to be created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-28), in order to properly know who man is, what redemption must include to fully restore him, and to rightly know the “Last Adam,” our Lord Jesus Christ, who is to accomplish this redemption.
In this post, however, I hope to narrowly focus on the correlation between redemption and the image of God in man, as I think this aspect of Bavinck’s study nicely reinforces Dr. Bradley’s emphasis on “Cosmic Redemption.”
I was asked recently by a friend if it was correct to say that every American—whether white, Latinx, black, etc.—is a participant in systemic racism, and therefore racist. Given that social structures and institutions have been historically formed in America to benefit white people at the expense of others, then isn’t everyone who participates in such systems also participating in white supremacy? I think this is a very important question. As the wider culture finds itself engaged in deciding who is racist, who isn’t, and why I am not and you are, the binary assumed, viz., “racist” or “not racist,” not only de-emphasizes the distinction between racism as individual and systemic, but also bifurcates what is obviously a much more complicated spectrum. It is easy to say that a Neo-Nazi is a racist, but what about an African American who ascribes the vast current social and economic disparities to black laziness or immorality? Or ascribes segregated churches to blacks’ disinterest in sound theology? And what about white and black Americans who simply give little thought to the disparity or segregation at all, but continue to travel the same worn paths?
Here is where Ibram X. Kendi’s categories “segregationist,” “assimilationist,” and “antiracist” can be so helpful.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28)
Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Col. 3:11)
I’ve become more and more baffled how passages like Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11 have been used to oppose advocates of racial justice and reconciliation in the Church. The idea seems to be that since all believers are one in Christ and our identity and unity is to be found in Him alone, then even bringing up race in the Church is itself a source of division, such distinctions having been wiped away by the death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord. For example, we read the following popular expression of the claim:
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.