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 yet another clarification added to our series, “What Is & Isn’t Being Said.” And please note, “Calvinism” is in quotes; I believe everything that follows is consistent with a proper understanding of Reformed doctrine.]
One of the possible pitfalls of the Christian argument for racial and ethnic reconciliation (RR), especially among those of the Reformed or Calvinistic tradition (of which I am a member), is the potential implication that only believers, i.e., those in Christ, are included in the scope of sought social equity and justice. Of course, RR advocates acknowledge that all men are created in the very image and likeness of God; that is,
the whole human being is image and likeness of God, in soul and body, in all human faculties, powers, and gifts. Nothing in humanity is excluded from God’s image; it stretches as far as our humanity does and constitutes our humanness. (Herman Bavinck)
But when it comes to the idea of “reconciliation” itself, the argument usually moves from the reconciliation between God and man wrought by Christ on the Cross to reconciliation between man and man premised on the same. In the words of the Apostle,
In this article, I hope to give some idea of the state of the race debate among conservative Presbyterians, especially those associated with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and those who would later form the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), just following the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. This will be done through the lens of The Presbyterian Guardian and will feature a discussion of C. Herbert Oliver’s articles condemning segregation, Morton H. Smith’s article defending segregation, and letters to the editor written by R. J. Rushdoony, E. J. Young, and other Reformed and Presbyterian believers of the day. My hope is that as we reflect on these articles and the state of the debate in 1964, we will see that while much has changed, much of the opposition has remained the same.
Please see the previous post, “‘Racism Isn’t the Problem, Sin is the Problem!’ : A Brief Clarification,” for some needed context for what follows here.
What Does “Jew & Gentile” Have to do With “Black & White”?
The Jew/Gentile conflict throughout the New Testament is often either (1) leveraged to prove there should be no recognition of race and ethnicity in Christ (“no Jew, no Gentile”), or (2) is denied to have anything to do with race and ethnicity since it is properly a covenantal/religious conflict. Others—those I’d agree with—see this conflict as an indispensable Biblical example of both definitive unity in Christ and a call to seek progressively lived unity in the Body. I hope, in what follows, to provide some clarity to the similarities and differences between the New Testament Jew/Gentile conflict and the white/black conflict we have inherited in the United States.
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.
[To be 100% clear, I do not believe that John MacArthur would agree with the image above, nor have anything but condemnation for its message. I have only used this image to reflect the attitude of many American Christians throughout our history. The image is about the content below, not John MacArthur.]
Though John MacArthur’s most recent article on Racial Reconciliation (RR) continues to rely mostly on innuendo with no attempt to connect the dots, “this sounds like that, so it must be that” type reasoning (which would certainly condemn Calvin as a Marxist and most commentary on John 4 as intersectional), and reads more like baptized conservative politics, there are two points I would like to briefly respond to here.