Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Christian Perspective on Race and Racism

 ***Note: As a member of the Consortium of Christian Study Centers, the Oread Center believes an important part of our work includes offering a Christian response to pressing matters that affect us all. The purpose of this particular response is not to address all of the complexities of racism present in American society or institutions of higher education, especially those complexities associated with the structural or systemic realities of racism. While we believe that structural and systemic racism is present in American society, and that racism must be addressed on those levels, the purpose of this statement is to offer what we believe is a Biblically faithful way to think about race and racism on the level of interpersonal relationships and immediate agency. We offer this statement to the particular Christian community in Lawrence and at the University of Kansas in the hope that it provides some immediate handles for how we can respond to the situation at hand in our own community. We ask for patience from our readers as we work in the coming days to articulate a thicker response to the structural and systemic dimensions of race in American society and appropriate Christian responses.***

***As many have observed from our title, we are leaning on Cornelius Plantinga’s work on sin for our framework.***

 Introduction

Many of us in Lawrence are aware that our region was politically established on the moral impetus of preventing the spread of slavery in American society. That John Brown, the 19th-century freedom-fighter, remains an iconic figure in our local memory is no historical accident. The University of Kansas is proud of the fact that the school practiced racially open admissions from the first day its doors were opened. Frequently forgotten, or never learned at all, is the more complicated history of both Lawrence and the University of Kansas- a history that in many ways is a microcosm of America’s larger racial history. While Lawrence was the seat of the Free State movement, and the University of Kansas always welcomed students of African descent to enroll, segregation within the city and the university was historically prevalent. Both Lawrence and the University of Kansas did not completely desegregate until the late 1950s and only as a result of years of dedicated work from local Civil Rights activists, which included many university students.

The current student, faculty, and staff protests concerning racism at the University of Kansas are not the first time this community has needed to honestly address matters of racism among us. In addition to a rich and long history of civil rights activism beginning in the 1930s, the late 1960s and early 1970s were marked by significant protests, demonstrations, and demands from students concerning race relations at KU. It is important for us as a particular community to remember that this is not the first time we have been confronted by racially-motivated unrest. The issue of racism is an important part of our communal narrative and should remain an important part of our communal memory. It is even more important for those of us whose primary commitment and identity are bound up with the one we believe to be Lord of all narratives, communities, and history to draw on the Christian communal tradition and memory as we address the current matters of race and racism. This statement is our humble effort to do just that. While we hope this statement can be of help to those in our community who do not identify as Christian, our main intent is to offer this work for the strengthening of the local Christian community. We trust that critically thinking and submitting our thoughts to Christ will allow us to faithfully fulfill our role of bearing witness to the reign and rule of Jesus Christ– in stark opposition to the corrosive forces of racism present in our society.

Our 7 Principles

In order to provide clear handles on an admittedly complex social reality, we offer our position in the form of 7 principles. With acknowledgements to Cornelius Plantinga for his framework of sin, our principles are as follows:

  1. Enjoy the Goodness of Difference
  2. Expose the Parasite of Racism
  3. Examine Our Own Hearts
  4. Embrace the Power of the Gospel
  5. Expect Social Righteousness in the Church
  6. Endeavor Towards the Common Good
  7. Exercise Agency Wisely

Enjoy the Goodness of Difference

For the Christian any conversation about race must be firmly anchored in the teaching of Scripture. What we find in the opening chapters of Genesis confirms much of our experience in the world, namely that God created a world largely marked by difference or variation. The geographical and biological diversity of the world is remarkable. While commonalities are clearly evident in the created order, it seems safe to say that God intended to create a world equally defined by difference or variation. This seems obvious from the opening chapters of Genesis where God intentionally engages in a creative act of differentiating one created reality from another (for example night from day or dry land from sea). In addition to differentiating creation on a macro scale, God filled his differentiated world with tremendous diversity of living creatures and plant life.

As Christians we believe that this God-created world was inherently good, and all the defining features of the world prior to the fall were good and remain good. That sin continues to run its course and to have catastrophic effects in the world is obvious to the Christian. Things are not the way they are supposed to be. But even in our sin-scarred world, we must continue to acknowledge that pre-fall realities remain inherently good in the sense that their presence in the world are in line with how God intended the world to be. From that theological principle, we can say with confidence that difference is woven into the fabric of God’s created order and that difference is therefore inherently good.

The inherent goodness of difference must be extended to the presence of racial, ethnic, and cultural difference in the world. God’s initial command to humanity to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth demonstrates that God’s intention for the human community included difference. Racial, ethnic, and cultural realities are intimately anchored in and remain tethered to the physical environments in which people groups live. Culture and ethnicity are intimately bound up with place. Geographical and biological diversity would, therefore, naturally lead to racial, cultural, and ethnic diversity.

These differences are, therefore, an important part of the inherent goodness of creation. This bears repeating: cultural, ethnic, and racial differences are inherently good. Specifically, the particularities of ethnic diversity are the proper moral response to God’s command to spread out and fill the earth. We should not expect people groups who settled marshland to develop the same practices and cultural norms as other people groups who developed a way of life on a mountain range. These differences are proof of human obedience to God, not platforms by which one people group can condescend. They are good because God, the personal source of all good, has determined them to be so[1]. We must recognize that these differences are an important part of God’s glory and of the pleasure He takes in His creation.[2]

Therefore, any hatred, rejection of, or resistance to these inherently good differences is decidedly anti-creational and de-humanizing. In other words, racism and ethnocentrism deliberately work against God’s good intention for His good creation. Put more strongly, racism and ethnocentrism are direct rejections of and opposition to God himself. For the Christian, we should always begin with the theological conviction that the racial, ethnic, and cultural differences present in our world are inherently good. Only then can we move in the direction of asking whether or not particular cultural realities are in line with God’s good intention for creation.

Expose the Parasite of Racism

The Christian tradition features a wide variety of perspectives on the nature and foundation of sin. Within the Oread Center’s particular tradition, the Reformed tradition, one way we have historically thought of the starting point of sin is as a failure to trust God and a resulting “curving in upon ourselves”. Instead of living curved outwardly in complete trust and security in the God who created us, we turn inward, trusting instead in ourselves and seeking security from what we can provide. We are prone to deny a state of grace and blessing where God provides for our lives and instead live in fear and in a state of self-preservation.[3]

As a natural result of our rebellious posture and selfish orientation, the moral reality of sin now acts as a parasite in our relationships with God, the creation, ourselves, and others. A parasite requires the presence of a healthy creature in order to have life. The parasite feeds off of the healthy life at the expense of and to the detriment of the host. Sin is exactly like this: it is parasitic in its nature. Sin does not have a life of its own in the same way that good does. Good exists because it flows directly from the nature of God himself; it is created by this good God and therefore derives its goodness from its creaturely standing. Sin can only exist where good is present. Sin latches onto something good and drains the life from it through distortion, corruption, or perversion.

This understanding of sin helps us to think correctly about the nature of racism and ethnocentrism. As already noted, racial, ethnic, and cultural difference are inherently good. Were we to live curved outwardly in trust and dependence upon God, we would see and receive this difference as a good gift from God. Instead, because we are curved in upon ourselves, we are tempted to see difference as something to be feared at best or as something to be completely eradicated at worst.

Thus, at their core, racism and ethnocentrism are a willing refusal to love and to give affection to that which God has determined to be good. When we refuse to trust God that difference is inherently good, we run the risk of feeding the parasite of racism and ethnocentrism. While racism and ethnocentrism are always generated and sustained by the material conditions on the ground (conditions that include the economic, political, and social), and while they have historically grown to structural and systemic proportions, these sinful postures are foundationally spiritual and moral failings of human beings. In essence, they are the human failures of loving and trusting God properly and in turn the failure to receive racial, cultural, and ethnic difference as a good gift from God.

Racism and ethnocentrism are, therefore, a perverted or misdirected love of a particular good at the expense of another good, and we cannot stress strongly enough that this is toxic to any healthy expression of human social existence. Theologian Herman Bavinck reminds us that the Christian belief of humanity being created in God’s image has always included a strongly communal understanding of this image-bearing role. It is not simply that each human bears God’s image individually, though that corporate component is most definitely true and important. But we must hold clear in our minds that God’s intent for creation was for the whole human community to collectively bear His image as we rightly relate to God and to one another. When any human community is marred by racism or ethnocentrism, the image of God embedded in the very nature of humanity is profaned. Racism and ethnocentrism, therefore, cannot be tolerated by Christians; for these are parasites that in the end profane God’s image in humanity and are a willing diminishment of God’s glory.

Examine Our Own Hearts

As Christians, it is crucial that we continually examine our own hearts to determine if and how we harbor racist and ethnocentric beliefs. As noted in the beginning, the issue of whether or not we are unknowingly complicit in the larger structural and systemic dimensions of racism will not be taken up in this statement. Here we want to limit our focus to that which we know is within our immediate realm of control: our own hearts and the actions that flow from them. This is where we exercise the most agency, both individually and communally, in any effort to combat the corrosive effects of racism and ethnocentrism in our immediate context.

While it is tempting to believe that this examination can be an entirely private and subjective practice, it is important for us to acknowledge that this is often an unreliable method for identifying deep-seated disorders like racism. If we are serious about discerning the presence of racism in our lives, we must engage in some form of communal discernment within the context of a Christian community. For those of us who are members of the racial majority, we should heed the wise calls to talk with our Christian brothers and sisters who are members of racial and ethnic minority groups and ask them to help us determine the presence of racism in our own lives.

We as Christians should not fear this process. Woven into the fabric of our collective faith is the belief that we all remain sinners who constantly stand in need of God’s gracious activity in our lives. While we may not agree with every assessment made, as Scripture must remain the final determiner in this situation, we should feel free to move towards our Christian brothers and sisters in honest conversation, trusting that God’s gracious activity will guide us towards truth.

Embrace the Hope of the Gospel

Any Christian conversation about racism and ethnocentrism must ultimately make its way to the foot of the cross, where all sin and death are crushed once and for all. Scripture is clear that Christ’s work on the cross is the ground for any genuinely Christian work of racial and ethnic reconciliation.

One of the most astonishing claims of the early church in her sacred scripture is that in and through the death of Christ on the cross God intended to make a new race of people (a new human community, if you will) through the eradication of all racial, ethnic, and cultural hostility.

The good news of how God intends to do this is found in the reality that God, in his commitment to eradicate racial, ethnic, and cultural hostility, has absolutely no intent of eradicating or evacuating the actual presence of racial, cultural, and ethnic difference in the world in order to create this new race or society of people. Quite the opposite! In this new human community, racial, ethnic, and cultural difference will remain but will no longer serve as a source of division and hostility.

This new community is defined not by its differences, though those remain, but rather by a common identity and a common love. This common identity and love transcend the particulars of race, culture, and ethnicity while not obliterating these important realities.

The effects of this understanding of the church should be earth-shattering. As Christians our primary social bond and collective identity can no longer be formed along the lines of nationality, race, ethnicity, or any cultural expressions, though these will remain deeply meaningful to us. As counterintuitive as this may sound, the cross dictates that I have a stronger existential bond with an Iraqi Christian I have never met than I do with my American next door neighbor who does not bend the knee or bow the head in love and affection to Christ.

But again, we must stress as strongly as possible, that each of us will live out the reality of this common identity and love in ways that are specific to and anchored in our race, ethnicity, and culture, and the same goes for my Iraqi brother. We do not have to fear the presence of difference because whatever difference exists is honored and rightly situated by our common identity and common love. This is the power of Christ’s reconciling work on the cross. He reconciles us not only to God, but also to one another. And this reconciliation does not occur in spite of our differences, but in the ongoing recognition that those differences remain good[4].

Expect the Church to Practice Righteousness

As noted in the beginning, this statement is written by Christians and for the primary benefit of Christians. Because we believe that the Christian’s primary commitment is to Christ and to his body the church (what we believe is God’s still-broken-by-sin-but-renewed-human community), we here emphasize that our primary concern (though not our only concern by any stretch of the imagination) is with the Church’s political life. If God’s original intent for the world included the glorious flourishing of human beings in and through the context of racial, cultural, and ethnic differences, then the Church, as the still-broken-by-sin-but-renewed-human community, must be about the pursuit of social righteousness to ensure that this flourishing happens.

But we cannot stress strongly enough that the church’s priority must be to ensure that this social righteousness is achieved within the church’s shared political life. The church must be the church for the sake of God and the church before we can be the church for the sake of the world. If we do not first and foremost arrange our own political life to ensure that we are receiving racial, cultural, and ethnic difference as a good gift from God, then we have absolutely nothing to offer the world that the world does not already possess. If we do not corporately discern the presence of racism in our own midst and then move towards confession, repentance, reconciliation, and restoration within our own community (and insist that all these social impulses be grounded in the redemptive and reconciling work of Christ on the cross), then any prophetic or exhortative stance we take in and to the world will be hollow. It will not simply sound hollow. It will be hollow. While we will continue to struggle with racism and ethnocentrism in American churches, unless we commit ourselves to the pursuit of social righteousness in our primary community we cannot expect to effectively endeavor towards any common good[5]. The church will be of no help to the world if she herself has a plank in her own eye.

Endeavor Towards the Common Good

Our most difficult principle is endeavoring towards the common good of combating racism and ethnocentrism in our particular context at the University of Kansas. We confess that we struggle to know how Christians can be of help towards the world when it comes to restraining or overcoming the parasites of racism and ethnocentrism. Because all of our efforts towards social righteousness are grounded in our convictions concerning creation and redemption, it is difficult to see what common ground is available between Christian and non-Christian or between the Christian and an institution. We inhabit radically different narratives and employ radically different vocabularies and grammar. We should be cautious about extracting ourselves from our own narrative in order to establish common ground in the pursuit of the common good. Any endeavor towards the common good must remain fully anchored in and tethered to our primary commitment, and that is Christ and his community. We remain convinced that this is the most loving posture we can take towards the world. Only then can we be a blessing.

So what can we do? As Christians our fundamental grounding for all ethical posturing in the world is the cross. We believe that in the event of the cross something astonishing happened. The Son of God initiated the most profound act of solidarity the world has ever known. The perfect Son of God humiliated himself, becoming like us, in order to be tempted like us, yet without sin. He did this in order that he might become our sympathetic high priest who made the perfect once-for-all sacrifice on our behalf. And because he did all of this he is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters. This is our model for addressing the corrosive presence of racism and ethnocentrism in our context. Where we know our fellow students, especially our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, have suffered the dehumanizing effects of racism and ethnocentrism we move towards them in loving solidarity. It is not our intent to pretend that we have all suffered in similar ways or to diminish the experiential differences in racial hurts. Just as Jesus entered into our suffering in that great act of solidarity, so we enter into the suffering of others to say that we, as much as possible, will bear this suffering with them.

But we must also remember that Jesus did not enter into solidarity with us simply for the sake of knowing what it was like to suffer. He did it to speak prophetically towards the destructive forces of sin that held us captive. He did it to overcome that captivity on our behalf. Where we are able to wisely discern the proper course of action we must speak prophetically towards those who are guilty of racism and towards those in positions of power at the university. This prophetic responsibility must not be taken lightly, nor pursued in a foolish manner. Too much is at stake for us to be irresponsible or foolish.

 Exercise Agency Wisely

Injustice in every case requires some action. This sentiment is built in to the moral fabric of God’s world. For Christians, we understand that our human sin required a costly and profound action on God’s part. Our future hope is rooted on the resurrection of Christ as a foreshadowing that we will one day be resurrected to a refined heaven and a refined earth in which all injustices have been made right. And we soberly anticipate a Christ-initiated reckoning for the sins of all people, including racially-motivated hatred and violence.

The difficulty for Christians who live between the resurrection and the return of Christ is to discern which injustices should be resolved by particular human efforts now. As we are able, our level of concern for righteousness should always match God’s level of concern. But it is important to remember that our level of agency is far below God’s level of agency. His power, authority, and holiness provide a platform from which to judge the sin of other people with perfect wisdom and pure motivations. We fall far short of this platform.

We all hold agency (the influence and power to affect change) on an interpersonal level. Some hold agency at a higher level than others, including agency to affect entire institutions, governments, or nations. It would be wise to remember that our starting point to affect change is with our interpersonal agency. That is, we begin with our family, friends, neighbors, and peers. Among other things, this allows those who know us best to observe and disciple us. Here our motives, character, and limits are questioned by those who are able to apply loving corrections. If, after prayer and discipling from this circle of agency, we are confident in a calling to exercise agency at higher levels, we may consider strategies to confront injustice at an institutional level. But we should only take this next step after being reasonably confident in the purity of our own motives and the limits of our own abilities.

As we reflect on the particular racial realities at the University of Kansas and the specific events of the past week, the Oread Center staff hopes to produce a thicker response to the complexities of race within American institutions of higher education.  We have purposefully examined the theological and personal considerations first.  Please check back with us in the coming weeks for other writing.

[1]  Obviously, some nuance is necessary here about the inherent goodness of diversity.  Since we believe in the Biblical events of the Fall of Genesis 3, the flood of Genesis 6, and the profound dispersal of people groups in Genesis 11, we cannot with certainty say that all forms of diversity have been good forms.  Parsing out exactly which ethnic differences originated in obedience to God and which originated out of rebellion or apathy toward God would be an impossible task.  Suffice it to say that the concepts of diversity in Creation and differences in cultural development are good; it is the particulars that often err.

[2] It is important to note that as Christians we believe that culture always has a moral dimension to it. This means that we do not assume all culturally-specific practices are inherently good now that we live in a world marred by sin. The righteousness of cultural practices, including our own, must be determined by appeal to the righteous standards that flow directly from God himself. Here we are simply asserting that cultural difference in and of itself was intended to be a good part of God’s good creation and that difference remains an integral part of God’s intent for creation.

[3] This is just one of the many ways that the Reformed tradition has thought about the ground of sin, or the starting point of sin.  As mentioned earlier, Plantinga is especially helpful here.

[4] That said, we can also resist the impulse to flatten our differences as we associate with other.  Through Christ, we do not fear or hate the “other,” but neither are we obligated to call the other “same,” as if rigid equality across all measurable traits were a desirable goal.

[5] We should also remember two important realities about local expressions of the church.  The first is that the visible church bodies are not yet perfect church bodies, and sinful patterns often arise in them.  This should not be taken as a sign that Christian churches are not Christian; only that they are not yet perfected.  The second is that even local expressions of the church feature the same freedoms of association as other institutions.  The church’s responsibility to authentically address racial reconciliation does not automatically necessitate the full racial integration of local churches, though some congregations attempt it.  Theologian John Frame is helpful here, especially in his point #7.

One thought on “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Christian Perspective on Race and Racism

  1. cambernard90

    Well done! I think this properly covers a Christian perspective on race and diversity. And I look forward to reading future posts. Specifically, it would be interesting to hear what committing “ourselves to the pursuit of social righteousness in our primary community” will look like for us.

    Reply

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