One thing that was always clear to me in my conservative Christian upbringing is that we preferred to talk about the sins of others more than our own. Even when discussing types of sin common in the church–divorce, fornication for instance–it was framed as an invasion of sorts, with believers captured by the pernicious ideas of “the culture.” But sin that derived right from our own midst, or our own history? Well, I didn’t hear much about that.
I can’t remember when I learned about the Southern Baptists’ shameful history on the issue of race, but if it was mentioned at all, it was definitely couched as something long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Certainly racism was not something white Christians needed to wrestle with anymore. Similarly, it wasn’t an issue America needed to wrestle with anymore. It was over and done, even though Jim Crow lived well within my parents’ lifetime and even survived in bits and pieces into my own. But, yes, ancient history.
Fast forward to now, and in the wake of protests over police violence against Blacks and renewed conversation about America’s racial history, many white Christians are digging in all the more. The presidents of the Southern Baptist seminaries have gone so far as to declare Critical Race Theory (CRT) “incompatible with the Baptist Faith and Message.” Without really even defining what they mean by that, I might add. Other white Christian leaders have said CRT is unbiblical or antithetical to the gospel.
Now, as I have said before, academics are a little bit looney (I say this as a former academic), and as CRT originated in an academic setting, some of its explanations and expressions are a bit over the top, in my humble opinion. But just as no one wears the actual outfits you see on fashion runways in real life, the academic expressions of CRT practically translated into diversity and inclusion training and on-the-ground policy are much more sensical. Basically, as far as I can tell, CRT is the idea that racist ideas and practices have persisted on an institutional level in our society, even as many laws and mores have changed.
Apparently, this is just a horribly controversial idea, and I have a hard time understanding why exactly that is, as a historian, a political analyst, and a Christian. Speaking from the first two perspectives, I can tell you it is awfully hard to successfully mount social change. Although it can happen quickly in some cases (Germany’s repudiation of fascism), in most cases, even if the will is there, it is incredibly hard to correct the past. Consider that blacks in South Africa are still severely disadvantaged economically despite real efforts by the post-apartheid government to correct imbalances in education, land ownership, housing, and health since 1994. Or that women in most developed nations, despite being in the work force in large numbers for decades now, still do the lion’s share of childcare and housework. Or in Africa, the notion of national vs. ethnic identity still languishes in many countries decades after independence, and continues to provoke recurrent violence. Or how difficult it is to build democratic institutions or dismantle cultures of corruption in such places.
Or how about on a personal/inter-personal level. It can take a lifetime to overcome one incident of abuse, and some people never overcome it. Abuse victims can often become abusers themselves and thus pass down dysfunction to future generations. And how hard is it for a marriage to recover from one act of infidelity, or one big lie. Drug addicts, smokers, alcoholics struggle to break out of bad habits and destructive lifestyles. Change is hard.
Regarding the issue of race in America, just on its face–How is anyone surprised that after 250 years of slavery and another 100+ years of legal discrimination in every walk of life that there are still vestiges of racism in our systems and institutions? How on earth is this controversial? The economic data is overwhelming; Blacks are at a disadvantage on every measure. I grew up hearing that this was because of social problems and “immorality” within the black community. But even if you accept that is the case–that it’s “all their fault”–why do these social problems exist? Centuries of discrimination, dehumanization, disadvantage, and poverty take root in a culture just as they do in individual people, shaping mindsets and structures that are handed down from one generation to the next. You can’t tell a child he is worthless and expect him to succeed. And you can’t tell a whole people they are worthless, and deny them the tools they might use to disprove that, decade after decade, for centuries, and expect them to shake it off within a few decades. That kind of abuse leaves a deep scar.
Beyond economic data, Black Americans compared to whites are more likely to be stopped without cause by the police, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be convicted for crimes, more likely to get longer sentences for crimes, more likely to be sentenced to death, more likely to actually be executed once on death row. They are less likely to have health insurance, less likely to survive serious disease, more likely to die in childbirth. Black children are more likely to be suspended from school. Life expectancy is lower. Child mortality is higher. Just for starters.
Leaving aside the historical, economic, and political–what I really, really don’t understand is why white Christians are so opposed to the idea of institutional racism from a religious perspective. Why do so many white Christians consider it unbiblical or against their particular theology?
(And I must say here again, regarding statement from those within the SBC — If your denomination LITERALLY STARTED IN DEFENSE OF SLAVERY, then spent the next almost 150 years getting race completely, utterly, horribly wrong, maybe y’all should stay in listening mode for a few more decades. You really don’t have to make declarations on everything, and maybe this is one you should sit out. Just a thought.)
I thought we lived in a fallen world. I thought that one man’s sin basically doomed the whole human race, imprinting a sinful nature on our DNA. That’s what I grew up hearing, anyway. All have sinned and fallen short. Original sin. Generational sin. Can’t escape it. And the nations and structures sinful people build were necessarily flawed, too. So how the idea of institutional racism different? Isn’t racism a generational sin that has been handed down and down and down? Why is it so hard to believe it has seeped so deeply into our culture, that it will take much work to remove?
How is the idea we all have inherent bias that affects how we see and interact with those different from us so divergent from the belief that our hearts can be hard?
How is it antithetical to the gospel to examine not just our outward actions (I’ve never used the “n” word!) to look closely at our hearts (I dismissed my Black brother’s pain and anxiety over being repeatedly pulled over by the police because that’s not my experience)? Didn’t Jesus say if you even look at someone with lust, you’ve committed adultery?
How is it unbiblical to want more just laws and to work for a more just society? He has shown me what is good and what the Lord requires of you, to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with your God.
Didn’t Jesus seek out the marginalized and the oppressed? Didn’t he advocate for them and try to elevate them?
Didn’t Jesus tell us to “Be perfect, as I am perfect”? Doesn’t that mean this life is about continuing to grow and change?
Maybe I’m missing something here.
I have a theory about why many white Christians don’t want to deal with race. Because unlike so many other sins, we are grossly implicated in this one. It is deep within the very history of the church itself. And repentance might cost more than we are willing to pay. It might require us to surrender some of our own power. It might cause us to realign some of our priorities. It might fundamentally change how we see ourselves.
But it will also set us free. The truth always does. Because we are all diminished by racism, and we will all benefit in the long run by rooting it out with all the viciousness it has meted out over the centuries.
When Paul said, All have sinned, yeah, he was talking about you, white Christian. Believe it or not, he really was. And the white church. He was also talking about “those people over there,” but how about you let them be for a time. Let’s stop with the myopic declarations and get busy yanking out the eye-planks. Yes, it’s exhausting, it’s a lot of work, and it’s really uncomfortable. Take up your cross, my friend.