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Why the question of systemic racism matters: The Bible, injustice, and race#4; Justice#29

Why the question of systemic racism matters: The Bible, injustice, and race#4; Justice#29 August 3, 2021

There is no question that throughout American history Christians were instrumental in the propagation of systemic racism. From the slave trade to the Jim Crow laws, pastors were some of the leading proponents of the oppression of people of color.

Consequently, even if one denies that systemic racism continues into our day, systemic racism is a sin for which we, as the body of Christ, must repent.

Why this information is critical.

Let me posit three reasons why this series on race and justice is critical.

  • The church has been complicit. We must recognize our complicity and repent for the sake of the church (by “our” complicity I am referring to instances in which the church consistently acts in a manner that promotes such widespread injustice). Consequently, just as Daniel repented for the sins of the people of Israel (See Dan 9:1-19), it behooves us to repent on behalf of the church.[1]
  • Millions of people are disadvantaged (and that is an understatement) because of our past system of racial oppression. Because we live in a democratic system, we have the power to do something and, thus, we must work to overturn the effects of such oppressive systems. This, as I will note below, is what Christlike love looks like.
  • Even if you do not believe yourself to be personally responsible, the response of the church today is critical for the witness of the church.

Consequently, I ask that you continue to read through this series and contemplate what I have to say. I believe that the issue is far worse than most readers have ever imagined. If I am wrong, so be it. But if I am right, then the white members of the body of Christ in the US have some reckoning to do.

Should Christians be speaking out on social justice issues?

This question has a long history of debate.[2] And I do not intend to enter the discussion here. The fact is that some throw out the claim that we should not engage in social justice matters in order to avoid the tangled mess of social injustices. It is a sort of, “I’m sorry to hear all that, but that is not my responsibility because I am simply called to worship Jesus.”

I would respond by noting that individuals within the body of Christ are indeed called to diligently seek Christ in all things. But, I also believe that those who radically seek Jesus will be continuously transformed in their character to become like Him. The ultimate result of such devotion is that one grows in love: Love for the Lord our God and love for our neighbor.

What does “love” look like?

The problem with discussions of love in most Christian circles is that “love” is too often undefined.

I would contend that biblical love is Christlike love. Or, as Paul states in the introduction to the famed hymn of Philippians 2: “with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves” (Phil 2:3).

Jesus, of course, as Paul argues in Phil 2:5-9, demonstrated what this love looks like when He went to the cross. Consequently, a person who is transformed by biblical love is a person that consistently lays down one’s life for the other.

Biblical love surrenders power for the sake of the other

In an earlier series of posts on the “Gospel and Power,” I argued that Christ’s display of this kind of love on the cross also demonstrates what true power looks like. Christian power, in other words, is loving the other so much that one is willing and prepared to die for the other.[3]

This means that in the kingdom of God power is manifested in love—self-sacrificing love!

This kind of power, which I like to deem “Lamb power,”[4] stands in stark contrast to the way power works in the world.

Whites are primarily those in positions of power in the American system

But, one might further object, we should not speak up because Jesus did not speak up against the oppression of the Roman empire. Though this is generally true, Jesus regularly spoke up against the religious leaders of His day with regard to the injustices they perpetuated.[5]

Similarly, this series of posts is not addressed to the US Congress, but to the church! We have been complicit, at least in our past, if not in our present, in a system of oppression.

Furthermore, many of those in power in the US Congress are professing believers. Thus, in addressing the Church we are simultaneously addressing the empire.

When it comes to the issues of race and racism, one of the problems that I see within the white evangelical community in which I reside is the failure to recognize that we are among those in power in our society.

One of the difficulties with power in a society is that a chief aim of those in power is the need, or desire, to stay in power. One of the ways to accomplish this is to keep those without power suppressed. This is even more the case when there are economic benefits from power.

Why do most whites continue to deny the presence of systemic racism?

I noted in an earlier post,The classification of ‘races’ was motivated by the desire to maintain a social construct in which some were in power and others were subjects. This social construct operated so that those in power profited from the labor of the subjects.”

In other words, we should not be surprised to learn that systemic oppression of people of color remains, after all, those in power in our society have gained too much from this system to relinquish it.

Thus, even if you are not a racist and you oppose a system of racial suppression, the fact is that such a system is likely to be perpetuated by those who exercise power in a given society.

An African American leader recently said to me, “If people don’t believe by now, they never will.” Though I understand this leader’s exasperation, the fact is that most whites are seriously ignorant of the systemic oppression that people of color face daily.

The prominent deaths among people of color in the last several years have only served to reinforce this leader’s convictions.

Whereas, for most whites, these deaths are often regarded as exceptions and not the norm. After all, “I am not a racist and the white people I know aren’t either.”

These two narratives stand in stark opposition to one another.

The prevalence of cell phones and the technological ability to video nearly everything is opening the world of systemic oppression that has plagued people of color for hundreds of years to the rest of us. Prior to this time, most whites were able to remain ignorant of the evidence of systemic racism.

How then can whites continue to deny what is now becoming apparent?

I believe that one underlying motivation (which is likely subconscious for most whites) is that if systemic racism remains a present-day reality in our society, then whites must reckon with the fact that they are beneficiaries of this system: a system that is built on injustices.

We must also reckon with the fact that those in power do not want to eradicate such a system that provides significant benefits to them.

Thus, it is much more convenient for most whites, who often do not otherwise witness the effects of systemic racism in daily life, to deny that it exists.

The result is that the pervasiveness of video evidence documenting the oppression of people of color is exasperating confirmation of the presence of systemic racism for my friend who is a person of color. But many whites simply filter the same evidence through a different set of narrative lenses.

This is why, in my last post, I noted that the US was founded on a system of racial oppression. The Declaration of Independence was interpreted by the Congress and the Supreme Court as a place of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for white males. We must recognize that racial oppression was a part of the system from the beginning.

The fact is that many whites have little to no understanding of the history of racially motivated injustices against people of color that have been the norm throughout the history of the US.[6]

Christian complicity in systemic racism

Unfortunately, Christians are not able to turn our eyes from this problem. Even if we were to deny the continued presence of systemic racism, it would not eradicate the centuries of Christian involvement in the slave trade and the establishment of racially based laws that perpetuated injustices against persons of color.

The fact is that throughout American history Christian pastors and professors spoke up in far greater numbers and far more loudly in favor of the suppression of people of color than those who opposed it.

Consequently, as I noted above, just as Daniel repented for the sins of the people of Israel (See Dan 9:1-19), so must we repent for the centuries of oppression of people of color.

Systemic racism?

The question, which I will continue to address over the next few posts, is whether or not systemic racism remains an issue in the US? There is little question that the US has an overtly racist past. Structural racism was, in fact, a fundamental part of the American system from the very start.

Unfortunately, as I will contend in future posts, this reality remained the norm through the 20th century.

 

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[1] Certainly, one could use this reason and extend it absurdly to all sins. And though we do not always know where to draw the line, the fact that for the American readers of this post the line should be drawn in such a way that we should be repentant for the church’s complicity in the American system of racial oppression is without dispute.

[2] See most notably,

[3] Certainly, I am speaking of inner-personal relations and not societal or national ethics. The way a nation responds is much different than how individual Christians are called to act.

[4] Based on the fact that Christ is the Lamb who was slain (Rev 5:6). I am currently writing a commentary on the book of Revelation in which I develop this thought in much greater detail.

[5] I could cite a multiplicity of examples throughout the four gospels. For now, I will note his railing speech recorded in Matt 23:1-39 and his argument in Mark 7:6-23.

[6] I will continue to address the question of systemic racism in upcoming posts.


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