A Stilted Framework for Understanding Racism

A Stilted Framework for Understanding Racism June 15, 2020

Evangelicals are having a hard time with this moment. Some of them seem to be finally getting it—to be awakening to the reality of ongoing racial justice—but others simply aren’t having it.

See, for instance, this article, in which Pastor Kevin Huang of Twin City Bible Church in North Carolina uses the Bible to minimize any focus on racial injustice and to police how black people mourn, all the while insisting that he cares deeply—very deeply—about George Floyd. As I read Huang’ss piece, I’m reminded of Martin Luther King Jr.’s words on white “moderates” in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Have a look at Huang’s piece:

To grieve and lament over the tragic death of George Floyd is not an affirmation of the cultural narrative. Jesus wept over Lazarus but for different reasons, which were unbeknownst to the on-looking professional mourners (Jn 11:35). The issue is how and why we grieve. Satan has always attempted to infiltrate the Church and lure her away at points where the world seems to share a common cause (2 Cor 11:14-15). He is both a liar and a murderer from the beginning (Jn 8:44). He is behind George Floyd’s death, and he is also behind the cunning cultural narrative that exploits George Floyd’s death.

Ouch.

I mean, damn. 

To say that Satan is both the reason George Floyd died and the driving force behind the Black Lives Matter has got to be some sort of first prize in double-speak. And that’s without getting into the reference to “professional mourners.” Which. Double triple ouch.

Huang is making this whole thing so dang complicated. Is it so hard to imagine that people might be upset to see yet another black man killed by the police, and that they respond by calling for change? Apparently yes! Apparently that is Satan’s work! Who knew!

Huang’s manifesto is very, very long, with bullet point after bullet point. I am not going to reproduce them all here, but I will share some, pausing to address each.

For example:

To mourn with those who mourn does not necessarily mean protesting with those who protest, or posting on social media with those who post on social mediaRom 12:15 is not a politically correct maneuver, it is a personal expression of compassion.

Mourning with someone without also calling for justice for their brother/father/son’s killers sounds really hollow. What does that even look like?

“I’m so sorry your brother/father/son died, that must be so hard to go through. I’m going to sit right here and mourn with you—no, wait, stop—you’re getting up in protest and calling for the arrest of his killers? I’m sorry, I can’t be any part of that! Sit back down and mourn without any of that other nonsense, so that I can sit and mourn with you! Wait, where are you going, come back—” 

This amounts to a policing of how people are allowed to mourn. In the real world, mourning and action often go hand and hand. Taking action is often part of the mourning. Evangelicals don’t decouple mourning and protest themselves—consider the death of Terri Schiavo as an example. For evangelicals, mourning and protest go hand in hand quite often. When black people do the same, it’s suddenly a “politically correct maneuver.”

To vehemently denounce and oppose the evil of racism and the error of ethnocentrism is not to automatically agree with secular and worldly philosophies that seem to do the same, such as “Critical Race Theory” and “Intersectionality”. There are biblical reasons to oppose something that the world also seems to oppose, while also rejecting the reasons why they oppose it. Motives, presuppositions, and underlying ideologies matter (2 Cor 10:5).

Huang is trying to do a form of what-about-ism. His statement bears an implicit claim that everyone is guilty of preferring “their own kind”—that’s what’s behind the term “ethnocentrism.” This both makes white people’s actions understandable and makes black people guilty of the same offense. With this implicit claim that every group should be considered equally guilty of preferring “their own kind,” Huang gets white people off the hook for perpetrating deeply harmful anti-black racism in the United States for generations.

This isn’t the only place he does this, either:

To condemn the evil of racism is to specifically condemn the biblical sin of “personal favoritism” and “partiality” (Jas 2:1, 9; Deut 1:17; Lev 19:15-16).  This can be over skin color or social status, profession or political association, ethnicity or income, morality or personality, sub-culture or style, personal opinion or privilege.  Even an oppressed minority who is calling for justice can themselves be guilty of ethnic prejudice against other ethnicities (Jon 4, Hab 1:13).

You see what I mean? This isn’t just implied. Huang states directly that black people are guilty of “ethnic prejudice.” This is gross, it’s harmful, and it perpetuates ongoing systemic injustice.

To have a true holy indignation is to “not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph 4:26), to “not give the devil an opportunity” (Eph 4:27), to “never pay back evil for evil” (Rom 12:17), to “never take your own revenge” (Rom 12:19). If the unbelieving world doesn’t see a radical difference between its own outrage and the Church’s zeal against sin, something is wrong. Pride, self-righteousness, and personal vengeance are tell-tale fruits of sinful anger, not righteous anger. Christians may be angry and Christians may protest, but “be angry [and protest], and do not sin” (Eph 4:26).

Could we not do this?

Huang is policing how people are allowed to be angry. I have always taken “do not let the sun go down on your anger” to mean an individual person’s anger at an individual person. To claim this phrase includes a group’s anger at systemic injustice requires ignoring the reality that systemic injustice, by definition, cannot be fixed before the sun goes down. Jesus called people whitewashed sepulchers—this wasn’t exactly a nice thing—and I’m pretty sure he didn’t go make up with them before he went to bed each night.

Huang’s claim that there is a “sinful anger” and a “righteous anger” is perhaps the most blatant policing of people’s anger that I’ve ever seen. Maybe instead of judging how people are angry, Huang could take some time to listen and learn why they are angry—and then to try to set it right? Just an idea!

Let’s do one last one?

To value the image of God in man means to courageously stand against murder, abuse, and racism, but also the cursing of our fellow man (Jas 3:9-10).  Murderous, abusive, racist words reflect a murderous, abusive, racist heart (Mt 5:22; 15:18-20).

 

And the comments on this post sing its praise. 

I’m reminded that one of the things I like about no longer being an evangelical Christian is that I don’t have to couch my calls for justice and for correcting wrongdoing in all sorts of biblical trappings. I remember thinking, at one point, that my faith helped me understand the world around me; reading Huang’s manifesto makes me feel that the opposite is true: Huang’s religious beliefs have clouded his ability to understand and grapple with the world around him. They’ve given him a stilted framework that is inadequate at best and harmful at worst.

Addendum:

When the Bible was written the world looked very different than it does today. Even prejudice looked different. Roman citizens had more rights than non-citizens, and people in some parts of the Roman Empire longed to be free of Roman rule. But there was not racism in the way it exists in the United States today. As such, the Bible does not directly address the racism that we are grappling with here and now.

The Bible is not all-knowing; it is a product of a specific time. This isn’t to say that people can’t try to find things in it that they can use to guide their understanding of current issues; only that those things are not directly stated and obvious for the picking. To a certain extent, people will find in the Bible what they want to find on this issue—they will go looking and will have to cherry pick this and that, because the Bible does not have an already-laid out, clear response to racism that provides practical tips and an obvious roadmap. 

And this isn’t surprising, because as I already noted, the Bible is a product of a specific time. Indeed, historians tend to see the race-based, generational chattel slavery that existed in the U.S. South as something that was fairly new. Slavery existed before then, but not in quite this form; this was something new and different. It is unsurprising that the Bible does not speak directly to something that did not exist at the time. 

In the antebellum period, white Christian slaveowners and white Christian abolitionists went to the Bible for advice; each found verses they felt supported their position. That each side could find verses to support their position with such ease shows the lack of clear direction in the Bible on this issue. The Bible is not a manual on race relations; nor was it written at a time when race was constructed in the way it is in the U.S. today. 

As a result, if you start and end with the Bible—if you make the Bible your sole source and refuse to listen to lived experience or to the cry of the oppressed—you will not find the tools or framework you need to grapple with ongoing racial oppression in the United States today. These things are simply not to be found in the Bible. 

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