“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities,
against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
– Eph 6:12 ESV
This post will argue that Scripture is sufficient to explain what is called structural injustice and systemic racism. Brace yourself for a carefully reasoned argument.
The USA has a dark history of racism. Nothing justifies this. Minimizing it lacks integrity. To acknowledge this is not unpatriotic. Nor does admitting it mean I cannot appreciate the strengths of our nation.
When you read the stories of our dark history, it is clear that our original sin includes more than individual actions. Racism moved from individual attitudes into laws and culture. How does that happen?
Systemic and structural?
Some ideologues observe our history and have proposed an interpretation based on categories of systemic or structural evils to explain this. What they mean is that majority cultures rig the system in their own favor. Some advocates of this interpretation propose that the solution is to tear the house down (and rebuild). Rather than debate the validity of this rubric, let me say that advocates for structural or systemic evil are observing something. They see real data.
Examples of Systems
For example, under the influence of white supremacy, starting in the 1890’s legislators and city councils of the South wrote Jim Crow laws. Their purpose was to maintain the superiority of the white race over the blacks. After the Jim Crow era, the problem persisted. Read Just Mercy to learn about unjust incarceration of blacks in the South. Law enforcement, juries, and judges cooperated in this. Elsewhere in the USA, redlining stopped blacks from getting home loans. More recently, minority businesses seem to have faced more obstacles during COVID than other small enterprises. My personal conversations with black brothers and sisters (as recently as this week) make it clear to me that blacks in the USA experience our government and cultural systems very differently than I do.
Clearly, each of these situations involves more than discrete individual actions. How can I make sense of this?
We are individuals
Western culture is individualistic. The church, immersed in that culture, has been slow to see corporate sin. It is not evident to us how collections of individuals are more than isolated people in close relationship.
Yes, Scripture makes clear, we are individuals. We make most of our choices freely and without coercion. Circumstances reveal our character. They are not an excuse for wrong choices. This is particularly clear in the prophet Ezekiel. People of his day were accusing God of being unjust, of punishing the children for their parent’s sins, or vice versa. His answer was unequivocal: the person who sins will be the one who pays for their sin. God holds us responsible for our actions.
This is inconvenient for those who want to make excuses and blame others. Think of the child whose parent is reading their very bad report card. Their defense is a question, “Well, Dad, is it heredity or environment?”
In the context of these posts, this means that white supremacy may be passed on from parents to children, but each is responsible for embracing it.
We are individuals in systems: No one is an island
Personal observation brought me to conclude that sin is more than individual. While members of a family are responsible individuals, they also function as a system. Each person is linked to the others as in a mobile. No one part can move without the rest responding. I have learned that I cannot help people effectively when I treat them only as isolated individuals. A child of an alcoholic has formed habits of response which they carry into adulthood. Family members act in harmony (or disharmony as the case may be).
Was it really merely 6 million individual actions?
For a more serious illustration, think about one of the many atrocities of the last hundred years: the Holocaust. Was the murder of 6 million Jews simply a set of 6 million isolated acts of hate? Clearly not. After WW2, there were studies to understand how German citizens so widely accepted the genocide of the Jews (and other “less than human” species). What they discovered is that the German people were individual parts of a whole social fabric. They carried common experiences that made them prey to a demagogue. Moreover, they faced temptations similar to every human. Together they acted in a way that perhaps few would have alone.
Those are my observations, but can I find this idea in Scripture?? Yes!
First, God sees guilt as more than individuals.
In a neglected portion of Scripture (Leviticus 4), God instructs Israel on what to do when they sin. He is defining culpability. Notice: In this discussion God distinguishes between individual sin, leader sin, and collective sin. Look at these words:
“If the whole congregation of Israel sins unintentionally . . . ” (Lev 4:13 ESV)
God does not say, “if every individual in the group sins.” He says, “if the group sins.” He sees whole group action and whole group guilt. As the story of the people Israel emerges, God underscores his as he responds to their national guilt.
What is group guilt?
Does this mean each and every person sinned in the same way? Did they have a unanimous vote to approve of the sin? Those kinds of questions are not answered. What is said is that there is some sense in which every member of the whole group is a participant in the sin. Group guilt is at the root of the confessions of sin in Ezra 9 and Daniel 9. In those passages, two righteous men confess the sins of the whole nation. When they do so, they say “We have sinned.” They do not say, “They have sinned.”
For an American, this is countercultural. We see ourselves first as individuals and only remotely as part of families or communities. God does not agree. We are part of a whole. No one is an island.
What makes a group guilty?
“Group” sin is different than “leader” sin which is different than “individual” sin. But how?
First, sometimes groups decide things together. Majority actions to do wrong by vote of the group could be group guilt.
Second, think about a conspiracy. By definition, it is a group action, in which multiple individuals participate.
Third, what about group silence in the face of known wrongs? When a group does wrong, and people in the group know it was wrong, but do not speak up against it, that would seem to be a conspiracy of silence. Usually, there is some kind of intimidation involved to keep people silent.
When an entire community enacts laws that are morally wrong, and people who disagree do not speak up, they are complicit in the wrong. That seems to apply to slavery and Jim Crow.
We like “support” for our evil
There is another dynamic to this. Not only are we hesitant to unmask accepted wrongs, but we are unwilling to do wrong without social support.
In Romans 1:28-32. Paul gives us a vice list. He is explicating the sins which come from the human heart when it rejects the truth and rule of God. (FYI: read them you will see how all but one of them are expressions of malice and hate toward others). At the end of the list, he drops a profound psychological insight. He says we never want to do evil alone.
Verse 32 is clear. People know they are doing wrong. People know that they are worthy of death. Nevertheless, we choose what is wrong. But to do the wrong with impunity, regardless of its effect on our reputation is rare. We call people who do this sociopaths. Our greatest worry when we do wrong is not how God sees it, but how others will see it.
So Scripture says the same. When people choose to do evil, they also approve of others joining them:
“they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” (Rom 1:32 ESV)
In other words, we determine to justify our evil actions by approving of anyone else who joins in the evil. We are determined not to be alone. And, by implication, we find support for our actions in those who approve of us. It is mutual-reinforcement.
This really happens. People have a remarkable ability to pick up on the shared morality of others and to choose their friends accordingly. When we make poor choices, the people close to us will likely corrupt us by asking us to become supporters of their evil actions. Bad company corrupts good morals.
All sin is public and communal
God’s sees our choices to sin in a social context. We are part of a system. No one wants to stand out from others, to come under their condemnation. Cancel culture works because of this.
In other words, we surround ourselves with people who agree with us about this particular sin. This is not hard to do. Remember, the Bible sees every person as made for glory but now thoroughly polluted by evil. That corruption shows up in everyone in various ways. So, I will always find some others who will join me in my chosen evil.
Think of a group of adolescents bent on experimenting with drugs. Their purposes determine their friendships. They ask: Who will join us? Who will condemn us? Who will drive us home? How those questions are answered determines our friends.
Can you see individual and group guilt in this?
Together and alone
God gives me a basis for understanding both individual and systemic sin. No matter what evil I want to do, I can find support in others who want to do the same thing. When we do this together, we are responsible as individuals and as a group.
We choose our community to reinforce our prior commitments. That reinforcement is powerful. This is exactly what David French notes in his recent book, Divided We Fall. In his fifth chapter, he speaks of the well-researched observation that when people hang out with people who agree with them, they become more extreme in their views.
On the flip-side, few of us will ever stand against the group. Have you ever known something was wrong and failed to speak up? or just followed the crowd? Why? Most likely, because you did not want to be alone in your position. People who point out wrong words, actions, or policies are disruptive. The rest of the group may turn on them. Scripture says we do not speak up because we love the approval of others more than the approval of God. Because of this fear of unpopularity, we will sell our virtue. And the result is everything from teens ganging up to bully the outsider to soldiers who kill Jews at Auschwitz. Our silences in private conversations lead to the development of large systemic evils.
Jesus is the only one who never lived to win approval from others. He always spoke against evil, in private and in public. The group turned on him and murdered him.
In case you think that you are the true rugged individualist,exempt from this indictment, this kind of behavior has been found to be quite common. Experiments have shown that group approval or disapproval can cause people deny what is true.
I want to show how this works in forming larger systems and structures, but let’s start with smaller ones.
Group Enforcement: Work
Work cultures have group rules
One of my first jobs was as a member of the labor pool in a local factory. We reported for work and were assigned duties for our shift. On a particular night I was asked to clean out an area. An hour into the job, I could not find the other person on my team. After a search, I found them asleep on the floor behind some supplies. They refused to wake up to help, so I went back to work.
An hour later, I looked up to find two other workers walking toward me, and they did not look happy. In a brief exchange they made it very clear that my actions were unacceptable. My work habits were making them look bad. I was being asked to submit to the system. Their system was based on “fully paid for work not done”.
Isn’t that true for most work environments? There are policies, some written and some unwritten. Employees are expected, in some cases, to ignore wrong doing or cutting corners, or face the consequences.
And who will speak up if they think that calling out wrong behavior will be done by them alone?
Group Enforcement: Friends
Kids create cultures that have group rules
Neighborhoods are often the environment for forming a group of friends. One day the youngest member of such a group showed up wearing an outfit that was anything but cool. The older kids quickly set them right. Using mocking, shaming, and humiliation they established the rules for membership. They bullied. Here was the message to the youngest member: they must fit into the system. Sometimes the consequences of bullying are tragic.
Who will stand up to a bully if they think they will be doing it alone?
Group Enforcement: Family
Every family has rules. There are certain subjects or behaviors not to be discussed. Perhaps this is politics? or the substance abuse of Dad or Mom? or the sibling who came of of the closet and is no longer acknowledged? What happens to the family member who talks about the elephant on the table? A friend of mine brought up the issues everyone was avoiding. The response of the next person who spoke was a comment about the mashed potatoes.
Victims Become Perps
These are a few simple examples of how individual evil and systemic evil relate to each other. When people sin in groups, they generate new devoted members. Often the newest member is the most zealous. Why is that?
The person being pressured to conform is facing a question of personal integrity. To fit in, the person gives up either their individuality, or their differing opinions, or their integrity. This makes them a vicious enforcer. Why is that? Because they know they are in the wrong and they cannot stand anyone who reminds them of it.
Everyone is part of the problem
When I describe things this way, I want us all to see that on many days every one of us keeps silent about evils committed in our presence. When the boss treats the women at work improperly, and no one speaks up, a culture of sexual abuse takes root. When a friend gets drunk and I say nothing to warn them about driving, a culture of systemic substance abuse takes root. To the point of this article: when a merchant proposed a new investment in the trade of black Africans and no one rebuked them, slavery began.
The primary prevention of systemic evil is personal, not structural.
There is no structural evil and no systemic racism, there are only individuals colluding with others to develop cultures that cultivate and tolerate injustice. Until you can get rid of corrupt people, you will always have structural evils.
How all this relates to systems and structures
Take some time to think about these principles. Where do they show up in your life? Do you make choices to surround yourself with people who support your lifestyle choices? Do you resist being around someone who doesn’t?
The next post will look at how these simple principles led to an elaborate system of collaboration in writing laws and developing a culture of racism.