Concluding thoughts about America and Racism
“You will achieve more in this world through acts of mercy than you will through acts of retribution.”
— Nelson Mandela
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.
— Jesus of Nazareth, defining his people’s role in the world
A Christian Mind explains the story of racism.
Prodded by the George Floyd news and its aftermath, I have spent time learning and reflecting on our national history of racism and slavery. To be candid, I refuse to submit my interpretation to the reigning media narratives. My commitment is to think as a Christian. I have posted beginning here, using one book’s telling of the story as my foil.
In this post I offer some of my conclusions. I write as a Christian citizen, pursuing the good of the nation in which I live. And I write as a minister of the church.
Understanding human nature, created and corrupted, makes the most sense of this.
Racism is not a big deal unless all persons have dignity. Racism and slavery cannot be explained unless at least some are also corrupt.
But, what do we mean by corrupt? There are only a few options. Are people essentially good, or are they deeply corrupted by evil? Or are there two kinds of people: evil and good?
Scripture says corruption is universal. What evil we do together is exponentially worse than we can do alone.
Universal sin is coherent with history.
History supports this thesis.
Consider the slave trade: how many participated, how many others turned a blind eye to it, and how still others created the legal support to sustain it?
But human corruption is about more than racism and slavery. In the last 100 years of world history, we find that the greatest atrocities of genocide were the work of millions of “foot soldiers” who willingly followed orders. An uncountable number of others, knowing the evils, kept silent for fear of their lives. Are there really any good people?
High minded aspirations have been fruitless
Modern man believes that we can become good, that we are the cream of the crop for homo sapiens. Some insist that we now stand on the cusp of a society of equality and inclusion and justice for all. Such optimism has been in vogue for over a hundred years. Its advocates have deployed education, social conditioning, and government action to create this new day. What can we conclude about its effects?
Optimism about the improve-ability of man is a deceit. Miroslav Volf, after recounting the modern bloviated 1 certainty in human progress, summarizes:
The notion that the “civilizing process” entails reduction in violence has proven a naive myth.2
Paul the Apostle was not exaggerating when he wrote:
There are none righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10).
Indeed, in the words of Moses,
“every imagination of the thoughts of our hearts is only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5)
God’s view is that sin corrupts us all, though in different ways.
The reigning paradigms are blame machines.
Let me contrast this view with all the other options.
Some say that whiteness is the problem. By this they mean all whites are, by definition, guilty. Failure to admit this proves their point. Haven’t we tasted enough of the bitter fruit of “guilty by DNA” in the last 100 years? Just ask Jews, Uighurs, and the Hutu or Tutsi what they think of guilt by birth.
Some say the system is the problem. The bad people got control. They used their power to create unjust structures. It’s time to let the good people take over — you know, the ones burning down businesses, and assaulting innocent bystanders. Or maybe you mean the lying politicians?
Acknowledging my place as a collaborator
By contrast, I must name evil clearly as well as reject any sense of moral superiority.
This means my forefathers were not particularly more evil than I. Had I lived in their time and taken their place, things would not have been better. The expression of injustice might have been different, but injustice and evil there would be.
So, do we abandon hope? Not at all. Real improvements can be made. The record of incremental change is verifiable.
Wise government for bad people
So what is the solution? Burn everything down and build something better? We can certainly do the former, but I doubt we are capable of doing the latter.
I happen to respect our form of government. It was conceived by thinkers who believed in the evil tendencies of humankind. They sought to limit power, to build on a system of laws, not autocrats. They enshrined individual liberties, designed to restrain the power of government. Our constitution itself can be amended. It is possible to bring real improvements. We have done it before, many times. Let’s do it again.
It is not the people of America that are morally exceptional. Our history belies this. But our intended government is wise. It should be restored and preserved and improved.
Notice, I said improved. Incremental improvements are good. They take work and courage, but they are worth pursuing.
It is not the people of America that are morally exceptional. Our history belies this. But our intended government is wise.
This year, I have read with horror the ascendant woke demands for radical justice and the claims of utopian visionaries. Why horror? because it has been tried already. Every example of “getting it right” in terms of justice, equality, and justice has resulted in the murder of millions. 3
The failure of Christians: living by a false Gospel
But what about the place of the church in a secular society? The church is an alternative kingdom. She is given a message that upends all the moral, religious, political, and sociological powers.
However, the American church has in many cases lost her Gospel message. How? She has confused patriotism with the Gospel. She has mixed morality with redemption. How?
We have made up a deceit about “a Christian America.” It is a deceit because it perverts the meaning of the term “Christian.”
What makes something Christian is not its morality or its sense of fearing God. The central truth that defines “Christian” is the redemption accomplished by Jesus, the Son of God, upon the cross. Promoting morality, religion and the fear of God has nothing to do with redemption. In fact redemption is for those who know they cannot be moral.
I find nothing of redemption in our founding documents. The Nicene Creed is not enshrined in our Constitution. We are, therefore, not a Christian nation in any sense of the biblical meaning of Christianity. To convey the impression that we are is a false gospel, which is damnable.
Living a new life in the power of the Redeemer
The church has also failed to represent the power of a new life in Christ. What do I mean by that? It does not mean we have not been a moral force in the public square. It means we have not lived up to our core calling.
Our core calling was to show the beauty and integrity of life under King Jesus. Sadly, I have discovered that some Christians and pastors were supportive or silent in the face of slavery and Jim Crow. Many tolerated it, others defended it 4. As a result, we lost our moral authority to speak.
What if, instead, the church had acted like the people who belong to God? What if her leaders had rebuked and disciplined slave traders? Where would we be if the church had excommunicated 5 those who treated their fellow image bearers with cruelty? Would we have lost our moral authority?
What if the church had acted like the people who belong to God?
Tragically, the church’s silence opened the door for self-serving and moralizing politicians to exploit the injustice of racism for their own ends.
Finding the truth and resisting the party line takes work
A Christian mind is independent. It doesn’t ride the wave of public opinion. I determined to do the hard work of thinking Christianly by testing the interpretations of the media, the protesters, the corporations, and the politicians. Their ideas seemed viable until I listened to those who refuted them.
I discovered that there are thoughtful people, engaged with the issues, thoroughly acquainted with the history, politically left and right, and utterly unwilling to yield to the woke mob. Some of them are African American scholars 6. These are the ones who spoke with greatest authority. As insiders they had nothing to gain and everything to lose by critiquing the popular and loud woke voices. But they seemed compelled to speak because they believed that interpretations based on poor research and false narratives cannot and will not bring about good solutions.
Racial reconciliation and the only power that can change the past
I am a professional conciliator. Conciliation is the work of bringing offended and alienated parties together for mutual confession and forgiveness. I have no idea what racial reconciliation is. How do we mediate a conflict between millions of people, most of whom are dead? It seems we are waiting for some sufficient act or words or sacrifice to produce peace. I have no idea what is sufficient. Nor does anyone else.
There is another way to change the past. South Africa pursued the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the evils of apartheid. Led by Christians, it sought to unearth the details of the wrongs done. Its purpose was not prosecution but admission of wrongs that had been covered up. While the work is ongoing, the principle that forgiveness is the only way to change the past was foundational. The man who embodied this was Nelson Mandela.
So what will I do as a Christian?
What do I mean by Christian? A Christian is someone who has abandoned all hope of self-help and self-improvement. A Christian is someone who renounces any power in morality and religion. Their only hope of favor with God is in all that Jesus is and has done for them in his life, death, and resurrection. When someone is in Christ, they are a new creation. Their lives should look different than the rest of the culture. They should be salt and light.
Part of being in Christ is embracing everyone else in Christ as a brother or sister, regardless of external differences. The church is to look like an intergrated society of equals.
In light of this I have evaluated my engagement with brothers and sisters of different socioeconomic and racial histories. I am pursuing ways to have friendship with brothers and sisters in Christ who are not of my race or tribe or people.
To love these brothers and sisters from different histories, I have broadened my reading and listening choices away from partisan ideology. My purpose is to hear from sources new to me and carefully researched.
As a citizen
Christian citizens bring moral clarity to their communities. As one, I refuse to minimize the sins of our national history and the sins of our present day. I also refuse to deny the real progress that has been made. At the same time, I am not a believer in utopian ideals. I want to contribute toward incremental change for the goal of greater justice.
God also calls me as a citizen to pursue the good and peace of the nation in which I live. To further this goal, I have become a moderator with Braver Angels. We exist to create mutual understanding and thoughtful discussion between people of diverse politics. Many from all sides in the political perspective want the same.
As a pastor
I am evaluating what it looks like to call God’s people to represent the message of redemption with our words and actions. That includes working to ensure I am not blinded to real evils as my forbears were once blinded to slavery.
I have also begun to study matters of justice and oppression in Scripture. These are large themes. I hope they will become part of my teaching and equipping God’s people to think his thoughts.
The path of hopelessness
To summarize, I reject the self-confident assumptions of the modern zeitgeist. We are convinced we can usher in the new age of human history.
While there have been amazing advances in technology, food production, global standards of living — there has been no change in human nature. The power to make people into pure and altruistic beings is beyond our reach. Self-serving, lame rationalizations, and greed dominate all strata of society. Malice for its own sake, abuse of power, and self-righteous protest/reform mark us from childhood to death, from individual actions to government policy.
Utopian visions are inspirational nonsense. We will never rise higher together than what we are as individuals.
Of course, this does not mean we set aside efforts to improve our community or country. To make modest improvements with modest expectations is an expression of humility about our potential.
The path of life: justice and grace
The other option is unthinkable to autonomous humankind. What is that option? To face ourselves, our servitude to inward moray decay, and to admit we cannot save ourselves. This means we turn from our repeated failures, accept our impotence, and place ourselves as no different than any other human in moral quality.
Such thinking is the center of a Christian Mind. Since our original sin is willfully cutting ourselves off from the Creator and attempting to be our own makers, we begin where we got it wrong. Salvation cannot take place until we lay down our deadly efforts and look outside ourselves, to the true God, for rescue.
What we find when we do is that in Jesus God has acted with the purest justice to make sure no one gets away with anything. Every lash of the whip on the backs of the slaves will be requited. Remember, justice will bring us to death too, for our distinct wickedness.
But there is this thing called grace. God offers forgiveness to the unjust and damnable by fulfilling justice in himself. Grace is fulfilled in that God has done justice on a substitute, the Son of God made man, bearing our sin in his death.
Forgiveness in the path of life
God’s justice in Christ is the grounds for forgiveness to others. Miroslav Volf puts it this way:
At the core of Christian faith lies the claim that God entered history and died on the cross in the person of Jesus Christ for an unjust and deceitful world. In taking upon himself the sin of the world, God told the truth about the deceitful world and enthroned justice in an unjust world. When God was made sin in Christ (2 Cor 5:21), the world of deceit and injustice was set aright. . . . Since the new world has become reality in the crucified and resurrected Christ (2 Cor 5:17), . . . One can embrace perpetrators in forgiveness because God has embraced them through atonement. 7
But even more than that, the death and resurrection of Jesus breaks the power of evil. When someone trusts Jesus as the Redeemer, he strips principalities and powers of their dominion in our lives. More than that, he causes us to die with him and rise again into newness of life. He does not merely make us nicer people; he makes us new people.
A new kingdom of equals in sin and equals by the Redeemer’s grace
He says there will be an end to history. In that day he will bring all to account. After he purifies the creation of all evil, he will establish a kingdom of perfect righteousness and justice, forever. Citizenship will consist solely of those made new in him. That offer is for all. No one is excluded. Christ’s cleansing reaches to the depths of human moral corruption. His grace raises us to the heights of all he made us to be.
- Bloviation is a style of empty, pompous, political speech which originated in Ohio and was used by US President Warren G. Harding, who described it as “the art of speaking for as long as the occasion warrants, and saying nothing”[↩]
- Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace, Revised and Updated (p. 273). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition[↩]
- Jordan Peterson says that 100 million people were murdered by their own government in the 20th century for the sake of utopia. Paul Johnson concurs. Johnson also notes the sheer hypocrisy and hubris of the ideologues.[↩]
- The story is actually more complex, with surprising alliances formed. Good background can be found here, and here, and here[↩]
- this means they judge those who do such things as false and exclude them from the church[↩]
- A short list of names with selected references includes Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Shelby Steele, Anthony Bradley, John Wood Jr, the 1776 Unites Project[↩]
- Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace, Revised and Updated (p. 289). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.[↩]