two perspectives on racism and what they need to hear from each other

Saying racism is “wrong” doesn’t go far enough. I can make a wrong turn. I can give the wrong answer on a test. Wrongness doesn’t sufficiently capture the diabolical nature of racism. Racism de-humanizes and degrades. It is a toxin that destroys and victimizes both the abused and the abuser. It is an egregious offense against the image of God and it makes a mockery of the cross of Christ. It is vile in appearance, but worse, it is also adept at hiding in plain sight. Many people – many of US – are sick from the disease even if outwardly we appear asymptomatic. Racism is not merely wrong. Racism is evil. Racism is sin.

I’ve heard many people say over the past several days that they don’t know what to say. I’ve said that myself. Nothing seems sufficient. We are worried about saying the wrong thing. We are worried about being misunderstood. We are worried about being reviled. Some things, however, are easily said. There is nothing in the previous paragraph that a person of good faith would find disagreement with. To say that racism is evil is among the least controversial things a person could say.

But yet we find that a dispiriting number of people who essentially agree on this fundamental point are currently warring with each other especially on social media. They agree with each other while also believing that the other side is almost irredeemably wrong. Why? The answer to that question is too complicated for a blog post. As I’ve been ruminating and reflecting, I started to become aware of some well-worn paths in my own mind regarding a very old theological dispute and how that might shed a little light on this question.

An ancient debate…

Many of you reading this blog will be familiar with the basic disagreement between Calvinist, or Reformed, theology and its alternative, what is popularly called Arminian theology. What follows is a painfully brief and not-totally-sufficient summary.

Calvinism is a system of theological beliefs that is very committed to the absolute sovereignty of God in all things. It is the Calvinist theology of sin that most interests me here. Calvinists believe that sin is not merely an individual action or choice. They believe that sin is a much bigger problem. It is a state or condition. We are born into sin. All people are totally depraved, totally caught up in sin from the moment they are conceived. We are broken to the uttermost. Consequently, salvation comes only by the sovereign choice of God. Those who are saved are the elect. A sinner doesn’t choose salvation, but they may be awakened to their election.

Arminians, on the other hand, passionately defend the notion of free will. Yes, God is sovereign, but he has also, in love, given us agency. An Arminian wouldn’t deny the state of sin, even a state into which we are born. But an Arminian would reject that we are born into a state of personal culpability for sin. We are all sinners responsible for our own sin. Just like Calvinists, Arminians believe that salvation only comes from God, but rather than “electing” certain ones to be saved, He calls all of us to repent of our sins and turn to Him for forgiveness.

What does this have to do with racism?

I think that these two different theological camps provide a rough illustration or template of how various people understand racism. These two camps illustrate my own inner conflict as I think about these very serious issues in my own life. Before going further, allow me to offer a critical disclaimer. These parallels are only approximate. I’m not saying that people in each camp are literally Calvinist or literally Arminian. I’m also not saying that a person with Calvinist or Arminian theology will necessarily fall into one camp or another. In fact, I personally know of many Arminians who fall into what I’m going to label a racial Calvinist and vice versa. I chose the labels even though they are imperfect because I think they illustrate the thought patterns or assumptions of the two groups that often fight with each other about racism.

A racial Calvinist (RC) is likely to believe in pervasive and systemic racism. Racism is a state, not only an act. Now, RCs would obviously not deny the importance of recognizing acts of overt racism, but they are also careful to point out that racism pervades all society. We are born into racial strife. We participate in and even sanction racial strife even if we are completely unaware of this fact. White people benefit from these unjust systems, while people of color labor under their weight. Guilt is not reserved merely for the overt racist. We are guilty from birth, or really, from before our birth. Salvation, if it is achieved, requires some kind of a-wokening.

A racial Arminian (RA), on the other hand, rejects the notion that a person can be held accountable for someone else’s sins. If systemic racism exists, it is because of the racist actions of individuals operating within those systems. People aren’t born into racism, and the sin of racism is not committed without intent or awareness. Racism, like all sin, is the result of a choice. Entire groups should not be summarily judged by the sinful actions of certain individuals – be they cops or protesters. Instead, RAs would say that people are ultimately responsible for their own actions. They would say that all people are equally capable of bias, and that “all lives matter.”* Salvation, if it is achieved, requires personal repentance.

What we need to hear…

Both of these perspectives make some valid points that the other side needs to hear, and when we stop listening or talking to the other side, our own position becomes impoverished by the loss.

So first to my RA friends. What do you need to hear? Systemic racism exists. Unjust systems exist. Implicit bias exists. Privilege exists. I know that these phrases have been turned into buzzwords and buzz saws. I know that some of our defensiveness comes from how these phrases have been wielded as weapons in public discourse (especially in connection with Critical Race Theory). Nevertheless, I would challenge you to move beyond defensiveness for a moment and merely consider the human reality that unjust systems have always existed. As people of faith, it is not too much to ask you to consider God’s heart for the poor, the marginalized, and the beat-down. As people of faith, it is not too much to ask you to consider God’s hatred for unbalanced scales, for calloused indifference especially among people in power, and for systems that take advantage of the weak. As people of faith, it is not even too much to ask you to consider the fact that at times sin is generational and corporate in scripture as well as individual.** I’ve been thinking a lot about the famous quote from Rabbi Abraham Heschel this week. “Not all are guilty, but all are responsible.” As RAs, your greatest strength is your sense of personal agency, so apply that to systems of injustice. Search yourself and put yourself to the test. You are not going to solve the world’s racial divide, but you do have the agency to do something about the ways that you may participate and even encourage systems of injustice. Lastly, I would caution you about falling into a common Arminian trap where we justify our own sin not by repentance but by comparing it to that of others. “I’m not as bad as that guy. I’m actually really nice to black people.” This is an approach to sin that is condemned over and over again in scripture. Remember the prayer of the Pharisee? I don’t say this to shame you or to exempt myself from this sort of self-reflection. We all need to do much soul-searching and much repenting. 

And to my RC friends. There are things you must hear as well. First, Calvinism insists on total depravity, but the doctrine of election implies a strong dividing line between the elect and the reprobate. In a similar way, some RCs draw strong dividing lines, but for them, election is based on the color of a person’s skin.*** There are those who are victims and those who are villains – saints and sinners. You know which side you are on by looking in a mirror. Such a view engages in and requires racial stereotyping. It removes virtue from an individual’s actions and moves it to group identity. Despite all the calls to “take action,” this actually removes agency from individuals. One side will be self-satisfied. The other side will wallow in the shame or resentment of never being able to do enough. Both sides will be resigned to the cynicism that things will never change. I’ve heard many this week calling for people to repent of their whiteness. I know that is a radical position that doesn’t represent everyone. I also know that for those who say these sorts of things “whiteness” isn’t just about the color of a person’s skin. But do you expect your uncle watching the news to get that nuance? Do you know what he hears? He hears someone telling him that he is bad simply because of the color of his skin. He hears someone telling him that his skin color is a moral category. He hears someone condescendingly telling him that as a white person, his very real personal struggles are merely an illusion that mean nothing. He hears someone telling him that he can never be saved; he can never do enough to change the fact that he is white, so why even try? Am I being uncharitable? Maybe. I emphasize again that not all RCs think this way. But if this is the posture that you take towards issues of race, you really have no right to be shocked or outraged by your uncle’s or anyone else’s recalcitrance. Secondly, one of your greatest strengths is identifying systemic injustice, but this can also be a weakness when everything is explained in terms of systemic injustice. The specific actions of individuals are not understood on their own terms. Instead, they are de-contextualized and placed within the framework of systemic injustice. This is another way that personal agency is subverted. The RC in this case needs to hear from the RA. Personal agency and context matters. Not everything should be fit neatly within your framework.

What must really matter…

Now that I’ve made both sides mad, I’ve got two last things to say:

First, in our differences we must continue to find ways to listen to and love each other. RC, much like many Calvinists through history, are often less-than-patient with dissenters. But those on the other side are no less guilty for their spirit of disunity. The self-righteous vitriol, the damning rhetoric, the sinful defensiveness, and the hand-washing dismissiveness of each side does not lead to progress. It only leads to a cementing of divisions. Be patient with each other. The gospel tells us to demonstrate the grace and forgiveness we have received in both word and deed. That applies now more than ever.

Second, the grace held out in the gospel of Jesus Christ is the only means of salvation from sin. Both Calvinists and Arminians agree on this point. We will never earn our salvation on our own efforts. We will never heal our sins on our own strength. The world is wracked with the pain of racial division and animosity where tribal resentments are growing. So many Christians have laudably joined in with the cry for justice and reconciliation. We must remember in this moment the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 10:3-4. “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” When we adopt the verbiage of the world, the strategies of the world, and the assumptions of the world, we will be as powerless as the world. It is the gospel; it has always been the gospel that alone has the power to bring about true healing and forgiveness. As my friend, Michael DeFazio says, “From the gospel grows the answer to all our ills—social and personal, eternal and temporal.” It is the gospel that teaches us grace, not resentment; repentance, not defensiveness; hope, not hatred; dignity, humility, and love. It is the gospel that creates a family of every tribe, language, people, and nation. In this season of division, do not be ashamed of the gospel! It is not a garnish on our labors for justice. It is the very lifeblood of our efforts, for without the gospel, we labor in vain. We will continue to be frustrated in our fruitless attempt to earn our salvation and heal our land by our own good works.

This reminds me of another, crucial gospel point. We are not saved by good works, but we are saved for them. Another friend, Matthew McBirth, gave me this helpful exhortation recently. Gospel-talk must lead to gospel-action. We do a lot of talking, posting, blogging about issues like this, but we shouldn’t be satisfied with mere talk. Action is harder, messier, more personal. Action humbles us because it reminds us of how far we have yet to go.

*Please don’t say this. First of all, it is intentionally provocative. If a person tells you that something you are saying hurts them, it is only right to stop saying that thing. Second of all, you’re missing the point. I am passionately pro-life. It drives me crazy when some people mock pro-lifers for their perception that we don’t care about other issues equally as much. “Oh, you’re pro-life? Why don’t you protest the death penalty? Why don’t you advocate for illegal immigrants? Why do you want to go to church in the middle of a pandemic? I guess you’re not very pro-life after all.” I hate these arguments because they miss the point of the pro-life cause. It’s not that we don’t care about other issues, but in this season, at this time, we are trying to defend the lives of the unborn. People don’t make that argument in good faith. They make it cynically out of spite for your work. This is what you sound like when you respond to “black lives matter” with “all lives matter.” I know some of you are afraid that saying “black lives matter” seals your allegiance to a political movement that you want nothing to do with. I get it, but I think this is also a lie. Saying “black lives matter” doesn’t obligate us to agree or affiliate ourselves with everyone who uses that hashtag. Instead, it may be understood as a statement of solidarity and empathy for our brothers and sisters who are feeling pain and grief. Surely, that’s a virtuous thing.

**Recently, the President of my college, Matt Proctor, articulated a very humble prayer of confession. The prayer is a wonderful reminder to all of us who are trying to follow Jesus that these ideas are not about political orientation. They are firmly grounded in Scripture. I would strongly encourage you to read the prayer here:

***If you want the perfect distillation of this perspective on race, read this article:

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