Dear Andrew and Dennae,
Thank you for the thoughtful response. I enjoyed reading it and getting a better sense of your heart.
You focused most of your response on the topic of systemic injustice. In my initial post, I suggested that all the talk of systemic racism/oppression in the broader culture was relatively new. A Google Ngram search of the terms “systemic oppression” and “systemic racism” reveals that these phrases were virtually never used in the English-speaking world until around 1970, and then used very infrequently until the mid-90s. Their use skyrocketed after 2000. This was my point. However, you are correct that the concepts are not new, and go all the way back to the Old Testament.
What do you think accounts for their skyrocketing usage since 2000?
You suggest that part of the reason for their increased use has to do with particular “legal and philosophical thinkers from whom these academic categories have come.”
What specific people do you have in mind here?
You also talk about their source being something called “systems theory.” My own examination would source these notions in a different (and perhaps related) school of thought called a critical social theory or simply critical theory. Are you familiar with this?
I support your biblical exegesis of systemic injustice, which I found thoughtful and well-considered. In my own teaching on this subject, I highlight these points.
- We are created in God’s image. God created the universe. As His image-bearers, we too create. We create culture – families, societies, cultures, institutions, etc.
- When Adam and Eve rebelled, they were personally impacted by the fall, but so was everything they created. Families, societies, cultures, and institutions are stained by the fall. People use power and authority for selfish ends and create systems and structures that do the same.
- God didn’t abandon us in our fallen state. Motivated by love, He set out to redeem this fallen world. This redemptive work begins immediately after the fall and comes to its consummation in Revelation 20-21 with the final judgment of evil and the new heavens and new earth. The centerpiece of God’s redemptive plan is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I teach that God’s redemptive plan is comprehensive. He isn’t merely content to redeem human souls but intends to restore everything impacted by the fall. So yes, systemic injustice is a reality in our world today. But so is systemic redemption, whereby the truth, goodness, and beauty of God’s Kingdom break into this fallen world and begin to transform it.
Critical social theory, which now dominates our academic institutions and is spilling into the broader culture at breakneck speed, can be affirmed in its emphasis on the reality of systemic injustice and the misuse of power and authority for selfish ends.
But because it is rooted in an atheistic framework, it has no basis for redemption and consequently doesn’t acknowledge or “see” point three above. Instead, everything boils down to a zero-sum contest for power and domination between different group, a contest with no basis for love, grace, mercy, or forgiveness. This is why it bears the bitter fruit of resentment, hostility, bitterness, and grievance. It cannot lead to reconciliation, only division.
Further, it rejects the biblical doctrine of the fall—the idea that evil exists in human hearts before it manifests in social structures and institutions. Accordingly, the deepest problem with the world isn’t fallen human hearts, but unjust and oppressive social structures. Thus, I would argue, Christians should only partially affirm its basic presuppositions, and even then, with great caution.
Many errors arise from focusing too narrowly on systemic injustice. If systems are the problem, the logical solution is to dismantle the systems and erect new ones. This revolutionary approach, now gaining incredible momentum in the broader culture, always fails (often in horrific, murderous ways) because it rejects the fact that unless hearts are transformed, no amount of systemic change will lead to the better world we want.
Our deepest slavery is to sin. Our greatest oppressor is not flesh and blood, but principalities and powers. Jesus came to set the oppressed free, yes, but He was misunderstood by His followers. They longed for systemic change in the form of a political revolution against their oppressors. Jesus had something much deeper and more profound in His sights. He came to break the power of sin, and defeat the great oppressor. Once this deepest root of evil was defeated, then (and only then) could man-made systems and structures begin changing for the better as well.
For over two millennia, God has been at work redeeming this fallen world and its families, nations, systems, and structures. Short of the eternal state, this transformation is never complete, fully-realized, or permanent, but it is real and significant. This biblical, redemptive, “inside-out” process of transformation is rejected by critical social theorists who place their hopes in systemic change. As Christians, we need to uphold and prioritize the power of the Gospel as the cutting edge of all positive social change.
Today, the phrase “systemic racism” has become something of a shibboleth. As Christians, I think we need to be far more cautious and discerning in our use of this phrase. It is a strong judgment. It can ruin lives and destroy families, organizations, and even nations. Before we level the charge, it seems to me we need to have serious evidence. Justice, I would argue, demands it.
What evidence needs to be established, in your view, before this charge can truthfully be rendered?
In your response, you spoke of “hyper-individualism” in our society. How do you see this?
Would you also agree that there is a strong (hyper?) “communitarianism” at work in our culture as well? We see this in the move to reduce people to representatives of particular communities or groups, often based on skin color (as opposed to individuals with unique backgrounds, personalities, challenges, and blessings). This, for example, is implied when people like Latasha Morrison use the phrase “white privilege.” I was taught (and still believe) that it is wrong to say, “all (fill in the ethnicity or skin color) people are (fill in adjectives).” In other words, quoting the Merriam Webster definition of racism you affirmed, this is “a belief that [skin color] is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities.”
Thank you for recommending the article by Tim Keller. I appreciated much of his biblical exposition on race and racism at the beginning of his article. However, towards the end when he began talking about whiteness and modern social theory, I began to struggle.
He wrote: “… when the African slave trade started, the idea that there was a ‘white’ race, as opposed to other non-white races including ‘black’—was a way to justify slavery and give it something it never had in antiquity—a strict racial basis … No longer were you primarily Irish or German or Swedish–you were primarily white.”
The contention that “whiteness” was an invention of white slaveholders to justify the slavery of black Africans seems plausible. But then Keller goes on and says “the account of the historical creation of ‘whiteness’ in modern times is helpful.” How is it helpful? And who “created whiteness” in modern times? He doesn’t answer either question, but many attribute the creation of the concept to W.E.B. DuBois. Much can be said about DuBois, but it is worth noting that while he was a brilliant social theorist, he was also an atheist who was deeply sympathetic to Marxist theory and used it as a lens to view race relations in America.
Latasha Morrison has a lot to say about whiteness. She writes in her Whiteness 101 curricula, “Most white people find that they have neither a healthy way to describe their whiteness nor positive emotions to attach to those descriptions.” She goes on, “The task for whites is to develop a positive white identity.” To do that, a white person “must become aware of his or her whiteness, accept it as personally and socially significant, and learn to feel good about it.”
Connect what Keller and Morrison say about whiteness, and it seems contradictory and confusing, at least to me. Whiteness—the (evil) idea that was invented to justify the slave trade according to Keller—is something that defines me as a white person and I’m supposed to “accept” it as part of my identity and “learn to feel good about” according to Morrison.
She continues: It is essential that [white people] … acknowledge the role we have played in the oppression of people of color.” The obvious question in response is this: How have I (a person with white skin) oppressed POC? Her implied answer seems to be this: Because I am white, therefore I have this inherent (evil) condition called “whiteness” combined with “white privilege” which are both, by nature, oppressive to POC.
She continues: “This self-examination can (and should) be painful. It can be tempting to … live in denial rather than face our complicity … Privilege—and its opposite, oppression—are related to white identity.”
Morrison seems to adopt a good deal of her thinking on this from Robin DiAngelo’s now-famous book White Fragility, which she quotes several times in her curriculum. DiAngelo is one of America’s best-known popularizers of critical race theory, and helped pioneer the academic field called “Whiteness Studies.” Like W.E.B. DuBois before her, DiAngelo is a non-Christian social theorist who seems to be significantly influenced by Marxian presuppositions applied to race, whereby “white” is the new oppressor, the new “capitalist bourgeoisie.”
I’m left wondering how such confusing, derogatory, and unbiblical concepts such as whiteness and white fragility can be “helpful” for Christians to adopt in pursuing racial reconciliation. My main problem with the concept of whiteness is that it seems very difficult to distinguish between whiteness and white people. Notice, for example, how the hugely influential Ta-Nehesi Coates describes whiteness. Notice how he blurs the line between whiteness and white people:
- “Whiteness” is “an existential danger to the country and the world.”
- “Whites have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion.”
- “The power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, ‘white people’ would cease to exist for want of reasons.”
These are not fringe beliefs. Coates is a widely admired, mainstream spokesperson on these topics from his perch at The Atlantic. His drawing of the line between good and evil between groups based on skin color is very problematic to me, dangerous even. It seems like a way of “othering” (Tim Keller’s word) and problematizing an entire group of people based on their skin color.
It seems clear to me that such thinking can only divide, can only exacerbate racial hostility. Morrison, as a Christian, doesn’t go as far as the atheist Coates, but she seems to be drinking water from the same well. My point is that this set of ideas goes in the opposite direction of reconciliation, which is what we both long for.
You wrote: “our American and ecclesial structures have institutionalized whiteness intentionally and explicitly.” How do you see this “institutionalizing of whiteness” today in the church in Phoenix, for example?
Racism in America’s creation
You wrote: “Racism, as a philosophical, political, economic and theological concept has been explicitly and implicitly used in the creation of America.”
I don’t think I’m alone in considering the cornerstone of our creation (that is, our founding as the United States) to be the Declaration of Independence, which laid the ideological foundation for our constitution. I also don’t think I’m alone in considering the most important sentence in the Declaration to be this: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Perhaps you disagree with me about the Declaration and the centrality of this sentence to our creation, but I fail to see how “racism, as a concept was used in the creation of America,” for this certainly, is not a racist statement. It is just the opposite. The fact that we’ve struggled with racism, and only imperfectly live up to this principle doesn’t negate the principle or make our founding explicitly racist. I would argue that the anti-racist nature of this principle provided the driving force behind the abolitionist movement and eradication of slavery, as well as the end of Jim Crow segregation. It was King’s “promissory note” that had yet to fully apply to black people, and he was right. It has been a force for great good, not only in America but around the world.
Again, I strongly affirm our common desire to racial reconciliation as followers of Christ and appreciate this dialogue to sharpen one another on the best ways to accomplish this desired end.
Warmly in Christ,