Lawrence Ware describes himself as “a philosopher of race and ordained minister dedicated to social justice.” In a recent article (8/16/16) for VSB he said that “If Your Pastor Says ‘Racism Isn’t a Skin Problem, it’s a Sin Problem’ Then You Need To Find Another Church” (http://verysmartbrothas.com).
What Lawrence was addressing in this article are the simplistic slogans and surface solutions that Christians have a real propensity for offering in the face of the stubborn systemic racism that tears at the fabric of American society. The violent and painful episodes of problems in our race relations as a nation in recent days is not a new outbreak of a social ill that we had solved with the Civil Right Bill of 1964, affirmative action and the election of our first African American President. No, racism is a chronic issue that is part of the human condition. The idea that “me and mine” are intrinsically superior to “you and yours” persists precisely because racism is just so stubborn and systemic in us as human beings. And so what’s demanded, Lawrence correctly argued in his article, is a “fundamental change to the structure of this country.” What he wrestles with in this article is the question of just exactly how this kind of “fundamental change” is going to actually be effected.
Now, what prompted Lawrence to write was his attendance of a church service in which the high profile multicultural pastor invoked one of those slogans about racism being a “sin problem” rather than a “skin problem.” Lawrence regarded this statement as evidence that that church and its pastor really didn’t get it. Lawrence wrote –
…Saying racism is a sin problem that we can solve by being kinder to each other serves the purposes of White supremacy because it does not force White folks to come to terms with the way they may contribute to institutional racism in the decisions they make at work and the way they vote at the polls…
These were words that were the speed bump in this article for me. In fact I have continued to live with them in the week ever since I first read the article. Something about them troubled me, and I finally came to the conclusion that where they rankle me so is at the point of the false dichotomy that they seem to create, the “either this or that” choice that they seem to force. Lawrence suggests that while some would say that the “sin problem” of racism can be easily and quickly remedied by the simple decision just to start being nice to each other, that what it really requires are public acts of “social protest.”
Now, beyond the fact that these two things are not mutually exclusive options in mind, or even the only options that we have available to us when it comes to confronting the sin of racism in ourselves, each other and society at large, there is the even more fundamental theological problem for me of the understanding of sin that they reflect, a view of sin that sees it as something that we can “fix” by our own efforts.
Both “being kinder to each other” and “engaging in social protests” as responses to the “sin of racism” betray a view of sin that reduces it to bad behavior that can be modified by learning how to make better choices. If people just knew better, or if we just had more effective laws to regulate our behavior, or if we were just better motivated as human beings, then all of our social problems like racism would slowly go away and we could live happily ever after. Utopia is within our reach if only we would all just stretch a little bit! But, is sin really just the result of people having bad information, or laws being poorly written and selectively enforced, or people not being motivated quite enough? I think that the evidence, both Biblical and personal, points to the fact that sin is so much more insidious and intrinsic to us as human beings than this.
Lawrence warned his readers that “if your pastor has called for prayer in regard to (racial) unity but has not pushed the congregation to engage in (public acts) of social protest to address the systemic nature of racial justice,” then you might need to change churches. And I appreciate what he says. Swaying and singing “Kum Ba Yah” together, well-intentioned though it may be, is just not going to be enough to dismantle the stubborn and systemic racism that infects the human condition. My problem with what Lawrence wrote is that I don’t think that marching through the streets chanting slogans and hoisting placards is going to be enough to dismantle the sin of racism either.
Clearly prayer for racial unity and public acts of social protest against racial injustice are expressions of a very deep and commendable desire for social change, and as such, neither is devoid of value. I remember hearing a story about a company of Union troops marching past a Plantation field filled with slaves in the Deep South during the Civil War. Seeing the troops, one of those slaves ran just as fast as he could to get into line with the soldiers with his hoe slung over his shoulder like a rifle. His fellow slaves back in the field all laughed at the sight. They made fun of him. They asked if he thought that pretending to be a soldier for a while was going to make any difference in the struggle for their freedom. And he answered them, saying, “I don’t know if it helps or not, I just don’t want there to be any question about which side I am one.” Praying for racial unity, and engaging in acts of public protest can certainly make it clear about which side we are on, but I don’t believe that prayer or protest has the power to “fix” the sin of racism. No, to “fix” the sin of racism something more fundamental must occur within us as human beings.
To use the language of Paul in Romans 6, the old self with all of its passions and prejudices must be crucified with Christ and buried, and a new self must be raised with Christ to walk in newness of life. To use the language of Peter in his first letter, we need to be “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1:3). To use the language of Jesus Christ Himself in His Sermon on the Mount, we need to become good trees bearing good fruit rather than being bad trees bearing bad fruit (Matthew 7:16-18). Jesus, Peter and Paul were all talking about regeneration, about being “born again — born from above” (John 3:3). As John Piper writes –
Forgiveness and cleansing are not enough. I need to be new. I need to be transformed. I need life. I need a new way of seeing and thinking and valuing. That’s why Ezekiel speaks of a new heart a new spirit: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances” (36:26-27).
…I think Ezekiel means that in the new birth, God puts a living, supernatural, spiritual life in our heart, and that new life – that new spirit – is the working of the Holy Spirit himself giving shape and character to our new heart…. By being himself within us, our heart and mind take on his character – his spirit (Ephesians 4:23).
I completely agree with Lawrence when he says that what the sin of racism requires is a fundamental change in us and our world. But the only source for the kind of change that the sin of racism requires that I know anything about is the Gospel. And so, taking Lawrence’s lead, I’d say that if your pastor has called for prayer in regard to racial unity, and has pushed for social protest to address the systemic nature of racial injustice, but has not systematically addressed the Gospel foundations of the Creator’s original vision of Shalom, the tragic abnormality of fallen people living in a fallen world that the rebellion of our sin has created, and the personally and socially transformative power of the Gospel, then you might need to think about changing churches.
It was Carl F.H. Henry who wrote –
Supernatural regeneration is the peculiar mainspring for the social metamorphosis latent in the Christian Movement. Man’s spiritual renewal vitalizes his awareness of God and neighbor, vivifies his senses of morality and duty, fuses the law of love to sanctified compassion, and so registers the ethical impact of biblical religion upon society…. Evangelism and revival remain the original wellsprings of evangelical humanitarianism and social awakening.
I believe that “fixing” the sin of racism requires nothing less than a change of heart, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only power to change hearts that I have ever come across. And so to ignore this Gospel, to obscure this Gospel, to discount this Gospel, or even just to assume this Gospel in the urgent conversation about the kind of fundamental change that the whole wide world and every last one of us as individuals desperately needs, strikes me as the height of unfaithfulness on our part as Christians. If it’s Christ that has the power to make us new creations so that old things pass away and so that new things come, as the Gospel says He is, then to fail to mention Him “at such a time as this” can only be regarded as the worst possible kind of spiritual malpractice. DBS +