Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
Plead the case of the widow.
~ Isaiah 1:17
As I write this position paper, our culture is currently dominated by stories of black men and women whose lives have been taken unnecessarily and protests have been going on in cities worldwide for a couple of weeks. The common theme of those protests has been: black lives matter.
The issue of racism is something very dear to my own heart. I grew up in a community and attended a high school with tremendous racial tension. Down the street from my teenage home, a local KKK leader hosted rallies and cross burnings on his land. A church I attended from time to time was burned down because the pastor spoke out against the white supremacists. And just a half hour down the road, there stood a large monument, similar to the Washington monument in D.C. in honor of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy.
When I was a senior in high school, I met my wife, Angie, and began attending church with her. I not only fell in love with her, I also developed a deep love for Jesus, for the local church, and for the gospel found in the Bible. It didn’t take long to see the message of racial reconciliation spelled out emphatically in Scripture.
The gospel – the good news about Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection for the remission of our sins – ensured the possibility of reconciliation between a holy God and sinful mankind, and also reconciliation between people formerly divided by sin and selfishness. The gospel is a unifying force, drawing all men to the common ground of the cross so that God could collect a people for himself of every tribe, tongue, and nation.
(Jesus) came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Ephesians 2:17-18 NIV
Jesus was Jewish, and he commissioned the apostles to go to every nation (in the Greek, nation is ethnos or ethnicity) with an invitation to the love of Jesus and the family of God. According to the Bible, every single person is made in the image of God and is of infinite value and worth, regardless of any physically or culturally unique characteristics. God loves everyone. Always.
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations (ethnic groups), baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
Matthew 28:19-20 NIV
To put it simply, all forms of racism, classism, prejudice, and favoritism is sin. And you cannot truly and fully follow Jesus while hanging onto any of these sins.
As a Christian, I believe that race is a social construct. All humans are one race, with many ethnicities that reflect the beauty and diversity of God’s creation, none being in any way superior to any other. All people are made in the image of God and are equally valuable.
From one man (one race – mankind) he made all the nations (ethnicities and people groups), that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.
Acts 17:26-27 NIV
Most Christians that I know will agree with what I’ve said thus far on these matters, but opinions begin to diverge on the question of whether white privilege, systemic racism, and racially-motivated police brutality exist or are problematic in our society.
The Sin of Personal Prejudice
All people are prone to prejudice because of our sinful nature. Following Jesus necessitates rooting out the sin of prejudice just as it does the sins of pride, lust, or laziness. To claim that we are above the possibility of bias and prejudice is to assert that we are immune to sin. Any such claim merely highlights our struggle with the sin of pride.
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.
James 2:8-9 NIV
The Existence of Systemic Racism
I absolutely believe that systemic racism still infects the various layers of our justice system and our economy. In 1619, the first black slaves were brought to our shores as the property of white colonialists. Slavery officially ended in 1865 with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, but during the period of Reconstruction, black people were extremely limited in their abilities to vote, to work for pay, to purchase land, etc.
In the Jim Crow south, black people were disenfranchised from their voting rights, segregated from white people in schools and neighborhoods, and were limited in their access to public accommodations. This officially ended in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. But to think that all of our systems suddenly became level playing fields would be absolutely naive.
For over 400 years now, the majority culture (white people) in power have stacked the odds in their own favor. White people in America enjoy a level of privilege that black people do not. We’re often defensive about this because we assume that what is implied is that we only achieve success in life because of our white privilege. But white privilege is simply a way of affirming that white people do not have to overcome the bias and prejudice that black people do.
Our white privilege gives us access to better education, better healthcare, better career opportunities, better relationships with law enforcement, and better access to economic tools. It’s not a matter of feeling personal guilt over this privilege, but rather acknowledging it so that we can cooperate with our communities to level the playing field.
We can’t fix what we don’t acknowledge. And to acknowledge that we are all prone to the sins of bias and discrimination but to deny that people in power and authority are not biased or prejudiced is, again, naive. Those who make and run the systems are humans.
Racism and Law Enforcement
I love police officers. I’m deeply thankful for the work they do to ensure a safer and more peaceful society. All of the officers I’ve personally known are dedicated to serving and protecting the public with integrity. But there are certainly flaws in the systems of policing.
I believe that institutional change is necessary and may include solutions such as the banning of chokeholds, chemical agents for crowd dispersion, and no-knock warrants. We need more comprehensive reporting and a national database of officers with excessive force complaints.
Police officers are the first to charge in when hell breaks loose, risking their own lives for jthe rest of us. All the good cops out there deserve higher pay than they receive.
My concern isn’t about most police officers. It’s about the policing system as it has evolved. The militarization of policing has raised the level of tension felt between citizens and police, particularly in poor and minority communities. The War on Drugs has disproportionately affected black families. Mass incarceration, the prison-industrial complex, and unfair sentencing have all affected people of color to a greater degree than white people.
These are all systemic issues that must be addressed at every level. True equity and equality may or may not be truly possible, but it is absolutely a goal worthy of intentional pursuit.
Black Lives Matter
It is absolutely right to declare that black lives matter. And it is short-sighted to answer this claim with an “all lives matter” mentality. The declaration that black lives matter is an affirmation of the value of black people who have been devalued by the existence of racism and prejudice in all of its forms.
I will sometimes share posts on social media that include the #blacklivesmatter hashtag. When I do, I am affirming both the principle and the larger movement of people and organizations that are working toward equality, but I am not endorsing the agenda of the organization that goes by the name, Black Lives Matter. But to be clear, the movement with its hashtag is much larger than any organization.
I state these particular positions for clarity, but admittedly, such disclaimers are really the result of being forced into distractions by whataboutisms (but what about abortion? but what about black-on-black crime? but what about this video by a black person claiming that the pain of most black people is just imagined?…) And frankly, we don’t have time to waste on such distractions in the pursuit of the goal of real equality and equity.
Racism and the Church
There are certainly pockets within certain denominations and communities in which overt racism exists. Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in American life, and this is tragic. But the more widespread problem for evangelical churches has been our ignorance and absence from the issue of racism.
Unfortunately, church leaders (myself included) have often failed to understand the issues facing people of color and have been silent or absent from the discussion on racism in our culture. We’ve avoided the subject. Predominantly black churches have led the way in civil rights for generations, often without the partnership of predominantly white churches.
The result has been that the gospel is seen as a theological system that saves eternally but is anemic and unhelpful to address the pain and suffering of the oppressed. We have celebrated orthodoxy (biblical doctrinal beliefs) and neglected orthopraxy (the proper application of biblical theology to life and culture).
White church leaders, like myself, must assume a posture of humility with a willingness to listen, to learn, to stand, and to act in partnership with oppressed people groups. We aren’t saviors. We are equals with much to learn. If our gospel isn’t good news to the poor, the prisoner, and the oppressed, then it isn’t the gospel Jesus preached.
We’re already losing our influence in western culture for a variety of other reasons. I don’t want to add to that stack our silence and complicity in matters of racial inequality.
Why I Hope
King Jesus reigns over a kingdom in which there is no difference in value or worth on the basis of ethnicity, class, or gender. All who follow him have the privilege of bringing the values of his kingdom to bear on the culture around us. And I believe we’re seeing progress.
At times it is painfully slow and I understand the frustration and collective anger of people of color. We should be much further along than we are and pride and defensiveness often stands in the way.
The problem of racism will not be completely eradicated from society because of the inherent sinfulness and selfishness of humanity. But as the gospel of King Jesus spreads, so will its redemptive effects. The fruit of the gospel will be the freedom of the oppressed and the dismantling of structures that benefit the oppressor.
I ultimately hope because King Jesus lives and reigns. And the Good King Jesus is moving all of history toward the grand climax of an eternity free of any form of hatred or malice.
Until then, we fight for equality and justice. We stand against evil and systemic racism. We join hands in protest until real change happens. Because black lives matter.
Articles I’ve Written
- My Interview with Rev. Stephen T. Ivey
- A Wednesday Night Live Talk I Gave on the Gospel and Social Justice
- White Privilege, Social Justice, and the Humility Required to Move Forward
- Racism is Every Christian’s Problem
- I Want to Be the Pastor on the Bridge
- We Need a Clearer Vision of Our Multi-Colored World
Articles I’ve Read and Recommend
- Black Lives Matter? Embracing the Proclamation or the Organization
- Social Justice is a Christian Tradition – Not a Liberal Agenda
- Tony Evans: America’s Racial Crisis is a Result of the Failure of the Church to Deal With Racism
- I Was a Police Chief Stopped by My Own Officer: After Floyd, We Need Change at Every Level
- Justice Too Long Delayed, by Timothy Dalrymple
- Derwin Gray on What It Means to Be an Anti-Racist
- Facing Injustice Together, by Rick Warren
- What Christians Get Wrong About Critical Race Theory
- Responding as a White Pastor to Concerns From Whites About Saying Too Much on Race, by Eric Geiger
- The American Church’s Complicity in Racism: A Conversation with Jemar Tisby
- Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice, by Eric Mason
- I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, by Austin Channing Brown
- Be the Bridge: Pursuing God’s Heart for Racial Reconciliation, by Latasha Morrison
- The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right, by Lisa Sharon Harper
And if you want a quick, easy crash course in the history of racism in America and why justice still isn’t blind and why we have a LOT more work to do, just listen to Phil Vischer…
Originally Published June 17, 2020