Two open letters addressing racial injustice were recently published in the Christian Chronicle:
- An open letter to members of the Churches of Christ -ministers, scholars and thought leaders within the fellowship
- Speaking Up on the Issue of Race in America – from Harold Shank and Robert Solomon
These were accompanied by an article including interviews with some of the authors.
The letters were, of course, inspired by the current controversy regarding the Black Lives Matter movement.
Before discussing such a controversial issue, I thought it might be helpful to deal with some over-arching concerns.
The definition of “racism”
I should have defined “racism” at the beginning of the series to avoid the ambiguity increasingly being imposed on the term.
I am writing and thinking in terms of the Christian worldview — in standard English. I’m not writing in academic language, nor do I have Marxist view of class or Post-modern bias toward defining everything in terms of power and oppression.
Merriam-Webster gives this definition —
: poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race
: the belief that some races of people are better than others
I think that’s pretty much how ordinary people use the term.
The Oxford Dictionary defines “racism” as —
[MASS NOUN] Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.
‘a programme to combat racism’
1.1 The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.
Among certain academics, an effort is being made to redefine “racism” as “prejudice plus power.” It is asserted that in the US blacks lack the power to oppress whites and so are definitionally incapable of racism. The same is said of sexism — only a man can be a sexist because men control the levers of power in this country.
I have several problems with this definition:
1. It’s just not what the word means in ordinary English speech.
2. There are countless cities and counties where the government is black controlled. Can blacks be racists in such a county or city?
3. In a nation with a black president and a female presidential nominee, can it be legitimately argued that only white men have power? White men do have greater access to power, but obviously enough, in this country, there are some very powerful blacks and women.
4. The definition assumes that power is held by a race rather than by certain individuals or institutions. Some whites have the power to oppress some blacks, but not all whites are in such a position. In fact, some whites are oppressed by other whites. Some may well be oppressed by blacks. Indeed, implicit in the definition is racial stereotyping: All blacks are oppressed by whites. All whites conspire to oppress blacks. No black has political power but rather all blacks are victims. These statements are plainly false on their face, and yet the definition is argued for in order to claim that no woman or black has the power to oppress any white man.
5. The definition lets powerless people off the hook. White men and women mired in poverty have no control over state or institutional power, and yet they are as capable of racial hatred as anyone. Indeed, it’s often the lack of power itself that drives individuals to scapegoat another race for their own suffering — leading to race-based hatred.
Therefore, the definition race = prejudice + power is NOT the definition I use. If you want to speak in the comments about “prejudice + power,” I suggest you say “prejudice + power” so you’ll be understood by the readers. By using a transparent term, the flaws and strengths of arguments will more easily become apparent.
Now, I said all that to say this. I’m speaking in terms of the Christian worldview, in which racism is a sin. Now, to sin is to miss the mark, and the mark is Jesus. Any attitude toward race that isn’t the same as Jesus’ attitude is sinful — regardless of how much power you have or don’t have or what race you are part of. I will refer to a sinful attitude toward race — any attitude that falls short of our Savior — as “racist,” without regard to who has power or who is or isn’t oppressed. And my point will be that it’s sin.
Write all the definitions and academic papers you want, the question ultimately boils down to Jesus — and whether we share his attitudes toward the races. And we should not seek to play games with definitions to avoid accountability for sin.
The scriptures plainly point us toward a Kingdom in which Jesus rules as King and in which racial distinctions are overwhelmed by agape, selfless love. The case for this understanding of Scripture is overwhelmingly strong, and yet it’s rarely preached (much more so in the last 10 or 20 years, in my experience).
In fact, theologians often describe the NT as urging the formation a “third race.” That is, we were once Jews or Gentiles, but in Jesus we are part of a new race —
(1 Pet. 2:9 ESV) 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
And there’s just one Christian race — so much so that the early Christians called themselves a “third race,” neither Jew nor Greek but belonging to the Christ.
The strange title, “the third race,” probably invented by the heathen, but willingly accepted by the Christians without demur, showed with what a bitter spirit the heathen regarded the faith of Christ. “The first race” was indifferently called the Roman; Greek, or Gentile. “The second race” was the Jews; while “the third race” was the Christian. The cry in the circus of Carthage was Usque quo genus tertium? “How long must we endure this third race?”
John Rutherfurd, The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, 1915, 1–5, 2327.
God has made Christians into a new, distinct race and nation. Either we honor the unity given to us by God — or we let the world define “race” for us and divide based on distinctions that Jesus died to erase.