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Engaging Racial Injustice as Christians

Christians are called by Christ to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13-15), and to go out into the whole world making disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). This is a task which requires that Christians maintain their distinctive flavor (salt) while at the same time remaining in the world as ambassadors for Christ (light).

The Apostles take up this same command with different emphases. Paul told us to go out into the world, destroying strongholds, arguments, and other lofty opinions that are against the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:1-5). He reminded us to always let our speech toward those who do not believe be gracious and seasoned with the salt of Christ (Colossians 4:6). He told his young disciple Timothy to preach the word and be prepared in every season (2 Timothy 4:2). Peter likewise takes up similar commands, reminding us to be prepared to give a defense for what we believe with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).

Other places in Scripture round out the means through which this Christian work is to be carried out. The prophets call us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). The law commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18).

This work is what Christians today commonly call apologetics: making a winsome, gracious case for Christ in every age, every occasion, every culture, every place; both through our words and our deeds.

While the commands remain the same, our work must adapt as the issues and needs of every place change. In many times and places, objections to Christianity have been intellectual: What proof do we have for the existence of God? For the truthfulness of Scripture? For the resurrection of Christ?

But at other times, the objections are ethical: How could a good God allow suffering? Why should I believe Christianity when Christians have contributed to so much evil in the world?

Christians must be up to the task of winsomely interacting with the world around them in order to be Christ in the world and draw others to him.

Dr. Tisby makes a great case not just for why Christians must be salt and light in the world on these issues, but he makes a winsome case for Christianity itself.

For this reason (and many others) I was thrilled when I began reading Dr. Jemar Tisby’s latest book How to Fight Racism. While Dr. Tisby could have written a book that launched directly into a list of pragmatic solutions for fighting racism, he instead begins with a winsome apologetic for why the issues of racism and racial injustice ought to be engaged from a uniquely Christian perspective. In so doing, Dr. Tisby makes a great case not just for why Christians must be salt and light in the world on these issues, but he makes a winsome case for Christianity itself.

In what follows, bold words are the first sentence of each new point, italicized words, are direct quotes from Dr. Tisby’s book, and plain text is my own added commentary. All italicized paragraphs are from How to Fight Racism, pages 8-10.

While this book is intended for anyone who wants to work toward racial justice, I have decided to approach this subject from a Christian perspective. I am convinced that Christianity must be included in the fight against racism for several reasons. First, Christians must fight racism as a matter of responding to the past. Throughout the history of the United States and colonialism worldwide, people who claimed Christianity as their religion have been the progenitors and perpetuators of racism…Christians wrote extensive and complicated works of theology to justify both race-based chattel slavery and racial segregation. When activists fought against slavery and racial apartheid, Christians were often the most vociferous and violent in defending the racial hierarchy they created and from which they benefited. So Christianity must be part of the conversation about racial justice because, in the context of the United States, white Christians have often been the ones responsible for racial injustice.

I like to think of this first argument Dr. Tisby sets forth as the argument of “historical humility.” Christians, more so than anyone else, ought to have the courage to look back at our legacy with humility and honesty. Yes, there are many things we have gotten right. But there are also many things we have gotten wrong. We have been unfaithful to our Lord, and this has damaged our witness to him in the world. We have no moral high ground to ignore our failures or act as if we have all the right answers, and everyone else is wrong. Our humility is an argument in itself for the truthfulness of our beliefs. It shows we take seriously the words of Christ, and that they have transformative effect on our lives.

This is a posture of corporate repentance. Whether or not you want to argue if we are responsible for the historical sins of other Christians (a point I am not arguing for here), we cannot dismiss the biblical precedent for coming together and confessing our sins as one corporate body. Daniel confessed the past and present sins of Israel in an act of corporate repentance (Daniel 9:1-19), and Jesus commands us to pray, “forgive us our debts” (Matthew 6:12).

Our humility is an argument in itself for the truthfulness of our beliefs. It shows we take seriously the words of Christ, and that they have transformative effect on our lives.

If Christians in the United States are going to have any ground to stand on to make a case for Christ, we must begin with historical humility before our neighbors, confessing where we have sinned and contributed to the racialized, oppressive society in which we now live.

I must briefly point out something that many of my White brothers and sisters are likely to miss on this first argument. Dr. Tisby is taking ownership for the sins of the White evangelical church as if they were the sins of his own family. I can only trust that this is how Dr. Tisby sees the issue. The truth is the Black church has long accepted the burdens of the sins of the White church and has shouldered responsibility for sins which they did not commit. We see such responsibility in the words of Dr. King, who said:

“The Negro must convince the white man that he seeks justice for both himself and the white man. A mass movement exercising love and nonviolence and demonstrating power under discipline should convince the white community that were such a movement to attain strength its power would be used creatively and not vengefully.” (Strength to Love, 126)

We should all be grateful that Dr. Tisby has taken on this responsibility to help those of us in the majority White church see the errors of our ways so that we can have the opportunity to make a repentant turn toward genuinely fighting for racial justice.

Second, Christianity provides a transcendent narrative for why racial justice is important. On one level, most people would agree in principle that treating other people fairly and not using race as an excuse for inequality are good practices. But why are these things good? What is it about human beings that means we should treat one another as equals? From whence do such ideas derive? …Christianity teaches that all people are made in the very image of God. We are God’s crowning creation, and each person is precious simply because they are human. Their physical appearance – including skin color – are part of bearing God’s image and should be respected as such.

This is a massive theological argument condensed into one point. Dr. Tisby combines biblical theology, Christian ethics, and a moral argument for God all into one, tightly worded paragraph. I will focus briefly on the last of these aspects: the moral argument for God.

What is this moral argument? The 20th Century Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck explains:

“Man is not merely a rational but also a moral being. He feels in his conscience that he is bound to a law which stands high above him and which requires unconditional obedience from him. Such a law presupposes a holy and righteous law-giver who can preserve and destroy.” (The Wonderful Works of God, 24-25)

In other words, it is not the existence of our moral ethics per se that points to God, but it is our sense of duty and obligation to those morals which suggests a moral lawgiver. Otherwise, from where does our sense of obligation arise? To whom do we owe this duty?

One might be inclined to say, “Well, behaving morally is simply the right thing to do!” or, “We owe our moral obligation to one another!” This is a nice thought. However, it is one which cannot be backed up by our own human history. As atheist historian Yuval Noah Harari says,

“Don’t believe tree-huggers who claim that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology.” (Sapiens, 74)

He continues later,

“Most human cooperation networks have been geared towards oppression and exploitation.” (Ibid., 104)

Human history is replete with the carnage humans have wrought on this planet – and on one another. We are the bloodiest, most ruthless species on the planet. What is Harari’s solution to our moral conundrum? Our sense of ethical obligation must be imaginary:

“None of these things (laws, justice, human rights) exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” (Ibid., 28)

And again,

“This is exactly what I mean by ‘imagined order’. We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively.” (Ibid., 110)

So, let me ask you: is your commitment to racial justice imagined? Do you think your commitment to equity, fairness, and civil rights is something we collectively made up in order to get along?

So, let me ask you: is your commitment to racial justice imagined? Do you think your commitment to equity, fairness, and civil rights is something we collectively made up in order to get along? Or would you agree that such ethical commitments come from something much deeper than that – something objective, something true, something firm? Christianity would say yes – of course it does. It comes from God himself.

Third, Christianity has within it the moral and spiritual resources to rebel against racism and white supremacy. Time and again, Christianity has provided courage for activists fighting for racial justice. One of the starkest examples occurred during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States. Theologian Soong-Chan Rah explains, “Civil Rights is often seen in social and political terms. We often fail to recognize this movement as one of the most significant faith-based campaigns in American history.” Ida B. Wells, Prathia Hall, Rosa Parks, and many other foot soldiers of racial justice movements have counted on their Christian faith to give them courage to fight against racism.

This final argument gets to the heart of Christianity. Christianity is centered around a God who is incarnational; a God who did not merely dictate his law from afar but who came to live among us from within. Christianity is no “pie in the sky” religion without the resources to deal with the real problems of the world. Christ himself is incarnational. Even now, through his Spirit, he moves among and through his people to carry on his presence and work in this world (1 John 3:16-18).

Dr. Diane Langberg says it best:

“Wherever creation groans, the method of healing its deep wounds and assuaging its convulsive grief is by planting the children of God in its midst. Wherever men and women of God live, there is some measure of healing the world’s wounds and soothing its sorrow. The weeping of girls and women, boys and men in the dark and cruel places of this earth is heard and healed by the living presence of the Word of God in the lives of those who incarnate what they say they believe.” (The Spiritual Impact of Sexual Abuse, 19).

When the Church acts as if we believe what we say we believe, we are God’s chosen method of healing this world of its deepest pains and injustices. When we move out into the world to engage in the difficult work of racial justice, we bring the incarnate Christ with us and through us, ministering to and healing those who have long been oppressed by our history of cooperative networks that are bent on oppression and exploitation.

Christians have every reason – more than anyone else – to be the hardest workers for racial justice in this world. We bear the greatest responsibility, we know to Whom our duty is owed, and we have the moral and spiritual resources to accomplish the work. The only real question is – are we willing?

If you are, maybe a great place to start would be by picking up Dr. Tisby’s newest book, How to Fight Racism for yourself.

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Engaging Racial Injustice as Christians

by Ben Hein time to read: 9 min
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