Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Racism is pernicious and adaptive. Reformed Christians should expect as much.

Because of their theological commitments, Reformed Christians should lead the cause of racial justice.

by Ben Hein
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For many Christians, the idea that the sin of racism could be evident within the structures or outcomes within our society is a step too far. Unless it is evident in the concrete actions of individuals, or laws that are explicitly prejudicial, it is said that we must not continue to raise the charge of racism. As I will argue below, this position highly underestimates the pernicious and adaptive reality of sin in society. While trying to defend Scripture and attack the influence of a secular culture, this position undermines Scripture and preserves secular influence in the church.

This position is similar to the charge that Christians just need to “stick to the gospel.” Any continued emphasis on racism and the church’s response is evidence of a liberal drift that will eventually abandon the gospel. “Woke,” once vocabulary used by the Black community to describe a sense of racial and social awareness, has now been stolen by the political and religious Right to attack those who continue addressing the reality of racism in our churches, cities, and country.

The Reformed doctrines of common grace and sin address these concerns while strengthening our commitment to racial justice. On the one hand, common grace explains how God is constantly at work to restrain the force of sin in both individuals and our society. At the same time, the doctrine of common grace takes the reality of sin seriously and sees its pernicious, adaptive nature at work within generations, cultures, and societies. As a result, Reformed Christians should expect the adaptive realities of racism and ought to be the first to confront racial injustice.

What is Common Grace?

Although the doctrine of common grace can be traced throughout the Reformed tradition, it has been most clearly articulated by the Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper, one of the fathers of what is now called the Neo-Calvinist tradition. In their excellent introduction to the Neo-Calvinist tradition, N. Gray Sutanto and Cory Brock summarize common grace this way:

God’s common grace is the fact of his loving patience in preserving both humanity and the creaturely cosmos despite human rebellion and its polluting corruption for the sake of redemption.[1]

For my purposes here, I’ll draw out three implications of this definition.

First, by his common grace, God is actively at work restraining the realities of sin in this life. The sinful capability within our hearts is suppressed, the absolute realities of death are limited, and the total destruction of sin in nature is controlled. While humanity does participate in a real rebellion against God’s sovereign rule (sometimes described as the antithesis), life is not as bad as it ought to be. Apart from common grace, the earth ought to have turned into a literal hell when mankind fell into sin. That it has not is evidence of God’s restraining work of common grace.

Second, God actively preserves that with is good, beautiful, and true in humanity and creation. He still endows noble gifts of creativity and intellect to his image bearers. He makes way for those gifts to be used for the good of humanity that all might flourish in this life. That these gifts still exist are not evidence that sin’s power is lacking, but that God’s patience and kindness toward his creatures overcomes sin, even those who turn their backs on him.

Third, common grace exists “for the sake of redemption,” or in the language of Kuyper, so that God’s particular saving grace in Christ can be proclaimed and received throughout the world. Too often, the language of common grace is used only to describe our appreciation and cooperation with the secular culture. Kuyper himself had to deal with accusations of universalism for teaching this doctrine.[2] No doubt this final point can be neglected by those who proclaim common grace unless they keep it ever in front of them.

God’s common grace serves the activity of his saving grace. Were it not for common grace, humanity would have immediately succumbed to death and perished in the Fall. Were it not for common grace, we would be hellish monsters who could no longer receive the realities of God’s mercy. Common grace makes the saving grace of the gospel possible.[3]

In summary, common grace helps us both appreciate what is beautiful and true in the world while maintaining the seriousness of sin and its effects. Through common grace, we make sense of a complicated world where sin and beauty comingle to varying degrees and effects. Common grace gives us the lens to see the works of sin and grace while participating in what God is doing in the world.

The Rise and Fall of Common Grace

Kuyper understood that God’s restraint in common grace is not constant. Common grace does not operate in every place the same way, nor does it operate at every time as it did before. Under his sovereign operation of history, God’s common grace may rise and fall in varying measures and at different times.

While relating the concept of common grace to Paul’s doctrine of sin in Romans 1, Kuyper noticed how different nations or cultures from one generation to the next may display varying evidence of common grace. In one generation, a nation may have a high moral commitment while relatively low development in trade or the sciences. In the next generation, that same nation may develop several intellectual advances while descending in their moral capacities. From one generation to the next, God restrains and preserves differently to accomplish his sovereign purposes.[4]

In fact, there are several spheres of life where God may operate differently:

There is a common grace that manifests itself in order and law; there is a common grace that manifests itself in prosperity and affluence; there is a common grace that becomes visible in the healthy development of strength and heroic courage of a nation; there is a common grace that shines in the development of science and art; there is a common grace that enriches a nation through inventiveness in enterprise and commerce; there is a common grace that strengthens the domestic and moral life; and finally there is common grace that protects the religious life against an excessive degeneration.[5]

Let’s begin to bring theory closer to the ground. As we consider our nation’s recent history, we might find evidence of both the rise and fall of common grace in several areas of our society. For example, it may be the case that the nuclear family was to some degree stronger while at the same time the dignity of women was minimized. It may be the case that the gap between economic classes was smaller while at the same time the abuses of racism were greater. It may be the case that the religious protection for churches was higher while at the same time religious protection for other faiths. It may be the case that higher education was more rigorous while at the same time it was far less accessible to BIPOCs in our country. It may be the case that we have made tremendous leaps in technology while at the same time the mental and emotional health of our citizens is collapsing.

I’m not making serious arguments here, I am simply illustrating that history is neither a simple trend of progress, nor is it regression. Sin, working in both individuals and social structures, adapts with the times. The operation of common grace rises and falls from one area of life to the next and from one generation to the next.

The Spread of Sin

The Reformed tradition has a robust doctrine of sin which understands its spread and its effects in society. Having fallen victim to Western hyper-individualism, far too many Christians reduce sin to individual human attitudes and actions alone. The Reformed tradition, however, understands that individuals do not exist in isolation but participate together in social structures. Sin and guilt are corporate and social as much as they are individual, if not more.

While I have written about this at length elsewhere, I’ll highlight Herman Bavinck’s comments on this matter below. In his Reformed Dogmatics, Bavinck emphasized the social and systemic spread of sin:

Human beings are not individuals in an absolute sense. A human being is born from the matrix of a community and from that very first moment lives in a certain circle, situation, and period. The immediate and the larger family, society, nation, climate, lifestyle, culture, the spirit of an age, and so on – all of them together impact the individual person and modify his or her innate moral depravity. Sin, therefore, though it is indeed always essentially the same, manifests in different ways and forms in different persons, families, classes, and nations and in different states and times… There are family sins, societal sins, national sins… Aside from what we call “original sin,” there is also “corporate guilt and corporate action of sin.” As people are interconnected, so also are their sinful inclinations and deeds.[6]

Bavinck summarized this matter when he wrote, “We should very probably come to the conclusion that in sin, too, there is oneness, idea, plan, pattern – in a word, that in sin too there is system.”[7]

This point is significant as we consider the varying operations of God’s common grace below. When God works his common grace in the world, he is not just restraining individual attitudes or actions; he is actively restraining the systemic spread of sin in families, generations, institutions, and nations. A robust doctrine of sin helps us explain why it is not uncommon for us to find common sins being passed from one generation of a family to the next, or for various sins to rise and fall among different stages of social development.

The Pernicious and Adaptive Nature of Racism

Let me recap the argument so far. The Reformed doctrine of common grace teaches us that God is actively at work restraining evil and blessing his creation. This common grace may rise and fall from one generation to the next, from one sphere of life to the next. In addition, the Reformed doctrine of sin teaches us that sin is not reducible to individuals, but it expands like a cancer that influences every family, every social institution, every generation, every culture, and every area of life. Taken together, these doctrines give us the tools we need to take sin seriously and address it in its various forms from one generation to the next.

Racism is one such sin that has been highly pernicious and adaptive in the United States. As I have recently argued (here and here), racism operates like a variable rather than a constant, adapting to benefit those in power in each generation. We make a serious mistake when we assume that today’s racism, if it existed, must look exactly as it did in previous generations.

Scholars from various fields – no doubt influenced by the operation of common grace – have given us tools to understand this devious nature of racism in our society. None of these tools are perfect. Nevertheless, they are helpful tools to name what our theology tells us to expect. That is, the greater a sin has worked itself into a society, the more we might expect it to shift alongside fluctuating operations of God’s common grace.

Legal scholars in the field of Critical Race Theory (CRT) have tried to explain how it appears that racism is “the usual way society does business, the common, every-day experience of most people of color in this country.”[8] Others help us see how specific practices in the United States, such as those of our criminal justice system, cannot escape the effects of racism to this day.[9] Historians have surveyed the data to see enduring racist outcomes in housing and economic policy.[10]

These are each common grace tools given to recognize social realities that are anticipated by the Reformed doctrines of sin and common grace. When the adaptive realities of racism are denied, when these tools are dismissed as being too “woke,” these robust doctrines are discarded to the wastebin in favor of analysis that tends to be far more secular and Republican than it is Christian or Reformed.

Brief Application

This website is neither an academic journal, nor is it a place where long-form essays tend to be highly read. I’ll attempt to close briefly with several points of application.

First, the Reformed and Neo-Calvinist tradition contains the spiritual resources for making sense of the adaptive presence of racism in our society. In fact, Reformed Christians should expect racism to adapt, and should therefore be on the frontlines of confronting it. With our theological tools in hand, Reformed Christians can make wise use of common grace resources while offering our own robust solutions to the racism of our day.

Second, by way of reminder, common grace serves saving grace. Even as we join the frontlines of combatting racial injustice, we do so for the sake of proclaiming Christ in our labors. As Peter exhorted us, may our good deeds of justice lead to non-Christians giving praise and glory to God (1 Peter 2:12).

Third, I tire of those Christians, especially in my own circles, who raise their concerns over “woke ideology” to matters of orthodoxy. Even if you disagree with my analysis of racism and its effects, you cannot dismiss that we wrestle with these matters out of theological commitments before social or political ones. Accusations of caving to the “political left” are erroneous at best and slanderous at worst.

Fourth, I invite Christians who labor for justice to rest in the labors of our God who is working all of history toward the just, good ends of his Kingdom. The fruits of common grace are but a foretaste. I resonate with these words of Stephanie Summers, a Reformed political activist:

Reformed theology helped me to learn that the complex work of God in public life is much larger than me and my political activism. It is being unfolded over time. I am one part of a much larger body of believers, with many different gives and callings in public life. This helps me cease frenetic political activities that would have destined me for burnout. I still get angry at injustice, and this righteous anger still drives me to public action. We all must do something, yet none of us can do everything. Like the biblical metaphor of the body, we do not all play the same part. We must be people who cooperate with many others, working for the common good.[11]

May God grant us the wisdom to make use of the resources he’s given us by his saving and common grace to live lives pleasing to him.

[1] N. Gray Sutanto and Cory Brock, Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction, 214-215.

[2] Abraham Kuyper, Common Grace I: 262.

[3] See Kuyper’s distinctions in “Forms of Grace,” Common Grace I: 263-271.

[4] Abraham Kuyper, “The Tiny Sparks Extinguished” in Common Grace I: 498-499.

[5] Abraham Kuyper, “The Tiny Sparks Extinguished” in Common Grace I: 497-499.

[6] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics III: 175.

[7] Herman Bavinck, The Wonderful Works of God, 226-230.

[8]  Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, 8.

[9] See Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow.

[10] See Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law.

[11] Stephanie Summers, “Reflections from a Public Activist” in Reformed Public Theology, 159-160.

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