By Stewart Clem
Every Christian I know believes that racism is a sin. Yes, there are some who claim the title “Christian” while espousing white nationalism, but I’m not personally acquainted with any of them. They are a fringe minority. The Christians I know believe that all human beings are created in the image of God. They believe that every human being is of equal dignity, regardless of skin color. They believe that slavery was wrong and that the civil rights movement was good for our country. They believe, like Martin Luther King, Jr., that people should “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Yet, right now, Black communities and their allies are protesting racial inequity in America, and many of these same Christians are ideologically opposed to such protests — or at least are reluctant to support them. The Church should be offering a prophetic word, speaking in a unified voice against oppression and injustice. Instead, we are quibbling about the finer points of data and wringing our hands over ideological purity.
We are too much like the “white moderate” in King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’” Shame on us.
In times like these, I should acknowledge that the voices that most need to be heard are not white. I don’t write these words under the delusion that I understand what it’s like to be Black in this country or that I have greater insight into our racial divisions. At the same time, it’s my conviction that white Christians should be having more conversation about race, not less. My remarks are those of a self-consciously white Christian addressing other white Christians.
I am a moral theologian, but I do not have a five-step plan for dismantling racism in America. Moral theologians do not have all the answers (we disagree with each other as much as anyone else), but we can offer tools that bring greater depth and clarity to our moral considerations. What follows is not an analysis of or a solution to our race problems, but rather a spotlight on the flawed reasoning I have encountered in numerous white conversations about race. My hope is that they will challenge and convict, and ultimately open doors to conversations that might not otherwise occur.
- “Racism isn’t a skin problem, it’s a sin problem.”
Christians believe in the reality of sin. We believe that we live in a fallen world, resulting from the sin of our first parents (Rom. 5:12-21). As a result, our hearts are turned against God and each other. God’s ultimate response to human sin is the saving death of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Simply acknowledging this truth does not address the problem of systemic racism in the United States. The claim that racism is a sin problem rather than a skin problem often goes hand-in-hand with a denial of systemic racism. But this is a false dichotomy. Even if we wish to provide a theological account for our present racial conflicts, this doesn’t preclude a critical reevaluation of our laws, our public policy, and our cultural practices.
The problem with this claim is not that it is false. Rather, it pretends to offer more than it really contains. It is a diagnosis, not a solution. A spiritual diagnosis cannot tell us how practically to address our law enforcement and criminal justice systems that unduly target people of color.
This fallacy also assumes that the only instigators of racism are “racists” or notorious “sinners” (which we, of course, are not, thank you very much). Such an assumption ignores the fact that we all participate in social structures that we did not create. These structures will not disappear on their own, even if people’s hearts are changed. We perpetuate them in subtle, unknowing ways, and working against them requires conscious effort. Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility has done a remarkable job of exposing these realities.
As Christians, we can affirm that the sin of racism will never be conquered by human effort alone (can’t the same be said of any evil or injustice?), while at the same time affirming that concrete steps must be taken to dismantle systemic racism. Christian doctrines such as sin and grace give us greater insight into the human condition, but they are not meant to replace our basic sense of justice, which God has also woven into the fabric of the universe.
- “Christianity already has the solution.”
This fallacy is often wedded to the previous fallacy. It assumes that since racism is a sin problem, Christianity is the solution. But what kind of “solution” is Christianity? One possible answer is to say that Christianity answers the problem of racism by pointing us away from this world and toward the spiritual world. In this extreme bifurcation of the two kingdoms — the earthly city and the heavenly city — we’re told not to expect any real resolution to worldly problems. We must await our final redemption in the next world. Just as Jesus declares, “the poor you will always have with you” (Mt. 26:11), we should also expect the evil of racism to remain in this life.
A recent article in The Babylon Bee, a Christian satire website, ran with the title, “Nation Wishes God Would Send Someone Who Could Unify People Across Races, Classes, Genders, Tribes, Tongues.” One of faux spectators in the article opined, “If only there were someone that could take the racial divide and execute it — maybe, I dunno, through like a crucifixion or something — for good.” The point, of course, is that Jesus has already done precisely that. The only way this is funny is if we accept a theology that spiritualizes injustice and asserts that it has already been resolved. While I don’t have the space to offer a full critique of this theology, needless to say it is completely at odds with the prophetic tradition within the Bible (see the book of Amos or the Magnificat in Luke’s Gospel), which prioritizes the plight of the oppressed and refuses to draw a sharp distinction between spiritual and physical liberation.
Another possible answer is to say that racism would go away if every person were converted to Christianity. This claim is equally dubious, not only theologically but on empirical grounds. It is the height of hubris to claim, “I am a Christian; I am not racist,” and then assume that there is no further work to be done other than wait for the rest of the world to be converted.
Christianity undoubtedly offers resources for combatting the evil of racism, but we cannot ignore the historical reality that Christians have been complicit — indeed, instigators — of oppression against Black and Indigenous people of color for several centuries. The vast majority of slave-owners in America were Christians, and we cannot absolve Christianity by conveniently claiming that these people were not “real” Christians or that they were perfectly good Christians except for this “one thing.” In other words, Christians today cannot separate themselves from the racial divisions we inhabit. Sadly, it remains true that 11:00 a.m. on Sunday is our “most segregated hour.” We still have a lot of work to do. Willie Jennings’s The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race is a good place to start for understanding the complicated and heartrending story of Christianity’s role in formation of our contemporary racial landscape.
- “I care about other important issues.”
Racism is not the only important crisis in our world today, and crises need not be in competition. Christians everywhere are actively involved in worthy causes addressing human trafficking, child pornography, sweat shops, refugees and migrants, adoption and foster care, mass incarceration, abortion, environmental degradation, health care, and so on. We cannot give equal time and effort to all these causes.
When the Church is at its best, it addresses all these concerns with integrity. But I worry that many Christians adopt a boutique approach to social causes. We’re told to pursue what we’re passionate about, and then our cause becomes our hobby. It becomes a box that we can check. When we’re confronted with a national crisis like our current controversy over violence against Black Americans, we can simply say, “That’s not my cause.”
On the one hand, there are plenty of valid reasons that some individuals cannot be actively involved in public activities that engage the problem of racism. Given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, not everyone should participate in public rallies and marches. Some people are so involved in other causes that they literally do not have time to commit themselves to anything else.
On the other hand, I’ve seen how this boutique approach to social causes has led some people to feel offended by the Black Lives Matter and related movements. “You can’t tell me what to care about,” they say. The overwhelming national response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and others has led some to wonder, “Are you saying that if I don’t publicly show my support then I’m a racist?”
This defensive response reveals just how uncomfortable white people are with the topic of racism (again, DiAngelo’s White Fragility is helpful here). Oftentimes the explanation, “Racism is one of many important issues, and I choose to focus on other issues,” is simply a cover for this discomfort. Most of us should be discussing and engaging racism more than we currently do. Acting as if racial engagement is a matter of pure choice once again ignores the fact that we are already engaged in it every day. Worse still, white people continue to benefit from systemic racism (a point skillfully articulated by Bryan Massingale in a recent essay), and our willful silence suggests that we accept this arrangement.
- “White allies are just virtue signaling.”
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” Jesus warns (Mt. 6:1). We’re not supposed to do the right thing because it feels good, to impress our friends, or to increase our social capital. It requires minimal effort to share a meme or to post a black square on Instagram, and for some people, it’s an opportunity to display one’s social consciousness while getting a few extra “likes” along the way. And make no mistake: the corporations that are sending you emails to let you know that they believe Black Lives Matter used extensive algorithms and market research before deciding that this would be a safe (and profitable) stance for their company.
So, what? The fact that everyone is doing it doesn’t make it right — but it doesn’t make it wrong, either. And if showing public support for Black lives causes us to question our own motives, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The human heart is profoundly complex, and even our own motives can be opaque at times. Soul searching can be healthy, but it’s no excuse for remaining silent in the face of injustice. Black lives continue to be denigrated in our country while we have the luxury of navel-gazing and contemplating our motives. We can question our motives for virtually any activity (going to church, giving to charity, recycling), and there is nothing peculiar about this issue that raises special concerns about virtue signaling.
We should also be mindful that virtue signaling is a subjective endeavor. What is considered a virtue by one subset of the population may be considered a vice by another. Sharing an “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter” meme may constitute virtue signaling, depending on one’s social circles. Indeed, in some contexts, simply remaining silent might be a subtle form of virtue signaling. The bottom line is that this is a complex social phenomenon, but it shouldn’t determine whether or not we choose to denounce racism in our society.
- “I’ve read Black authors who deny the reality of systemic racism.”
It’s true that there is no monolith that constitutes the “Black voice.” The opinions of Black Americans are varied and nuanced. We should be mindful of the fact that there are more than two sides in the debate surrounding systemic racism. I’ve seen a number of people recommending books and sharing articles on social media by thinkers such as John McWhorter, Shelby Steele, and Thomas Sowell. These authors’ writings reflect alternative perspectives to the mainstream discourse on racism in America. They are Black voices and they deserve to be taken seriously (I don’t include Candace Owens in this list, since her views can’t be taken seriously by anyone with intellectual integrity). Their views can’t be dismissed simply because they’re not the “right” kind of Black perspective.
But anyone who reads and shares these writings should take into account the fact that their viewpoints for the most part represent the 8% of Black Americans who identify as politically conservative. This does not make their views right or wrong, but intellectual honesty requires us to acknowledge that they are minority Black voices. White Americans who want to understand racism better, yet only read these Black authors, are limiting their understanding. These authors should be taken seriously, but their views should be considered alongside the relevant data and competing narratives from other Black authors.
Many white people who share these minority viewpoints on social media do so only in order to demonstrate that they have, in fact, read a Black author on this subject (assuming they have actually read beyond the headline). It’s a way of beating progressives at their own game. It’s a way of saying, “Here’s a Black author who denies the idea of systemic racism. I’m now entitled to my viewpoint.” This “gotcha” approach plays right into the game of identity politics. Such engagement takes us out of the realm of true politics and into the realm of crass partisanship (a problem I’ve addressed elsewhere).
Politically conservative Christians who earnestly want to engage a broad range of perspectives ought to read more widely. In addition to more mainstream works, there are numerous recent think pieces that consider systemic racism with nuance and insight from a conservative perspective. See, for example, Theodore Johnson’s essay in the National Review and Bonnie Kristian’s essay in the American Conservative. Christian hip-hop artist Shai Linne has shared his own experience of being Black and Christian in modern-day America. Rod Dreher recently offered a moving personal reflection on the problem of white complicity. And Covenant’s own Esau McCaulley’s opinion pieces in the New York Times also deserve to be read widely. The issue of systemic racism is not simply a matter of “picking a side.” It’s a matter of listening to everyone’s stories and reevaluating our own place in society. It requires time, patience, and uncomfortable truths.
- “George Floyd (or another victim of police brutality) was not a saint.”
Sometimes people forget why law enforcement exists. In the United States, law enforcement is one facet of the executive branch of government. Police officers are not supposed to enact punishment or determine whether a person is guilty or innocent of a crime. They are supposed to protect their community’s citizens and maintain public order. It doesn’t matter whether George Floyd was a thug or a saint. It doesn’t matter whether he had drugs in his system. He was a human being.
I’ve witnessed people sharing articles on social media that purportedly reveal Mr. Floyd’s criminal past. They claim that the mainstream media wants to cover up these facts. Cover up what, exactly? The national outrage we’re currently witnessing is in response to the fact that a police officer murdered an unarmed man who tried to pass a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. This was a gross injustice, and there is not a single fact about George Floyd’s life that could possibly change that. Of course, the outrage is also a response to the pattern of police brutality against Black citizens, of which the Floyd incident is another tragic example. People who are muckraking through the details of Floyd’s (or any other Black victim’s) personal life are completely missing the point of our current crisis.
Christians who are pro-life and want to be taken seriously cannot espouse the inherent value of human life while simultaneously denigrating the lives of those who may or may not have fit the mold of an upright citizen. We cannot remain credible if we ignore the reality that being Black in this country is enough to make a person an object of suspicion and a target of violence. If we truly believe in human dignity, then we will fight to protect all human life. As protestors have been chanting relentlessly, “All lives won’t matter until Black lives matter.”
- “Black Lives Matter ideology is incompatible with my worldview.”
Many Christians I know agree not only that racism is a sin but also that our systemic racism amounts to a national crisis. Yet they are hesitant to participate in protests or to use the phrase “Black Lives Matter” because they fear that this will align them with a broader ideological agenda that they can’t endorse. They want to be allies, but they don’t want to reject the nuclear family, defund the police (an idea that means many different things to different people), or condone violence (which has been largely exaggerated).
Fair enough. But no one is asking them to do these things. No one has to sign a contract in order to say “Black Lives Matter” or to join a protest. Black Lives Matter is an organized movement as well as a slogan, but, judging its current widespread usage reveals that the phrase is used by many people who mean nothing more than the literal meaning of the phrase: Black lives matter. There’s a good argument to be made that hesitancy to use this phrase is a subtle exercise of white privilege. It says, “I want to support you, but I’ll do it in a way that feels more comfortable.” If we truly share a sense of injustice at the current state of things, then we will also feel a sense of urgency that precludes worrying about subtleties that will be lost on 99% of the population, anyway.
If you’ve ever been to a protest of any kind, then you know that there will always be some people in the crowd who try to make the protest about more than its original purpose. Go to a pro-life rally, and there’s a good chance that you’ll see a sign declaring that God is judging the the U.S. for legalizing same-sex marriage. That’s the thing about grassroots movements: they take on a life of their own. But for the most part, people know why the protests are happening. The primary purpose of a protest is, after all, to protest the current state of things. It’s meant to wake people up, to grab their attention. We shouldn’t confuse a protest with a formal, ten-point agenda.
- “I’m so sorry.”
Willie Jennings, a Black American theologian whose book on racism and Christian imagination I mentioned above, shared in a recent podcast episode, “I have had so many dear friends, really dear friends, well-meaning all of them, call me or text me or email me this week with their condolences each in their own way saying to me, ‘I can’t imagine what you are feeling right now.’” His response to these friends was sobering but powerful:
Yes, you can. My anger is shareable. Indeed, one of the most stubborn barriers to overcoming this racial world is the refusal of so many people to take hold of Black anger. It is a particular sickness of whiteness that invites people to imagine themselves as spectators of racial suffering and observers of Black pain who are allowed to feel only assorted forms of white guilt.
In this same vein, Fr. Bryan Massingale draws upon the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas to articulate why we (white Christians) need to cultivate a sense of righteous anger:
What allows racism to exist in our society, quite frankly, is that we don’t have a critical mass of people who are angry. To put it more directly, we don’t have a critical mass of white Americans who are angry about the situation. Anger is a passion that moves the will to justice. Thomas understood that unless we are angry in the presence, at the reality, of injustice, then the status quo will all too often continue.
It is not enough to be empathetic. It’s not enough to feel angry on behalf of Black Americans. Racism is a problem in our society, and it is not a “Black problem.” As James Baldwin reminded us in 1979, every white person in this country knows that they would not like to be Black here. More than forty years later, this fact remains true. It is worse to be Black in America than it is to be white. Even if we have had to overcome many challenges in our lives, our skin color is not one of them. We may not be personally responsible for all the conditions that have made this fact true, but it is a fact nonetheless. We benefit from being white, even if we didn’t choose to be white. This is injustice, and it should make us angry.
What all these fallacies have in common, in addition to their flawed reasoning, is a desire to turn away from the difficult reality of racism in our society. They are excuses that absolve us from confronting our own complicity or considering what we might have to do — or to give up — in response. We should seek to rid them from our vocabulary and our thinking. Ridding ourselves of these fallacies won’t solve the problem of racism in our society or in our hearts, but it will remove obstacles to solidarity with our Black brothers and sisters. It is not enough, but it is something.
The Rev. Dr. Stewart Clem is assistant professor of moral theology and director of the Ashley-O’Rourke Center for Health Ministry Leadership at Aquinas Institute of Theology and priest associate at the Church of St. Michael & St. George (St. Louis, Missouri).