#FMFieldNotes 5: Resisting a False Dilemma Between Systemic Problems and Poor Choices

Field Notes on Racial Reconciliation

Faithfully Magazine’s Lanie Anderson seeks to share with readers her experiences as a White woman regarding how the Christian faith informs racial reconciliation.

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Lanie Anderson Faithfully MagazineEditor’s note: If you’ve ever visited our Staff page, you’ll know that Lanie is pursuing a Master’s in Christian apologetics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. She also writes and edits for Be the Bridge, a nonprofit that provides resources for Christians pursuing racial unity in their churches and communities.

This series was first published exclusively via the Faithfully Magazine newsletter. Each of the six parts, in addition to the introduction, were made available on faithfullymagazine.com and appear as they did in the newsletter, unless specifically noted. Jump to the bottom to access other parts of this series.

When I first heard of systemic problems that cause racial disparities, I’ll admit I was hesitant to learn more about them. It created a fog before my bird’s eye view of how the world works.

I was like many: I understood one’s experience in the world as solely determined by his or her choices.

Then I realized an inconsistency in my worldview. I would not say the same about children born in war-torn Mosul or orphans born into India’s caste system. So why would I not entertain the idea that factors beyond one’s individual choices affect Americans, too?

Yes, it is true that there are countless imperative commands in Scripture, lending evidence to our ability to make choices.

This does not mean that systems are immune to sin.

We commit a logical fallacy known as a false dichotomy when we claim that one’s circumstances are solely determined by either individual choices or systemic problems.

Romans 8:22 says that creation is “groaning” from the effects of sin. If this is true about creation, how much more are systems—controlled by fallen and sinful people—groaning from the effects of sin?

Because systems are powerful structures, I think we tend to project God’s attributes on them, or at least this is my experience.

The thought process might go something like this: “God is just. America has a justice system. Therefore, America’s justice system must be just in the same way that God is just.”

The problem with this logic is that God’s justice is perfect in both its retributive and restorative qualities. In fact, it is wholly and supernaturally perfect in such a way that we as people can never mirror perfect justice on Earth.

Whether it be with the justice system or any other system, there is a tendency to assume that those with greater power and platforms are above sin. Policemen and judges are always just. The military always saves the world’s most vulnerable. Academic institutions are always unbiased. Hiring committees are always colorblind.

When we deny the reality that systems and institutions also influence an individual’s circumstances, we deny the extensive ramifications of sin.

If the concept of systemic injustices or institutional racism is new to you, I implore you not to dismiss it simply because it creates a tension with your view of free will or determinism.

Instead, let’s sit in the tension and ask God for wisdom, openness and empathy when exposed to new information. As new creations in Christ, God did not give us a spirit of fear of complexities, and He will see us through those complexities.

Jesus Himself challenged systems. During the 400 years of prophetic silence between the Old Testament and his arrival on Earth, Jewish religious leaders created a system that looked nothing like God’s perfect law. Jesus challenged this religious system, asking the scribes and Pharisees, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3).

He also challenged the racialized system of his day when he spoke to the Samaritan woman’s spiritual need for water at the well. Jews and Samaritans actually hated one another during this time. Jews viewed Samaritans as “half-breeds” and avoided Samaria at all costs.

But Jesus did not submit to this racialized system. He did not let the dominant culture influence his interaction with the woman at the well or anyone else.

If Jesus is our example, we can be confident as we wrestle with both systemic and individual sins that he is faithful to illuminate both with his truth. We do not have to give in to the false dichotomy between systemic problems and poor individual choices that culture promotes. We can abide in the tension of both and pray for discernment from Christ who confronted both individuals and systems.

Some questions to consider…

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  • Do you tend to view those in power as people above sin? Why or why not? Why do you think others do so?
  • Have you ever considered factors beyond one’s individual choices that affect his or her circumstances? Why or why not?
  • In what ways come to mind that the Old or New Testament addresses systemic sin?

Share your responses with us using the hashtag #FMfieldnotes!

Field Notes on Racial Reconciliation:

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