Since the death of George Floyd in 2020, one thing has become painfully clear: systemic racism remains a difficult subject to broach in predominantly White evangelical spaces.
As other institutions in the country made feints to acknowledge the possibility that their local cultures may contribute to the barriers that make flourishing difficult for African Americans, some of my brothers and sisters in the evangelical community took the curious position of denying the possibility of systemic racism altogether. Faster than you can say “woke,” any talk of “systemic racism” or “systemic sin” was linked to a strawman version of critical race theory (CRT), a legitimate and complex field of inquiry that was opportunistically oversimplified and turned into a Marxist boogeyman straight out of the Red Scare playbook.
In his introduction to Jon Harris’ 2021 book, Christianity and Social Justice, former Southern Seminary professor Dr. Russell Fuller referred to the concept of systemic racism as one of the “crown jewels of Critical Race Theory.” That same year, Grove City College professor Carl R. Trueman warned in the journal First Things that if “conceits of systemic evil, false consciousness, and hegemonic discourse are legitimated, we must prepare for other critical theories [to be used] against orthodox Christians.” Polls on evangelical attitudes toward racism confirm that dismissive postures toward the concept of systemic racism are, sadly, not unusual among rank-and-file evangelicals. A fact to which I can attest from my experience as a lay leader in the church.
As a person of color in a predominantly White faith tradition, I find this state of affairs disheartening. As a member of a faith tradition that puts great stock in doctrinal correctness, I find this attitude downright puzzling as the whole thing betrays a cavalier attitude towards the doctrine of total depravity and, more importantly, the deceitfulness of sin.
A Predatory Force
Writing to persecuted Christians towards the end of the 1st century, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews urged them to “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:12-13, ESV). The human propensity for sin, or as the old Reformed theologians called it, total depravity, is portrayed in the Christian Bible as a predatory force, relentlessly looking for ways to do the Christian in by getting him to do “what is evil in the sight of the Lord,” as the Old Testament would put it.
In the famous biblical tale of Cain and Abel, there is an often unremarked but very significant passage. According to the story, before Cain killed his brother, Abel, God warned him that “sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you” (Genesis 4:7). Like all good predators, our natural desire to sin, to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, does not announce itself upon arrival to give us a sporting chance. Instead, it crouches; it lies in wait. It makes itself difficult to spot until the last awful moment. Sin likes to hide.
In the gospel accounts, Jesus taught that “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person” (Matthew 15:19–20). Sin hides in our hearts, actively plotting against us every hour of every day, finding cover behind sophistries and justifications. In his letter to the Christians in Rome, the Apostle Paul laments that “when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand” (Romans 7:21).
If sin can hide in the human heart, does it not stand to reason that it can also hide in the cultures and institutions humans create? The New Testament writers thought so. They even had a word for it.
James 4:4 is a popular Bible verse among evangelicals — it warns Christians that “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (ESV). This passage, like most of the New Testament, was translated into English from ancient Greek manuscripts. In those manuscripts, the word translated here as “world” (kósmos) had various meanings, similar to how the English words “Hollywood,” “Wall Street,” or “Washington” can be used to denote a place, an industry, or a particular set of values. Traditional Christian doctrine holds that kósmos, as used in this passage and similar ones throughout the New Testament, refers to the aggregation of values in the greater culture that relentlessly entices and makes it easier for humans to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.
The term “world” renders judgment on the surrounding culture as having something in it that makes it hostile to God. With this term, the biblical writers confirm the presence of sin outside the human heart and hiding in the folds of our various cultures and the institutions and systems within. From there, this systemic sin works with the sin hiding in our hearts to create all kinds of havoc.
Take the abuse of women in Hollywood (the industry, not the town). When the #MeToo hashtag entered the lexicon in 2017, the world was shocked at the revelations of sexual abuse and assault by well-known industry players. But even more shocking was the realization that this devaluation of the image of God in women had been going on since the first studios opened their doors over 100 years ago. While the individual instances of abuse can be laid at the feet of individual bad actors (the proverbial “bad apples”), the persistence of the behavior from one generation to the next, year after year and decade after decade, indicates that there are more than bad apples at work here. Something in the Hollywood culture itself is facilitating this sin. As actress Michelle Pfeiffer noted in an interview at the time, the problem is “systemic.”
Racism is the sin of devaluing the image of God in others by viewing and treating them as inferior based on perceived or actual ethnic and/or cultural characteristics. Like all sin, racism is evil in the sight of the Lord.
Knowing what we know about the deceitfulness of sin and the United States’ history of racism against Black people, I find the certitude among some evangelicals regarding the lack of systemic racism in American culture and institutions baffling. The persistence of disparities between Whites and Blacks in wealth, income, education, and healthcare from one generation to the next, year after year and decade after decade, indicates that there are more than bad apples at work here. Something in the culture itself is facilitating the sin of racism. Like Michelle Pfeiffer, we could say that it is systemic, or, as a New Testament writer might put it, it is the world at work.
But What About…?
It is usually at this point that someone might counter that it has been “proven” that these so-called disparities have nothing to do with race. Lack of two-parent households, poverty, or welfare services are thrown about as alternative explanations. And yet, an honest appraisal of the situation cannot completely rule out race as a factor.
If the reason for the disparities is poverty, that still leaves open the question of why poverty is more prevalent among Blacks than Whites. If the reason is the lack of two-parent homes, why are single-parent homes more likely among Blacks than Whites? If the reason for poverty is lack of education, why is lack of education more likely among Blacks than Whites? The question of race stubbornly refuses to leave the stage. Racism may not be the sole reason for documented disparities between Whites and Blacks, but it is difficult to argue that it is not, at least, a contributing factor.
Regarding the fear that all this talk of systemic racism is some kind of Trojan horse for Marxism, I believe the following quote from a 2021 Religion News Service opinion article by former Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Karen Swallow Prior sums up my feelings on the matter:
“But one need not embrace critical race theory — I certainly don’t — in order to recognize that systemic racism exists and has ongoing ripple effects that can’t always be identified or contained. Just as you don’t have to be a feminist to acknowledge that sexism exists or be a postmodernist to understand the power of stories or be an environmentalist in order to put your trash in a can instead of on the side of the road, you don’t have to support critical race theory to see the lingering effects of racial injustice today.”
In other words, I believe that we can walk and chew gum at the same time.
All of this is to say that it should not have to be this difficult to talk about racism in the churches of God. Orthodox Christian doctrine has already given us the language to talk about it: from our natural bent towards sin, sin’s deceitful ways, and how it can hide in human hearts, institutions, and cultures. A healthy awareness of the doctrine of total depravity should make it readily apparent to all involved that the presence of sin in our hearts or institutions should surprise no one. A healthy awareness of this doctrine is the antidote to the denial and defensiveness that makes discussing race in the church so difficult.
Therefore, following the lead of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, churches should exhort their members, as long as it is called “today,” about the sinful nature of racism and how it is evil in the eyes of the Lord. The Church should also boldly exhort the community about the deceitful nature of the sin of racism, of the many forms it can take to avoid detection as it makes a home in our hearts and — yes — our institutions.
Boldly talking about sin in institutions and cultures will require moving from generalities to specifics. Depending on who is in the room, we should not be surprised to find some conversations touching on, say, education, policing, or housing. As we dig into specifics, a firm understanding of the deceitfulness of sin should help us appreciate that all of our perspectives are limited by the unseen logs in our eyes — as Jesus referred to the hidden sin in our hearts (Matt. 7:3). These logs can distort our vision to the point where, in the same manner, some “don’t see color,” others see it everywhere. An awareness of this reality should lead us to make our exhortations with humility, safe in the knowledge that we might be wrong, and grateful for the opportunity to have the plank removed.
Above all, the U.S. Church must boldly exhort the community about God’s amazing grace. We must relentlessly tell the story of how God justifies sinners “by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). This doctrine of grace is the chaser that makes it possible for us to swallow the bitter pill that comes from acknowledging the depths of our depravity. With God’s grace — and a healthy awareness of the deceitfulness of sin — we can talk about racism honestly, accept the consequences humbly, and go about the business of making things right confidently.