Note: This article is written in part to respond to the uncritical use of terms such as ‘systemic racism’ in popular Reformed theology forums. It is my position that using extra-biblical terms leads us to define our problems in unbiblical ways.
We hear a lot these days about the problem of systemic racism. Brought to the fore of the American mindset by our recent presidential race, systemic racism is the idea that there are societal structures that are inherently racist by design. Mychal Denzel Smith, writing in The Nation, illustrates his own belief that systemic racism is present even in the most fundamental structure of American society:
“The control of black bodies is foundational to American democracy. It is a structural reality. Our institutions are built to protect that reality. White supremacy is our core identity. Ignoring this reality prevents us from building an alternate reality. Ignoring the reality of racism only makes us more racist.”
If one were out to prove the reality of systemic racism in American democracy, you could, at this point, roll out scores of statistics arguing for the idea of systemic racism in American institutions. You could join Smith’s banter about terms like “white privilege” and present a case that systems in our culture unfairly promote the interests of the majority caucasian population.
But if you do, please don’t use the Bible.
The Real Issue
Please understand, racism is real and it is evil. Yet, I believe that to attack ‘systemic racism’ is to aim our arrows at the wrong target. ‘Systemic racism’ is a term that springs from the fountain of progressive humanism. While we might line up with progressives against racism, we need to realize that as Christians our ultimate goal is far different, and our Enemy has a different name. Ultimately a victory against ‘systemic racism’ will only prove hollow and temporary. Instead, the Bible would have us fight on a different battlefield against a bigger enemy.
The Real Enemy
Ephesians 6:5-9 is a difficult text. In this passage, Paul speaks to both slaves and slave-holders concerning their conduct toward one another. To be honest, reading Paul’s admonishment from the perspective of the 21st century can be incredibly difficult. The questions just come naturally as we consider Paul’s advice to both the slave and his master. We yearn to read Paul command the slaveholder to release his slave just as we yearn to read Paul encourage the slave to fight for his own human rights. But he does neither. Given the chance to rail against a problem that was obviously systemic, Paul doesn’t bother.
Let’s be candid – for you and I this is a problem. Yet as a problem it is also an opportunity to learn to trust in God’s character and in His Word, even when our postmodern instincts want to run the other way. How do we deal with the Bible’s approach to what some suggest is a systemic issue?
First, we must realize what the issue really is in the first place. Undoubtedly, the fact that Paul doesn’t chide the master and release the slave from his/her obligations has been the reason some have rejected the faith. It just doesn’t sit easy with us. Having preached this text myself, I can testify that even explaining that the type of slavery that Paul is talking about doesn’t compare with the brutality of American slavery never really satisfied my own heart. In the back of my head, I am left saying, “But still! These are people in bondage! Where is the sense of justice?”
It seems that my eyes have landed on the wrong problem. Paul reminds us just a few verses later who the real enemy is – The Enemy! While the adversary of our souls most certainly does use human systems (governmental, cultural, etc.) to carry out his evil design, the problem doesn’t lie in the systems themselves. Systems don’t operate themselves anymore than an assembly line assembles without human oversight. It turns out the problem isn’t in the system, but in the hearts of systematizers. This in no way is meant to be a legitimization of the institution of human bondage, but instead a rationale for why it ever exists in the first place.
In Paul’s time just as our own slavery was a result of the fall. It was God’s design in the garden that man exercise dominion over creation, and not one another. (Genesis 1:27-29) Yet, as we see in the fall, man’s attention immediately turned to using God’s creation for himself, including his own partner. (Genesis 3:16) Where before Adam rejoiced, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh;” (Genesis 2:23aa), indicating the joy of the one flesh union of marriage, both Adam and Eve now take aim for one another – and human history begins to perpetually suffer from the curse of helotry of the worst form. Yet what was the root of it all? The Serpent and sin.
So, what does this have to do with the idea of systemic racism? The primary issue of our time, as defined by the Bible, is not racism just as the issue in Ephesians 6 isn’t really slavery. The issue is sin in the human heart. The enemy in Ephesians 6, for both the slave and the master is the Enemy himself. To attempt to address a system instead of dealing with the sin and the Enemy that operate in the system is to only deal with the symptoms of the problem. Note Paul’s words to the servant:
“Bondservants be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart as to Christ; not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free.” (vss. 5-8, italics mine)
Note the attention that Paul gives to the servant’s heart. He directs his heart over and over to the Lord. It is significant that while he does address the issue of how the servant is to interact with the master, he ultimately says that his interactions are “as to Christ”. Whatever issues there be in the lives of God’s people – there is only one balm in Gilead – the Lord Jesus Christ.
But what about the master? Paul directs:
“And you, masters, do the same things to the, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.”
Make no mistake, Paul says, the issue is one of heart. Human institutions will remain – for better, and for worse. But the target of the gospel is not a ‘system’ but the human heart. The one to suffer defeat is not our fellow man, but the Enemy of all mankind. Contrary to Mychal Smith and others our task is not to create an “alternate reality”. No, our task is to deal with the reality at hand – the sinful heart of mankind, and the Father of lies who perpetuates the wicked lie of racism. Jesus doesn’t create an “alternate reality”, but instead changes reality by working in the soul of man to bring about redemption.
Ezekiel 36 describes the spiritual surgery of regeneration when the Lord proclaims, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 35:26) Notice: no new laws, no further restrictions, no programs of indoctrination, but new hearts.
How does Ephesians 6:5-9 help us understand the problem of racism, etc.?
1. Racism is a result of the wickedness of the human heart.
Ultimately, we will either seek true righteousness in Jesus or self righteousness. If we don’t have Christ, then there is only one option left for man – and that is the option of feeding on the counterfeit idea of self righteousness. One of the easiest ways to generate self righteousness comes through our own ethnocentric biases. Yet the gospel of Christ helps us to confess that we have no merit whatsoever in ourselves. To those who get the glory of the gospel the idea that one’s ethnicity and skin color have any merit is monstrous. But there is a subtle snare that lies with the social activist as well. Merely fighting against racism doesn’t make one righteous before God either. Both need Jesus. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t fight against the sin of racism. We should everywhere we see it raise its serpent-like head. But in doing so, Christians should point to Christ and his gospel and be sure to remind themselves that it isn’t an arbitrary social idea that we are out to protect but the image of God in man that is at stake.
2. Racism appears systemic because sin is systemic.
Racism is a manifestation of sin. Just as the abuse and disrespect of one’s servant would be a manifestation of sin in the life of Paul’s audience in Ephesians 6, so too is racism in our own day. We can use the word systemic to define a catalog of prevailing sins in our own day – to no ultimate purpose. The actual problem is sin, and the answer is the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we identify the problem as “systemic racism”, then the answer is for racist people to no longer act racist. We don’t change hearts and minds, we just make the ignorant act different – while they continue to harbor the same corrosive ideas. However, the gospel demands love, and through salvation, the Spirit gives us the ability to love one another. In fact, without Christ’s indwelling presence and our obedience to the command to love one another – our profession proves false and useless. Ultimately what the racist needs to grasp is not that he has offended a person of color, but instead that He has put Himself at odds with their Maker whose wrath is far more fearful than a good public shaming.
3. Combating racism without combating sin is a subtle snare of the enemy.
Combating racism alone inevitably means that you are going to be combating racists. While this idea sounds great, you ultimately have to consider that doing so plays right into the hands of the enemy. This is the difference between the approaches of Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Dr. King’s ideas have endured because he understood that racism is not a problem that can be solved, “By any means necessary.” No – King’s idea is enduring because King aimed his arrows at the bullseye.
”At the center of the Christian faith is the affirmation that there is a God in the universe who is the ground and essence of all reality. A Being of infinite love and boundless power, God is the creator, sustainer, and conserver of values….In contrast to the ethical relativism of [totalitarianism], Christianity sets forth a system of absolute moral values and affirms that God has placed within the very structure of this universe certain moral principles that are fixed and immutable.”
Dr. King looked not to a common civic idea of ‘unity’ as defined by men and to be achieved by force but instead to an immutable set of principles. At the center of these principles is the love of Christ. Consider the following words so often quoted out of context:
“Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” (Strength to Love, p. 51)
Dr. King is not speaking of human love. He is speaking of a love that is expressed only in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is that love that defeats sin and brings to our hearts the righteousness that our souls so long for. It is only that love that makes the self righteousness of racism flee back to the pit of Hell that it came from.
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