I took some flack for a video in which I expressed appreciation for law enforcement and said it is wrong to demonize all law enforcement for the wrongs done by some law enforcement officers or agencies. I shared my own personal experience of how helpful law enforcement has been when I needed to call them. On two occasions we have had to call them after break-ins, one when I was actually at home. I also shared the story of a former white church member, who was a state trooper, who helped deliver the baby of an African American woman who couldn’t make it to the hospital in time. She affectionately and jokingly referred to him as her “baby’s daddy” thereafter.
I didn’t share my experience to say that because I’ve had or heard about good experiences that there really are no problems as someone accused. The point I was making is that people in minority communities also need and want to be able to call the police for help. They also want a prompt and professional response. While polls on the general perception of confidence in the police is far lower, especially among blacks than whites, a 2011 study by the the Department of Justice revealed that there was no significant difference in satisfaction among whites, blacks, or Hispanics who actually called the police for help. Overall, about 85% said the police were helpful and over 90% believed the police acted properly. Moreover, 90% said they would be likely or more likely to call the police again. This study, done during the Obama administration, is a bit dated and no study reveals the complete picture, but this is part of the picture that needs to be considered and studied more as well.
People in minority communities also need and want good police protection. Demonizing police with sweeping generalizations and pushing for unnecessary scrutiny and drastic changes will lead to higher rates of crime that will disproportionately affect minority communities. As I was saying in the video, this is what the more recent work of Professor Roland Fryer, Jr. of Harvard reveals. It could cost hundreds more lives in some communities, and those black lives matter too, not to mention the black lives lost to murder at the hands of rioters and looters and the black livelihoods destroyed by the same. This is a justice issue too. If trying not to be racist is also racist as someone I once read argued, surely this is a case in point.
I’m not arguing that systemic racism doesn’t exist; I’m arguing that as a construct it can’t explain everything, and not everyone who uses that term means the same thing. More precise parsing is desperately needed. A friend shared a video explaining an example of systemic racism with regards to economic disparities that lead to disparities in educational opportunities, etc. The problem identified is only part of the picture, however; and my guess is many people would find what would likely be my friend’s libertarian solutions unacceptable.
The concept of racism itself also needs to be parsed out more clearly than much of the rhetoric does. Conflating racism in the heart with “systemic” racism such that all, including the racists themselves, are mere manifestations of the “system” is unhelpful. I don’t deny that there are systemic issues. In today’s society it’s not as obvious as it was during the horrific days of slavery and Jim Crow. But we do need to parse out prejudice in the hearts and minds of people from policies, procedures, and laws, especially when the issue is the partial and biased application of impartial laws. This is not to say there are no interactions between the different constructs, but the parsing is required to study the potential interactions carefully.
When people talk of the evils of systemic racism, for transparent and honest debate we need to know exactly what is meant. In a world under the curse of sin, of which racism is a only a subset, that is easier called for than accomplished. When someone is talking about systemic racism, it would be helpful to know if they are talking about part(s) of the system that need to be amended or saying the system as a whole needs to be abolished and replaced.
I just saw a post of a progressive friend who is at a protest in Washington D.C. It read, “Ending racism is not political, there should be no debate. It’s not right or left, it’s life or death.” Seems like a weird thing to say as you are marching on Washington D.C. At any rate, the historical civil rights movement was deeply spiritual and moral, but it was also political; so is this movement today. As clever as the statement above is, it is pure sophistry. We need to parse out the spiritual, moral, and political, but not pretend that politics is not very much in play. As much as we would like to continue to believe the Enlightenment lie that we can can, much less ought to, completely compartmentalize the spiritual from the political, we just can’t.
So when people talk about the system, we need to know exactly what they are talking about. Are they talking about adjustment (major or minor) to imperfect parts of an overall decent and just system as far as can be expected in this fallen and sinful world? Or do they mean the whole system needs to be abolished and replaced?
In my last article I mentioned Harvard professor, Cornel West, a Christian socialist, who believes the whole system needs to be replaced. Professor Willie Jennings of Yale just recently shared some of his views on the current crisis. Professor Jennings was one of my professors at Duke Divinity School. I thoroughly enjoyed his class, not least his passion and his infectious laugh. I also appreciate his honesty regarding his views. He certainly opened our eyes to the horrific and inhumanly brutal realities of the slave trade and slavery itself, from capture to slave ship, to slave auction to slave quarters and life on plantations and beyond. He also opened our eyes to the toll it took on the bodies and psyches of African Americans, as well as the toll it took on the general American psyche in terms of the devastation it brought on the consciences of slaveholders and their proponents. It also warped the Christian imagination in ways that have kept far too many of our churches segregated and prohibited us from bearing full witness to the gospel of reconciliation.
Professor Jennings also clearly and inextricably, however, tied the European/American slave trade and the development of modern racial categories with private ownership of property in general and the development of capitalism in particular. When I with qualms asked how we could understand even the commandment against stealing without some notion of private property, he just laughed it off with his infectious laugh as silly biblicism.
In the recent interview where he expressed his views about the current crisis, Professor Jennings once again traced the problems of what he declares to be our “white supremacist-infested country called the United States” ultimately to private property and capitalism. He decries what he sees as a prioritization of property over people. He seems to pit protection of people’s lives against the protections of property as if it is a zero sum game. He doesn’t seem to acknowledge that destruction of property means the destruction of livelihoods, including those generated by black owned businesses. At a superficial level he says no one should be happy about the burning of businesses and the loss of businesses, but that side note is followed with a huge “BUT.” And that seemingly dismissive “BUT” allows him a segue way into saying “Maybe what the burning of buildings and the destruction of property ought to say to us is that things cannot stay the same.” He goes on to call for a new order; and it is clear that he doesn’t see the current system as flawed only in part but amendable. For Jennings there is something which is far worse than murderous rioting and looting in the streets.
Professor Jennings says:
Everything built in this country is built on the sinking sand of race and class and greed, and is now under the control of merciless financial capitalism. No amount of rhetoric around the virtue and glory of small businesses can hide us from the precariousness of economic life or the need to change an entire structure built to enhance profit at the expense of the health of a common life.
So there it is. The fight against systemic racism for Professor Jennings is one and the same as the fight against capitalism, which Professor West condemns as legalized loot. But systems that have abolished private property and capitalism have led to more than their fair share of injustice and horrifying atrocities. And slapping a Christian label on them will likely do little to stop them from happening again, especially in a climate of strong anti-Christian sentiment.
Clearly for many the fight against systemic racism is largely political because it is simultaneously a fight against capitalism. For some the fight against racism is the fight against capitalism. They seem to be one and the same. For some, like Professor Jennings, the system requires much more than some adjustments. Others, of course, would not see the need for change to be that drastic. Thus we need to be precise—surgically precise— about what kind of systemic change we’re actually talking about.
As I also mentioned in my previous article, there is a great spiritual danger of vengeful rage that looms large. Professor Jennings also speaks of his own anger and compares it to the righteous indignation of God. He rightly cautions against the danger of conflating our own anger with God’s and allowing human anger to be poisoned by hatred. Make no mistake, it is a grave danger. My concern is that some of the anger is drifting in that dangerous direction. Over the last couple of weeks I have been warning about a spirit of rage that could engulf our whole nation. I have seen the rage among some whites bubbling to the surface in memes saying “All Lives Splatter” in regard to running over protesters that block traffic, for example. That kind of thing is actually happening in reality on both sides it seems, as some have plowed through protesters and others into police. This is only the beginning of evil unimaginable that can get far, far worse.
I’ve also heard forgiveness selectively downplayed and even problematized to one degree or another in progressive theological circles for many years now. That forgiveness may be used as an excuse for continued sin and injustice is true and always has been (see Romans 6), for people personally and for the wider community. God forbid that we should continue in sin in the name of grace and forgiveness. But if there is going to be reconciliation and peace, forgiveness is not even optional much less dispensable; it is essential.
But I am hearing the downplay if not rejection of forgiveness even from the more popular cultural centers of the country now too. A basketball player was rebuked sharply for calling for prayer not only for justice for George Floyd but also the police officers involved in his death, that their hearts may be changed. Former football player and sports commentator on the show Undisputed, Shannon Sharpe recently said Drew Brees should not be quickly forgiven for expressing sentiments against players taking a knee during the national anthem even though Brees recanted and apologized. Sharpe said, Brees should be required to earn his forgiveness. Sharpe was criticizing former NFL coach Tony Dungy for being “too forgiving.” Sharpe was clearly wrestling with the relationship between mercy and justice in the case of Brees, not wanting to condemn him completely but not really wanting to forgive him either. Startlingly, Sharpe also asked, “We have taken the highroad for 400 years, what has it got us?”
Well, what did it get Jesus and his followers? What about the countless white and black followers who prayed and worked tirelessly and gave their lives to end the slave trade and slavery in his name? What about those who worked along side Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others for civil rights in that same spirit of peace and reconciliation? Nowhere? Really?
This is dangerous theology that will only add fuel to the fires of human vengeance in which mercy is infinitely less certain and reliable than God’s. This is the reason a contrite King David preferred the wrath of God over the wrath of his human enemies (2 Samuel 24:14). The current generation can’t afford to pay for all the horrific sins of all previous generations for the past 400 years up to and including our own. In God’s eyes we can’t even afford to pay for our own sins as individuals.
Jesus, who was wrongfully accused and unjustly tried and condemned to a torturous death did not come back from the grave with a vengeance; he came back with forgiveness to bring about reconciliation and peace for people of all nations, tribes, and tongues. We are all sinners in need of a forgiveness that we cannot earn. It has to be a gift received from God in Christ and freely given for the sake of Christ to others. Forgiveness is not a payment to be earned; it’s a gift of grace to be received through repentance and faith with thanksgiving; it is also a gift to be shared freely with all. And it is a gift that calls for a changed life. The good news is the gift of God’s forgiveness by the blood of Christ includes the gift of the Spirit who enables and empowers the changed life for which the gift calls.
We need to pray to be delivered from evil, including the evil of racism; we all need to pray always to be forgiven our own trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us (See Matthew 6:9-15; 18:21-35). An unwillingness to forgive is a grave danger for all parties involved. It will prove to be especially dangerous among those who view those with whom they disagree politically to be as irredeemable as the system that they so deplore.
Some are already expressing skepticism of white Christians who have recently jumped on the bandwagon in the fight against systemic racism. I’m afraid it’s not going to be acceptable to progressives for conservative white and black Christians only to work to change hearts and to merely amend part of the current system. As Marc Antoine Lavarin put it in his article entitled, “Why I’m Skeptical of New Christian Allies,” “An individual’s need of repentance will never be enough to redeem or rectify an entire system that is in need of salvation” (emphasis mine). Mr. Lavarin seems to indicate that anything less than full acceptance of the progressive vision of justice in its entirety will be unacceptable (Consider BLM statement of beliefs regarding gender, sex, marriage, and family).
While we are fighting to change the system it would be good to know whether we are fighting to fix broken parts in an otherwise decent vehicle, or whether we’re working to send the vehicle to the junkyard and replace it with an entirely different one to be driven in a completely different direction. Be careful what bandwagon you jump on, it may take you to a place you really don’t want to go.
May God have mercy on us, and in his mercy enable us to be merciful and forgiving of one another until Christ comes with the one and only perfect system, the kingdom of God. Maranatha!