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Racism: why we might miss the opportunity

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Posted by Niv Lobo, 8 Oct 2020

In this article from the autumn 2020 edition of Crossway, Niv Lobo explores three reasons why churches might fail to take this opportunity to examine the issue of racism. Over the next few weeks, we will be posting several of the articles from this issue and others, looking at the problems of racism among Christians and in the structures of the Church of England.

An honest, fruitful conversation about racism is fraught with difficulties. Offence seems all too easily given (and taken), and the stakes vertiginously high: nobody wants to be labelled a racist. Those of us from an ethnic minority background can also fear that beginning the conversation will be seen as self-serving. But recent events—the murder of George Floyd in the USA and the ensuing protests affirming that Black Lives Matter—have made an imperative of addressing racism, and we in the church are not exempt from that. This is an opportunity for a long overdue conversation.
Past experience leads me to fear, however, that we might miss this opportunity. On the very rare occasions I’ve addressed racism from a Christian perspective, I’ve had some white brothers and sisters dismiss me as ‘obsessed’ with the issue. As long as we dismiss the experiences of non-white Christians with racism as essentially insignificant, or a fashionable distraction, we forfeit opportunities to grow in godliness.

Clearly there are unparalleled resources in the Gospel to address this issue: this opportunity should translate into fruitful reflection on Scripture and renewed application of it in our churches. But not if we resist thinking through this issue. Why might we end up missing this opportunity? I want to suggest three reasons: a colour-blind approach to theology, a preoccupation with refuting secular anti-racism which blinds us to the potential validity of their protest, and—underlying both of them—a subtle failure to distinguish Scripture’s authority from that of its interpreters.

Colour-blind theology
Although I have experienced hostility on the grounds of race in churches, my experience has more often been one of well-intentioned ‘colour-blindness’. In an attempt to eschew prejudice of any kind, my race was never addressed or mentioned. While commendably striving for equality, we ought to recognise such ‘colour-blindness’ as an unacceptably unbiblical short-cut. It is fatally flawed because God isn’t colour-blind. As loving Creator, He delights both in our common humanity and in our diversity. Since He has made human beings in His image, any partiality or prejudice is scandalous to Him. But the dignity of being made in God’s image doesn’t efface the rich diversity of created humanity: in Revelation 7:9, His goal is to redeem a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-cultural people to praise Him forever. A colour-blind approach can see no reason to rejoice in Revelation 7:9’s vision, and therefore ought to be rejected.

Scripture furnishes us with the resources for a richer anthropology, doing justice both to our longings for equality (providing grounds for such equality that no other ethical vision can match) and the reality of our diversity, enabling truly multicultural communities. But colour-blindness keeps us from making the most of these resources.

Refuting the world without registering their protest
Secular protest movements ought to encourage us to listen to those who have experienced racism in the church. They can potentially unveil our blind spots in this area. We don’t need to affirm the philosophical outlook of the Black Lives Matter movement—given its stated views on gender, the family and even Middle Eastern politics, we would be unwise to do so—in order to learn from it.

An example here might be 1 Corinthians 5:1—there, the church had fallen into such sin that even the pagan world was scandalised. Worse, the church’s blind-spots meant that they didn’t even recognise the horror of their sin. When Paul appeals to worldly moral standards, it isn’t to endorse a pagan ethical vision, but rather to shock the Corinthians into recognition: even pagans deplore the sinfulness of your actions!

Because Jesus is Lord, God’s cause directs our lives over and above any earthly cause. But 1 Corinthians 5:1 raises the possibility that the world’s moral standards might sometimes lead us to recognise our sin. If our opposition to ‘Black Lives Matter’ as a movement qualifies our ability to affirm that black lives matter, then the extent to which we are caught up in the zero-sum dynamic of secular discourse is exposed, to our shame. As important a task as identifying the errors of secular anti-racism must be, it is one-sided without acknowledging and addressing the issues of racism which gave rise to it.

The philosophical underpinnings of secular anti-racism need to be exposed, and an uncritical adoption of its tenets by the Church is clearly unconscionable. But deconstructing secular responses to racism is not the same as dealing with the racism they rightly decry—and we must do both.

Our pride problem: when Scripture’s authority is transferred to its interpreters
I want to suggest that beneath these two aspects lies something deeper. In conversations about race, I’ve often encountered a prideful elision of the authority and inerrancy of Scripture with that of its interpreters. The basic logic runs as follows: ‘Scripture speaks against racism, as it does all sin. Because we have a high view of Scripture and are committed to expository preaching, our ministry will therefore address sin sufficiently.’ Discussing racism, then, is a distraction from the chief task at hand: the consecutive exposition of Scripture, a panacea to this and all other ills.

Scripture’s sufficiency is a non-negotiable truth, and the value of expository preaching much in evidence. But it would be a mistake to assume that the authority and inerrancy of Scripture translates into authoritative and inerrant preachers. Many passages of Scripture explicitly address questions of ethnic tension or racial reconciliation, and yet I have heard expository sermons on them which barely (or even never) mentioned them, let alone applied them robustly.

When a right confidence in Scripture is yoked to an unwarranted confidence in ourselves as its interpreters, this begets a host of blind-spots. A monochrome, predominantly public-school culture presents itself as normative—as if it weren’t a culture itself—while what deviates from it can be dismissed as culturally formed. When, for example, Asian or African Christianity is marked by a greater degree of emotional expressiveness in corporate worship, that is a sign of being influenced by their culture. When our corporate worship is marked by the opposite, that reflects our objectivity: we’re just following the Bible. Little wonder, then, that the faces of ethnic diversity in our churches are found on posters on our walls rather than flesh-and-blood people in our pews.

The Gospel has all the answers—but they are accessible only to the humble
Of course the Gospel yields unique resources to address racism: Jesus, and only Jesus, makes sense of life and of us. In the doctrine of original sin, we find a way to articulate the ugly depths of self-interest underlying prejudice and discrimination. It doesn’t surprise us to hear that we are more sinful even than we knew! But this doctrine is actually kinder than its secular equivalents. It doesn’t allow for the pride which looks down on others, or foster an ultimately brittle self-righteousness. And, of course, those who identify themselves are sinners are perfectly placed to meet the One who came for them, as a doctor for the sick. In the communion of the saints, we get a lively foretaste of Revelation 7:9. From Asian and African fathers of the church to the witness of enduring faith in Jesus demonstrated by persecuted believers all over the world, there are glimpses of the Church as a community uniquely able to transcend division across ethnic, racial, cultural and linguistic lines. And these are just two examples; there are many more resources to be found in the Gospel to dismantle the sin of racism.

But these Gospel resources are only ours on the condition of humility: repentance and faith are how we access them. We have no right to these resources if we take them up only in order to justify ourselves or minimise wrongdoing in our churches.

This means that the Gospel challenges everyone in this conversation. For me, the challenge is to recognise that my Indian ethnicity is part of the ‘me’ God has created and is renewing in Christ. It is wrong to flee that identity in order to conform to the white ideal of conservative evangelicalism, and equally wrong to weaponize it in order to amplify my voice. For white brothers and sisters, the challenge might be to discern what truth there might be in what I’ve written—rather than immediately appeal to exceptions we can name in our churches to dismiss my perspective and experience outright.

The Gospel calls us to a different kind of conversation: not one dictated by identity politics, ever more fragmentary as its participants seek the moral high ground. But one in which our confidence in Scripture grounds our humility in listening and learning, convinced that the vision of Revelation 7:9—though unattainable by human means—is God’s purpose, towards which He is steering human history. God forbid we miss the opportunity before us to live in the light of that coming reality: let the conversation begin.

More details about this issue of Crossway are here and copies can be purchased here.

Niv Lobo is an ordinand at Wycliffe Hall and a member of Church Society Council.

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