A Christian Response to "Structural Racism"
In 2020, the year of our discontent, churches across the United States grappled with how best to respond to the controversies over race and racial injustice. One resource used and promoted by many churches is The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church's Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby. It comes in book and DVD form and can be streamed through Amazon.
Tisby gives a thoughtful and, on occasion, riveting telling of past injustices to black people in our nation. While much of the big picture is not new, some of the details will be to some people: the heinousness of certain atrocities, the double-mindedness and hypocrisy of some prominent Christian leaders, and the degree of complicity in the Church. While Tisby focuses on the American Protestant Church, his critique applies to Christians of all stripes, as well as to non-Christians.
Tisby is to be commended for putting together a comprehensive historical narrative that is sure to get folks thinking and talking about a subject that is largely avoided in polite conversation around the coffee table. That said, it is a narrative filtered through a problematic lens.
CT or Not CT?
Early on, Tisby tries to distance himself from criticisms of Critical Theory (CT; also known as Critical Race Theory). Yet, hardly out of the gate, he opts for a definition derived from neither Webster nor Scripture, but coming straight from the CT lexicon. "Racism," he insists, is "prejudice plus power." The subliminal message is that minorities cannot be racist because they do not hold power; only those in the majority (read, whites) can be racist and, indeed, are such by their actions or inaction ("complicity").
As this definition has gained currency, we're being told that even things can be "racist," particularly those things that the majority disproportionately enjoys or excels at. Thus, nearly every week, some new thing, even the transcendent (math, logic, biblical exegesis) or sublime (classical music, poetry, National Parks), is so branded. National Parks? Who knew?
While the study of history should help us learn from the past so that we avoid its mistakes and build on its successes, Tisby's account, capped with the admonition of St. James ("If anyone, then, knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, it is sin for him"), seems aimed at generating "guilt leading to repentance" in people for sins they never committed.
To ward off criticism, Tisby points to the example of the prophet Daniel and his intercessory prayer in Daniel 9. Just as Daniel bore personal responsibility for his nation's sinful past, Tisby suggests that we (that is, we in the majority) today should do likewise. The example fails, however, because Daniel's prayer was for sins against the Lord committed by the Israelites, past and present, for which he himself, as a son of Adam, also stood guilty before God—not for their sins, but his own.
The irony is that, while Tisby argues that you and I bear individual responsibility for the decisions and actions of others decades and even centuries removed from us, he disdains the suggestion that (minority) people bear individual responsibility for the decisions they make in the here and now to, say, drop out of school, engage in non-marital sex, or join a gang. As he would have it, the pathological consequences of such decisions are the result of "structural racism," which constrains the choices available to certain people groups.
Throughout The Color of Compromise, Tisby informs us that "racism never goes away; it just adapts." Whereas in bygone times we lived in an openly racist society, today, he insists, we live in a more subtle "racialized society," in which all benefits, goods, and privileges are divided along the axis of race [read, white–black, oppressor–oppressed]. The notion of a "racialized society" is another CT construct, which, along with "systemic" and "structural" racism, has mobilized an army of virtue-signalers whose new life mission, it seems, is to scour the corners of every public and private space to "out" the "guilty."
The Trouble with BLM
Then there's Tisby's introduction of Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors, two of the founders of Black Lives Matter, who are on record saying they are "trained Marxists" and suggesting that their movement is built around that ideological frame. This is a troubling fact that Tisby fails to mention.
Instead, he urges Christians who object to certain aspects of the BLM movement to support the slogan. Problem is, the movement and the slogan are inextricably linked. When a Christian (or anyone) uses the phrase, it signals support for the movement, full stop. (Doesn't St. Paul warn us to avoid the very appearance of evil?)
Another problem is that the slogan says too little, leaving to the imagination the questions of "matters to whom, how much, and why?" For instance, a Fortune 500 company could enthusiastically promote "black lives matter" up to the cost of maintaining its diversity programs because projecting a socially conscious image is good for business. I imagine some (many!) others do, too.
Lastly, the slogan omits the all-important word, "all," because, judging by its fruits, only some black lives matter to Black Lives Matter: those cut short in blue-on-black altercations.
Stores have been looted, businesses destroyed, cops assassinated, and cities torched over the dozen or so unarmed blacks killed over the past year by police. But where are the outrage, condemnations, protests, and demonstrations over the dozen or so blacks killed every weekend in cities across the country by members of their own community? Or over the hundreds of black babies killed every day in abortion clinics strategically placed in black communities? [Crickets]
What's the BLM drumbeat? "Silence is Complicity." What is Tisby's warning? "If anyone, then, knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, it is sin for him."
Unless all black lives matter, the slogan is merely a mantra for a movement intent on dismantling traditional social structures and reordering them according to a CT framework. In the meantime, Christians who want to show support for racial justice need a slogan that better reflects a distinctly Christian anthropology and worldview. Perhaps, "All Black Lives Are Sacred."
A Better Way—Making Josephs
After surveying our nation's history of racial injustice and the complicity of the Church in it, Tisby offers a path forward: "ARC." To fight racism, he suggests, one must be aware of our racist past and racialized present, forge meaningful relationships with minorities, and commit to "do the work"
All fine and good, but do what work?
According to Tisby: Take down Confederate monuments, start a new ("diverse") seminary, make Juneteenth a national holiday, and begin serious discussions about "reparations."
Even to the "unaware" mind, these actions seem little more than symbols—important as symbols may be—not remedies for the disparities attributed to "structural racism." Even reparations (which I discuss at length in "Reparations: The Wrong Solution to the Wrong Problem" at Crisis1) will not keep people out of poverty if they have a faulty understanding of themselves, the world, and human flourishing.
A more fruitful and biblical way forward, patterned after the "teaching a person to fish" principle, is the ministry of Robert L. Woodson.2 Woodson is a black leader who, among numerous others like Larry Elder, Thomas Sowell, and civil rights attorney Leo Terrell, understands that the biggest problems facing the black community do not come from the outside. Rather, fifty years after the civil rights era, the biggest obstacles to black success and flourishing are a weak family structure, the absence of healthy role models, and ineffective moral formation.
In response, Woodson, through the Woodson Center, has been transforming communities from within by raising up "modern-day Josephs"—indigenous leaders who mentor and direct individuals in virtue formation and life skills to become productive members of society. Partnering with "modern-day Pharaohs," businessmen and philanthropists who provide job training, internships, and financial support, Woodson's "Josephs" help at-risk individuals break the cycle of poverty, dependency, and anti-social behaviors.
To date, the Woodson Center has trained 2,600 "Josephs," who have made positive impacts on thousands of young people in dozens of states around the country. This is a ministry that churches, aiming to address the issues attributed to structural racism, could partner with, along with leaders in the business community, to effect positive changes in their cities and beyond.
2. For more on Woodson, see "Virtue over Victimhood," by Sister Renée Mirkes, in Crisis (Sept. 8, 2020): crisismagazine.com/2020/virtue-over-victimhood.
Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and physicist, a Colson Center fellow, and a Christian commentator on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters, available at Amazon.This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #56, Spring 2021 Copyright © 2021 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo56/all-black-lives-are-sacred