Houston, We Do Have A Problem

The traditional definition of racism, the definition that I learned as a boy and that was generally accepted until recently is this:

racism (rāˌsizəm) noun. prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior…the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races…(Oxford American Dictionary)

More recently a re-definition has been proposed wherein racism is said to be less about thinking and doing and more about being. It has come to be re-defined in terms of privilege and class, which are Marxist terms of analysis. According to the re-definition then, one is a racist simply by virtue of where and what and when one is, regardless of what one thinks, says, or does. It is a state from which one can never escape. In theological terms, the re-definition is a law from which there is no redemption.

This redefinition is untrue and unhelpful and should be rejected. Nevertheless, this is not to dismiss the sin of racism. Indeed, one reason why the re-definition should be rejected is that it unintentionally and ironically relieves individuals of their moral duty to acknowledge the reality of racism, to repent of it, and to fight against it.

The unrest of the last several years and particularly in the last few weeks has been an opportunity for Reformed Christians and the confessional Presbyterian and Reformed Churches (P&R) to reflect on the sin of racism within our midst. Even under the traditional definition we must admit that there is racism in our hearts and in our midst. If we deny it then we are deluding ourselves and denying our own doctrine. In Heidelberg 5 we confess that we are prone by nature to hate God and our neighbor. Racism is among those sins against which we must fight all our lives (Heidelberg 32). In Heidelberg 60 we confess that even though we are justified by grace alone through faith alone, nevertheless, even in a state of grace, “I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them,2 and am still prone always to all evil…”. We are not perfectionists.

I am not here commenting on the value of the corporate statements that some denominations have discussed and adopted. I am talking about sanctification and the good works that are the fruit of our gracious salvation. After all, there are three parts to the Christian faith: our guilt, God’s grace, and the grateful, Spirit-wrought gratitude that flows from grace. We say that sanctification is a necessary consequence of our salvation and our union with Christ, that “it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness” (Heidelberg 64). We say that the fruit of our sanctification contributes (but is not the basis of) our assurance (Heidelberg 86).

The 1974 OPC report on race was correct, the OPC and the rest of NAPARC is mostly white and, in that regard, not much has changed in the intervening decades. As such, most of our churches and most of their members have a different experience from that of racial minorities. As a white person I do not have to wonder whether the loss-prevention staff are following me around the store or if it just coincidence. I do not get pulled over for driving in the “wrong neighborhood.” When I walk into a NAPARC congregation (most of the time) people do not give me funny looks, touch my (non-existent) hair, ask me if I am an illegal immigrant, ask me where I am really from, tell me that my English is pretty good for a foreigner, or make racist jokes at my expense. That sort of thing has happened to friends of mine, in NAPARC congregations, just in the last few years. These things have all happened within the last 24 months. In my 36 years of experience in a wide-swath of NAPARC churches I have heard racist jokes. I have heard God-fearing P&R Christians use the N-word about others without shame. It would not be difficult to expand this embarrassing catalogue of episodes.

There are more subtle manifestations of the sin of racism that are more difficult to see and to root out. Too often in our own hearts and sometimes in our P&R congregations, instead of welcoming the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises in our midst, that  we have resented the influx of the “many nations” (Gen 17:5; Rom 4:17–18) because that influx meant change from the familiar and the comfortable. It meant new tunes and new ways of looking at things. Instead of welcoming our brothers and sisters as fellow heirs of the heavenly city, as gifts with contributions to make, we resented them. That selfish resentment is nothing but sin and our brothers and sisters in Christ feel that resentment.

What to do? The first thing to do is to recognize that this is not a new sin. The Apostle Paul had been a racist. As a Pharisee of Pharisees he despised “Gentile dogs” (Phil 3:2) as inferior simply because they were not Jewish. There were Jewish Christians who were still disgusted by Greek and Roman converts. There were Gentile converts who had been “God fearers” in the Synagogues, pushed to the margins of the synagogue and regarded as second class believers, who even though now converted to Christianity, continued to be regarded by some Jewish Christians as second-class citizens of the kingdom.

Second, because racism is an ancient sin we and because it is addressed by Scripture, we need to think about it in biblical and confessional categories. We should not make it a special sin nor the unforgivable sin. Second, we should expose it and address it openly. In this regard, though there are ways I might dissent from the way the OPC report speaks, I am in broad agreement with it and with Mika Edmondson’s response.

Third, as argued yesterday, I would rather talk about the sin of racism under the headings of the first and third uses of the law, as the Heidelberg does. Sanctification is hard work because dying is hard work and the first part of sanctification is dying to sin.

88. In how many things does true repentance or conversion consist?

In two things: the dying of the old man and the quickening of the new.

89. What is the dying of the old man?

Heartfelt sorrow for sin, causing us to hate and turn from it always more and more.

Racism, racial and ethnic bigotry, racial and ethnic prejudice is a violation of the 6th commandment:

106. Does this Commandment speak only of killing?

No, but in forbidding murder, God teaches us that He abhors its very root, namely: envy, hatred, anger, and desire of revenge; and that in His sight all these are hidden murder.

The violation of the 6th commandment is not a “gospel issue.” It is a “sin issue” and a “law issue” since sin is the transgression of God’s holy law. Sinners sin but Christian sinners (does that expression shock you?) recognize their sin and repent. They rely on the grace of God. They earnestly seek to die to sin and to live to Christ. This is an ongoing process. Christians are penitent, i.e., continually recognizing their sin, confessing their sin, and repenting of (turning away from) their sin.

There is good news for sinners. First, Christ obeyed, died, was raised, and is now interceding for sinners. Those whom God loved, in Christ, from all eternity are those for whom Christ came, for whom he died, for whom he was raised, and for whom he is now interceding. As those who have been united to Christ by grace alone, by the Spirit, through faith, we are being gradually conformed to Christ.

Note the adverb gradually. We need to be realistic about the depth and width of the sin of racism in our hearts and in our churches. It will remain a struggle but if we admit that we are sinners, if we do not pretend to have arrived or to have been perfected (Phil 3:12) then we can admit what we are: simultaneously justified and sinner (simul iustus et peccator). If we not pretending to have arrived, then we can and must hear admonition from our brothers and sisters. If our congregations are marked by an openness about the pervasive reality of sin as well as the transforming reality of grace, we can and will become welcoming congregations where all the nations are gathered together at the feet of Jesus worshiping and serving together and reflecting the inaugurated (but not yet consummated) final reality of the new heavens and the new earth.

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  1. Good thoughts. The commotion of recent time has taken a toll on me. You have clarified some important Biblical truths.

  2. We are all of one race, sons and daughters of Adam. It is tribal and ethnic rivalries fueled by sin that divide men. There is no racism only bitterness and distrust grounded in unbelief.

  3. Again, more clarity. No chest thumping. No hyperbole. No “gospel issue” over reach.

    Racism is sin, sadly an old and all too common sin, and should be dealt with accordingly by the church. And the church is perfectly equipped to confront this sin though preaching of the word, administration of the sacraments, and the practicing of church discipline.

    I just hope the rest of the church has this clarity.

  4. Thank you for writing this and the self righteous post. Finally someone who is truthful and willing to speak. The progressives are sickeningly misusing and joining in with the lies of the media and far left. So this is refreshing.

    • Hi Dan,

      I agree that there is a great deal of misinformation passing for news these days and I’m opposed to the proposed redefinition of racism but we also need to recognize that “conservative” (whatever that means in this context) and ostensibly “God-fearing” people have often been guilty of racism (as are at least some of the “progressives” I see on social and mass media).

      This is a time for self-reflection, repentance, and to embrace our brothers and sisters in Christ.

  5. Two thoughts:

    Where does love of one’s own end and racism begin?

    I’ll also observe that when I lived in “racist”, Trump-voting, flyover country, may partly Chinese family was treated well enough. But it was in a liberal eastern city that kids on the street pulled on the corners of their eyes and spoke jibberish to us.

    I’ve never admired the Klan, and thought Jim Crow horrible. I’ve traveled enough and met enough people of various types so that when you tell me racism is wrong, you’re preaching not to the choir, but to the session itself. But I am also uneasy at how the term “racist!” is thrown around very indiscriminately.

    • You asked a question that needs qualification. What do you mean by one’s own? Your question also presupposes a kind of continuum in whatever you mean by loving one’s own and racism.

      I also find it peculiar that you chose to identify kids as examples of a group that follows a certain political ideology, in this case liberalism. It is particularly curious since by kid you can mean anyone from a toddler to teenager. Additionally, I think I see the fallacy of hasty generalization in your thinking. The fallacy is evident in that the children, a small and particularly immature sample of a city, are representative of the liberal politics of the city or liberalism in general. You seem to think their behavior is associated with liberalism, based solely upon where they live. Or did you seriously go up to these kids–people that can’t vote and with little political influence–and ask if they were liberal?

  6. Dr. Clark,

    Yours is one of the best treatments of this subject. Thank you.

    That being said, I confess that I’m suffering from racism-, identity politics-, bigotry-, and oppression-fatigue. Enough is enough. Alternatively I’m told (not at Heidelblog, of course) that (1) I must understand the historical struggle and continued plight of African-Americans, (2) I can’t possibly understand it, (3) That I should treat everyone equally, (4) That African-Americans are a special case and that I must treat them differently, (5) That our churches must (and I emphasize must) be visibly multiethnic because it’s “a Gospel issue,” and (6) That African-Americans need a “safe space” away from Anglos, even in the church. My head is spinning. I can’t keep up.

    Here’s a novel thought which I believe may free me from the nonstop treadmill of the never-ending guilt trip I’m subjected to on a daily basis: I intend to treat everyone as I want to be treated. I will show kindness, respect, and love to all human beings as image-bearers of God. I will rejoice in every Christian brother and sister as a precious fellow-member of the body of Christ, with a common salvation in our one Lord, to rejoice together throughout all eternity before the throne of the Lamb. I will talk very much of Christ, and very little of the sins of the past. I will focus much on the blessings of the child of God. I will thank the Lord every day for the freedoms we enjoy in this great land, which most Christians throughout the centuries could scarcely imagine. And I will speak out against racism when I encounter it in church or society, no matter the racist’s skin color or profession of religion. And last but not least, I intend to relax. I refuse to accept guilt when I have none, while I pray daily for the grace to repent of the sins of which I am guilty, as defined by God and not by man.

  7. Revelation 7:9
    After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, 7 which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, 8 stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands;
    Revelation 5:9
    And they sung a b new 11 song, saying, 12 Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation;

  8. And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; Acts 17:26
    Does this verse tell us we are not where we are as in location,race, tribe etc by chance

  9. Eaelier I asked about Acts 17;26 because I may be wrong in my understanding of it. Then I came accross this(Kitamori argues that there are two factors involved here, the time factor and the space factor. He reasons this way: When (time factor) Israel stumbled against the truth of God, God rejected her, and salvation went to the Gentiles (space factor); when (time factor) the Graeco-Roman world, represented by the Roman Catholic Church, stumbled against the truth of God, the truth went to the Germans (space factor). Therefore, according to Kitamori, “the preservation and the development of the Gospel are achieved not only by indi- viduals but also by races and nations as)

  10. I’ve noticed the way others have defined racism in a more academic way, including ministers, and I must admit to not being all that comfortable with their definitions.

    I think one other thing should be brought up. The continued high esteem of Southern Presbyterianism; specifically with R.L. Dabney, James Thornwell , and the Confederacy in mind, is a big problem. For such a relatively small number of Reformed Christians in the US, there sure seems to be many Confederacy lovers among the Reformed that pop up. I think regardless of the color of your skin, a high admiration for they stood for should be offensive. I can’t and will not submit under church authorities that still hold these people and their cause in high esteem; I would specifically question every elder about their opinion on this matter before joining a church. A high regard for these deceased icons and their cause is a sufficient reason for me to break fellowship. And as long as they are held in high regard by a considerable number of people, the Reformed tradition in the U.S. cannot honestly be a welcoming place.

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