Race matters, and it matters to God. In this blog series I have attempted to address a less-than-optimal situation that often exists in conservative evangelical (e.g. Baptist) circles. In this situation race and racism are not given much attention, and our limited discourse about race and racism often are shaped by secular rather than Christian categories. I drew upon George Yancey’s Beyond Racial Gridlock in order to understand the shortcomings of four predominant secular models and to build a constructive Christian model for understanding race and racism.
In light of Yancey’s book, I offer two responses. Each response both supports and supplements Yancey’s thesis and concerns. First, the relationship between the Christian faith and secular discourses shapes this conversation. The philosopher William Hasker has rightly noted three different approaches relating one’s faith to a given field of knowledge or area of discourse: compatibilism, transformationism, and reconstructionism. These three approaches, in fact, can be seen as points on a spectrum. On one side of the spectrum are compatibilists who see a deep resonance between the Christian worldview and a given field of knowledge. In the middle of the spectrum are transformationists, who recognize that an academic discipline yields some true and helpful insights, but argue that it needs to be reshaped by allowing the Christian worldview to change some of its core principles or claims. On the other side of the spectrum are reconstructionists who see a deep and abiding tension between Christian teaching and an academic discipline; they believe that one must rebuild that discipline from the ground up, on overtly biblical grounds.
My own view of the spectrum is that a person’s approach to a given area of discourse depends upon the field one is dealing with. For example, one might be a compatibilist in relation to the disciplines of mathematics or English composition (since those disciplines might not, in their current state, be in a state of opposition to Christian teaching), while at the same time being a transformationist in relation to history (which is perhaps a mixed bag right now) and a reconstructionist in relation to literary criticism (which is now very much marked by all sorts of infelicities).
If I am reading Yancey correctly, his approach to this particular issue is along the lines of the transformationist model. The American evangelical conversation on race and racism has yielded some true and helpful insights, but needs to be reshaped by allowing the Christian worldview to change some of its core principles or claims. Yancey calls the Christian community to construct a more biblically informed model rather than adopting wholesale one of the available secular models. Yancey does so by highlighting the doctrine of depravity (to explain racism as a spiritual and social ill) and the life of Christ (to point to the healing that Christ Jesus brings). This transformationism is undergirded and shaped by Christian doctrines such as creation, redemption, and restoration, to which we now turn.
Second, the doctrines of creation, redemption, and restoration should undergird and shape our treatment of race and racism. The biblical storyline begins with creation and wends its way through the fall on the way to telling the story of redemption in Christ Jesus and the final restoration of all things. Each of these plot movements proves significant for building a Christian treatment of race and racism. I will focus on creation and restoration.
God’s creational design includes and invites unity-in-diversity. God called into existence the material world and shaped it by his Word, continually affirming its goodness along the way. Part of its goodness is its unified diversity. As Abraham Kuyper noted, God gives each domain of nature an “infinite diversity” and an “inexhaustible profusion of variations.” He writes, “Where in God’s creation do you encounter life that does not display the unmistakable hallmark of life precisely in the multiplicity of its colors and dimensions, in the capriciousness of its ever-changing forms?” This infinite diversity extends beyond the non-human aspects of creation to his imagers, among whom God distributes diverse appearances, aptitudes, and talents. This multi-splendored diversity finds its unity in Christ who holds all things together (Col 1:17). God’s creation is a cosmos (richly diversified, yet coherently unified whole) rather than chaos, and God’s Word helps us to see the order and unity that undergirds our communal and cultural life. Therefore a fruitful theology of race will not minimize creational diversity by seeking to be “colorblind.” Neither will it subvert creational unity by elevating one race above another.
Furthermore such unity-in-diversity will be present on the new heavens and earth. One of my favorite passages in all of Scripture is Revelation 5. In this chapter, God gives the apostle John a breathtaking and beautiful vision of worship in the heavenly court that will one day characterize all of creation, in which there will be Christ-worshipers from among all tribes, tongues, peoples, and nations (5:9). Because of human depravity—and the racism that stems from that depravity—God killed his Son and in so doing made the way for racial unity and the subversion of racial arrogance. As Rev. 5:9 tells us, “they sang a new song, saying: You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation.”
This passage culminates a major theme of Scripture: the God we worship is so profoundly true, so deeply good, and so compellingly beautiful that he will claim for himself worshipers among every type of person who has ever lived on the face of the earth. If God were worshiped merely by one race in the United States, his glory would be diminished. But as it is, he is worshiped by white, black, Asian, Hispanic, and Native Americans. This unified worship is an object of God’s delight. Christ shed his blood to win white and black worshipers, so that he could delight in their unified worship. As John Piper puts it, racial unity is first and foremost a “blood of Christ” issue and only secondarily a social or political issue.
When our churches have the opportunity to become multi-racial but neglect the opportunity in order to remain racially divided, when they prefer to be monolithically uniracial, we send a message that is diametrically opposed to the gospel. In effect, we say, “Christ is a tribal deity whose gospel is not powerful enough to transcend racial barriers, and whose beauty is not great enough to woo admirers from all races and cultures and teach them to worship together.” For this reason, we need to pray hard and work hard for a powerful display of Christian unity between believers of all races—Caucasian, African American, Asian American, Latino, and Native American. On this year’s Martin Luther King national holiday, may we drop to our knees and pray that God will glorify himself among our churches, and will do so first of all by teaching us to worship him alongside of one another.