Category Archives: Racism

Regarding Reparations (Part Four): Is giving reparations helpful?

Injuries

In the first part of this four-part series on reparations, we explored some of the biblical foundations for why reparations might be an important part of bringing hope and healing to the racial issues of our time.  In the second part we raised the questions of rightness as well as who should receive reparations for the injustices of the past and why.

Part three explored questions surrounding the practical application and fulfillment of any program of reparations.  In this fourth and final post, the question of whether or not giving reparations is actually helpful will be examined.

Is giving reparations helpful?

Are reparations truly helpful for rectifying injustices and facilitating genuine restorative change?  Does it actually help rid society of injustice?  Does it create new injustices?  Do the costs incurred offset the benefits rendered?  And how does the idea of “helpful” get determined in the first place and adequately assessed in the aftermath?

In short, is it genuinely helpful for society as a whole, especially for those receiving the reparations, or does it merely perpetuate dehumanizing dependency, creating another generation and class of state wards?  Are reparations truly empowering or are they little more than peace offerings to ease the uneasy consciences of those in positions of power and privilege?

Given this, I think at least two critical additional question arise.  First, why do we want to give reparations?  The question of motivation matters because if we claim to be acting from moral obligation and a genuine concern for others, when in reality we are only trying to assuage a guilty conscience and/or create another voting block of financial and emotional dependents, our dangerous and devious duplicity should be exposed for what it is.

Second, and more practically, how, exactly, do we give reparations?  For example, how much is appropriate and what form (or forms) should reparations take?  Vouchers?  Training institutes?  Tuition reductions?  Tax breaks?  Advancement incentives?  Affirmative action?  Quotas?  Goods and services?  Cold, hard cash?  All of the above?  Some of the above?  None of the above?

Most advocates agree that whatever form reparations take, they should include some way to empower the recipients as well as provide a fair and workable system of accountability.  People are not ennobled if they simply receive something without any expectations to take what they are given and use it to rise up, grow, develop, and give back to others.  When we give people something without really expecting anything of them in return, we encourage dependency and ultimately belittle them as creative and productive persons who are made in God’s image and meant to contribute constructively to society.

Many current discussions about reparations revolve around questions of payments and affordability.  In short, most people are asking: How much?  Who gets it?  How will it be distributed?  How are we going to pay for it?  Those are important questions, but they do not hit at the heart of the issue in terms of lifting descendants of oppression and racism out of the cycles of dependency and poverty that continue to plague them and their progeny.  Reparations without long-lasting social changes remain part of the problem rather than a road to resolution.

In many ways, these are problems of the heart, attitude, and mindset.  This is why these issues will never be solved by materially political, educational, and economic solutions alone.  These God-ordained social and political institutions can certainly help (or, unfortunately, also hinder) the process, but the problems are deeply spiritual in nature and require wholesale reorientations of entire communities, from top to bottom, as well as everywhere in between.

Only God through the gospel of Jesus Christ can bring about those kinds of radical and enduring transformations.  But I suspect it will require a radical reordering and fundamental change in the values and practices of the Church as well as each and every Christian to bring about such change.  It may sound cynical, but I honestly wonder if we as the Church are really willing.  We may not want to openly admit it, but perhaps we prefer it the way it is because it keeps us relatively comfortable, safe, and unscathed.  We do not have to face the messiness and inconvenience inherent in being directly involved in the generational sins (and their consequences) of others.  Neither do we have to come face to face with or confront the insidious sins of our own greed, indifference, self-reliance, and self-satisfaction.

In Conclusion

To sum up and conclude, contrary to the claims of some, we are not directly guilty of past wrongs, even those committed by our immediate ancestors.  But simply affirming we are not guilty of past evils in this way does not mean we have nothing to grieve over or confess to God and others on their behalf.  Neither does it mean we are innocent (even through ignorance) of personally benefitting from such systems at the cost of the well-being of others.  Through mere inaction and indifference alone we may have helped perpetuate injustice in our society.  Consequently, we are certainly not absolved of a biblical responsibility to try and rectify all contemporary wrongs and work toward a more just society in our time.

As such, it seems like some form of reparations (even if we do not call them that) are an appropriate means to this end.  Ultimately, we must recognize wrongs, past and present, for what they are—wrongs—and seek to set them right as much as we are able, even at the cost of our own comfort and safety.  Anything less is an abdication of our Christian calling and a perpetuation of sin.

For far too long, the Church has looked to the government to solve social problems we are better suited, situated, and solicited by God, through the power of His holy Spirit, to solve.  As Dennis Hollinger reminds us in Choosing the Good, “To make justice the domain of government alone is to negate personal responsibility and to expect too much of this necessary but fallen institution.”  Our calling and strength come from God, and we must not shrink from the obligation and opportunity to show Christ’s love and concern for the poor and oppressed in our time.  As Proverbs 14:9 powerfully reminds us, “Fools mock at making amends for sin, but goodwill is found among the upright.”

Regarding Reparations (Part Three): Are reparations a practical possibility?

In the first part of this four-part series on reparations, we explored some of the biblical foundations for why reparations might be an important part of bringing hope and healing to the racial issues of our time in America.  In the second part we raised the questions of rightness as well as exactly who should receive reparations for the injustices of the past and why.  Here in part three, we will consider whether or not reparations are a practical possibility.

Are reparations a practical possibility?

Inevitably, the pursuit of something of this magnitude requires a massive level of wisdom and accountability, not to mention extensive financial, legal, and human resources.  How much will go to those who don’t actually need or deserve it?  How (in)efficient will the distribution of opportunities and assets be?  Who will decide who gets what, and who will hold the distributors accountable to be fair and just in their dissemination of those benefits?

Without careful consideration, it will undoubtedly create another bloated and inefficient governmental department sucking away enormous amounts of tax dollars from other praiseworthy programs and genuine human needs.  Not only that, would there be any clear starting and ending point for making reparations?  Beginning to offer them opens the door for endless special interest groups to line up and make the case that they too should be beneficiaries.  And at what point will the government have the courage to say, “We have done enough.  There will be no more reparations given to anyone from this point forward.  It’s time to disband this department and use our resources for other things.”  History shows that the chance to create a class and voting block of long-term political dependents is very hard for any government to resist.

Because of this powerful tendency, I believe that the only practical and possible way to enact reparations must involve much more than creating another bureaucratic governmental program.  In fact, Christians and the Church are often situated in the closest proximity to the people who are in the greatest need.  This means that very often they (and not the government) are best positioned to assess the problems and offer genuinely viable solutions for them.

Putting a large part of the solution into the hands of local churches, however, means first and foremost that such programs need to be largely voluntary.  But making it voluntary means that some (perhaps even many) churches and Christians will not participate and instead ignore the golden opportunity to show Christ’s love to those who need it most.  Christians who oppose the government being involved in reparations should simultaneously be looking for ways to step into that gap and provide opportunities for those in need to experience hope and healing.  They should also seek avenues to change and restructure unjust social systems at the local, state, national, and even international level.

Sadly, I suspect that for some Christians, expecting the government to spearhead a program of reparations is really just an excuse to do little or nothing themselves since, “the government will rectify the problem.”  The fact is, people find all kinds of ways to ease their conscience that do not cost them very much.  Taxes are a relatively simple way to avoid the pain and inconvenience of more direct involvement in the lives of those who suffer from injustice.  And that is the great danger of thinking of reparations in terms of a one-off kind of payment or benefit.  Sinful human relations will continue to create all kinds of opportunities to make further reparations.

As Christians, we need to be willing to do more and give more for the sake of loving those who have suffered and still continue to suffer under the injustice of past wrongs.  This is why governments have often had to step into the gaps created by indifferent and comfort-loving Christians and churches.  If the Church was more actively and sacrificially involved in community care and change, I suspect that the demand for reparations would be significantly muted and perhaps even largely met.  Of course, this would not solve every problem.  Apart from God’s sensational and supernatural intervention, sinful human nature makes it impossible to create a paradise on earth.  But that does not mean Christians cannot and should not continue to work toward making society fairer and more just.

Therefore, rather than pointing out the ways a large and governmentally-administered program would be a bad idea (which it very likely would), Christians should be asking, “What we can do to meet social needs and rectify immoral and unjust social systems?”  Exactly how this can take place is a worthwhile and important conversation, but always looking primarily (or even exclusively) to some political party or legislative set of solutions tends to lift the burden of responsibility off of our Christian shoulders at a time when we should, more than ever, bear with Christ the burden of responsibility to do what we can, in very practical and direct ways, to turn wrongs into rights and injustice into justice.

Looking to material solutions also tends to ignore the fact that we are wrestling with problems that are not merely systemic at the political, economic, and educational level.  These are important, of course, but these problems are also deeply spiritual, moral, and personal in nature.  They can only be fully resolved in supernatural and non-material ways, making the gospel of Jesus Christ and His Church that much more necessary in any quest for genuine and lasting social transformation.

Ultimately, because the problems we are talking about involve personal and public, as well as spiritual and material aspects, it seems inevitable that both governments and churches would need to be involved and even, if possible, work in concert.  But Christians cannot wait for legislative action and let that be an excuse to slip back into letting the government do what the Church has always been called to do, even though it is extremely costly, inconvenient, messy, and heartbreaking.  It is a responsibility we are privileged to do, and we must not shrink back or excuse ourselves from it because someone else is actively trying to take it away from us.

Having said all this, we must reiterate the simple conviction that if reparations are morally right, then regardless of what the government decides, Christians ought to find ways to implement them, despite attending difficulties.  But one of the important moral aspects of making reparations is determining whether or not they are actually helpful in rectifying the problem in the first place.  This is last question we will consider in the final post in this series.

Regarding Reparations (Part Two): Is it right and who should receive reparations and why?

In the first post of this four-part series, I explored some biblical themes surrounding the idea of reparations.  In this second part, I take a more focused look at some of the broader moral and practical concerns raised by this increasingly popular notion.

Before we begin, let me emphasize that there are many other problems and issues deserving serious consideration and attention which will not be raised here.  Instead, I will only address four interconnected issues, two in this post, one in the third, and one in the fourth.

Here we will address two questions: 1) Is it right to give reparations? and 2) Who should receive them and why?  Let’s begin by asking the first question, namely, is it right?

Is it right to give reparations?

Of all our concerns, this is probably the one of greatest import.  If it is morally right, then some way should be found to provide the necessary resources and enact the needed changes and means to bring about a more just society.

Virtually all agree that what was done to African slaves in America (to highlight one obvious example) was utterly wrong.  Who, however, is ultimately responsible for past moral failures and today’s social systems? How has history shaped these realities and to what extent are people alive today guilty of ignoring, implicitly supporting, or even overtly promoting such immoralities?

We have already noted in the previous blog that our lack of direct responsibility for past wrongs does not fully absolve us from the responsibility to rectify the sins of our predecessors.  However, contrary to the claims of most Critical Theorists, it is not at all obvious that there is a clear class of people who are wholly innocent and in need of reparations while there is another, definitively privileged class, that is guilty of creating and/or perpetuating unjust social systems, and who is simultaneously able and obligated to seek greater justice through reformative reparations.

Reparations should not be unidirectional handouts to those minorities in the lower class on the simple assumption of their state of moral innocence.  If and when they are given, they should be given in such a way that empowers and affirms their humanity as well as their personal responsibility.  Anything else is dehumanizing and dependency-producing—both things that are morally wrong and socially destructive.

Americans, with their strong sense of individualism, tend to bristle at the thought that we are somehow responsible for the actions of a whole class of people, especially when this class of people is only related to us historically.  Do we really want to say that when my great, great, great grandfather murdered or beat or raped someone (and presumably got away with it because he was part of a privileged class), that I must now be punished or held accountable for what he did 150 years ago?  But what if he did it 30 years ago?  Or how about 3 years ago before his recent death?  Does the smaller time-gap make me more culpable, even if I did nothing to directly aid and abet his evil?

In short, how blameworthy are we today for evils, both systemic and personal, that we had nothing to do with creating or committing in the first place?  Certainly, we are responsible to try and make the social systems of our time more just, and we are personally responsible for our own wrongdoing, but beyond this, we are not directly responsible for the evil done by our ancestors any more than we can take personal credit and be rewarded for their praiseworthy deeds.

All of these concerns need to be wrestled with, but let’s just assume a case can be made for pursuing, at some level, some sort of reparations.  After all, as was emphasized in the first part of this series, Christians recognize that we do have some level of responsibility for not merely changing unjust systems in our own time, but righting past wrongs done within and because of those systems along with the choices of those who took advantage of them.  In that light, it would seem that some form (or forms) of reparation(s) should be pursued in order to try and make our society a more just and god-honoring one.

But having said that, we must raise another crucial question, namely, who receives them and why?

Who should receive reparations and why?

Who, exactly, has been wronged and to what extent?  Is it only the descendants of black African slaves who should be eligible?  What about the Japanese Americans interred during WW II, or the Irish Catholics who were deeply discriminated against when they first arrived in the US?  What about the native Americans who lived here long before it became the USA?  It is obvious that the US institution of slavery was utterly wrong, but there are numerous other racial and religious wrongs perpetrated upon our American ancestors that deserve some serious attention in these matters as well.  And what about those who are no longer “pure” in their ancestry?  History shows that determining your genealogical and legal connections to certain segments of the US population can be controversial in and of itself, especially when those connections may result in significant advantages and benefits.

For example, when the native Americans were given gaming rights in Southern California some decades ago, a big fight broke out over who exactly was a member of which tribe since the subsequent promise of major monthly revenues was directly linked to genealogy.  Another example might be Rachel Anne Dolezal who claimed to have African American ancestry and used it to her advantage until 2015 when her claims were proven to be wholly fallacious.  Inevitably, when money, power, and privilege are involved, there will always be a lot of people who make claims to their advantage when they have little or no evidence to support or commend them.  Sorting out who actually deserves reparations and to what extent are extremely knotty issues and are made exceptionally more complex when a lot of self-interest is at stake.

Again, I am not pretending to offer any definite solutions here, but I am raising the questions in order to show that the simple affirmation that reparations should be provided is not easy to fulfill in a fair and straightforward manner.  Not only that, reparations raise additional questions, two more of which I will briefly address in the next two posts.

Regarding Reparations (Part One): Some Initial Biblical Perspectives

There’s growing chorus of people in America supporting the notion of reparations.  It may come as a surprise to some that reparations, at least properly defined, are not inherently anti-Christian.  In fact, concern for social justice and doing something concrete and measurable to right past wrongs (something more commonly called “restitution”), is an important component of revealing and advancing God’s kingdom on earth.  Of course, what requires restitution and the best means to that end are far more complicated questions to answer.

I wish I could give some real and reasonable solutions as well as provide some sense of closure for these multidimensional as well as very convoluted and complex, yet deeply important matters in a brief series of blog posts, but I honestly can’t.  Instead, this series will mainly raise concerns and questions in hopes to spark some deeper interest in and movement toward a better society and a godlier church.

Before raising these questions, I want to give some important biblical perspectives since most westerners (Americans especially) are deeply influenced by the individualism of a post-enlightenment rationalist set of values that push very hard against some of the scriptural aspects pertinent to these matters.

Solidarity with Our Ancestors

First and foremost, the idea of sharing some sense of solidarity with our ancestors is foundationally biblical. Although many tend to skip over them, genealogies are common in scripture and become centrally important for present concerns with respect to such things as the Levitical priesthood (e.g., Ezra 2:62) as well as the Davidic line leading to messianic hope in Jesus Christ (e.g., Matthew 1:1-17).  Our ancestors are deeply important to understanding our connections to the past as well as our responsibilities in the present and trajectories for the future.  In individualistic societies, we are not nearly concerned enough with our predecessors.  We often lack a healthy and biblical sense of our connection to, knowledge of, debt (good and bad) toward, and reliance upon our past.

Second, if we affirm (and I recognize some Christians do not) that in Adam, everyone sinned, and that in Christ, everyone who believes has been made righteous (Romans 5:12-21), our personal guilt is also tied to our ancestral guilt in a way that makes us helpless and hopeless apart from the mercy and grace of God made known and available through Jesus Christ.  In short, we are guilty and deserve eternal death not only because we ourselves have sinned, but, first and foremost, because our patriarch, Adam, sinned first.  This guilt is real, and while it has been called many things, I consider it to be a genuine and “inherited” guilt before God.

Third, and closely related, suffering the consequences of our ancestors’ poor choices is also overtly biblical (e.g., Exodus 34:7).  No one arrives in this world unstained or untouched by prior acts of evil.  All previous generations have contributed to the injustices of the current one, and sadly, we ourselves will also contribute to and leave some behind for subsequent generations to rectify as well.

Daniel’s Confession

Fourth, there is an intriguing passage in Daniel 9:1-19 where righteous and faithful Daniel, pours out his heart to God over the sins of his ancestors, considering their guilt as his own.  If anyone could claim to be an innocent victim of the sins of prior generations and a personally righteous person in spite of it all, Daniel would be that one.  And yet, he repeatedly identifies with (note his repeated use of “we”) and confesses the sins of his ancestors to God as His own.  As I understand it, such confession does not mean we are directly and personally guilty of the sins of others in the same way as if we committed them ourselves. Deuteronomy 24:16 is clear that we are not directly responsible for the sins of our ancestors.  But this kind of confession is healthy, godly, and important for at least three reasons.

First, it recognizes our solidarity with those who have come before us in this world.  To some extent, we do share in their guilt because we come from their stock.  Again, this does not mean we are guilty in the same way they are guilty, but it does mean that we share a certain burden of responsibility to admit and recognize the wrongs of what they have done.  For the purpose of clarity, I am going to call this sense of guilt that stems from our solidarity with our direct and recent ancestors, “corporate guilt.”  It is not the same as personal guilt (mentioned above) and does not make us culpable in the same way our direct offenses and involvement do.  Failure to appreciate this runs the risk of subverting Deuteronomy 24:16 and holding us responsible, as if we had done certain evils in some direct and conscious way.  Still, the burden of sorrow and sense of connection are real—or at least they should be—in some important sense.  We not only mourn over the wrong those related to us have done, but we willingly take on a level of responsibility for the harm it has caused and continues to cause others because we are directly connected to them through our ancestry.

There is a second reason why confessions like Daniel’s are biblically important.  It demonstrates humility and a genuine willingness to see and admit that there really is a problem.  I suspect that at least some of our resistance—even defensiveness—over the idea of reparations stems from a refusal to admit that there are and were real and profound past systemic restrictions imposed upon certain communities and people-groups—simply because they were members of a certain ethnicity or class.  Perhaps we are ashamed; perhaps we are ignorant; perhaps we want to protect reputations or personal interests.  To admit that we have some connection to the matter is to bring us to a humbling and uncomfortable place of recognizing some level of genuine responsibility to do something to right such wrongs.

And this idea leads us to the third reason why such biblical confessions of this kind are so important for us to highlight.  It heightens our sense of present responsibility in terms of our need to turn to God in humility and look to and trust in Him—not just to political, educational, financial, and social programs—to provide the strength and wisdom to rectify the wrongs others have done.  Why?  Because this reflects the purposes, plans, and character of God Himself.  Thus, sharing some sense of responsibility for rectifying past sinful choices of others does have an important place in Christian thought and is therefore directly pertinent to questions about reparations.

Zacchaeus’ Reparative Transformation

Before tackling some of the pressing questions surrounding reparations, one more story from scripture bears mentioning.  When Zacchaeus came to faith in Jesus, his life was transformed in a very practical way.  He not only recognized he had done evil and was part of an unjust system of Roman taxation, he actively sought to give back everything and more to those that he had cheated.  I suspect it was a very costly commitment, but he understood that his faith in Christ was not mere assent.  It was the motivational source of transformation alongside a completely different set of values and way of life.  This new life not only reached out in the present to a radically alternative future, it reached back into a sinful and unjust past in order to practically and materially rectify blatant injustice and sin toward others.  In short, a life changed by Jesus was immediately and lastingly characterized by the observable values of repentance, regret, restitution, restoration, and reparation.

Of course, Zacchaeus’ responsibility for wrongdoing here was his own, and his actions to rectify those wrongs was wholly voluntary. No one forced him to make restitution for what he had done, and they were given directly to those that he himself had wronged, but his behavior shows that seeking to repair past wrongs should be a natural outflow of a truly transformed life in Christ.

Having begun by looking to the scriptures, many practical problems and crucial questions need to be addressed before any real movement toward making just reparations can be seriously considered and enacted.  It is to just four of these we will turn our attention in the remainder of this series.

Why can’t we be colorblind?

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In 1992, Michael W. Smith released the popular Christian song, “Color Blind,” claiming “we could see better” if we’d all be colorblind.  The idea sounded noble enough.  After all, according to Martin Luther King, Jr., we were supposed to judge a person by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.  But even way back then, something about the notion of colorblindness bothered me.  Of course, in one sense, this points to the notion of equality.  I get and affirm that.

However, trying to ignore ethnicity tends to discount the significance of a huge part of our embodied humanity.  Contrary to the “melting pot” theory, the solution to race relations is not racial denial, abolition, or fusion.  Pretending we see no colors is both dishonest and unhelpful.  The colors are there, and they are beautiful in God’s sight.  They can be beautiful in ours as well when we openly and honestly celebrate our rich ethnicities and variegations.  We are not monochromatic but polychromatic.  To extend the metaphor to sound, we are not monophonic but polyphonic.

So far, so good.  But inevitably, some criterion or criteria must be used to determine what constitutes a beautiful symphony and a great work of art.  Postmodernity suggests that the unrestrained celebration of radical diversity is the only way to find our identity and live well in community.  There is a suspicion toward all who would suggest some sort of evaluative meta-principle or overarching narrative that might lead to and support exclusion or inequality.

Historically (and, I believe, intrinsically), human communities naturally form around standards of similarity and resemblance.  We tend to become tribal and exclusive when we simply do what is most comfortable to us, instinctively gravitating toward those who look, talk, think, and act like us.

This kind of “tribalism” was actually the default mode for most of human history.  Groups of similar people banded together for the sake of protection, survival, and general wellbeing.  But it was almost always on a small scale unless some great totalizing leader or movement fought against the natural slide toward fragmentation.  In ancient times, these were the Romans, the Ghengis Khans, the Alexander the Greats of the world.  They sought to actively impose their vision of the good life and what it means to be human upon the conquered and subjugated as well as those who willingly agreed to submit.

But this was not a blended harmony and mosaic masterpiece.  It was hegemonic domination and imposition of one cultural and ethnic vision over all others.  Similarly, many modern nation states seek to overcome small-scale tribalism by means of enforced and educationally indoctrinated nationalistic values, rituals, languages, and laws to promote unity, revenue, and power.

As a Christian, I believe in the doctrine of human sin and depravity.  It has been said that historically, it is the most easily verifiable doctrine of Christianity.  People, when given the unrestricted opportunity, will more often than not use power to oppress (rather than empower) others, especially those who are different from themselves.  As the old adage states: power corrupts, and absolute power (when possessed by anyone other than God), corrupts absolutely.

So, how do we respond to racial and social differences and the inevitable tensions they create?  First and foremost, we have to be in genuine dialogue with one another.  People who are very different from each other are less apt to depersonalize and vilify one another if they try to become friends, or at least have ongoing conversations with one another.  Looking to governments and programs to create racial harmony is only effective when individuals and groups of citizens are committed on a smaller and more personal scale to try to understand and appreciate each other.

There’s a catch, of course.  We all know that close interpersonal conversations are no guarantee of peaceful relations.  Dysfunction and hostility are not just found between insiders and outsiders.  They are frequently intercommunal and interfamilial.  This points us back to the reality that small is not inherently better unless the small is informed by and infused with more transcendent and godly values and concerns.  Again, as a Christian, I am convinced (against the postmodernity) that there are shared human values which are both transcultural and trans-temporal.  These values are grounded in and revealed by the character and purposes of God as well as His divine image stamped upon every human being.

Notions of transcendent values and the image of God lead to a second requirement for promoting racial harmony: We need some legitimate and thoughtfully arrived at reference points for interracial justice.  For example, how can we genuinely care for one another?  How can we empower and protect minorities?  How can we check and limit the powers of the elite?  And how can we do this without destroying a significant portion of everyone’s dignity and freedom?  Such ideals cannot be based within human communities (or powerfully persuasive individuals) alone.

Any notions of justice that are solely grounded in human conversations and conventions are destined to fail because they lack (and sometimes even deny any possibility of) transcendent resources for producing enduring unity in diversity.  Apart from the guidance of overarching ideals, human conversations consistently digress into shouting matches and power plays since no one can refer to anything outside of the community (or the self) to substantiate notions of goodness, fairness, and justice.

Because we all bear God’s image, every human being possesses an inherent moral sensibility and intuitive notion of justice.  These are often skewed and misaligned by sin, but by God’s grace, they are nonetheless still present.  Consequently, a lot of historical accord concerning these overarching moral principles is evident.  Still, they must be grounded beyond the physical realm in order to be truly binding and compelling.  In short, they need what philosophers and theologians call a metaphysical basis.  Unfortunately, we live in an era when metaphysics and transcendent theology has fallen on hard times.  Not many want (or are even willing) to believe that some things are trans-temporally and transculturally better for a community as a whole, especially when they might oppose and make it harder for some inside and outside that community.

In the postmodern context, I am deeply pessimistic about coming to any real consensus of shared human values.  Everyone wants to believe that paying greater attention to minority and marginal voices is a sufficient condition for finding real agreement, but it cannot (and never will be) in view of sinful human tendencies.  What makes racial and interpersonal harmony possible are enduring values like selflessness, generosity, hospitality, humility, forgiveness, and compassion, alongside prudence, self-control, and a conviction to protect the downtrodden, disregarded, and distressed.  These ideals require supportable and well-grounded definitions alongside living examples that can only be adequately applied on the basis of a moral source beyond the material realm.  Many in the contemporary context will howl and scream foul at this point, but inevitably someone’s will and moral vision will be promoted and enforced.  The only reasonable concerns here are: Which vision?  Whose will?  And why?

Contrary to what some would claim, Christianity’s devotion to the Bible firmly grounds its commitments to racial reconciliation, respect, equality, and harmony in the transcendent character of God as love and His divine image within each human being.  Against some recent revisionist histories and the “new atheists,” Christians have a long and proven (though certainly not infallible!) history of elucidating and successfully applying viable and time-tested communal virtues that create, promote, and sustain flourishing societies with more harmonious and respectful intercommunal and interracial relations.  As Jürgen Habermas (an atheist) reminds us in his 2005 book, Time of Transitions, “Egalitarianism from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life of solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. . . .  To this day, there is no alternative to it.”

Even more than this, far from being colorblind, the polychromatic vision and polyphonic symphony Christians hope in and look toward comes to us from beyond not only our world but also our time.  Revelation 7:9 tell us about a magnificent future when “a great multitude that no one [can] number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, [will stand] before [God’s] throne” offering a multiethnic concert of unbridled praise to the One who created, unifies, and rejoices in this delightful diversity of difference.

This grand gathering is both the source of and continued inspiration for our longing to see every human being appreciated and respected for what they are: divine image bearers beautifully expressing their uniqueness in multifarious unity under the loving Lordship of our glorious and gracious Savior, Jesus Christ.

From Heroic to Demonic: The Defacement and Destruction of Memorials

56401737af6c43a89576d1b493c59027_18In recent days, we have seen widespread defacing and destroying of many local and national statues and monuments.  It would seem that many names and faces of the past are being subjected to a barrage of contemporary scorn, derision, and opposition.

To be sure, some of these memorials have enshrined people and ideals that probably should never have been celebrated in the first place.  They are, in many ways, reminders of a time of racist oppression and godless subjugation.  As such, an honest admission of wrongly hallowing past evil-doers and the need for corrective action to be taken are positive signs of repentance and restitution.  Perhaps some could be moved to museums and we could learn from their wrongdoings and shortcomings, while still recognizing their positive societal contributions.

But having said this, just how stringent should our standards of enshrinement and retention be?  And when past heroes become disgraced by the changing winds of time, what contemporary criteria are we using to disgrace and discredit them?  One problem with judging the past through the lens of the present is that the blind spots of our age can become the embarrassments and sources of shame in the generations that follow.

One example comes quickly to mind: How will future generations judge our confused obsessions with gender and sexuality?  I suspect, for example, that many of the things we find so noble and defensible in these arenas might well be deemed downright decadent and devious by future generations.

Judging the past with criteria from the present is not wholly illegitimate, but it should always be done with circumspect humility and caution versus a bold and reckless sense of self-righteous indignation.  The standards with which we judge the past will often come back to haunt us in the future.  Our contemporary heroes can just as easily be weighed and found wanting in the scales of future generations since many of the standards are based on the ever-changing spirit of the age.  As such, what is considered heroic in one era is often deemed demonic in the next.

All of this highlights the fact that we should be careful and calculated when we start defacing and destroying long-standing historical monuments.  In a recent example, the Black Student Union and the (rather ironically named) Student Inclusion Coalition are now calling for the removal of a statue of Abraham Lincoln from the campus of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  To be fair, Lincoln was not a perfect man and he only became a Christian later in life.  He had to make hard decisions and compromise politically to preserve a fragile union that all Americans (regardless of race) still benefit from today.  Over the course of his life and career, there was plenty to find offensive and questionable.  After all, we are all deficient and if scrutinized closely enough, will be crushed by the demand for perfection.  The only ones who can stand up to the standard of flawlessness are figments of our own imaginations.  And even these figments will compete with one another if they are not grounded in a transcendent standard of determining who or what is truly perfect.

So, if you are looking for dirt on someone, rest assured, look hard and long enough and you will find it since we are all sinners.  No one but Jesus has led a perfect life, and even He gets a bad rap for the misuse and abuse of His name amongst His followers.

In the end, people are not perfect, but they can add value and teach us important lessons, nonetheless. There is a limit here, of course.  We cannot and should not immortalize just anyone at all.  But we can appreciate those whose lives were worthy of emulation and appreciation for the ways they helped change the world for the better, even if there were things for which they should be ashamed.

It is widely known, for example, that Martin Luther King, Jr. was an adulterer.  His honorable work for civil rights, however, overshadows this immoral aspect of his life.  It doesn’t hurt him much right now since adultery (and fornication, I might add) is not currently considered especially immoral when weighed against the sins of racism and racially-motivated murder, for example.  Every generation has its pet moral outrages regarding certain sins and its blind spots and passes toward others.  In our time, extra-marital sexual expression is deemed more akin to authenticity and normalcy than it is to unfaithfulness and betrayal.

Again, regardless of how you assess his sexual lifestyle, Martin Luther King, Jr. was so much more than that.  He was a hero for his moral courage, his persistent vision of equality, his brilliant wisdom in organizing and standing up peacefully and non-violently against the vicious racism of his time, alongside his willingness to suffer and die for what he knew was right.  We should not overlook his serious flaws, but neither should we overlook his many virtues simply because he was also an imperfect sinner.

One of the beautiful features of scripture is its deep honesty about the multifaceted character of its heroes.  The Apostle Peter was a loud-mouthed, boastful, and cowardly betrayer.  King David was a murderer and adulterer.  But the Bible also tells us what these men (and many more like them) became through the process of humble repentance and glorious redemption.  Their colossal failures did not end up defining them wholesale.  God was able to not just see beyond their sins but transform them for His greater glory.

The irony of all this is that no matter who we choose to glorify and remember, every statue and monument will ultimately fall prey to the eroding sands of time.  Percy Shelley’s haunting poem, “Ozymandias,” poignantly remind us of this:

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell its sculpture that well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Rest assured, time will pulverize into powder every attempt to immortalize the merely momentary.  And yet, there is hope.  You will be permanently remembered if you surrender your life to the Risen One who was nailed to a cross to die for your sins and your failures.  And when you trust in Him, He will forgive you and transform your life.  Not only that, at the end of the age He “will also give [you] a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17).  That stone and that name will never fade away and are reserved throughout eternity for all who love and trust in Jesus.

Am I a racist?

Am-I-A-Racist

Growing up in the USA in the 1960’s, because of men like Martin Luther King, Jr., there was a lot of talk about racial equality and the Civil Rights Movement.  I’m deeply grateful that my parents and the church we attended repeatedly and insistently taught that all people are made in God’s image and are of infinite value and fully (not separately) equal.  More than fifty years later, it’s easy to forget that those were also times of deep anger, unrest, and social upheaval.  Looking back now, it feels like in some ways like we have made real progress while in others, we have only come full circle.

No matter how you assess the contemporary situation, racism is much more than conceptual, theoretical, and systemic.  For many, it is deeply emotional and personal.  Sadly, when talking about racism, one of the first things that must be done is to define it since some increasingly popular definitions are not only unhelpful and unproductive, they are downright deceptive and dangerous.

For example, many today suggest it is impossible to be a racist if you live in a context of poverty, oppression, and discrimination.  The assumption is that racism is inherently tied to power, and only those with social power and influence can possibly be racist in the truest sense of the term.

In response, I would suggest that while it is certainly easier for the powerful to express and uphold certain aspects of racism, especially systemic ones, this does not mean that racism, properly understood, is confined to social systems and influential segments of society alone.  Racism involves more significant moral elements like attitudes of moral superiority, hatred, and distrust.  Mindsets like these are not confined solely to those who are influential and well-connected.

Pride in anyone leads to and reinforces a sense of moral superiority.  For example, it is just as easy to believe, “I am morally better than them because although I am colored, poor, oppressed, and powerless, they are immoral because they are rich, oppressive, powerful, and white,” as it is to claim, “I am morally better than them because I am white, smart, and hard-working, and ambitious while they are they are colored, lazy, stupid, and unenterprising.”  One glories in their victimhood and difficulties, the other in their white privilege, but neither can claim an absence of racial or classist pride.

In addition, hatred gives anyone and everyone a sense of power and ability to vilify and reject those who are different than themselves, regardless of their socioeconomic or political situation.  To suggest that the poor and oppressed are merely innocent victims of the powerful, unable to exercise any personal and social influence at all, is not only to dehumanize them but also to obscure the potential for racism that cuts across all social lines and lurks within the soul of every human being.  It’s also a sure-fire way to harbor and justify self-righteous feelings of resentment and ill-will toward any and all who are different, especially those possessing greater power, opportunity, and authority.

Ultimately, feelings of hatred and suspicion lead to a deep sense of moral superiority as well as an active rejection of those who are different from oneself.  Again, racism among the powerful and privileged is much more noticeable and systemically impactful, and that’s an enormous problem that must be actively addressed and redressed.  But if those with less obvious positions of power refuse to recognize the potential presence of pride and hatred in their own hearts, the opportunity for real change at all levels of society will ultimately be lost because at its heart, the solution to racism is both theological and societal.  The reason is that while societal structures and systems must be reviewed and revised, racism can only be holistically eradicated through an active pursuit of reconciled relationships characterized by mutual forgiveness, love, and respect, values that are deeply theological.

When calls for solutions to racism are made, I frequently hear that racism is both systemic and learned. While undeniably true, a centrally important third aspect frequently gets left out, namely the natural or innate aspect.  In short, because of sin, racism is inherently easy for each and every one of us, regardless of our race or socioeconomic status.  Thus, racism manifests itself both socially and personally.  It is both learned and intrinsic, external and internal.  Failure to admit and recognize all (and not just some) of these aspects will ultimately result in incomplete solutions to a larger set of problems.

Far beyond the systemic and learned aspects of racism, we naturally gravitate toward and are most comfortable spending time with people who look, act, think, and talk like us.  Taking the time and making the effort to understand and befriend those who are different—simply because we are all human beings made in God’s image possessing infinite value—involves constant sacrifice, inconvenience, risk, and discomfort.  It is something we must remind ourselves and others of continually.  And we also must actively and intentionally move toward, listen to, and even embrace those with whom we disagree and who are very different from us.  As we do, in the midst of the difficulties and discomforts, we will find deep joy and mutual enrichment as new friendships are forged, new understandings are found, and new pathways of growth and change are fashioned.

Throughout this process, each and every one of us should be willing to keep honestly asking this hard but important question: Am I a racist?  The possibility of being or becoming one is always there beneath the surface, whether we are rich or poor, black or white, powerful or weak.  Why?  Because we all have the capacity and tendency to hate, belittle, and diminish the value of those who are different from us and strongly prefer the ones most like us.  Self-admission of this is a helpful place to begin in the process of actively moving toward real solutions to racism.  In this way, people can not only be taught against racism, they can also work with tirelessly humility toward reconciliation and reparation at all levels of society—social, political, economic, educational, and personal.  But reconciliation is fundamentally a theological concept with a theological grounding.  It takes people transformed by the gospel of Jesus who have first been reconciled to God to model that radical reconciliation with one another.

Thus, the goal for Christians is not mere recognition and affirmation of equality for all but the vigorous pursuit and realization of interracial community and communion.  And this can only happen if we first humbly listen and seek to understand, entering into the pain, anger, and grief of those who have suffered from the ravages of racism.  After that, we can more compassionately join in and work for viable solutions and lasting change together.  Without true compassion and participation, we tend to only feel pity and attempt to alleviate our guilt by making token overtures that cost us very little and involve us only minimally.  Real and lasting change requires getting our hands dirty, making real sacrifices, and taking genuine risks for the sake of the greater wellbeing of others.  If Christians are unwilling to make these kinds of sacrificial choices, others will, but they will do so in promotion of very different visions for what justice and change should look like and how they should be brought about.

In closing, I often hear the phrase, “But we’ve come so far already.”  And I think we can affirm that real progress has been made, but have we come far enough?  One of the great myths of enlightenment rational liberalism is that social progress is cumulative, unidirectional, and inevitable.  Real social progress is never any of these things.  It takes constant work and intentional effort to push against the ever-swelling tides of racism, classism, tribalism, and all kinds of other sinful “isms” that are present not only in the hearts of the powerful but also in the heart of every man, woman, and child.  These are the things that tear us and our societies apart, and unfortunately, are still at work in our midst.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  Racial injustice, inequality, and discrimination remain to this day both within and around us.  And as long as they remain, we have still not come far enough.