Tag Archives: Racism

What is true justice? Part Two: Egalitarian Justice

In part one of this three-part series, we looked briefly at retributive and meritorious justice. In part two, we will consider the increasingly contested notion of egalitarian justice.

Egalitarian Justice

Before looking directly at the idea of egalitarian justice, the meaning of the word “equality” must be further elucidated since its very definition has become one of the great controversies of our time.

Traditionally, equality primarily referred to the notion that all are (or at least should be) “equal under the law.” This phrase is inscribed on the front of the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. Thus, laws should be applied fairly from the top to the bottom of society, for the rich and the poor, the young and the old, the male and the female, the black and the white, and everyone in between. The statue of Lady Justice holding a scale while wearing a blindfold depicts this kind of egalitarian ideal. To fulfill her responsibilities justly, she must not allow race, nationality, social status, or material wealth (for example) to bias her application of justice to anyone or any group.

More recently, a second aspect of egalitarian justice has come to the fore of social concern, namely the question of equal opportunity. Equal opportunity helps ensure that the playing field of life is as level as possible. There’s no doubt this is a valid and important aspect of promoting justice and equality in society, but for many today, any unequal outcomes in society constitute incontestable evidence of social injustice and inequality. As racism guru Ibram X. Kendi declared, “When I see racial disparities, I see racism.” The assumption here is that if one (racial) group of people end up better educated, richer, and more powerful than others, there must have been some (racially systemic) unjust advantages and inequalities both at the outset of and throughout their lives producing those unequal outcomes.

The problem with thinking this way is that this (wrongly) assumes all human beings are equally situated, motivated, and talented from the very beginning of life. However, for whatever reasons, God has created everyone unique. Some are better athletes, some are better thinkers, some are better artists, engineers, teachers, singers, musicians, craftsmen, salespersons, etc. Thus, if inequity equals (racial) injustice, then God is unjust because we are not all created equal in terms of our backgrounds, intelligence, capacities, talents, abilities, socio-economic location, etc.

On the contrary, this is not evidence of racism or sin but evidence of uniqueness. And since every human being is made in God’s image, every human being is of eternal worth to God. But that does not mean we are exactly the same. Just as there is distinctness and yet equality within the Godhead, so there is distinctness and equality within the human race. Consequently, different outcomes don’t necessarily mean there is systemic injustice or racial inequality.

Justice in this light does not seek equal outcomes so much as it tries to create systems that are genuinely fair and do not give undue advantages to others. The idea is to level the playing field of life by somehow empowering those who clearly start at a disadvantage, enabling them to better succeed alongside others who begin life and certain endeavors (like education, for example) with greater advantages.

Unfortunately, what these systems should look like and how they can be maintained are very difficult questions to answer. In theory, at least, they are possible to create, implement, and maintain, even when, because of different talents, abilities, motivations, etc., social stratification inevitably occurs over time. Such stratification is not, as it stands, invariably or inherently evil, although in the light of human selfishness and sin, it very often does become a means to express injustice, especially against the weak and marginalized. In short, people with roughly equal abilities and starting points often end up in very different socioeconomic situations.

To be sure, this certainly is sometimes the fault of unjust social structures and systems that wrongly discriminate against others on some sort of illegitimate basis like race or gender. This might manifest itself as a lack of equality under the law and/or inappropriate discriminatory social and cultural attitudes and traditions. But it is also sometimes the result of several other factors like (to name a few) difficult family life, personality, bad luck, laziness, ignorance, trauma, lack of motivation, or even such things like the voluntary decision to live a life of simplicity and poverty.

Too often, as economist Thomas Sowell points out, too few (or even the wrong) factors and not enough concrete nuances are considered when egalitarian concerns are brought to bear on specific real-life situations. For example, the goals of programs like “affirmative action” are clearly directed at rectifying inequities in educational opportunities for certain minorities. The idea is to make it possible for those who started out behind others to make up lost ground.

This is noble and good. But determining exactly who starts out disadvantaged, why, and to what extent, becomes exceptionally difficult to determine without discerning the very specific situations of individuals and groups on a case-by-case basis. It is far easier and more efficient to create clearly delineated groups and classes of people to be the recipients of these leveling programs, especially when large organizations and entities like governments and corporations are involved. You can simply draw a racial and/or economic line and set a standard amount of aid to be given without dealing with the concrete nuances and root issues of people’s lives on the ground.

Admittedly, heroic efforts have been made to create fair and more specific means for deciding these matters, but the greater the distance between the disseminators of these benefits and the recipients, the more likely bureaucratic waste and corruption will arise. But again, on an even more basic level, the assumption that in a properly structured and justly administrated society, all people from every subgroup will have similar life outcomes is fundamentally flawed.

Thomas Sowell says it well in The Quest for Cosmic Justice: “A society that puts equality [at the fore]—in the sense of equality of outcome—will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests.” In short, the quest for equality without recognition of other crucially important factors of justice will result in an unjust society where coercion is used to bring about equal distribution instead of finding a balance between different and equally valid and important forms of justice. As a result, one vision of egalitarian justice (equal outcomes for all) gets set in opposition to other forms like meritorious justice. The inevitable (and deeply ironic) result is injustice in the name of a justice. In the last century, places like Cuba, Nicaragua, China, and Russia (to name a few) give ample evidence off the murderous and tragic results of this kind of forced execution of “egalitarian justice” in an attempt to bring about the (not so) “great society.”

The essential confusion here is assuming that equality equals sameness and equal outcomes when in fact God does not advocate sameness as the goal of life. He advocates harmonious integration, interdependence, and mutual appreciation, something that assumes the presence of unique and interwoven parts, but also requires difference as inherent to the very fabric of existence. Romans 15:1-3, 5-7 puts the vision this way: “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’ May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

To say, however, that all people must be treated equally under the law is very different from saying all people must have the same endowments, possessions, talents, skills, and capacities and in order to achieve the same basic life outcomes. In addition, what you don’t want to end up doing is punishing people for being exceptional and using their gifts and abilities to excel. Yes, they can use those talents and abilities for selfish ends, but they can also use them for the greater benefit of all. The issue is not so much with exceptionalism as it is with how that exceptionalism is used in reference to others. Do I use my gifts, talents, and resources to care for and empower others or do I use them to enrich my own life to the exclusion, detriment, and diminishment of others?

Much more could be said here, but I have said little about the issues surrounding fair distribution of goods and services (a matter of equitable and egalitarian justice) versus fair distribution of overall resources within a society. This aspect, often called “need” justice, pertains to those in society who, for various reasons, find themselves in dire circumstances and need immediate (and often ongoing) assistance to live and survive. It is to this expression of justice we will now turn our attention in the third and concluding part in this series on true justice.


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?


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.