Tag Archives: Reconciliation

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.

Am I a racist?

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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.

The Reconciling Power of the Gospel

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Glancing around my theology class, I was struck by the mix of cultures present in the room.  Outside of the fact that I am from the USA, students hail from places like East Asia, India, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar (Burma), Suriname, and Singapore.

There is more significance to this list than might be appreciated at first glance.

Not only do the USA and Japan have a contentious past, Asian nations also have a long and bitter history of conflict and war with each other.  During World War II, for example, the Japanese not only bombed pearl harbor, they conquered the Philippines, Korea, as well as much of China and Southeast Asia.  As they advanced, they brutally killed and imprisoned many of the inhabitants.  Those allowed to live were sometimes raped, beaten, and treated like slaves and animals.

I mention this not to shame the Japanese.  All sides committed great atrocities against one another.  And Americans should not forget the countless innocent civilians indiscriminately killed in Japan when atomic warheads were dropped on two of their major cities.  I only share these examples to illustrate how deep the hatred and animosities still run between these countries up until the present.  For many, the pain and anger are still very fresh and very personal.

I also mention this to show the transforming power of the gospel.  Here at our seminary, these students are all sitting together peacefully, worshiping God, loving each other, praying, learning, and sharing together as devoted brothers and sisters in Christ.  In view of human history, only God could orchestrate this kind of unlikely fellowship of saints.

This is the radically profound power of the gospel.  It takes all the wrongs and atrocities of the past, all the shame, anger, bitterness, unforgiveness, and searing loss, and brings it to the cross.  Here in Christ alone, the nations of the world find genuine healing and permanent reconciliation with God and one another.  It’s one more reason I am not ashamed of the gospel because it truly is the reconciling power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, whether they were previously fast friends or even mortal enemies.