Sin, Civil Rights, and Missions

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Founder & Teacher,

The biblical doctrine of human depravity is a great antidote to racism. I have seen this recently in two very different articles. One is by Andrew Walls called “The Evangelical Revival, the Missionary Movement, and Africa” (The Missionary Movement in Christian History, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, pp. 79-101). He points out that the Great Awakening in America and England (1730s and ’40s) gave rise to the modern foreign missionary movement. One of the ways it did so was by clarifying the unity between the sinful homeland and the sinful heathen.

There was no difference between the spiritual state of a pleasure-seeking duchess (though baptized and adhering to the prevailing religious system of the higher and middle classes) and that of a South Sea Islander. That spiritual parity of the unregenerate of Christendom and the heathen abroad had important missionary consequences. . . . A consistent view of human solidarity in depravity shielded the first missionary generation from some of the worst excesses of racism. (p. 79)

In other words, a dark view of our own depraved hearts, and a sense of brokenness before God, and a dependence on mercy in Christ make it harder for us to view others humans—whatever race—as less advantaged before God. The doctrine of total depravity unites us in desperate dependence on mercy. The early missionaries—with all their flaws and biases—knew this. And it helped them count others better than themselves for the sake of Christ (Philippians 2:3).

The other illustration of how the doctrine of depravity works against racism comes from a review of the book, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow by David L. Chappell. Elisabeth Fox-Genovese shows how the theological convictions of the black leaders of the civil rights movement were very different from those of the white liberals who supported the movement. Liberalism as a movement has a high degree of confidence in human reason and in the inevitability of human progress away from barbarism. So they saw the civil rights movement in those terms and supported it.

But Martin Luther King and most of the other black leaders were cut from another cloth. They “believed that the natural tendency of this world and of human institutions (including churches) is toward corruption.” This did not produce despair, but a “hopeful pessimism.” Humans are bad, but God is good and powerful. He can and will establish justice. The bond of human depravity among all humans and all races, linked with the hope of redemption in Jesus Christ, provided a deep and powerful impulse for the civil rights movement that many of its white liberal participants did not understand.

Seen through the lens of the leading black activists’ view of the fallen and depraved character of human nature, liberal optimism seemed more than slightly facile, especially liberal views about the natural—indeed, inevitable—improvement of the position of minorities in general and black Americans in particular. . . . It is common to assume that southern blacks readily saw whites as sinful—and often with good reason. It is much less common to recognize that leaders like [Martin Luther] King also acknowledged the inherent sinfulness of black southerners. For all but racists on either side, the conclusion is inescapable: if, “of one blood He made them,” then it inexorably follows that sinfulness adheres to the human condition shared by people of all races. The whole point of the civil rights movement was to affirm that fundamental equality of condition, yet many find irresistible the temptation to paint one side as entirely good and the other as entirely evil. . . . A heroism grounded in optimism is admirable and uplifting, but a heroism grounded in the pessimism of prophetic faith is decisively more impressive and moving. (Elisabeth Fox-Genovese, “Hopeful Pessimism,” in Books and Culture, July/August, 2004, p. 9)

Stop and ponder these amazing illustrations of the role of sober truth—even truth about total depravity—in the global missionary movement and the civil rights movement. Oh, let us hold fast to the truth of Scripture! It will break out and do its good work in ways we never dreamed.

With a broken and contrite heart over my own sin,

Pastor John