Ten years ago, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2012, could you have predicted where we would be on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2022? Some surely foresaw a number of our present sorrows. But who could have foreseen Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown, and Charlottesville, and Confederate-monument debates, and Trump, and national-anthem kneeling, and George Floyd, and the outrage of 2020 — to name just a few of many tragedies and controversies? And who could have imagined that the events of these ten years would so severely tear the fabric of our Reformed world?
Even by 2017, John Piper could mourn the “improbable constellation of [racial] sorrows” unknown in 2012. The last five years have only added to the improbable constellation, splintering a once-unified Reformed evangelicalism into groups that often struggle not only to partner with one another but even to understand each other.
And that struggle to even understand touches on one of the many dysfunctions beneath our divisions: in our thinking and talking about race in recent years, many of us have failed to engage the issues and one another Christianly. Many conversations, especially online, have savored less of Solomonic wisdom and more of political savvy (no matter how apolitical we may feel otherwise). Too easily, many of us have adopted and advocated for positions not because we have thought through them carefully, prayerfully, with open Bibles and in thoughtful dialogue with Christians who think differently, but simply because these positions are not what the other side holds (whoever the other side may be).
The dysfunction would be easier to brush aside if it characterized only the most extreme among us, the most militantly “woke” and most virulently “anti-woke.” But too often, such a dynamic has characterized my own thought and talk. Even those who generally strive for patience and fair-mindedness are falling into these ditches. With a topic as fraught as race in the American church, almost everyone has an “other side,” a group whose thoughts and sentiments feel not only troublesome but threatening — and therefore a group we struggle to hear, much less learn from.
Healing such dysfunctional engagement would not heal all our divisions, not by a long shot. But it may soften our various prejudices, nurture deeper understanding, and (on the micro scale if not the macro) lead us toward a less fragile unity. Or, if nothing else, we may simply become better at talking when the temperature rises over other tense issues.
Talking in the Boxing Ring
In many ways, the deck of the last decade was stacked against Christian habits of thought and talk. Even as we faced the constellation of sorrows, information overload accelerated, social media colonized public discourse, and our society’s typical partisanship seemed to swallow steroids. Often, the context of our conversations has felt less like a living room and more like a boxing ring. And it’s hard to engage as Christians when the rules of the game are punch or be punched.
Many of us have learned to think and talk on the surface of things. Once, a phrase like systemic racism offered an invitation to ask, “What do you mean by that?” and then consider whether the description fits biblical and experiential reality. But our communicative climate rarely encourages such engagement. Now, systemic racism has become a badge for a particular team — one that, depending on your side, either cannot be questioned or cannot be considered. The phrase (and more like it) no longer spurs thought, but replaces thought. Meanwhile, we fall deeper into our own silos, less able to hear truths that might counterbalance our perspectives. We learn to parrot whatever voices are loudest or most immediately persuasive, and parroting, by nature, inevitably leads to partisanship and polarization.
The danger for many Christians is not that we will disown manifest biblical concerns, but that we will so underemphasize some biblical concerns (that is, the other side’s) that they become functionally denied in our theology and practice. Where we now stand, some of us don’t want to talk anymore about God’s care for the oppressed (Exodus 22:21–24; Psalm 103:6); others no longer want to discuss the necessity of due process (Deuteronomy 19:15; Matthew 18:16). Some are nervous about acknowledging the prejudice that power can bring (Deuteronomy 16:18–20); others are wary of admitting the fallibility of wounded feelings (Proverbs 18:17). Some are slower to condemn American slavery and Jim Crow (1 Timothy 1:10; James 2:1–7); others are slower to denounce the unjustly disproportionate black-abortion rate (Psalm 139:13–16).
In each case, however, the balance and emphasis of Scripture is no longer setting our theological and ethical agenda. The other side is.
Four Postures for Christian Conversation
On one level, we cannot help but think and talk from our subjective perspectives. But by God’s grace, we can avoid thinking and talking more like political people than Christian people. We can unlearn the reflexes and rhetoric of the city of man. And to that end, we can pursue four Christian postures for thinking and talking about race (or any contentious subject), adapted from the framework creation-fall-redemption-restoration.
To be human is to be wonderfully and inescapably embodied, a creature among creatures in God’s physical world. Most of our communication technologies, however, treat us as an avatar among avatars in man’s ethereal world. And much of the time, an avatar thinks and talks differently from a creature.
Martin Luther King, looking upon Southern segregation, once observed, “Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they do not know each other; they do not know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated” (Free at Last?, 68).
Today, of course, we actually can communicate in real time while separated. But to King, our technological talk would hardly look like the kind of communication he had in mind — the kind that erases ignorance, eases fears, and melts hatred. To him, our social media platforms may seem more like anti-communication technologies.
When we take our complex racial conversations onto social media, we take them into an environment that forces three-dimensional topics into a two-dimensional mold, that rewards slander and belligerence, and that (contrary to James’s counsel) teaches us to be slow to hear, quick to speak, and quick to anger (James 1:19). Image-bearers become little more than “mouthpieces of positions we want to eradicate,” as Alan Jacobs puts it (How to Think, 98). And eradicate we try.
I know proximity is a buzzword in some circles. Even still, nothing has mitigated my own tendency toward unthinking aversion of “the other side” more than looking some of the other side in the face. Something changes when your ideological opponents are no longer two-dimensional representatives of a barbarous idea, but instead living, feeling, speaking beings — and perhaps even friends.
The doctrine of the fall has not experienced the same neglect that the doctrine of creation has in recent years. Few doctrines have been so universally emphasized, even among non-Christians, than the fall of humanity. But too often, the emphasis has landed on the fall of other humans, of those humans over there.
“A pattern of hurling blame usually reveals more of our own fallenness than of the people we accuse.”
Ironically, a pattern of hurling blame usually reveals more of our own fallenness than of the people we accuse. Few instincts are less Christian and more devilish than turning the blade of God’s word against everyone’s sins but our own (Zechariah 3:1; Revelation 12:10). The doctrine of the fall, rightly grasped, does not put a spotlight in our hand so we can expose the sins of others; it reveals the spotlight in God’s hand, exposing us all (Hebrews 4:13).
Of course, to say “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23) is not to say all have sinned in the same way or to the same degree. And so, in conversations about race, we need not assume the same kind or same level of guilt on all sides. Some of us have more reason than others to suspect ourselves.
But all of us have some reason to suspect ourselves. Given all that God has said about sin, it would be astonishing indeed if anyone in these conversations had nothing to learn and, from time to time, no fault to confess. God’s regenerating work does not make fallen people flawless people. Therefore, we exercise not false humility but biblical realism when we enter most conversations assuming we don’t see everything clearly and that this other human, ideological opponent or not, has some truth to shine on us.
If the fall means we should expect to find our ignorance and sin exposed in conversations about race, redemption means we can. Those who wear the robe of righteousness can bear to see the stains beneath (Isaiah 61:10). Those who hear God’s pardoning voice can handle his reproofs (Hebrews 12:5–6). Those forgiven of much can go ahead and weep their repentance in public (Luke 7:36–50). If the fall compels us to suspect ourselves, redemption frees us to reveal ourselves: we are unafraid to be seen as the sinners we are.
“Every Christian conversation about race happens beside the spilled blood, torn flesh, and cursed cross of Jesus.”
We can easily feel like conversations about race happen beside the cliff edge of condemnation, with an admission of fault casting us over. But no: every Christian conversation about race happens beside the spilled blood, torn flesh, and cursed cross of Jesus (Ephesians 2:13–16). And all our guilt casts us onto him who preached peace to Jew and Gentile, privileged and oppressed, and whose gospel speaks a stronger word than all our racial sins (Ephesians 2:17–18).
Many of us would do well to briefly pause during tense interactions and remind ourselves of Psalm 130:4: “With you there is forgiveness.” With God there is forgiveness, even when there is none with man. A new humility may come from embracing such a promise. And humility has a way of opening doors for understanding that self-righteousness never can.
Through redemption, Jesus has united us — to himself, first and foremost, but also to all others in him, no matter how differently they understand race in America. And so, whatever team or tribe we affiliate with for practical purposes, let it never be forgotten that our true team and tribe reaches far as redemption is found.
What might happen if we began to identify more deeply with the whole church of Jesus Christ than with our particular pew? We might renounce the old Corinthian folly of finishing the sentence “I follow . . .” with any name other than Jesus (1 Corinthians 3:4). We might recover the true sense of the word prophetic and gain courage to reprove our own friends. We might find new freedom in pursuit of truth, knowing that a genuine win for “the other side” is a win for us all. We might live up to our identity as sons of a peacemaking Father (Matthew 5:9).
Joining the Needlessly Divided
The road of racial harmony still stretches far ahead of us — in our friendships and churches, in our denominations and broader networks. And if the last ten years have taught us anything, they have taught us that no one can really know where we’ll be a decade from now. But oh that John Wesley’s praise for John Newton might rest upon many in that day:
You appear to be designed by Divine Providence for an healer of breaches, a reconciler of honest but prejudiced men, and an uniter (happy work!) of the children of God that are needlessly divided from each other.
Such healers of breaches will not arise from the knee-jerk opposition that has become so common. They will carry the hope that “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3) forms a stronger tie than the unity of political party, cultural similarity, or any ideological kinship. They will arise from the ground of Christian thought and Christian talk — embodied, fallen, redeemed, united.