The death of George Floyd has shaken our nation’s foundations. Our churches are rightly trying to respond with compassion. But in pursuing that admirable goal, many church leaders and parishioners are adopting a race narrative that is empirically and theologically suspect.
Protestants and Catholics alike are affirming the mainstream media’s explanation for Floyd’s brutal killing: systemic racism in police departments and society as a whole. Some Anglican pastors have written that since America is “structurally” and “systemically” racist, catechesis, preaching, and evangelism must now focus on race and racism. J. D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Jamie Dew, president of New Orleans Baptist Seminary, decried the tragedy as evidence of “racial inequity in the distribution of justice in our country.” The Catholic bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut, said Floyd’s death is evidence of “systemic racism, bigotry, and discrimination in our country.” White Christians, many influenced by Critical Race Theory, are eager to demonstrate their virtue by confessing their “white privilege.”
There are empirical reasons to question the mainstream media's account. For instance, see reports on police bias by black Harvard economist Roland Fryer and by Heather Mac Donald. In addition, for the last half-century, affirmative action policies have advanced people of color in education, corporations, the military, government, the courts, media and entertainment, and most American denominations.
According to Carol Swain, retired professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University, this dubious narrative will hurt those it aims to help. It will strip from young people of color something essential for success in life: hope. Swain, an African American who grew up in dire poverty, explains, “I was convinced that I was born into a land of opportunity. Despite being born black and poor, I learned that one’s attitude toward life was far more important than your race or social class in determining what you will accomplish” (from Race and Covenant, forthcoming).
But there are even better theological reasons to reject the mainstream narrative.
Paul said, “From now on, we regard no one according to the flesh.” He saw other people as present or potential members of the “new creation”: “The old has passed away and the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:16–17). The new creation, wrote John, is made up of people “from every nation (ethnous), tribe, people, and language” (Rev. 7:9). Nations (ta ethnē) in the New Testament world were often multiracial, like the United States, but typically united by a common culture. The early church recognized that culture was rooted not in skin color but in religious cultus.
When Paul said that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal. 3:28), he was talking about how Christ brings unity based on religion, not race—for both Greeks and Jews came in various colors. He knew that skin color is skin deep.
For the apostles, the only two “races” were those of the old creation and the new creation. This explains the King James translation of Acts 17:26, in which Paul describes the unity of the human race in creation: God “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.” All men share the same blood. Ironically, Critical Race Theory teaches something similar: that races as we conceive them are not rooted in biology or anthropology, but are socially constructed.
But the apostles went much further, teaching that the work of Jesus does not destroy the old creation unity of the one human race but redeems it and brings it to its God-given destiny by the power of the Spirit. Grace perfects nature through the preaching and sacraments of the Church: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation,” and our unity in creation is “transformed into the image [of Christ] from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 5:17; 4:18).
Unfortunately, in their laudable and urgently needed efforts at racial reconciliation, many church leaders are using old creation perspectives that divide people by skin color. Moreover, they are employing secular methods that have been tried before and failed. In the 1970s, liberal Protestant denominations began trying to “diversify” clergy and congregations by using quotas and teachings about systemic racism. Millions of their members felt they were being forced to confess the sins of past generations as their own. They wondered why they should keep going to church when they could get the same thing at NPR. They wearied of being suspected of racism and sexism whenever they whispered that the gospel was being displaced by leftist politics. Eventually, they voted with their feet. There are other reasons for the decline of mainline Protestantism, but this is one of the reasons it is dying.
Now evangelical churches and seminaries are taking a similar approach. But according to black political scientist Derryck Green, these efforts merely replicate secular methods. In Race and Covenant, he writes:
In these fruitless attempts, it is always the presumption of white guilt/black innocence and the demand that whites must absolve themselves from the original sin of racism. This presumption simply imitates the way that secular political programs such as Black Lives Matter approach racial issues. They combine virtue-signaling with a look-busy-while-doing-nothing self-righteousness that keeps the “conversation” going interminably. The conversation will never end because it is presupposed that the only guilt is white guilt and the only victims are blacks. . . . White Christians genuflect in front of blacks in a ritual act of confession, admitting their white, guilt-by-association sins (racial privilege and “supremacy”) even if they have never personally committed these sins. The next step in the liturgy is for whites to express self-loathing through obligatory sacramental acts of contrition, followed by attempts to seek dispensation, which whites instinctively know they will never receive because they intuitively sense that blacks will never grant it.
As Green and others have noted, the new anti-racism has become a new religion with its own original sin (white racism), baptismal liturgy (confession of whiteness), and new birth (to wokeness). But there is no redemption, and its ethic encourages people to practice what Jesus condemned, “Do not judge, lest you too be judged” (John 7:1). It imputes motives to others based on skin color—bad motives to one skin color and good motives to other colors. This is racism by another name. It is also sinful judgment.
Green predicts that the new efforts of evangelicals, like the old efforts of liberal mainline Protestants, will fail.
Despite the fact that all this will be done in the name of Jesus, there will be no resolution. Churches will have imitated the world’s way of reparation rather than using their own theologies of redemption and atonement. They will have sacralized the secular. The churches will continue to suffer self-inflicted wounds as a result of plagiarizing false profiteers and baptizing their secular programs with tainted water.
Slavery and Jim Crow were evil and systemic. Racism is sinful. But the solution is not to replace the church’s theology of forgiveness with a secular atonement narrative that undermines the Christian narrative. Far better for Christians to let their hatred for the sin of racism lead them to the true narrative of a new creation and the new race of those redeemed in Christ. Here alone is hope for racial reconciliation.
Gerald McDermott is editor of the forthcoming Race and Covenant: Retrieving the Religious Roots for American Reconciliation.
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