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Michael Emerson, Thaddeus Williams, and Racial Disparities

Exploring the Cause(s) of racial disparities

I love it when my books start having a conversation with each other. Both Divided by Faith and Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth ask the question: Why do we see so much racial inequality in America? Or, rather, how do we go about answering this question? Emerson (Divided by Faith) and Williams (Confronting Injustice) come at the questions with different goals and perspectives. The way they answer these questions — and the way those answers bounce off one another — have a lot to teach us about the need for having multiple mental categories by which to view complex problems, and the danger of having only a single category. 

Review of Divided by Faith

You may want to review two key ideas from Divided by Faith: The “racialized society“, and the “religio-cultural toolset.” The racialized society is “a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships.” The racialized society describes the problem of race in America. Despite success in abolishing slavery and ending Jim Crow segregation Americans are still profoundly divided by race and that division leads to unequal outcomes. 

Christians, like others, see the racial division and inequality and attempt, using resources at hand, to solve the problem. Those “resources at hand” are what Emerson calls a “religio-cultural toolset,” or the way our religious and cultural categories help us interpret the world. Emerson argues that the evangelical toolset is comprised of three fundamental beliefs. 

First, we are fundamentally responsible for our own actions. We are accountable before God for our individual sins (individualism). Second, that sin works itself out in our relationships and leads to division and animosity (relationalism). Third, structural attempts to solve society’s problems are misplaced and should not be trusted because they ignore the root of the problem (antistructuralism). 

This toolset helps evangelicals see racism in terms of bigotry and individual acts of discrimination but prevents them from seeing broader structures or systems (in the justice system, education, housing, policing, etc.) which might account for inequality based on race.

Evangelicals try to solve for X in the equation:

Equally Created + Equal Opportunity + X = Unequal Outcome

Since structures are excluded from possible answers to X then evangelicals default to answers that go back to individualism (life choices, possibly arising from culture) and relationalism (isolated instances of discrimination or family breakdown). Emerson believes that a limited religio-cultural toolset prevents evangelicals from providing meaningful solutions to the division and inequality found in our racialized society

Social Justice A and Social Justice B

Now let’s turn to Thaddeus Williams in his new and well-praised book Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth. In it, Williams distinguishes between “social justice A” and “social justice B” (both stand in contrast to a lack of concern with social justice.) Williams holds in tension the two ideas present in his title. He wants to confront injustice (racism, bigotry, oppression, systemic evil) while holding firmly to the truth. His emphasis is on this latter part and, in doing so, he spends much of his time critiquing social justice B. 

Both the A model and the B model of social justice care about justice and use a similar vocabulary. Distinguishing between A and B is what the book is about, so I won’t do a full delineation here. Instead, I’m going to focus on just one chapter to show how the two differ in trying to answer the same question presented by Emerson in Divided by Faith. Why do we see racial inequality? 

Unequal Outcomes and Systemic Injustice

Williams begins his chapter “The Disparity Question” by pointing out that Social Justice A and B have different definitions of systemic injustice. According to theory A “systemic injustice is any system that either requires or encourages those within the system to break the moral laws God revealed for his creatures’ flourishing.” Biblical examples include laws established by Darius and Pharoah and the Imperial Cult in the New Testament. While I think this definition is too narrow[1] it offers a good starting point and highlights the contrast with theory B. 

Social Justice B offers a different picture. Williams: “From a Social Justice B perspective, the way you spot systemic injustice is by looking for unequal outcomes. An unequal outcome becomes damning evidence that sexism, racism, or some other evil ‘ism’ is at the foundation of the system.” In other words, unequal outcomes are sufficient and definitive evidence to show that a system or institution is systemically unjust.

Why, then, do we see inequality? Williams quotes Ibram X. Kendi, an exemplar of Social Justice B in answering: “racial disparities must be the result of racial discrimination.” And again, “When I see racial disparities, I see racism.”[2] According to Social Justice B, inequality comes from discrimination which is baked into the system.

To illustrate how this plays out, let’s consider the New Jersey Turnpike where “black drivers received nearly twice as many speeding tickets as white drivers.” According to theory B, this disparity proves racial discrimination in policing. However, when a follow-up study was performed, a different story came to light. The study found that “in the southern segment of the turnpike, where the speed limit is 65 m.p.h., 2.7 percent of black drivers were speeders, compared with 1.4 percent of white drivers. Among drivers going faster than 90 m.p.h., the disparity was even greater.” In other words, black drivers were twice as likely to be speeding. But the story doesn’t stop there: “Demographic research has shown that the black population is younger than the white population, and younger drivers are more likely to speed.” In other words, the disparity, in this case, doesn’t appear to arise either from racial profiling, or from race, but from age.

Williams does not deny the existence of racial profiling or real discrimination (“Sinful discrimination indeed causes real disparities”) but says that we are too hasty to say that all disparities come from discrimination or systemic injustice. There may be other culprits.

It might be better, in my opinion, to view the presence of racial inequalities as an invitation to explore the ways either structures or discrimination or the effects of history, might contribute to those outcomes.  

 The Magic Wand of Equality

Williams invites us to perform a thought experiment. Imagine a world with zero discrimination. In that world, someone has a magic wand that he can wave to also eliminate all inequality. Everyone wakes up with one million dollars. It would not be long before unequal outcomes crept back in. Why? Different people make different choices with what to do with their money. Some would splurge and some would invest. Using this thought experiment Williams seeks to show that, while personal choice is not the only factor in different outcomes, it is a factor that is often ignored by those in the Social Justice B camp.[3][4]

Williams draws out two main concerns for the Social Justice B narrative that unequal outcomes must be the result of systemic discrimination. First, he argues, taking discrimination as a one-size-fits-all explanation is too simplistic. Such a simplistic explanation will cause us to see discrimination where it doesn’t exist and may prevent us from clearly identifying the real injustices around us. 

Second, if we fail to distinguish between inequalities that come from discrimination and those that arise out of personal choice, then we risk repeating failures of modern history. The magic wand of equality takes the form of oppressive government intervention which subverts the role of personal decision making. If personal choices lead to different outcomes and “different outcomes are a priori evidence of injustice, then freedom itself is unjust.” 

Sociologist George Yancey shares this concern in his critique of Kendi’s How to Fight Racism points out that “since Kendi argues that any differences between racial groups are due to racism, then to have the wrong idea about, say capitalism, is to not fully allow the mandates of antiracism if capitalism can be shown to contribute to differences between racial groups.” To be antiracist, we must also be anticapitalist. Since capitalism leads to different outcomes, supporters of capitalism are racist. 

Again, Williams doesn’t say that personal choice is all that matters, nor does he say that some cases of inequality can’t rightly be blamed on systemic injustice and discrimination. Instead, he’s concerned that if we believe it’s the only possible reason, then we will be blind to real injustice and offer dangerous “solutions” in the form of oppressive government intervention in the name of fighting injustice. 

The Danger of being Jobs Friends

I agree with much of Williams’ arguments in this chapter, but I have a few critiques. First, he tends to downplay the role of past discrimination as it concerns unequal outcomes. Let’s say that past systemic injustice led to unequal outcomes among people of different racial groups (as it most certainly did) and that while the current system is, at least on paper, totally free, it leads to the perpetuation of that inequality (up for debate)[5]. Such a system may not be unjust by Williams’ definition (it doesn’t require or encourage anyone to break God’s law) but it perpetuates the result of the past discrimination, one that was based on race. By what lens should a Christian view this moral dilemma? Williams does not explore that question.

My second concern does not go to Williams’ argument, but to the way aspects of his logic play out in real-world minds. If Emerson is right about the limited cultural toolset and the general difficulty evangelicals have in seeing structural issues or solutions, then an overemphasis on choice could lead to the following wrong conclusions: Poor outcomes come from poor choices. African Americans have worse outcomes. Therefore, African Americans make poor choices. Therefore (and this would never be stated out loud) there must be something inherently wrong within African Americans that leads to poor choices and poor outcomes. I’m not saying this last step necessarily follows from the premises, or is logical, but the step isn’t hard for many to take. It doesn’t take too long to get from “it’s all about personal choice” to real instances of feelings of supremacy and attitudes of bigotry. 

We might call this the problem of being Job’s friends. When Job suffered disaster after disaster his friends had only one lens by which to interpret these events. Job must have sinned. He must deserve what he had coming to him. They could not see any other explanation and that earned them God’s rebuke. 

The Danger of Having a Single Lens

Emerson and Williams have different concerns, but both point to the real dangers of viewing the world through a single lens. Emerson argues that white evangelicals fail to see real structural issues that contribute to a racialized society because of an overly individualistic religio-cultural toolset. Williams argues that Social Justice B advocates fail to recognize the complexity of inequality because they see discrimination as the only cause. Both failures of vision lead to either ineffective or dangerous solutions.

Complex problems require us to view the world through a multitude of perspectives. Inequality is a complex problem and we’re not well served by looking for single answers (personal choice, discrimination, historical impact). Neither extremes offer meaningful solutions because they fail to recognize the complex world in which we live.[6][7]

Both also, I believe, miss out on the nature and consequences of the gospel. Social Justice B, in transferring all guilt to the (other) tribe or the system, can fail to recognize the truth that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” By contrast, an overly individualistic reading of the gospel leads us to miss out on the calling to seek justice in the broader society. It could fail to recognize that God is not only concerned about saving souls but redeeming the entire cosmos. 

Footnotes:

[1] I believe Williams’s definition of systemic injustice is too narrow because he focuses only on whether or not it actively encourages someone to break God’s law. I think a system could be unjust by establishing a system wherein one group is discriminated against through the morally neutral behaviors of the people in the society. Consider drug sentencing laws. The war on drugs set up sentencing guidelines that were far harsher for drugs common in African American communities than those in White communities which led to racial disparities within the criminal justice system. In such a system, it’s hard to see how a judge or a prosecutor would be actively disobeying God (at least in any obvious way) by following the guidelines imposed by the law. Yet, one could argue that the sentencing disparities, and their impact, led to injustice against African Americans. 

[2] Either Williams or Kendi or both seem to be missing a categorical distinction between discrimination and structural injustice. Per Emerson’s categories, discrimination falls under the category of “relationalism.” That is, discrimination is performed by one individual against another. In structured/systemic injustice, injustice can be maintained without active discrimination (see footnote 1). I’m guessing that Kendi believes that the systems are discriminatory, or as I saw later, that discrimination is baked into the system. In that case, then, it might be helpful to distinguish between the two types of discrimination at play: relational and structural. 

[3] Not only is the idea that personal choices affect outcomes intuitive it is also biblical. Williams cites several Proverbs to make his point.

[4] Williams’ “magic equality wand,” thought experiment show distinctions between individuals, but the question in this chapter is over racial disparities in groups. 

Consider this Twitter exchange: 

4/21/21 Anthony B. Bradley (@drantbradley) “White racism is not the cause of *everything* that’s wrong in poor black communities across America. Progressives ignore this fact, infantilize blackness, & won’t invite moral responsibility and conservatives know this but tend to weaponize it for their own self-righteousness.” 

4/22/21 Bradley Mason (@AlsoACarpenter) “But this confuses the issue. Everyone knows that bad behavior causes problems in EVERY community. The question that White Supremacy is brought in to help answer is, why is the DISPARITY between racial communities? Conservatives want to point to individual behaviors, but that doesn’t explain inter-group outcome disparity, only individual outcome disparity. Liberals at least recognize that individual and systemic racism is the broad explanation for vast society-wide racial disparity.”

Mason Bradly makes a good point and, to my knowledge, Anthony Bradley did not respond. However, what if there are personal behaviors that are more or less common in one group than another? (Williams earlier cites the Success Sequence). Could that be weighed as a possible explanation for disparities between groups? 

[5] This sentence represents a hypothetical not a statement of my personal belief. On the one hand, there’s strong historical evidence that greater freedom leads to greater equality. The most equal societies tend to be those with democratic systems. However, it is not hard to imagine how a capitalist society, given the existence of historical injustice, would perpetuate certain forms of inequality, especially without safeguards. Those groups with capital (power) could secure the best schools, places to live, and wealth-building institutions while those without such power would be shut out. A person with more power would have more choice and could use that choice to increase the wealth gap. If power is already distributed based on race then racial inequality could be perpetuated through the free and moral choices of the individual actors. Social Justice B solutions to this dilemma, however, seem dangerous to me (see Williams and Yancey) but it’s worth noting the existence of such a dilemma.

[6] Walter Wink’s quote (from a completely different context) also fits well here: “It is a virtue to disbelieve in something that does not exist. But it is dangerous and arrogant to disbelieve in something simply because it exists outside our current, limited categories.”

[7] This narrative-first thinking is perfectly illustrated by the left and right’s responses to the Derek Chauvin conviction and the tragic death of Ma’Khia Bryant as David French demonstrates in this piece.

Are Christians inherently conspiracy theory-minded?

In July of 2020, a church in my area opened its service with a video associated with QAnon. That video, which I watched along with the sermon, contained an amalgamation of conspiracy theories around the coronavirus, Black Lives Matter, and mail-in-voting. He followed his video with a political rant, with some Scripture sprinkled in.  

The spread of conspiracy theories, particularly around the election, race, and the coronavirus, among Christians online and within churches has caused me and others to ask some soul-searching questions. I will explore three in this post:  

First, are Christians inherently conspiracy theorists? Second, are Christians prone to conspiracy thinking? Third, what tools do Christians have to combat false conspiracy theories? 

Are Christians inherently conspiracy theorists?

I’ve struggled with exactly how to set the parameters to this question. How does it differ from my section question – are Christians prone to conspiracy thinking? What I’m trying to get at here is whether there is something inherent within Christianity that makes followers of Jesus conspiratorial. In my second question, I will focus specifically on our cultural moment.

Why would Christians be inherently conspiracy-minded? The argument goes as follows: Christians believe in God, miracles, and the unseen world. That is, they believe things without evidence. Conspiracy theories thrive with a lack of evidence, just thin threads weaved together into a compelling story that brings meaning to people’s lives. Therefore, Christians (and other religious adherents) must be inherently conspiracy-minded.

I have two responses to this argument. First, the Christian faith is not a “blind leap into the dark.” God does not ask people to follow him without evidence. That evidence includes philosophical arguments, historical arguments (evidence for the historical resurrection), evidence for the reliability of the bible, evidence from church history, the nature of the created world, and personal experience. Different people find different arguments persuasive, but there’s no doubt reason plays a role in Christian belief. 

Second, the argument relies on a bad (or insufficient) definition of a conspiracy theory. It assumes that a conspiracy theory is simply a story that is hard to believe. While that may be a part of a conspiracy theory, there’s more to the story. For this post, I will borrow Anna Merlan’s: “a belief that a small group of people are working in secret against the common good, to create harm, to effect some negative change in society, to seize power for themselves, or to hide some deadly or consequential secret” (Republic of Lies, 14).

While one can find examples of “small groups of people working against the common good” (Pharoah killing the Hebrew babies, officials conspiring against Daniel, Haman’s conspiracy against the Jews in Esther) these stories are not central to the theology of the Bible. Instead, they illustrate how to be faithful in the face of hostility.  

In that light then, I don’t see anything within the Christian faith that makes Christians inherently conspiracy theorists. That conclusion appears to match the empirical data surrounding conspiracy theories, which vary widely in content and span cultural, political, and religious boundaries. I was surprised while reading Merlan by the broad range of American conspiracies and how many of them were shared by people of different faith.

Are Christians prone to believe conspiracy theories?

I can think of several reasons why Christians might nevertheless be vulnerable to conspiracy theories. The reasons are cultural, theological, and hermeneutical (our approach to reading Scripture). 

First, let’s consider the cultural reasons. Merlan (quoted above) points out that conspiracy theories thrive in communities that feel disenfranchised or marginalized. They grow in communities that do not trust primary sources of knowledge or expertise. They spread most during periods of social upheaval. All of those describe well the state of the conservative Christian community right now. 

While it’s a stretch to say that conservative Christians are marginalized in America, they are steadily losing cultural power – and that at an accelerated pace. Christians feel pushed out of and vilified by pop culture, academia, and even the NCAA tournament. The shift from viewing Christians as the “moral majority” to the villains is part of a broader social upheaval. Amid this upheaval, Christians see many of American’s cultural institutions as enemies, unlikely to represent Christian belief in a positive light. “MSM” frequently gets maligned. Christians see fact-checkers as mere tools of the broader establishment. No one can be trusted to tell the truth. This cultural mood predisposes many Christians to latch onto conspiracy theories that attack their cultural enemies. 

Second, let’s consider a theological reason. Christians believe in an evil power, the devil, who influences the powers and authorities from “behind the curtain.” Most Christian conspiracy theories that I come across explicitly state that some human power has allied with (or been deceived by) Satan. [Edit: I’m not suggesting that Christians should abandon belief in Satan, not that such a belief necessarily makes us gullible when it comes to conspiracy theories. However, appeals to demonic forces are sometimes used rhetorically by those peddling conspiracy theories to gain traction in Christian communities.]

Third, some Christians read the books of Revelation and Daniel as codes that need to be deciphered through current events. Christians who read biblical apocalyptic literature in this way are always on the lookout for signs of the antichrist, the mark of the beast, or a one-world government that coincides with, or will bring about the great tribulation. I’m not referring here to mere premillennialism, but to the belief that Revelation was written to a future generation in a way that only that future generation would be able to understand. Those who read Revelation in this way almost always believe that they are a part of that future generation.

All of these factors predispose some Christians to believe certain kinds of conspiracy theories, especially those that are coded with spiritual language and malign their cultural enemies. 

What tools do Christians have to combat false conspiracy theories?

I would like to propose the following non-exhaustive list of ways that Christians can be more discerning when it comes to conspiracy theories. 

First, Christians should look to multiple, quality sources for their information. Not all sources have equal credibility. Look for unbiased sources, those that are not purely based on opinion or rhetoric, present the facts within context, and point to the source material. If you feel inflamed after watching a 5-second video clip, seek out the full speech to gather the context. Take the advice of Proverbs 17:18 “In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right until someone comes forward and cross-examines.” Cross-examine your favorite media outlet before reaching a conclusion. 

Second, Christians should approach conspiracy theories with a base level of skepticism. We need to do this to combat our own biases which predispose us to believe them. Our biases cause us to agree with the premise (“politicians are evil and untrustworthy”) that warm us to their conclusion (“they created the coronavirus to bring about massive social control”). The premise may be true but we need to force the conspiracy theory to present the evidence that leads to the conclusion. Then we need to cross-examine the evidence. 

Third, I would suggest that Christians re-examine the way they interpret apocalyptic literature. My basic premise is uncontroversial: The primary meaning of Scripture can be found in what the author intended it to mean. And, that author was writing to a specific audience who he thought could understand what he wrote. John wrote Revelation to churches in the first century. If we want to know what Revelation means, we should first ask what John meant to communicate to those churches. Here’s my more-controversial conclusion: If we need a current event – inaccessible to those readers – to be added to unlock or decode the text, we should be highly skeptical of our interpretation. 

I can think of another reason why we should be cautious about reading Revelation this way: Centuries of Christians have believed they could decode its meaning. So far, they’ve all been wrong. One of these days someone might get it right, but I believe that will more likely be a “blind squirrel finds a nut” scenario than unique intellect or prophetic revelation. Jesus himself says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36).

Finally, if conspiracy theories thrive in an environment of upheaval and fear then Christian communities can foster environments of security and hope. I’m not talking about winning a culture war, though fighting for religious freedom is one way to love all our neighbors. Instead, I’m suggesting that Christians draw on our rich tradition of finding hope and security in hostile and chaotic environments. Doing so will allow us to look up in worship to God and out in service to others and free us from inward gazing conspiratorial thinking. 

[Postscript, 3/28] Scripture, when properly applied, contains important resources to help free people from false conspiracy theories. God has given us wisdom for discerning the truth (see the Proverbs). He calls us to love that truth and to expose falsehoods that distort reality and slander our neighbors. And, he gives us meaning and hope.

Here’s another nugget from Merlan’s compendium of American conspiracy theories: “The UFO mystery… expresses our secret longings for a wisdom that might come down from the stars in a new, improved, easy-to-use packaging, to reveal the secrets of life and tell us, at long last, who we are.”

Christians do not need a UFO mystery, or any other conspiracy theory, to bring meaning to our lives. God has given us everything we need in Christ.

How can it be just that God would punish the innocent in place of the guilty?

How can it be just that God would punish the innocent in place of the guilty?

Many Christians stumble over the apparent injustice of the idea that God would punish the innocent Christ in place of guilty sinners. It appears to be an affront to God’s justice. After all, we would never accept as just a human judge who punished the victim of abuse in place of the victimizer.

There’s more than one way to answer this question, but in this post, I want to explore the one given by Joshua McNall in The Mosaic of Atonement. He refers to this problem as “penal nontransference,” that is, the problem of transferring penalty from a guilty to an innocent party. He heightens the tension by showing that not only does this go against human conceptions of justice, but the justice God reveals in passages likes Proverbs 17:15: “Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—both are detestable to the Lord.”

Models of Atonement

To understand McNall’s answer we must understand the overall structure of his book. He shows that four atonement models can be made to harmonize without elevating one over the others. Each model of atonement forms a piece of a mosaic and together they give us a full picture of how Jesus’ death brings us salvation. Those four models are:

  1. Recapitulation – The feet and logical foundation of the atonement
  2. Penal substitution – The beating heart that gives life to the rest.
  3. Christus Victor – The head and purpose
  4. Moral Influence – The hands, one beckoning us to come to God, one restraining us from evil.

In this essay, we will show how McNall’s view of recapitulation solves a dilemma (penal nontransference) inherent in certain forms of the doctrine of penal substitution.

Defining terms

We must begin by defining some terms.

Recapitulation is the view the Jesus saves humanity by walking the same path as humanity but succeeding where humanity failed. The first Adam plunged humanity into sin and death through rebellion. The last Adam fully submitted himself to the Father and so God raised Him, and those who are “in” him through faith. I’ll expand on recapitulation later.

Penal substitution posits that Jesus saves humanity by experiencing God’s judgment for us. The wages of sin is death, but Jesus took our sin upon his body, and that sin was punished in his body on the cross.

As already noted, the problem of penal substitution is whether such an arrangement could be just. McNall wants us to see how recapitulation can give us the logical framework to answer that objection.

Recapitulation expanded

Recapitulation can be viewed from multiple angles. From the perspective of biblical history, we can see the parallels between Adam and Christ. Both were of a “virgin birth.” Both were tempted by the Devil, though only Jesus prevailed. Adam sinned by eating from a tree. Jesus redeemed by dying on a tree. Paul refers to Jesus as the last Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45).

Jesus also “recapitulates” Israel’s story. He was exiled to Egypt. He was tempted in the wilderness. He was baptized in the Jordan. He called to himself 12 disciples, which mirror the 12 tribes of Israel. Like Israel, he was called to be a light to the nations. Whereas Israel failed in its mission, Jesus succeeded by completely trusting the Father.

From a theological angle, we might say that Jesus’ recapitulation of humanity’s story allows him to be the new “head” of humanity. Theologians refer to this by the term “federalism” (nothing to do with its usage in American politics.)

McNall, following Irenaeus, believes that Adam, in being formed in the image of God, was formed in the image of Christ. He gets this from passages such as Colossians 1:15 and 2 Corinthians 4:4 which describe Christ as the “visible image of the invisible God” and “the exact likeness of God.” Since Christ is eternally existent, it would follow then, that Adam would be made in the image of Christ, who is the image of God. This means that Christ is the “pattern” of the whole human race. He simultaneously forms both the root and the branch of Adam, in the same sort of way that as the Messiah he forms both the root and branch of David (Revelation 22:16Isaiah 11).

Since he is the source of all humanity, all humanity can be said to subsist in him, not in a pantheistic sort of way, but in a mystical way, nonetheless. As the head, he can act on behalf of all humanity. The analogy of David and Goliath may help. David acted on behalf of all Israel by defeating Goliath, so all Israel won the battle that day. He acted in place of Israel as its representative and all Israel experienced the victory. Had he lost (by failing to trust God), all Israel would have experienced loss.

Likewise, under the representation/headship of Adam, all humanity experienced defeat. “When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned” (Romans 5:12). Where, however, one man’s sin brought death to everyone, Jesus’s obedience brings life to everyone (Romans 5:15-191 Corinthians 15:22). Adam’s sin, at the root of humanity, poisoned the rest of the tree. But there is another root, deeper than Adam, who can bring healing to all.

In a memorable passage, McNall describes Jesus as “re-heading” humanity. When Adam sinned, humanity lost its appointed head. It was “decapitated.” Christ came as the new and rightful head, to act on behalf of humanity and bring it back to life.

Is McNall alone?   

McNall bolsters his views by showing how past theologians have drawn on the recapitulative tradition:

John Calvin: “[O]ur Lord came forth as true man and took the person and name of Adam… in order to take Adam’s place in obeying the Father.” Christ, therefore, “abolished sin” not merely by penal substitution but “by the whole course of his obedience.”

John Owen: “There is no contemplation of the glory of Christ that ought more to affect the hearts of them that do believe with delight and joy than this, of the recapitulation of all things in him.”

T.F. Torrence: “He came, then not only as the creator of our race, but as the head of our race, for in him the whole race consists (Col 1:15-20). It was thus that Christ, true God took upon himself our flesh and he became true man, and as such made atonement.”

Is McNall’s view universalistic? 

If you have followed the argument carefully you might observe that it could lead to universalism, the idea that all are eventually saved. If Christ, as the root and head of all humanity, acts on behalf of all humanity, then his righteous act should apply to all and thus all should be saved.

Against such a view, McNall reminds us of the language of faith in Scripture. While there is a sense in which Christ can carry with him all of humanity, only those who believe receive the benefits of his act. He can therefore re-head humanity, reconciling all things to himself, but only the church is truly described as his body. All are made in the image of God, but only believers are being formed into the image of his Son. We must move, by faith, from the (non)headship of Adam to the (true)headship of Christ to receive the benefits of his atoning work.

Returning to the problem of penal nontransference

From a Western individualistic perspective, we are primed to see three distinct “individuals” at work in the courtroom scene that is penal substitution. You have an angry judge (God) who punishes the innocent party (Jesus) in place of the guilty party (me). The Biblical record challenges our individualistic presuppositions in two ways. First, in a Trinitarian sense, while the Father and the Son are two persons, they are, with the Spirit, one substance. In this way, God himself can be seen as taking the penalty for humanity’s rebellion.

Second, from the perspective of recapitulation, not only are the Father and the Son bound up together but so are Christ and the whole human race. “All humanity is bound up with the moral actions of a single human (whether Adam or Christ) and this singular person, therefore, acts as a federal head, on behalf of others.” Indeed, because Christ is the root and head of humanity, “Christ’s life and our lives share a mysterious but real connection.” (See Col 1:15-20).

How does this solve the problem of penal nontransference? Since all humanity is bound up with the Messiah (Acts 17:28Colossians 1:16, 17) God’s judgment displayed on the cross was a judgment against all humanity. His judgment was substitutionary because only Jesus experienced the full wrath of God in his flesh, but humanity’s sin was the true object of God’s judgment. McNall says it like this: “The cross involves the judgment of the sin of the entire human race in the body of one person who really does (somehow) contain us all.” Again, “Christ may bear the judgment of our sin because he does, in some sense, bear us.”

Imagine a runner in a marathon. That runner, before completing a race, sees another runner collapsed on the road. The runner picks up his fallen companion and hoists him up on his back and finishes the race. Both runners can be said to have finished the race, though the work (and suffering) of one substituted for the work of the other. When Adam sin, humanity collapsed on the road. But Jesus, in his recapitulation, carries us with him to the cross and the resurrection.

The idea that we are bound up with Christ gives new light to verses like 2 Corinthians 5:14: “Since we believe that Christ died for all, we also believe that we have all died to our old life”, Galatians 2:20 “My old self has been crucified with Christ” and 1 John 2:2 “He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world.”

Back to McNall’s original thesis

Recapitulation, then, forms the foundation of the atonement. That does not make it the most important aspect of atonement. All work together to form the body. But, it does provide a certain logic on which the others rely: “By reliving, retelling, and reconstructing the human story as the true Adam and true Israel, Jesus may be understood to bear the penalty for sin, secure the victory over evil, and set forth a loving example for us to follow.”

Book Review: I Am Restored by Lecrae

A caterpillar and a butterfly sit down for drinks. The caterpillar says to the butterfly, “You’ve changed.” The butterfly responds, “We’re supposed to.”

Lecrae refers to this cartoon in I Am Restored

For humans, these transformations don’t tend to happen in the safety of a cocoon, but in the crucible of crisis. Lecrae’s I Am Restored marks the second book that recounts crisis and transformation that I have read this year, the first being Another Gospel by Alisa Childers. One might add Esau McCaulley’s struggles with biblical interpretation to the list.

Childer’s crisis of faith had a single point of struggle: A pastor who called into question her fundamental beliefs about the work of Jesus and the reliability of Scripture. Lecrae’s struggles were more multifaceted and personal. He wrestled with the demons of past trauma – childhood sexual and physical abuse – that continued to haunt him into his adulthood. He also struggled with a sense of alienation from his fans and theological tribe, a rift that widened when he began to directly address issues of race and justice.

Other issues added to the chaos: substance abuse, marital division, clinical depression, a breakdown of accountability structures that led to highly curated “authenticity” and a general loss of faith. Lecrae’s restoration out of this turmoil didn’t happen overnight. Nevertheless, it proved to be the crucible that led to his (yet incomplete) transformation. Here are a few noteworthy shifts: 

From self-reliance to acceptance of help through licensed therapy: Lecrae found great value in therapy, not only when he faced depression, but as a way of maintaining good psychological health.

From curated authenticity to confession and openness with those who loved him most. He had previously shared sensitive areas of his life to help his fans but hid the darkest corners from his closest friends. Part of his transformation came from confessing his sins and experiencing the forgiveness extended to him. He doesn’t enter this new form of honesty in a performative way to help others heal, but to help him heal from his own trauma.

From rote spiritual disciplines to rhythms of rest and meditation. Lecrae’s relationship with the spiritual disciplines is idiosyncratic. At his worst moments, prayer and Scripture reading had gone out the window. In one false start to pull himself up by his spiritual bootstraps, he reignited those disciplines, but to no avail. Part of the problem was that he was going to Scripture primarily for head knowledge, not to see himself in God’s redemptive story. His new disciplines (rhythms) include meditation and daily, weekly (Sabbath), and annual times of rest. 

From a narrow to a broad view of the Church. Early in Lecrae’s spiritual journey, he fell in love with a distinct American Reformed theology and the community that surrounded it. He has since expanded spiritual and theological horizons to learn from brothers and sisters around the world. He discovered that Christianity was not just a white man’s religion, but one that found expression in many different cultures.

From self-righteousness to complete dependence on God. Ironically, you would think that his love for Reformed theology would have kindled in him a sense of dependence on God. Instead, his caterpillar self simply longed merely to be “right.” He prided himself on knowing all the theological facts. He looked down on others who did not. This pride lay at the heart of many of his issues. He needed to come face-to-face, once again, with the God who showed his grace, not only at a moment of salvation but throughout the whole of his life.

Here Lecrae makes a critical distinction for his readers. He wants us to know that God, and communion with him through Jesus, is the only final answer to our chaos and trauma. At the same time, he embraces the provisions that God offers to mediate his healing to us. Note this important paragraph: 

We must use every muscle of faith and every human tool in its proper context, as God intended. I’m tempted to say, at this point in my journey, that counseling is the answer. Counseling is not the answer, it is the provision for my health. Others might think that eating right and exercise are the answer. They are not the answer, but the provision. These tangible means are benefits, but they are not preeminent. We need every tangible muscle but we also need the intangible muscles of spiritual fellowship with God.

I have never experienced the sort of trauma that Lecrae has, but I found this book at points convicting and healing. It was convicting because he uncovered my own self-righteousness. It was healing because it reminded me of God’s love and redemption. Lecrae covers a broad range of topics, but at its core is the gospel truth that God’s restoration is available to absolutely anyone.

The Political Protest of the Church

In my previous post, I reviewed Esau McCaulley’s approach to finding the meaning of the Scriptures through the lens of the “black ecclesial tradition.” Here we see the fruit that this approach bears when considering the political witness of the church

In chapter 3 McCaulley asks the question “What does the New Testament have to say about the political witness of the church in response to the oppressive tendencies of the state?” (50) 

McCaulley asks this question primarily concerning political protest, in particular, the long tradition of African American protest in the Civil Rights movement and today. However, this topic has relevance, to any situations where “those in authority stand in the way of us living as free Christians.” (52)

McCaulley surveys several passages in the New Testament to answer the question. We’ll look at his interpretation of three of those passages: Luke 13:31-33, Galatians 1:3-4, and Matthew 5:3-12.

Jesus and Herod: Luke 13:31-33

“At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.

He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!”

Luke 13:31-33

Why was Herod trying to kill Jesus? Why did Herod see Jesus as a threat? While Herod did not fear God he understood that the populace saw Jesus’ healing ministry “as a sign of the in-breaking reign of God.” (55) He would have known that “the possibility that the advent of God’s reign through Jesus might upset his own,” (55) if not through divine power then through popular uprising.[1] 

Jesus responds by calling Herod a fox. Jesus meant this as a critique of the cunning and deceit he used to gain power. Herod used his power only to make himself appear great, not use it for the good of the people. By calling Herod a “fox” Jesus offers a “description of his political activity as it relates to the inevitable suffering of the people.” (55)

After that, Jesus refers to his prophetic identity. Jesus stands in continuity with the prophets of the Old Testament who combined a religious critique with a political one. McCaulley uses Isaiah as a case study to show that prophets “offer a criticism of Israel both for its failure to follow the one true God and for its oppression of the poor.” (57) For examples see Isaiah 5:81:4, and 1:17. Isaiah saw that failures of righteousness and justice are linked. “Israel’s oppression of the poor in his day betrayed a practical apostasy” (58) and the prophets called out both the apostasy and oppression of Israel’s rulers.

Jesus and the prophets gave a political critique to those who practiced injustice and oppression.  

Paul and the Rulers: Galatians 1:3-4

“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.”

Galatians 1:3-4

McCaulley identifies the “present evil age” as the world held under the domain of spiritual powers. These “powers and authorities” (Ephesians 6:12) influence earthly rulers and their political, economic, and social policies. In Rome, this would have included “the demonic evil of slavery… and economic exploitation of the populace… both of which existed because of the policies of Roman leadership as dictated by spiritual forces.” (60)

How, then, does Jesus rescue us from this present evil age? We could interpret this passage by saying that Paul is only referring to “spiritual enslavement.” Or, we could interpret Paul as calling the church to establish God’s kingdom on earth in the present. 

In contrast to these interpretations, McCaulley says that “Jesus saves us from our sins, and he also calls us into a kingdom that treats people better than the way Rome treats its citizens.” (61). Jesus rescues us from this present evil age by freeing us to live as free people while we await his return. As free people, we may with Paul call oppressive systems in this world evil. 

McCaulley concludes from Paul: “Protest is not unbiblical; it is a manifestation of our analysis of the human condition in light of God’s word and vision for the future.” (62) The church stands as a continual truth-telling beacon, embodying the freedom of Jesus, in a dark world.

Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:3-12

Finally, we turn to the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12). McCaulley reflects on three: Blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice[2], and blessed are the peacemakers. 

Blessed are those who mourn: Those who mourn do so because they sense that something is wrong in the world. A theology of mourning keeps us from apathy. It causes us to hunger for something better. Mourning forms the basis of our protest.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice: We need to do more than mourn what is wrong with the world, but be armed with a better way. Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God gives us that better world to long for. “Hungering and thirsting for justice is nothing less than the continued longing for God to come and set things right.” (66)

Blessed are the peacemakers: Mourning over the fallenness of our world, combined with a hunger to see things set right, leads us to pursue peace, to be peacemakers. The bible gives us a robust picture of peacemaking. Peacemaking involves more than just the cessation of external conflict, it involves truth-telling, righting wrongs, and restoring relationships. Biblical peacemaking can be both corporate (ethnic/national) and personal. 

What do these reflections have to do with the church’s political witness? While the beatitudes certainly have a personal application, in the messianic context, a context in which Jesus is announcing himself as the new King with a new rule (see note 1 below), they are “unavoidably political.” In this context, “Jesus asks us to see the brokenness in society and to articulate an alternative vision for how we might live.” (66) and then to pursue that vision through peacemaking. 

Conclusion: 

McCaulley does not offer us a systematic theology of political engagement. Instead, through this collection of texts (and more that I have left out[3]), he demonstrates a pattern in Scripture that shows us that the systems of this world are corrupt (a present evil age) and that Christians have a role in identifying that corruption. He uses phrases like “bearing witness” and “articulate an alternative vision” to show that the New Testament doesn’t speak of using coercive power, but of showing a better way forward.

I believe his key points are as follows: 

  1. Christ-followers have a role to play in calling out the evil of the present age embodied in unjust rulers and systems (political protest). In so doing, we follow the examples of Jesus and the prophets
  2. Christ frees us from this present evil age and that freedom enables us to live in such a way that bears witness to his coming kingdom (church as an alternate political reality)
  3. God calls us to seek the goodness of his kingdom, not as though we can construct it, but because we hunger and thirst for the justice that comes along with Christ’s reign. We do this through telling the truth, righting wrongs, and restoring relationships (advocacy, justice, reconciliation)  

As we wait for the final coming of God’s kingdom at Christ’s return “He calls us to enter into this work of actualizing the transformation that he has already begun in the death and resurrection of his Son… [which] includes bearing witness to a different and better way of ordering our societies in a world whose default instinct is oppression.” (70)

[1] We face an interesting dilemma right off that bat. Was Jesus a political figure and did he threaten Herod’s reign? He answers this in John 18:36 saying, “my kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus is the King who, in an ultimate and eschatological sense, undermines all of the world’s kings and kingdoms. Yet, his kingship and kingdom do not derive from worldly power. Herod was right to be threatened by Jesus, but he fundamentally misunderstood the nature of that threat, just as Jesus’ disciples were right that he came to bring in a new kingdom, but fundamentally misunderstood the nature of that kingdom. 

[2] Throughout this chapter, McCaulley translates Matthew 5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice” instead of the more common righteousness. I wish he had explained this move since it may distract his readers. I believe McCaulley’s translation to be valid for two reasons. First, the Greek word carries with it a sense of justice. Second, as noted in the discussion of Isaiah, Scripture closely links righteousness (personal) with justice (public, social). 

[3] Of particular note here is the book of Revelation, which stands as a critique of Roman power and oppression.

An Exercise in Hope

Introduction

Esau McCaulley grew up immersed in the gospel, church, and Scripture. But when he attended a university that was 98% white to double major in history and religion he found himself thrust into the middle of a “hundred years’ war between white evangelicals and white mainline protestants.” (9) 

McCaulley was frustrated to discover that this debate had been carried out without the witness of his tradition in the Black church. He began to look to Black theologians in the academy but discovered that they did not share the high regard for Scripture that he had experienced in his home and church. His book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope captures his attempt to identify a “fourth thing” between white progressives, white evangelicals, and African American progressives: the Black ecclesial tradition. 

A fourth thing 

Before we describe “African American Biblical interpretation” and how it is “an exercise in hope,” let’s define McCaulley’s conversation partners.

White progressives: McCaulley’s white progressive professors saw biblical fundamentalism as a problem. They saw the Bible as a tool in the hands of white slave-holders to oppress Black people. They had a point. But, McCaulley saw that the solution these progressive pastors offered robbed their Black students of a crucial spiritual resource. 

How did the white progressive story do this?

“In this story, Black students do not really enter in as actors. We are acted upon, our suffering functioning as examples of the evils of white supremacy… But there is a second testimony possibly more important than the first. That is the testimony of Black Christians who saw in the same Bible the basis of their dignity and hope in a culture that often denied them of both. In my professor’s attempt to take the Bible away from the fundamentalists, he also robbed the Black Christians of the rock on which they stood.” (8, emphasis added)

McCaulley felt alienated from the white progressives that surrounded him. They undermined Scripture by saying that it justified slavery. McCaulley, drawing on his upbringing, saw in Scripture a source of dignity and hope for Black Christians, a tool of liberation, not oppression.

White evangelicals: McCaulley next turned to evangelicalism, again in a primarily white environment. Evangelicalism, as defined by Historian David Bebbington, has four pillars: Conversionism (the need for new birth), Activism, Biblicism (high regard for Scripture), and Crucicentrism (stress on Jesus’ sacrificial death). On these beliefs, Black Christians and white evangelicals have much in common.  

However, while McCaulley felt comfortable with evangelical theology, he felt alienated from evangelicalism as a movement. He observed that along with the four pillars of evangelicalism listed above, white evangelicals held unspoken fifth and sixth pillars. “These are a general agreement on a certain reading of American history that downplayed injustice and a gentleman’s agreement to remain largely silent on current issues of racism and systemic injustice.” (11) 

McCaulley appreciated evangelicalism’s high view of Scripture but took issue with the way that the Bible functioned. It “had been reduced to the arena on which we fought an endless war about the finer points of Paul’s doctrine of salvation” but had next to nothing to say about the suffering and struggles of his community.  

Black progressives: Discontent with white progressives and white evangelicals, both of which mostly ignored Black voices, McCaulley turned to Black Christian voices within the academy. Here, however, he learned that there was a disconnect between what happened in the Academy and what happened in the Church. Because only white progressives had invested in Black pastors, the African American academy had become theologically progressive. Meanwhile, the African American Church felt stuck in the middle. COGIC pastors he talked to agreed with the theological analysis of evangelicals and the social practice of progressives but lacked an academic source for both.  

The Black Ecclesial tradition:

McCaulley calls this fourth way the Black ecclesial tradition. This “ecclesial” tradition is embodied within the Black church. It carries with it both a high view of Scripture and a deep concern for justice and liberation.

A socially located reading of the Bible

We must pause for a moment and address a possible question in the reader’s mind: Why should we seek a uniquely African American interpretation of Scripture? Doesn’t Scripture have but a single interpretation, regardless of one’s culture? McCaulley frames the question like this: “The social location of enslaved persons caused them to read the Bible differently. This unabashedly located reading marked African American interpretation since. Did this social location mean Blacks rejected biblical texts that did not match their understanding of God? Did Blacks create a canon within in a canon?”

His answer to the latter question is, in part, “yes”, but in this, they were not alone. Slave-holders had the letters of Paul as their canon within a canon, specifically, the passages which they believed justified slavery. Slaves, on the other hand, emphasized the exodus, the suffering of Christ, and the liberating character of God. Both read the Bible from a social location and, in this instance, the slave reading of Scripture proved correct. 

While Scripture has a single, objective meaning located in the authors’ (human and divine) intent, no one comes to the text from a purely objective perspective. We all bring with us our cultures and experiences. I saw a book in our church library called A Shepherd’s Look at Psalm 23. The title acknowledges that we can expect the author’s shepherding experience to yield insights not readily available to someone who has lived his entire life in an urban jungle. Likewise, we should expect that the African American experience will provide a certain perspective on Scripture not easily available to a member of the majority culture. 

McCaulley does not say that African American interpretation trumps other interpretations, but that we should enter into dialogue with it. Biblical interpretation is an exercise in dialogue. The interpreter brings her questions to Scripture and, at the same time, Scripture asks questions of the interpreter. Entering into a diverse community broadens the dialogue between people of different backgrounds and social locations. Sometimes these social locations leave us with blind spots and reading in dialogue helps us overcome our otherwise anemic interpretations. 

A Hermeneutic of trust

If McCaulley’s evangelical flank challenges the notion of a uniquely African American interpretation then he faces another challenge from the progressive flank: distrust of Scripture. Progressives, and what he calls “Black nihilists,” question whether Scripture can yield any fruit at all in the question for justice. Why would African Americans adopt the very religion and sacred Text used to oppress them? 

In the face of this challenge, McCaulley argues that we should “adopt a hermeneutic of trust in which we are patient with the text in the belief that when interpreted properly it will yield a blessing and not a curse.” (21) He does not call us to a naivete that buries hard questions glosses over difficult passages, but to enter into a careful, canonical, and theological reading of Scripture.

An exercise in hope 

Reading Scripture in this way produces hope. “The point of the very process of engaging these Scriptures and expecting an answer is an exercise in hope.” (166) I heard McCaulley say in an interview that, while the title went through several iterations, he always included the word hope. Hope saturates Reading While Black. McCaulley finds hope in God who brings physical and spiritual liberation. He finds hope in Jesus, who entered into our suffering and forgives our sins. He finds hope in the resurrection and the coming kingdom of God. 

McCaulley has much to teach us in the American church, no matter our social location. How do we read Scripture in a diverse community? What can white Christians learn specifically from the Black ecclesial tradition? How do we approach the Bible from the position of trust? How do we face the brokenness of our world with hope?

The Limited Evangelical Religio-Cultural Toolset

Michael Emerson and Christian Smith in Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America have a provocative thesis: Well-intentioned evangelicals want to solve the “race problem” in America, but are both failing to solve it and, in some ways, are exacerbating the problem. How do they come to this startling conclusion?

In my last post, I talked about how white and black evangelicals think about race and racialization in vastly different ways. In this post, I want to introduce you to a central theme of Divided by Faith which explains this division: the limited evangelical religio-cultural toolset.

As a sociology book Divided by Faith relies heavily on surveys and personal interviews. These personal interviews reveal prototypical ways in which white and non-white Christians view the “race problem” differently.

Consider Debbie, a born again white evangelical. When asked if America has a race problem she said we did, but only because we make it one: “People are gonna have arguments with people. I feel like once in a while when an argument happens, say between a black guy and a white guy, instead of saying, ‘Hey, there’s two guys having an argument,’ we say it’s a race issue” (70). By contrast, consider Otis, an African-American evangelical. He readily admitted the race problem. He described it as follows: “[t]he community is divided in many ways. It’s divided by race. It’s divided by income. And then you have the people who like to scratch each other’s backs. And they kind of form this net, and in this area, they call it the good ol’ boy system. They dominate like a monopoly. But is that really a Christian principle? And yet all of them go to church.” Otis saw the system (good ol’ boys) as exacerbating racial division.

Smith and Emerson try to explain these different perspectives through the concept of a religio-cultural toolset. This “toolset” is a way of looking at the world. Through it, we identify what is broken and recommend how to make repairs. What did they discover about the white evangelical toolset?

Religio-cultural toolset

According to Emerson, “The racially important cultural tools in the white evangelical toolset are ‘accountable freewill individualism,’ ‘relationalism’ (attaching central importance to interpersonal relationships), and antistructuralism (inability to perceive or unwillingness to accept social structural influences)” (76).

Individualism: Americans are individualistic in general, but evangelicals add to the baseline cultural individualism theological beliefs about the world. “Accountable freewill individualism” arises from the belief that only free individuals, who are independent of structures and institutions, can be truly held accountable for the moral decisions they make before God. Racial problems (like all others) must arise from the individual heart, from personal bigotry or bias.

Relationalism: Evangelicals place a strong emphasis on interpersonal relationships. Again, this arises from the theological understanding that Christians have a personal relationship with Jesus. This foundational relationship extends to our relationships with others. As we are reconciled with God, so we are reconciled interpersonally. The Christian experience moves from love of God to love of neighbor. As this pertains to race, racial problems occur when we fail to love one another in one-on-one relationships (for example, acts of discrimination) because of individual sin.

Antistructuralism: Anti-structuralism (resistance to seeing structural issues or considering structural solutions) arises as a corollary to individualism and relationalism. In interviews, white evangelicals saw systemic/structural thinking as a way of denying personal responsibility in a way that undermined individualism.

For that reason, evangelicals tended to view systemic or structural solutions with skepticism. They saw them as either missing the point because they failed to identify the root of the problem (sin within the individual heart) or as counterproductive (because they short-circuited individualistic solutions). 

Two things are worth noting on this last point: First, the equation “individualism + relationalism = antistructuralism” isn’t inevitable. The non-white and white-but-not-isolated interviewees affirmed personal salvation and the importance of interpersonal relationships but did not deny structural causes. Second, white evangelicals were selective in seeing structural causes for racial division. For instance, one responded to the interview as follows: “I think you can blame our government for some of [the race problem]. A lot of politicians have used the welfare system to make a dependent class of people. The politicians abuse that class so they can stay in office” (80).

Connection to the miracle motif

If Emerson and Smith found that white evangelicals saw racial problems to be individual/relational (and not structural), then we would expect the solutions to follow that same pattern. This is exactly what they found. The solution most offered by white evangelicals was the “miracle motif.”

“The miracle motif is the theologically rooted idea that as more individuals become Christians, social and personal problems will be solved automatically.” (117)

Interviewees consistently pointed to individual conversion as the solution to the race problem. If society is the aggregation of individuals, then if you change the individuals, you change the society. Individual change starts with conversion. “When people become Christians, they are overwhelmed by the love, respect, and dignity given to them by God. And this overflows such that Christians inevitably impart that to others” (117). Racism is first solved in the heart and is then solved through a series of interpersonal relationships. Broad societal changes – if needed – happen automatically thereafter.  

There are several problems with the miracle motif. First, theologically, it short-circuits the need for discipleship. It imagines that people “automatically” change at conversion. Second, practically, it just hasn’t worked. American history is littered with well-intentioned Christians who held to a conversionist theology and completely missed the horrors of slavery and segregation. Third, while it contains an important kernel of truth, it presents an incomplete picture of the gospel and its effects. 

Not faulty, but limited

Smith and Emerson go on to argue that this cultural toolset fails to address racism in a meaningful way, not because it is faulty, but because it is insufficient. Many evangelical versions of individualism and relationalism exclude structural and systemic responses. Consider again, for instance, institutional division in Jim Crow. Southern white Christians believed that the race problem was largely solved: They did not (at least on their assessment) feel any personal malice towards African Americans. And, from their perspective, whites and blacks seemed to get along fine interpersonally. They failed to see the injustice of segregation because it didn’t register as part of their religio-cultural toolset.

A personal note and further reading

I want to strongly affirm aspects of this toolset and the “miracle motif.” I believe that we are individually accountable before God, that Christians have a personal relationship with Jesus, that interpersonal love for neighbor and relationship building are essential, and that transformation happens through both a moment and a process of conversion through the Holy Spirit.

However, while I have not abandoned individualism or relationalism as defined above, I have become less antistructural. I want to offer a small list of references to explain a little better why:

  • Emergent systems: This is the idea that some systems are more than the sum of their parts. Society is not just a sum of individuals and therefore some change needs to occur at the systemic level, not just the personal. In this post, I apply the idea of emergent systems to the Church.
  • John Piper’s influential article on how racism becomes institutionalized. Piper starts with pride (individualism) and moves to systems in his explanation of structured sin.
  • A growing understanding of the cosmic components of salvation. This post shows how personal, communal, and social aspects of salvation are intertwined and, I hope, corrects some overly individualized notions of salvation.
  • Along the same lines, I’ll share this reflection on whether the gospel is sufficient to deal with systemic racism. My answer: Yes, but only insofar as we adopt the full gospel and don’t settle for a truncated version of it.

The Racialized Society

Why do so many conversations about race seem counterproductive? Why do they tend to offend? 

There may be many reasons why conversations about race may be difficult but at least one of them is that those in the conversations often have two very different definitions of racism.

Some people define racism as individual personal prejudice or discrimination while others view it as a structural reality embedded within American culture that leads to racial inequalities.[1] In their book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Emerson and Smith clarify this confusion with the term Racialization. 

For them, the problem of race in American is best described not in terms of individual hatred, but as “a racialized society.” 

Individual bias and discrimination

The traditional definition of racism is “an overt doctrine of racial superiority – usually labeled prejudice – that leads to discrimination” (8). If this is the extent of racism in America, we can solve the problem of race by removing through education or exhortation, these false ideologies.

Emerson observes that while racism in this form exists, it does not tell the whole story of the race problem. First, he notes that in many cases racist ideologies came later to justify status quo institutions, such as slavery. Second, based on interviews that occurred during the time of the Jim Crow era, we can see that many people rejected personal racial prejudice, all while accepting and defending social norms that led to racial inequality.

Structural inequities and racialization

We can also speak about racism by describing how structures and institutions negatively impact racial minorities, such as in areas of employment, housing, education, and policing. Emerson refers to this as “racialization.” A racialized society is “a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships” (7, emphasis his). He observes that the form of racism changes, but has a single standard: It is “the collective misuse of power that results in diminished life opportunities for some racial groups” (9).

Racist attitudes may be used to justify racialization, but they do not need to be present for racialization to occur. According to Emerson, racialization is the constant in American society even while its form changes, from slavery to Jim Crow, to its present form. Today, it takes on increasingly covert forms. Racialization is embedded in normal society, avoids direct racial terminology, and tends to be “invisible to most whites” (9, emphasis mine).

I emphasize this last point because it highlights a major divide between how African American Christians and white evangelicals view race. As Emerson goes on to argue, evangelicals have an extremely individualistic cultural toolset. This closes them off to structural conceptions of racism. White evangelicals are even more individualistic than most white Americans. On the other hand, black Christians consistently think and talk about racism as structural, historical, and embedded in society, even apart from individual racial bias. As a result, white evangelicals, looking only through an individualistic lens, simply can’t see what is of grave concern to African Americans in America.

It’s important to note that racial bias does not need to be overt for racialization to occur. Emerson and Smith give the example of college-educated whites compared to non-college-educated whites. More educated people self-report fewer racist ideas than those who are less well educated. While they are more likely to say that they value diversity in housing and education, they are more likely to live in racially homogenous neighborhoods and send their kids to racially homogenous schools.

Emerson isn’t saying that college-educated whites are covertly more racist (secretly holding biased attitudes) than non-college-educated whites. He is saying that they are more equipped to pursue the American ideal of a nice home and a quality school. In racialized America, that means “whiter” neighborhoods and schools.

Why clarity matters

We would be wise to understand this distinction when entering into conversations of race in America. I was once accused of saying that “all white people are racist” [read: have a personal prejudice against back people] when I used the term “systemic racism.” Instead, was talking about what Emerson and Smith are describing above, that racialization is structurally embedded within American society and that this racialization leads to inequalities based on race. If I had “come to terms” with my friend, perhaps our conversation could have been more productive. 

[1] As an example of this latter definition of racism consider this quote from Kaitlyn Scheiss in The Liturgy of Politics: “Racism is a system of oppression based in race – a system that is communicated affectively and experientially.”  

The Christian Essentialist

As you head into the New Year, I want to encourage you to become a gospel-centered essentialist.

I just finished my second reading of Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. The book has been influential in my thinking and it has some core ideas that are helpful to Christians and non-Christians alike. It has an underlying philosophy that needs evaluation, but I believe there’s a uniquely gospel-oriented version of essentialism that could be a gift to the church. 

What’s the Big Idea of Essentialism?

Essentialism is a mindset and set of core practices designed to give us a more intentional and focused life. As the subtitle says, essentialism is the “disciplined pursuit of less.” I find it easiest to describe essentialism as minimalism for your whole life.

Essentialism is based on the idea that most things in life are trivial and that only a few things are essential. The essentialist aims to cut out the trivial and maximize the essential. Essentialists live under the creed “less, but better.” They believe that if they focus their energy on the few most important things, they will be able to do those few things that will lead to the greatest contribution. They embrace trade-offs instead of trying to do everything at once, dissipating their energy and effectiveness.

Essentialists follow the threefold process of explore, eliminate, and execute. They explore to distinguish between the trivial many and the vital few, eliminate the trivial, and execute; establish practices to make doing the vital few things almost effortless.

What does essentialism contribute?

Author Greg McKeown has filled essentialism with practical wisdom that conforms with the reality of the world around us. In that sense, it applies to all people, regardless of their faith.

I think about essentialism all the time in my role as a project manager. Projects are constantly bombarded with a lot of good work, but to be successful, we need to focus only on what is truly essential.

The book is especially applicable in the modern West where we’ve never had more choices and opportunities. In such a world, we need to learn to choose the best from the good. We need to learn to discern the vital few from the trivial many, if only because our world bombards us with so many trivial distractions.

Consider the following insights:

  • If we don’t deliberately choose where to focus our time and energy, others will choose for us. It is better to live by design, than by default.
  • Our world is filled with “noise” that we have to sift through to find things of value.
  • We shouldn’t just try to get more things done, but get the right things done.
  • “Certain efforts produce exceptionally more results than others” (45), so it’s critical we identify which type of effort produces the best results.

We are wise to judge whether these principles conform to the world in which we live. There’s nothing uniquely “Christian” about them but they are helpful insights nonetheless, a form of common grace inherent in the created order.

Since reading the book, I’ve started listening to the Essentialism podcast which has helped me see how the intentionality of the Christian faith merges well with the philosophy and practice of essentialism.

Two of McKeown’s episodes (Nov 23, 2020 and Nov 30, 2020) highlighted guests who approached essentialism from a distinctively Christian perspective. They were sure of their core values (faith / relationship with God) and so were well-prepared to identify what was essential in their lives and then adopt the practices of essentialism to have more effective lives of faith.

What are the dangers of the essentialist mindset?

As much as I value essentialism, there are two dangers in essentialism, or at least certain interpretations of essentialism, if adopted to the extreme. 

First, McKeown defines the main goal of essentialism as achieving our “greatest contribution.” The happy and fulfilled life consists of this, that we make a contribution. To his credit, McKeown doesn’t limit contribution to career or achievement in the typical sense. He includes family and social good as well. In fact, his story of becoming an essentialist includes his shame in putting a client meeting above his family.

Also, he doesn’t equate contribution with activity. Indeed, he devotes a whole chapter to rest, but that rest serves the purpose of making us more productive when we are fulfilling our greater purpose of contribution.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to contribute to the world in which we live. Such a mission is commendable. But if you set up contribution as the greatest good – in whatever form it takes – you have set up an idol. What if, God forbid, you fail to make whatever you have defined as your “greatest contribution”? Happiness will have eluded you. As an achievement-oriented person, I have sometimes had to learn this the hard way (and I’m still learning).

By contrast, Christians believe that the good life is found in communion with God through Jesus. We could contribute nothing and still have found not only what is good, but what is best. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus has already accomplished everything that is truly essential for us through his death and resurrection.

Second, KcKeown places a major emphasis on individual choice. If we don’t choose, someone else will choose for us. Our first responsibility as an essentialist is to recognize the power of choice, to choose to choose.

Again, there’s something to be said for personal agency and intentionality. And, to the extent that McKeown opposes social pressure (which might be called “fear of man”), I agree with him. However, Christians also value submission as an essential virtue, wherein Christians give up their independent choice for the sake of someone else. At their essence, Christians submit their wills to the lordship of Christ. But even beyond that, Christians practice mutual submission within families and communities.

A uniquely Christian essentialism

Can a synthesis be found between essentialism and the gospel? I believe that it can and I will take Paul and Jesus as my examples. Both lived highly intentional, essentialist lives. That is, they were focused on what was truly most important.

Jesus lived with a focused mission. There were many miracles he could have performed and many things he could have taught about. He performed those miracles which pointed to his identity as the Messiah. He taught in such a way that pointed people to the immanence of the Kingdom of God and the need to repent. He taught a form of essentialism when he told Martha, “You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.” (Luke 10:41-42)

He knew the culmination of his ministry was on a cross in Jerusalem and resolutely set himself to the task.

Paul’s essentialism can be found in 1 Corinthians 2:2: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Paul had a single-minded focus on the gospel, its implications for the world, and planting churches committed to the gospel.

The key distinctive found in Jesus’s and Paul’s essentialism from the more generic form prescribed in the book is that Jesus and Paul didn’t come up with their own “greatest contribution”. Instead, they submitted that choice to God (Jesus, the Son, submitted to the Father, Paul submitted himself to the Godhead) and then lived “essentialist” lives in pursuit of that goal.

I would submit that a uniquely Christian version of essentialism is one that sees the pursuit of God as the first “essential” goal. This is exactly how Dana Biberston describes her experience of essentialism in the aforementioned podcast episode. Her essential activity was to prioritize time in Scripture and prayer. All streams of thought and action flowed from that source. From there, we pick up and use all the wisdom offered by McKeown as tools to use along the way.