White Irritability: How to talk to white evangelicals about racism
One of the first courses in my Doctor of Ministry program at Dallas Theological Seminary was Trends in Contemporary Theological Movements. One of the primary topics we discussed was racism. Both the reading and the in-class conversation was informative and intriguing. So, when it came time to propose to the professor topics for the final paper, I requested to write on racism. Below is the paper that resulted. My understanding of the evils of racism is still a work in progress. In no sense do I think I have arrived at a complete understanding. Nor do I think anything below is a revolutionary thought or development. It simply represents my observations as to what is part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
Racism has been a problem for most of human history. Based on what the Bible says about humanity after our fall into sin, that, “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5, NIV), racism surely began very early in our history. Sin hinders our ability to see other people as being equally created in the image of God. In fact, sin causes us to hate and strike out against our fellow image-bearers (Genesis 9:6). Because sin is a universal problem (Ecclesiastes 7:20; Romans 3:23), racism is, and always has been, to varying degrees, a universal problem.
Racism has been a problem for most, if not all, of American history. Whether it was the chattel slavery of the 18th and 19th centuries, or the Jim Crow era and segregation that followed, racism has taken on some particularly insidious forms in the history of the United States of America. While racism has primarily been against those of African descent, in no sense have Blacks been the only recipients of racism, prejudice, and discrimination. And, while no race or ethnicity has ever been entirely innocent of racist thoughts and actions, in the history of the USA, the vast majority of racist sentiments and injustices have been committed by whites.
In recent years, race-driven, or at least race-connected, incidents involving police officers and Blacks have driven the race issue back to the forefront of the American consciousness. As a result of these incidents, there have been riots, violent protests, peaceful demonstrations, calls for political action, and demands for societal revolution. Most would agree that significant progress has been made in eliminating racism, but there is a wide divergence of opinion as to how to root out the remaining vestiges of racism, whether individual or systemic.
Whites have been, and continue to be, the most resistant, whether it is to the recognition of racism as a systemic issue, or to the drastic measures being proposed to eliminate racism and its effects. Most white evangelicals, while fully agreeing that racism is a horrendously immoral evil, tend to respond with hostility to many of the anti-racism proposals, whether those proposals come from victims, protestors, or politicians. This resistance is perplexing to much of the American culture. Why would a group that loudly proclaims themselves to be absolutely opposed to racism be so vehemently opposed to many of the proposed solutions? Further, why do white evangelicals seem to quickly get irritated with both the propositions and the terminology being employed in the national conversation?
What does the Bible say about race and racism?
Biblically speaking, there is one race: the human race. There are different ethnicities and nations (ethnos), but only one race. The same physical traits, with variations in size, shape, and skin color, exist in all human beings. The Bible does not focus on the differences between human beings. Rather, the Bible’s primary focus when it comes to humanity is on the fact that we are all created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27). No human being is more in the image of God than any other human being. John 3:16 informs us that God’s love extends to the entire world. First John 2:2 declares that the sacrifice of Jesus was for the sins of the entire world. The “entire world” includes all the ethnicities of humanity.
The different features human beings possess, therefore, are an aspect of God “knitting us together” and creating us “fearfully and wonderfully” (Psalm 139:13-14). These variations in size, shape, and color are not errors. They are evidence of God’s creativity. The range in skin color from near white to near black is an artist’s palette, not a ranking system. “God’s fingerprints rest upon every single person without restriction…All people equally bear the likeness of God and thus possess incalculable and inviolable value.”1
The Bible does not explicitly give the origin of the different ethnicities of humanity. Some propose that they developed after the Tower of Babel, with ethnic traits becoming more and more pronounced as people with the same language became increasingly isolated. Others propose that humanity has always been multi-ethnic, all the way back to Adam and Eve. The Bible is completely silent on ethnicity until the Table of Nations in Genesis chapter 10, and even there, nothing is said of ethnic features. The focus is on different people groups and nations, not on the physical appearances of those groups and nations. Simply put, the origin of human ethnicity is not significant, biblically speaking.
The Bible also nowhere explicitly mentions racism, as least not in the modern sense of the word. Until recently, the term racism was near universally understood as something to the effect of “evil, unjust, and/or disrespectful feelings and/or actions towards a person or group of people due to the color of their skin and/or other ethnic features.” While the Bible repeatedly mentions nations being at war with each other and different peoples having hatred for one another, nowhere are these hostilities attributed to anything related to differing physical appearances.
This is not to say that the people in the Bible were colorblind or ignorant of ethnic distinctions. Rather, it appears that people in the ancient Near East were not focused on ethnic differences in appearance, at least nowhere near the extent to which many people are today. As a result, the Bible does not directly address racism. The Bible does, however, contain numerous principles that either explicitly or implicitly condemn the evil that is racism.
Deuteronomy 10:17 states that God shows no partiality. Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11 and Ephesians 6:9 exclaim that there is no favoritism with God. James 2:4 describes those who discriminate as “judges with evil thoughts” (NIV). Instead, we are to demonstrate sacrificial love to our neighbors (Leviticus 19:18; James 2:8), and the concept of “neighbor” is to extend well beyond cultural and ethnic boundaries (Luke 10:29-37).
In the old covenant system, God separated humanity into two groups: Jews and Gentiles. God’s desire in doing this was for the Jews to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6; Isaiah 61:6) and a light to the Gentiles (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6; 52:10; 60:3). Instead, for most of its history, Israel despised its neighbors. By the time of Jesus, Jews hated Gentiles and separated themselves from Gentiles as much as possible. In His death on the cross for the entire world, Jesus became our peace, destroying the barrier, tearing down the dividing wall of hostility (Ephesians 2:14). In Christ, there is neither Jew or Gentile (Galatians 3:28). For followers of Christ, racism, prejudice, and discrimination are antithetical to the life He calls us to.
The Definition of Racism
If white evangelicals, are, or at least should be, strongly opposed to all forms of racism, why are so many white evangelicals opposed to, or at least not supportive of, the current anti-racism agenda? Why do many white evangelicals become so irritated when racism is being discussed? One of the primary issues is how the definition of racism has changed, or at least been expanded, to include things outside the historical definition of racism.
For the past century, or more, the sentence “You are a racist” would essentially communicate “you hate people of different ethnicities.” It was very specific and very personal. It was something you believed and something you sometimes acted on based on your beliefs. It was identifiable. Specific beliefs and actions were clearly evidence of racism. A racist could be identified by the actions he/she took and the words he/she said. While these clear racist attitudes and actions are still considered racist, when the term racism is employed today, it is often being used to refer to something else entirely.
There are two primary recent adaptations to the understanding of what is racism. The first is that racism is a system that is advantageous to white people while being disadvantageous to all other ethnicities. In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo defines racism as, “a deeply embedded historical system of institutional power.”2 This adaptation focuses racism more on society as a whole and less on individual thoughts and actions. A racist, then, can be anyone who participates, even unknowingly, in the system of racism.
The second adaptation is that racism can only be perpetrated by those who are in power. Essentially, you can only be a racist if you hate people of other ethnicities and have the power to put that hatred into action in harming or making life more difficult for people of other ethnicities. This qualification can take a person who, under the historical definition of racism, would have been guilty of racist thoughts, words, and/or actions and make him innocent of racism because he was not in a position powerful enough to disadvantage another person.
If racism is societal, political, corporate, and systemic, it is far less personal. If racism can only be held by those in power, it is far less universal. White evangelicals often react with hostility and irritability to these adaptations because Scripture teaches us that sin is personal (Romans 3:23) and universal (1 John 1:8). There is no sin that is limited to a particular ethnicity or societal class. There is no sin that is restricted to those who possess power over other people. How the sin of racism plays out can look very different between a powerful person and a disadvantaged person, but everyone is capable of discriminating against and having prejudices against people of different ethnicities. So, yes, most white evangelicals have biblical and theological problems with these additions to the definition of racism.
As strong as those objections may be, the primary white evangelical irritation with how the terms racism and racist are being used is the fact that they are being used at all. Definitions change, but they rarely change quickly. Perhaps someday the institutional and power addendums to the definition of racism will be fully accepted and embraced. But, that has not happened yet. The vast majority of people do not think of anything systemic or limited-to-power when someone is accused of being a racist. What they think of is “someone who hates people of other ethnicities.”
Ibram X. Kendi disagrees: “‘Racist’ is not…a pejorative. It is not the worst word in the English language; it is not the equivalent of a slur. It is descriptive, and the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it—and then dismantle it. The attempt to turn this usefully descriptive term into an almost unusable slur is, of course, designed to do the opposite: to freeze us into inaction.”3 Kendi’s contention fails the test of history. For much of the past 200 years, “racist” has been consistently defined in dictionaries and used in society as a pejorative. Even if “racist” had not been used almost always exclusively in that manner, the fact that people react to its usage as if it was a slur should prevent its usage unless a slur is being intended. A rule of communication is to understand how your words are going to be interpreted by your audience, especially if your intention is to have a productive dialogue.
As a result, the terms racism and racist should not be employed to refer to the alternate understandings. Why use a term that is very likely going to be misunderstood? Especially, why use a term that is going to be interpreted as a strong pejorative if that is not the intended meaning? If the goal is for racism to be understood so that it can be eliminated, why use terminology that is going to result in hostility rather than openness and desire for further dialogue?
Using the terms “racist” and “racism” outside of their historical and near universal understandings does not lead to understanding, peace, reconciliation, or progress. It leads to irritability, conflict, misunderstanding, and resistance. It does not matter if the intended meaning is “participant in the system of institutional power,” if that is not how the vast majority of people will understand the terms. Are we aiming for conflict or communication? Proverbs 25:11 instructs us to use “words fitly spoken.” Using terms that will be badly misunderstood—misunderstood to the detriment of the conversation on a vitally important topic—is the antithesis of “fitly spoken.” Freeing the nation and the world of racism is vitally important, and as history demonstrates, exceedingly difficult. Let’s not make it even more arduous by using terminology that creates far more heat than light.
In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo writes, “It is white people’s responsibility to be less fragile; people of color don’t need to twist themselves into knots trying to navigate us as painlessly as possible.”4 Perhaps it isn’t that white people are fragile. Perhaps it is that white people’s heads are spinning so fast trying to keep up with the definitions: “DiAngelo’s book is replete with definitions of various forms of racism, including colorblind racism, aversive racism, cultural racism, and more. In the end, she defines racism in so many ways that the reader is left with no choice but to agree with her statement that…we must continue to ask how our racism manifests, not if.”5
In addition to the resistance to including systemic racism in the core definition of racism, many white evangelicals are also wary of systemic racism as a concept. Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, defines systemic racism as “systems and structures that have procedures or processes that disadvantages African Americans.”6 Glenn Harris, president of Race Forward, gives the following definition: “the complex interaction of culture, policy and institutions that holds in place the outcomes we see in our lives…Systemic racism is naming the process of white supremacy.”7
Why do many white evangelicals struggle with systemic racism as a concept? There are two primary aspects of the common definitions of systemic racism that cause white irritability. The first is in the lack of specificity. Phrases like “systems and structures” and “complex interaction” are nebulous. What systems and structures are infected with racism? Which institutions are intractably racist?
When a sin/evil is identified to a white evangelical, whether the sin is personal or societal, the reaction is typically “how do I fix it?” The response “well, it’s complicated” is a non-starter. White evangelicals strongly prefer a reply along the lines of “stop doing these things” (Galatians 5:19-21) and “do more of these things” (Galatians 5:22-23). And, again, for white evangelicals, sin is primarily personal, not corporate. The cure for sin is individual repentance, not societal revolution. Now, mass individual repentance may result of massive societal transformation, but the individual change must come first.
Further, after the “it’s complicated” response, many of the proposals to fight systemic racism coming out of the anti-racism movement are to essentially “tear it all down.” Such radical propositions are likely to instantly result in opposition from white evangelicals. Why? They see the systems, structures, and institutions around them largely working well, not just for them, but for everyone within their purview.
Granted, the purview of many white evangelicals needs to be expanded. There are many corners of American culture that are woefully inadequately informed of how the other corners live. And that is the point. Proposing massive societal change without first educating people on the need is destined to meet hardened resistance. Few would accept a doctor’s prescription of major surgery without first being convinced of the presence of extensive damage. The greater the change, the greater the necessary explanation of why that change is needed.
Further, the “tear it all down” appeals are rarely, in fact, truly proposing that all systems, structures, and institutions actually be torn down. The language itself needs to be toned down. If what is being proposed is reasonable, workable, and practical, why make it sound revolutionary? A revolution is catchier than a re-evaluation. “Tear it all down” is easier to fit on a banner than “pass new laws that ensure all people are treated equally and fairly.” Assuming the goal is interest and openness instead of irritability, clarity and accuracy in messaging is crucially important.
The second primary reason many white evangelicals resist systemic racism as a concept is the fact that the term “white supremacy” is so often included in some aspect of the definition, as demonstrated by the quote from Glenn Harris above. This is closely related to the redefining of the terms racist and racism. When the vast majority of people hear the terms “white supremacy” or “white supremacist,” they think of hooded Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis, and those who participated in lynchings during the reconstruction, Jim Crow, and segregation eras. For most, “white supremacist” equals “evil white person who hates all of the other races because he views them as subhuman.” When white evangelicals hear a claim that our institutions are designed to promote and protect white supremacy, they hear, “Evil white people are controlling everything to give themselves significant advantages and to prevent people of color, whom they passionately hate, from succeeding or changing the status quo.”
“White supremacist” is even more of a pejorative than “racist.” There may be aspects of banking, housing, policing, employment, etc., that disadvantage people of color, and those evils should be corrected, but that is not white supremacy. There are some aspects of our society that are, to some degree, controlled by a good old white boys’ club, and those clubs need to be eradicated, but that is not white supremacy. Again, the over-the-top language must be eliminated. Unless one is aiming for division, conflict, and resistance instead of unity, peace, and progress, we have to use terms that actually carry the meaning we are trying to communicate. We have to say what we mean and mean what we say.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” used to be the rallying cry for civil rights and anti-racism causes. Now, we hear claims of “all white people are racist” and “only white people can be racist.” Understandably, most white people, not just white evangelicals, bristle at such statements. Is that not the exact thing Martin Luther King Jr. rallied against? Are not white people being judged by the color of their skin?
Granted, there is context to the quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that should not be ignored. The core message, though, is that people should be judged for their character, not the color of their skin. Declaring that all white people have an undesirable trait, that all white people are infected with an evil that does not afflict people of color, clearly sounds like racism. So, how do the anti-racists who make statements akin to “all white people are racist” defend their accusations against the charge of being racist?
It is all the same methods that have already been mentioned above. (1) “All white people are racist” does not mean that all white people hate/mistreat people of color (the historical/universal definition). It means all white people are participants in the system of institutional power. (2) It is not racist for a person of color to say “all white people are racist” because a person can only be racist if he/she is in a position of power/influence sufficient to disadvantage a person of another ethnicity. Only white people have that power/influence, therefore, only white people can be racist.
Essentially, a statement that would be considered explicitly racist by the historical and nearly universal definition of racism is not racist because it doesn’t mean what it appears to mean and it is made by a person who under the new definition cannot possibly be racist. The absurdity of this would be laughable were it not so distressing. Is there any other situation in which such verbal gymnastics are allowed, embraced even? A disparagement made by one ethnicity would be considered racist, but is allowable and innocent if made by any other ethnicity. Is there any other situation in which a strongly negative term can be quickly redefined and then used against only one particular group, and that group is to accept it, not be offended by it, and even embrace its new usage?
Irritability does not even come close to describing the reaction of most white evangelicals when they hear statements similar to “all white people are racist” or “only white people can be racist.” There are white people who are racist. There are black people who are racist. There are Asians who are racist. There are Latinos who are racist. There are people of all ethnicities who are in positions of power who use that power to advantage themselves and/or people of their ethnicity to the disadvantage of others. The “all white people are racist” and “only white people can be racist” mindsets contradict reality. They contradict the experiences of people of all different skin colors. White evangelicals strive to be people who speak the “truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). The statements “all white people are racist” and “only white people can be racist” are lies spoken in hate.
The cure of racism is not more racism. The fix for discrimination is not to change who is being discriminated against. The remedy to prejudice is not a change in who is pre-judging whom. The resolution to injustice is not more injustice. If a productive dialogue and forward momentum is ever going to be achieved with white evangelicals, reverse racism must be recognized and removed from the table. While in no sense does the reverse racism directed towards white compare in severity or consequences to what people of color have and still are suffering, again, the cure for racism is not more racism.
“If you’re a white person in America, social justice educator Robin DiAngelo has a message for you: You’re a racist, pure and simple, and without a lifetime of conscious effort you always will be. You just can’t help it, you see, because you’ve been swaddled in the cocoon of white privilege since you came sputtering out of your mother’s womb, protesting the indignity of it all.”8 There is another message out there that makes white evangelicals particularly irritable. It is that not only are all white people racist, it is that they always will be.
If there is one aspect of the anti-racism movement that white evangelicals will never accept, it is that white people, or any people for that matter, will always be anything. The possibility of transformation is a key aspect of evangelical theology. Second Corinthians 5:17 declares, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (NKJV). The Greek word translated “new” twice in 2 Corinthians 5:17, καινος, refers to something new that has never been before, as opposed to a new version of something that existed previously. Faith in Christ as Savior results in a person becoming entirely new. There is nothing about a Christian’s nature that has not changed. That changed nature is the impetus for everything else changing as well, as the Christian progressively more and more closely follows Christ.
Speaking of transformative change, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, ESV, emphasis added). “Nor racists” could easily be added to this list of sins. The key point is the beginning of verse 11: “and that is what some of you were.” “Were,” not “are.” Past tense, not present tense. You were one or more or all of those things, but you are not anymore. What you were no longer accurately describes what you now are.
While becoming and/or being a Christian does not always result in instantaneous outward change and victory over sin, change is possible. Radical, transformative, permanent change is possible. The Holy Spirit can transform a murderer into a missionary, an adulterer into a faithful spouse, and a racist into a person who recognizes and loves the image of God in people of all ethnicities. The idea that only “a lifetime of conscious effort” is sufficient to make oneself a non-racist is antithetical to the power of God through salvation in Christ.
Further, some who grant the possibility of white people no longer being racist often do so only if their preferred acts of penance are completed. These acts of penance can be anything from voting for certain candidates, to financially supporting certain causes, to reorienting your entire life to be a social justice warrior, to separating yourself from friends and family who are not sufficiently anti-racist.
In contrast, the Bible instructs us to “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32, ESV). The forgiveness we grant to others is to be connected to the forgiveness God grants us in Christ. God does not require a laundry list of reparations before or after He forgives. While some forms of restitution are often appropriate, to require them goes against the heart of the gospel. It is putting yourself in the place of God to require certain specific acts of recompense rather than allowing Him to lead people into the actions He desires them to take. Christ says, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11), not “Go and do every act of restitution and restoration everyone you have ever sinned against demands of you.”
There is a practical reason why “you always will be a racist” does not work, not just for white evangelicals, but for virtually anyone. It is a hopeless statement. Why even bother? Why undertake all the herculean tasks required of white people to possibly be declared adequately anti-racist, if, in the end, it is never enough? “You will never be able to do enough to be accepted” is a miserable motivational slogan. Relying on white guilt will only get the anti-racist movement so far. Instead, a far more motivating tactic would be to convince people of the truth or your claims and the validity of your proposed solutions.
“When it comes to racism, the American church does not have a ‘how to’ problem but a ‘want to’ problem. Given ten minutes, a pen, and paper, most American Christians could come up with a list of ways to increase racial equity in our congregations and communities.”9 If that statement is true, should not the focus be on the “want to”? And when has hopelessness ever led to a want to do something? “If there is no hope, then why would I bother myself with efforts in racial harmony? Why would I care about anybody? If there is no hope, why would I care about your civil rights? … Hopelessness destroys moral conviction by making it look ludicrous. And therefore it destroys almost everything that is beautiful and precious.”10
Another issue that is frequently a source of racial conflict is restitution. Restitution itself is a biblical concept (Exodus 22:1-15; Luke 19:8-9). While there are several different systems of restitution being proposed, the one that causes the greatest amount of white irritability is the idea of reparations. Reparations can be defined as, “a program of acknowledgement, redress, and closure for a grievous injustice.”11 There are varied approaches to the concept of reparations, but the essential idea is that Black Americans who can demonstrate that they are descended from slaves should be compensated financially for the benefit the white slave owners gained by the slave labor of their ancestors.
The idea of reparations is an irritation activator for most white evangelicals (and many others). Why? White evangelicals do not deny that a grievous injustice was done to Blacks in the era of slavery and thereafter. The disagreements are regarding whether reparations will actually bring closure and whether it is just for people who did not commit the crime to pay the fine.
In the midst of an extended passage on the justice of sons being punished for the sins of their fathers, the prophet Ezekiel wrote, “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (ESV).
This verse, and other passages of Scripture, deliver an important principle: the innocent should not be punished for the sins of the guilty, even if there is a direct connection between the innocent person and the guilty person. Earlier in the passage, the father is described as, “He oppresses the poor and needy. He commits robbery. He does not return what he took in pledge...He lends at interest and takes a profit” (Ezekiel 18:12-13). The father financially benefited from his evil acts. Still, the son is not to be held accountable. In the list of the righteous acts of the son in verses 14-17, it nowhere describes him making restitution for the sins of his father. It nowhere describes the son returning what his father had stolen.
The idea of one generation making restitution for the sins of a previous generation is nowhere found in Scripture. How much less should it be required for a person four to five generations later to make restitution for the sins of their ancestors? Further still, many white Americans today are descendants of immigrants who came to the United States after slavery was abolished. Why should Americans whose ancestors never owned slaves pay restitution for sins committed generations ago simply because those sins were committed by people with a similar amount of melanin in their skin? In addition, why limit the reparations to the descendants of slaves? What about all the people of color who immigrated to the United States of America after slavery ended but have suffered through varying degrees of racial discrimination?
It is argued that reparations will be paid for by the government, not by individuals. While this is technically true, the billions of dollars that would be sent to Black Americans would result in higher inflation and likely higher taxes for all Americans, including those who received the reparations. The government would directly pay for it, but all citizens would indirectly pay for it, most of whom have absolutely no historical connection to the sin of slavery.
Most white evangelicals are opposed to the concept of reparations and/or any formal government enforced system of restitution because it is unbiblical, untenable, impractical, and in reality, unjust. Beyond that, the idea that over 200 years of slavery could be “atoned for” by cash payments hundreds of years later to some of the descendants of some of those slaves trivializes the horrendous sins that occurred. The idea that financial reparations would bring any kind of lasting closure is absurd. It would make millions of people temporarily happy at the cost of even further racial strife and likely eventual financial hardships for all.
If the goal is white capability instead of white irritability, the focus has to be removed from atoning for the sins of the past and aimed instead at solutions for the sins of the present and prevention of those sins in the future. Agreement on the precise nature of the solutions may be difficult to achieve, but, generally speaking, white evangelicals are people who love to solve problems and rid the world of its plagues and sufferings.
All of the issues mentioned above, and many others, contribute to white irritability, especially among white evangelicals. The essential themes are that people do not appreciate being accused of things that are innocent of, will not accept rapidly changing definitions of words, react strongly negatively to being told they are irredeemably anything, do not agree with the idea that they must make restitution for things that happened in the past, and feel no need or ability to apologize for the evil actions that other people with similar skim pigmentation have committed. But, above all, white evangelicals get easily irritated by these issues because they do not believe they are the right solution, or even a solution at all.
Most white evangelicals recognize that there is still a race problem in the United States and around the world. Most white evangelicals desire for the situation to be improved. Even more so, white evangelicals have a desire to improve themselves, to increase and mature in their understanding of the evils that have been perpetuated and the ongoing impacts those evils have on society today. Above all, most white evangelicals long to be a part of the solution rather than, in any way, a contributor to the problem.
For white evangelicals, though, any proposal that is not centered on the gospel, is doomed to failure. Political solutions will always fall short. Guilt will only result in superficial progress. Reverse racism will eventually, or very quickly, backfire. Arguments over dictionaries produce far more papercuts than progress. Most of what is being proposed by the anti-racist movement are, in fact, making race-relations worse. It is stoking the fires of the racism that remains. It is causing hostility and animosity, on both sites.
Evangelicals believe that every evil in this world has sin at its core. Sin is what ails us (Romans 3:10-18). Sin is what causes us to hate each other (Galatians 5:19-21). Sin is what leads us to believe ourselves to be superior to others. Sin is what causes us to advantage ourselves, and those like us, to the disadvantage of others, whether personally, structurally, or institutionally. “Our racial divide is a sinful disease. Over-the-counter human remedies won’t fix it; they merely mask the symptoms for a season. What we need is a prescription from the Creator to destroy this cancer before it destroys us.”12
The only solution to sin is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the only Savior (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to be forgiven of sin and to begin the journey of having sin eradicated from your life (1 John 1:7). It is only the transformative rule of Jesus Christ in our hearts that will transform the world for the better. His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), and yet it is within those who follow Him (Luke 17:21). “When we don’t share the gospel, we leave people shackled to soul-crushing ideologies, enslaved to sin, and captive to forces of darkness. The oppression unleashed by the world, the flesh, and the devil is real.”13
Proposals that ignore the reality of sin and its only solution are like playing whack-a-mole. You may be able to bludgeon an aspect of society into submission, but the sin of racism will very soon rear its exceedingly ugly head in some other facet of our culture. What our nation needs, no, what the people of our nation need, is a heart transplant. Creation of new laws, new policies, and new institutions will not solve the ultimate problem. People becoming new creations will solve the problem (2 Corinthians 5:17). “History will repeat itself as long we keep living as though there’s nothing except what we can see under the sun—that is, if we ignore the God who created us. Like Solomon before us, we must lift up our eyes to heaven and follow the commandments of our Maker. As we walk in His ways, we will find that we can indeed break the cycles of racism, violence, and child sacrifice in our communities.”14
Jemar Tisby writes, “Fighting racism does not consist of a set of isolated actions that you take; rather these actions must flow from an entire disposition that is oriented toward racial justice. We have to reposition ourselves spiritually, emotionally, culturally, intellectually, and politically to address the myriad ways that racism manifests in the present day. Racial justice is a lifestyle not an agenda item.”15 Only a spiritual transformation can reorient an entire disposition. Only a new creation can radically revolutionize a lifestyle.
That is not to say political, societal, structural, and institutional changes are unnecessary. White evangelicals are prone to hypocrisy in demanding the legislation of morality in some areas while opposing it when it impacts how they live their own lives. Where there is structural/institutional racism, it must be eliminated. Where there are laws that disadvantage any group of people, they must be erased. Where there is prejudice and discrimination, it must be extinguished. “Jesus’ ministry and the kingdom that he embodies involve nothing less than the creation of a new world in which the marginalized are healed spiritually, economically, and psychologically.”16
But, again, the biblical solution to the treacherous evil of racism is not political. It is personal. Perpetuators of racism and victims of racism both need salvation through Jesus Christ. Racists need repentance and transformative change in how they think, feel, act, and react. Victims need the ability to forgive, restore, and move forward rather than seeking empty solutions and retaining a tight grasp on bitterness (Hebrews 12:15). Neither of these needs are easy, simple, or necessarily fast. But, they are possible through the power of the Holy Spirit, who is given to all those who receive Jesus Christ as Savior, by grace alone, through faith alone (Romans 8:9; Ephesians 2:8-9). “This effect of the gospel of Christ would transform the world of race and ethnicity more than we can imagine. Who can begin to describe the possibilities of reconciliation and harmony where the work of Christ replace hatred with love, anger with patience, and blaming with forgiving, and all of this without surrendering a passion that justice must be done.”17
The Cure for White Irritability
To my fellow bearers of the imago dei in the anti-racist movement: you have potentially powerful allies in white evangelicals. We agree that racism is an atrocious evil that should be conquered. We desire a nation and a world in which justice reigns for everyone (Isaiah 1:17; Amos 5:24; Micah 6:8; Zechariah 7:9; Matthew 7:12; Galatians 6:2; James 1:27). While there are no universalities in any group or sub-group of humanity, as a whole, white evangelicals are able to recognize their faults and mistakes and have a desire to become more like Christ, the only Person who lived a live free of racism, prejudice, and discrimination.
So, my plea to you is to stop pushing us away. Stop accusing us with loaded terminology and then using our hostile reaction as evidence of what you accused us of. Stop demanding that we apologize for what we have not done and make restitution for what we have not stolen. Stop holding us accountable for the evil actions of those with similar ethnic features. Instead of doing, saying, and proposing things that will irritate us, invite us to the table. “…The general trend among antiracists is to denigrate everything connected to whiteness. The seeds of improving antiracism can be planted in efforts to include whites as equals—not superior of inferior—partners in the discussion of how we end multifaceted racism.”18
Be patient with us. Help us to understand. Help us to see. You will then discover many of us to be strong allies. We may not necessarily do everything you think we should, but we will do what we believe our Savior desires of us. He calls us, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly” with our God (Micah 6:8, ESV). If you will allow us, our walking with God can also be with you.
1Jemar Tisby, How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey toward Racial Justice, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2021), 28-29.
2Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, (Boston: Beacon, 2018), 24.
3Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an Antiracist, (New York: Random House, 2019), 17.
4Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, (Boston: Beacon, 2018), 24.
5Voddie Baucham, Faultlines: The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism’s Looming Catastrophe, (Washington, D.C.: Salem, 2021), 79.
6N'dea Yancey-Bragg, “What is systemic racism? Here's what it means and how you can help dismantle it,” accessed September 7, 2022, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/06/15/systemic-racism-what-does-mean/5343549002/
8Sandee LaMotte, “Robin DiAngelo: How ‘white fragility’ supports racism and how whites can stop it,” accessed September 7, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/07/health/white-fragility-robin-diangelo-wellness/index.html
9Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), 213.
10John Piper, Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 91.
11William Darity and Kirsten Mullen, From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020), 2.
12Tony Evans, Kingdom Race Theology: God’s Answer to our Racial Crisis, (Chicago, Moody, 2022), 11.
13Thaddeus Williams, Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), 136.
14John Amanchukwu, Eraced: Uncovering the Lies of Critical Race Theory and Abortion, (Washington D.C.: Salem, 2022), 52.
15Jemar Tisby, How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey toward Racial Justice, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2021), 181-182.
16Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope, (Downers Grove: IVP, 2020), 84.
17John Piper, Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 99.
18George Yancey, Beyond Racial Division: A Unifying Alternative to Colorblindness and Antiracism, (Downers Grove: IVP, 2022), 105.
S. Michael Houdmann
White Irritability: How to talk to white evangelicals about racism