Sometimes a problem seems so entrenched and so impossible to scale that giving up is the easiest option. That is as true of an untidy study as it is of global poverty, or endemic racism. Not knowing where to begin, and feeling unclear about what one’s responsibilities are, can lead to defeatism, defensiveness and denial. This is especially the case on current social media where the demands of climate issues, of Covid 19, and of heightened racial tensions clamour constantly for our attention, at once demanding our action and emphasising our impotence. Vexation, frustration, and resistance follow hard upon the heels of such sentiments.
In the aftermath of the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police officers, the simmering racial tensions in the USA and beyond have gone beyond boiling point, with a growing conviction that the long hoped for breakthrough in racial equality might be pressed into reality by popular protest and resistance. Riding closely alongside this is a concern that white oppression and privilege be owned and accepted by those whose heritage has perpetrated and perpetuated injustice. Much of this rhetoric can leave the hearer stunned into silence, provoked into resistance, or abandoned to inaction.
A better alternative might be to define the limits of what can be done, seek opportunities to do what we can, and set our course to change those things which lie to our hands. In this post I want to reflect on 5 things that I can do in our present context, while implicitly rejecting the unreasonable demands which could be laid at our door, which speak more to a culture of pointless guilt and godless culpability than the gospel of Christ.
1. I can switch off the signals
One of the upshots of our hyperconnected world is that we are too vocal and lacking in thought, quick in reaction and slow in reflection. This is particularly dangerous on issues of such historic and cultural enormity as racial inequality and injustice. The concept that ‘silence is violence’ fails to recognise that sometimes talking can be trite, when we are not truly speaking from conscience. If adopting a hashtag is made into a shibboleth whereby one can ford the brook of cultural acceptance, then we can pay lip service to issues which truly merit introspection and heartfelt repentance. It might be an idea, then, for me to resist reacting, to resist looking for instant approval from a movement, and to take time to adequately reflect on a biblically rooted response, which is more concerned to honour Christ than please a crowd. Virtue signalling is not a spiritual gift, it is not love to our neighbour, and it does not challenge or change hearts.
2. I can reject the surrogates
An ill thought through response to racial inequality can be a dangerous and idolatrous thing. Our wider culture has largely abandoned biblical categories for thinking about culpability, sinfulness, pride, and prejudice, and its surrogate terms have become common currency, even among Christians. The binaries which the Bible insists upon in regard to how I relate to God and to the wider world are not hate and kindness, but those of sin and neighbour-love. Hate bypasses the heart and cries out for behaviour modification, and kindness leaves more leeway for self-seeking than the cross shaped and agonising compassion of agape. Humanity’s inherited fallenness under Adam’s headship is more potent than the inheritance of privilege from history, and my failure to love God and neighbour are so forcefully entwined around my heart that I need vital union with Christ not just visible unity with others to see it mortified.
No doubt many of the neologisms and modern notions about race and reconciliation can be put to good use by Christian and non-Christian alike in the public square, but as a Christian man I need something more radical than racial theory, something more powerful than public pressure to probe my heart and expose my motives. If the evangelical has issues to raise with Critical Race Theory (and they must), surely chief among them is that such thinking does not go far enough, that it does not reach into supra-racial areas of the soul which only an Almighty Saviour can solve.
3. I can dismiss my barrister
Of the many images that Paul Tripp has employed in helping Christians to see their hearts, that of an inner attorney who rises to our defence is surely one of the most helpful. I have witnessed this legal genius at work in my marriage, in my ministry, and in almost every social interaction I enjoy. His loyalty to my cause, his keenness to speak on my behalf, his concern to plead extenuating circumstances for the corruptions of my heart, is truly astonishing. He can deflect my faults, making them someone else’s problems, he can humiliate the witnesses who mean me well by flagging up what I cannot see for myself, and he can even sway the jury of my peers and loved ones to believe good things when evil lurks at the door.
If this is the case in other areas, it is surely so in regard to racial prejudice and inequality. It is all too easy to hear the excessive rhetoric of militant voices, while blocking out the heartfelt sobs of those who simply long that I was not blind to what they can so plainly see. It is all too easy to embody the role of the resistant husband who won’t see the faults his wife can perceive, beating the air and pleading points of order rather than searching the heart and seeking grace to change.
This means that I must decide not to be distracted or diverted in asking God to lay my heart bare about where I have failed to love my neighbours (not to mention my brothers and sisters in Christ), where the casual inheritance of loaded language and subtle superiority has infected my view of others, and where I have not listened carefully to those who love me enough to correct me. This means that I won’t have recourse to critiquing postmodernism or crying Marxism as my first priorities, but searching my heart. If, after all, my conscience is clear, if I abominate racism as much as my social media profile is happy to broadcast, then I have lost nothing.
4. I can believe my brother or sister
In the combative and bombastic world of social media, it is possible to live one’s life permanently in the company of straw men, or in listening to the least coherent spokespersons. Every legitimate theological, social, and relational issue has its worst proponents, exaggerating, conflating, or misrepresenting the issue at hand. On Twitter it is possible to find people who will represent almost any extreme position, with a coterie of people who will like and share their views. Resisting them and refuting them can become our hobby and habit, to the point where we feel that we have no need to listen any more. This is a chasing after the wind.
I can, however, believe my brother or sister who is speaking with Scriptural principle and cultural sanity on the issue of racism. I can seek out those who have shown even-handedness, who are biblically competent, and spiritually mature, who have a track record of not making overstatements, of not flirting with the spirit of the age. If I listen to them, and I find that they are articulating legitimate and biblical concerns about racial inequality, then I am honour-bound to lend credence and audience to their views. If a black brother or sister shares what racism has looked like or felt like to them, and I dismiss them as merely parroting a movement or a cultural moment then I am maligning them terribly. I am calling a good brother or sister in Christ a false witness, all the while ignoring what might be right in front of me.
I can listen to my brother or sister, I can invite them speak with me, to counsel me, to lead me through what the Scriptures say and how they see their world and my heart, and I can ask God to use them a means of gracious growth in Christ.
5. I can love my neighbour
It is a truism that philanthropy would be so much easier if people didn’t keep getting in the way, but it does speak to how I can be tempted to handle issues. Writing a tweet (or a blog post) takes relatively little time. Joining a march will likely cost me little. Projecting my virtue onto the posts and positions of others will ultimately enlarge the idol of self who insists on space in my life. None of these are measure of change or grace in my life.
But I can love my neighbour. Having listened to what God is saying to my conscience, having done dignity to the experience of people whose background and biography differ from my own, I can determine to not just applaud a macro morality, but to embody micro righteousness in my own heart, in my own home, among those whom I have actual relationships with. Global movements are vital, loud voices in the media are effective, but there are few replacements for a man or woman who, stricken in conscience, determines to love God and neighbour within (and without) the bounds of their own postcode.
The issues facing our world are complex and vexatious, they are undoubtedly hijacked, and misspoken. Changing engrained attitudes within society is almost impossible. But I can seek to listen, learn, pray, read, repent, and act in such a way that in my own sphere of influence the cancer of racial prejudice has no room to spread.