Evangelical Theology Can Be Anti-Racist

This is a follow-up to the last post. The Times mentioned a sermon Pastor Robert Morris preached last October. Here is that sermon:

You probably don’t have the time or inclination to watch it so I’ll try to make my comments intelligible whether you’ve watched it or not. Then I’ll compare it to a talk from another white evangelical figure, Timothy Keller.

Morris’s sermon is a fascinating mixture of provocation (he says he’s talking to “ignorant white people”), folk beliefs (races come from Noah’s sons), and inspiring one-liners (you have to take the time to see things from others’ perspectives). He wraps it all up in familiar evangelical tropes about the need for revival.

Morris seems to have given little thought to what race is. As best I can tell, in Morris’s schema race = skin color. And those skin colors/races came from Noah’s sons. One was black, one was white, and one was brown. We know this, Morris says, because of the meanings of their names. Ham, he says, “means hot and black.” No, it doesn’t.

From there he turns to a bizarre discussion about how “a dark skinned person does better in a hotter climate.” This was one of the major points apologists for African slavery made. In all of this, he appears to be completely unaware that he is brushing up against centuries of white supremacist and pro-slavery thought. He is not advocating the so-called “curse of Ham” defense of slavery here, but he’s coming far closer to it than he probably realizes. His adoption of erroneous centuries-old etymological assumptions about the meaning of “Ham” combined with a literal interpretation of Noah’s descendants as the origin of race seems to lead unavoidably to the conclusion that black people were in fact cursed. I’d like to hear him talk about this more. I doubt he’s aware of the implications of his words.

Morris goes on to try to shock his audience with the idea that Adam and Eve were brown and there are black people in the Bible. This is the Christian parallel for the worst sort of Black History Month celebrations, where we locate random “contributions” from black people without dealing with the bigger picture.

One might have hoped that Morris would bring real theological reflection to his task and explain how an evangelical interpretation of scripture is brought to bear on racism in our time and place. Instead, specificity of any kind is Morris’s greatest enemy. He wants to speak as broadly as possible, so as to appear to say a lot while saying very little. So of his seven points we get things like, “racism is evil.”

And you can forget application. We need things like “healing” and “understanding” and “revival.” Everything was interpersonal. You won’t hear anything about power. If anyone in that church walked out knowing what they were actually supposed to do they’re much better mind-readers than I.

I believe Morris was well-meaning. Does that make it better or worse?

Now, in contrast, here’s Tim Keller giving a talk on “Racism and Corporate Evil.”

I won’t dwell on this at any length. But the contrasts are huge, and it’s not just because Keller is actually engaging with serious people who have thought about these issues (he discusses Michelle Alexander and William Stuntz). The bigger contrast is that Keller is being more evangelical than Morris. It’s very hard to find in Morris’s sermon a robust sense of the gospel and how it shapes Christian understanding of race. For Keller, that’s the whole point.

In Keller’s talk, whether you agree with it or not, you have to reckon with it as a serious attempt to think about racism in the context of an evangelical reformed view of the gospel. As Keller builds his case, he shows how it is precisely his evangelical view of sin and grace that compels him to think in terms of corporate responsibility. Thus the Christian who claims to believe that “in Adam all died” but then turns around and says “I never owned slaves, why do I have any responsibility?” is not connecting the gospel to American life.

From a cultural and political point of view, Morris is the true evangelical figure in this comparison. But from a theological perspective, Keller’s more sophisticated argument is also the more evangelical one. Where Morris offers vague tropes infused with lingering assumptions of southern white culture, Keller shows that taking responsibility for systemic injustice is a logical consequence of his evangelical theology.

We don’t need to try to convert congregations like Pastor Morris’s to political liberalism. That’s not the point. But maybe we can try to persuade them to take Christianity more seriously.

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