Why calling racism a sin is a cop-out

In pursuit of a project that may or may not bear any fruit, I’ve just been watching some sermons about racism from evangelical megachurch pastors. I want to briefly highlight two.

The first comes from Craig Groeschel, pastor of the humongous Life.Church based in Oklahoma. In a sermon series on “How to Neighbor” delivered in May, 2016, Groeschel taught his congregation how to love your neighbor of a different race. There are three steps:

1. “Recognize our prejudices.”

2. “Seek to understand others.”

3. “Love those different from you.”

“Racism,” Groeschel informed the congregation, “is not a skin issue; it’s a sin issue.” When Christians have prejudice toward someone of another skin color they are sinning against God. Groeschel hammered this point repeatedly with a great deal of passion and bluntness. After all, he said, “There is one race; that is the human race!”

The second message comes from Robert Jeffress, Pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, one of the largest churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. In June 2020, at the height of the protests after George Floyd’s death, Jeffress gave his congregation three simple propositions:

1. “God hates racism.”

He says it’s completely impermissible to hate someone because of their “skin color” and that he has to admit that First Baptist was “on the wrong side of history” and the “wrong side of God” in the civil rights era. Wow! It was shocking to me that he said this.

2. “God hates lawlessness.”

He says that calls to defund police are directly disobedient to the word of God (citing Romans 13, of course). He would do well to read Esau McCaulley on Romans 13 and policing.

3. “Racism is not the root problem in America today. Lawlessness is not the root problem in America today. Racism and lawlessness are symptoms of the root problem. The root problem in America today is sin…”

He says that if anyone asks what First Baptist is doing to deal with racism, you can tell them they’re preaching the Gospel. Only by changing hearts can the symptoms of racism and lawlessness be resolved.

Now my job is to be a party pooper. These forceful denunciations of racism do mark change over time, for sure. White conservative Protestants a century ago did not tend to speak in these terms. But these statements should not be mistaken for robustly Christian anti-racism.

For one thing, neither man appears to understand what race is. They naturalize the association of skin color and race (which is contingent and arbitrary). The only hint of society here is in the thinnest, most interpersonal terms. So Groeschel thinks racism comes from ignorance or from bad teaching or hurtful interpersonal experiences. The possibility that material inequalities on a wide scale might reproduce race has very evidently never occurred to him.

Both Groeschel and Jeffress rely on tropes that white evangelicals used 60 years ago to oppose the civil rights movement. The idea that racism is a sin problem rather than a skin problem is a pithy (and perhaps even unconscious) way of saying that race-conscious activism to change structures is missing the point. One has to get at the heart. That’s how white evangelicals in the 1960s used the term to oppose racial change, and Groeschel is so accustomed to this water he doesn’t know he’s wet.

Tropes like “There’s only one race, the human race!” might have been prophetic in Oklahoma a century ago, but race and racial claims are nothing without context. The context has changed a lot, and it’s been a long time since these tired cliches carried any hint of challenge to them. Instead, white evangelical audiences readily eat them up: “Why are those liberals always talking about race? Like Pastor Groeschel said, there’s only one race. Why are those black Christians trying to reform police? Like Pastor Jeffress said, the only solution is changed hearts.”

Groeschel’s emotional condemnation of racism and Jeffress’s frank admission that his own church had been “on the wrong side of God” on racial matters in the past is a measure of how much has changed. Yet at a deeper level, that both men are using old and reactionary tropes without even realizing they’re doing so is a sign of how shallow white evangelical learning has been.

It’s like Jeffress is saying, “We were wrong in the past, but I have no idea why.”

If you say racism is a sin, your white evangelical audience will nod along with you. After all, they’re not the one’s always drawing attention to people’s skin color and making judgments of whole groups of people. Pastor Groeschel warned that making judgments based on skin color is sinful, but look around you: it’s the liberals who do that all the time, not we good ol’ conservative Christians.

A prophetic word in a white evangelical church would not be so quick to confine racism in the comfortable box of sin. It would do the hard work of taking an ancient text that didn’t even have the category of racism and translating it to the particular material context of our own moment, where an ideology of difference has been created to deploy power and structure social relations. It would try to explain how Christians must endeavor to live in a system of domination that is unnatural and contrary to God’s purposes.

Paul wrote an entire treatise trying to work out how the Gospel could be brought to bear on Gentile and Jewish relations in a world of Roman domination. We must wrestle with how to live against white supremacy. Anything less is a cop-out.

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