The Gospel of Race

by Aaron Edwards.

It has become customary at theological conferences nowadays to include a panel discussion on race. These tend to revolve around the problem of “whiteness”, with the invariable outcome that the white people present should become, in one way or another, less racist. If we’re unsure whether we are in fact racist, we’re told it’s probably in there somewhere, covertly submerged within our very deepest theological convictions.

This intensity of focus is not difficult to understand given the parallel tensions within western society at present, exacerbated by the viral responses to the death of George Floyd, an event which seemed to take on cataclysmic significance, catalysing a new “great awakening” of racial consciousness. Many theologians and preachers even saw the phenomenon in divinely revelatory terms. Pulpits usually reticent to preach socio-political issues suddenly found their sermons saturated with Critical Race Theory alongside numerous apologies for white privilege.

The super-charged narrative means any theological panel discussion tends to become significantly less “discursive” than expected. In one recent panel I attended, an influential black theologian lamented the lack of BAME representation in UK theological institutions, stating this was, in no uncertain terms, “a demonic apartheid”. Thus, any white theologian within UK theology is necessarily a perpetrator of deeply oblivious systemic oppression, the kind Hannah Arendt called “radical evil” (think Eichmann et al!). How does one begin to respond to such claims within such a climate? The person making this comment then added that the time was over for yet another panel on race – radical action was the only solution left.

I’m certainly not unsympathetic to homiletical rhetoric on significant issues, nor to critiquing inconsequential virtue-signaling panels. Indeed, the academy often seems to specialize in prolonging debates precisely to avoid transformative action! But what if you don’t agree with the premises – let alone the conclusions – of the discussion? What if you do need to talk more? What if the idea that most-white-theologians-are-unknowingly-racist-especially-if-they-think-they’re-not is wrong? How could someone articulate such a belief without incurring the charge of “whitesplaining” (an always-pejorative term connoting an essentially undefendable accusation)?

It was Robin D’Angelo’s bestselling book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism (2018), where the astonishing claim was made that “rational argumentation” was a typical “behaviour” of white people when accused of racial privilege or bias. Charitably, this likely refers to the stacking-up of countless propositions purely to enhance one’s invulnerability to critique. But the obvious problem with D’Angelo’s observation is that only via some form of “rational argument” could we have any hope of being persuaded that such diversionary filibustering was even wrong. The notion that rational argumentation is an ethnically particular “mode” of engagement is an alarmingly racist claim with disturbing implications – yet robust discussion of such problems has become virtually impossible.

This problem echoes the ill-fated era of Unconscious Bias Training, eventually scrapped by the Civil Service after it was discovered that, far from reducing racial tensions and inequalities, it often made them worse. Meanwhile, churches who already came somewhat late to the systemic antiracism party continue to roll out such training in the vain hope it offers some pneumatological magic to heal deep-set wounds which fall within the purview of the Gospel alone. Whenever someone tentatively points this out – say, at a conference – the increasingly common response is that “the Gospel” is itself a “white” construction (thus, just the kind of thing a white person would invoke in general to avoid confronting racism in particular).

The Church rightly wrestles with its own problematic legacy on race, a problem still bearing wounds for many communities in today’s world. But Christian theologians and churches have too swiftly adopted strategies of racial reconciliation which not only find their basis beyond the Gospel, but often actively undermine it. The adoption of such strategies grates against much of what was revealed and achieved in the Cross and Resurrection (obvious examples include new birth, expiation of guilt, divine grace, and paradoxical forgiveness – there are many more!).

It’s not coincidental that just when academic theological conferences are hosting panels debating systemic whiteness, the very same debates were already occurring in other subjects (decolonising mathematics is the latest iteration). Regardless of reverse-engineered public statements, it’s clear that the principal lens through which much of the Church views race today is not the Gospel. Our theology must always remain attentive to the cries and laments of injustice in our world. But it’s concerning when the roots of such attentiveness are identical to what was already happening before the Church “caught up” with the appropriate rhetoric/paradigm/programme.  

Tertullian’s famous warning of the irreconcilability of Jerusalem and Athens can often be overstated, but it should never be far from our minds today. True, the Church has always made use of non-Christian wisdom, but usually via annexation rather than wholesale adoption. We live at a time where western Christianity’s ingratiation in worldly systems of thought and action is epidemic. To even hear the declaration of “worldliness” today often brings patronising eye-rolls rather than honest Biblical self-reflections on the indistinctness of the Church’s prophetic witness.

Ironically, the Church’s historic complicity with racism is rightly deemed heinous precisely because it was “worldly”, because it repudiated the logic of the Gospel. In our fretful attempts to confront this legacy today, we inadvertently allow a worldly ideology (“antiracism”) to become a gospel unto itself. We must allow the Gospel to interrupt us on its own terms, however inconvenient such terms may be at any given point. If not, the light that the Church alone is given for the sake of loving the world is hidden under a bushel for the sake of pleasing the world.

14 thoughts on “The Gospel of Race”

  1. Thank you, Aaron. This is a brave reflection in the current political climate.
    Loving the world is not the same as pleasing the world. Wise words indeed.

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  2. This is a wonderful piece. I often wonder do we need to address the issues of race by getting rid of them completely. Race is a man made concept which has only existed for about 400 years. It is a terrible way to carve up humanity and is so outdated. If we threw it out then maybe we could start at the point where we are all equal, all flawed and all have a history of violence. We could all apologise for the damage we have done to each other and then find common good, our belief in God, the foundation of humanity and depth of Love.

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  3. I was at a multicoloured residential conference very many years ago where two of us, one who had a black skin and I who hadn’t, got on very well the first evening as we discussed all the usual issues about skin colour and the history of prejudice, and how some things were PC and other things weren’t. Over breakfast the following day I said teasingly ‘Good morning, my coloured friend’ to which he replied in the same vein ‘Good morning, my colourless friend’! It was I who was deficient in a quality he had in plenty! We both grinned as we tackled our college breakfast.

    We understood each other perfectly, as two human beings often can even on such a short acquaintance.

    Sybil Phoenix described humanity with all our perceived differences as ‘like a glorious fruit salad’.

    There is as far as I know only one human race.

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    1. How true, Josie!
      Isn’t it strange that people don’t have a problem with different hair colours or different eye colours, but different skin colours can cause so many issues. I really do believe that God made us all different for a reason, and even planned for division within the church for a reason, and that’s because, without difference, we can’t have unity. If we were all the same, it would be uniformity, not unity. Unity is living in peace and harmony despite our differences and divisions. Diversity is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?

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  4. I spent some time wondering if and how to respond to this post because it got under my skin and because I’m not an academic theologian and don’t have big words!
    I’m not sure what the point of the piece is. What theological comment is being made?
    I see that the author suggests theological comment needs to be made in relation to race including themes of forgiveness and new life, yet the author doesn’t put those theological comments forward.
    So I’m still asking, what is the point of this piece?
    Is it simply that he a white person (I assume he is white from what he has written) as I am, and is grappling with race and racism? If so, why is the focus not on that but instead seems to be some kind of complaint about Black theologians and theology taking up air space? Can that really be what this piece is saying? I hope not. But what is the piece about?
    There is a section about exploring race and racism using thinking from outside of church tradition, and yet liberation theology is deeply scriptural. So again, I’m not quite sure what is the point being made in this piece?
    In addition to my lack of understanding of the purpose of this piece, I’m also concerned that the author hasn’t committed in this writing to stating that racism is a sin and is still alive and kicking.

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  5. Yes, it’s very uncomfortable to be accused of unconscious racism, particularly if we try our best to treat all people equally. It can make us very defensive. We might even feel discriminated against, when statements are made like “All white people are racists; but most don’t recognize that in themselves.” It hurts.

    Perhaps, instead of jumping into defence mode, we might ask ourselves why the accusations are being made. We might try to put ourselves in the shoes of those people who have experienced discrimination all their lives and attempt to gain a little understanding as to why the statements are being made. If we feel hurt, it might give us a glimmer of the life-long hurt that has been, and still is, inflicted on those in minority groups.

    Desmond Tutu knew a thing or two about discrimination. He wrote: “One of the most blasphemous consequences of injustice and prejudice is that it can make a child of God doubt that he or she is a child of God. But no-one is a stepchild of God. No-one.” This where discrimination of any kind impacts theology. Archbishop Tutu, having fought against racial discrimination all his life, made it very clear in his later years that he felt compelled to campaign also against the injustices he saw when people were discriminated against because of their gender, their sexuality or their faith. Whenever we treat someone differently from the way we would like to be treated, because of perceived differences, we diminish the image of God they carry.

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  6. Nothing in what follows means there may not be a legitimate concern around the panels discussed in the article, still less that people should be prevented from talking about it, but the article seems to be far too negative (perhaps space did not allow for a more gracious response).
    It is frustrating to perceive that one is not being allowed to question the premise or that in raising a question one is guilty. My bias (sadly I can not even claim unconscious) is that I perceive those of Conservative Theology to be shutting down discussion and not permit other understandings. The truth is of course that while that may happen the vast majority of the time the fault is actually in my perception. I am not an academic and have no experience of the panels being referred to but might it be the perception of a shut down is wrong?
    Whilst there may be aspects of the Church ‘catching up’ with the paradigm of others (particularly in administrative responses like compulsory unconscious bias training) surely much of what is being talked about has always been at the heart of the Gospel and other more novel emphases have been led (along side others) by Christians.
    The idea that the Gospel is “white” is so obviously absurd (or rather it should be absurd) that at least part of the response should surely be why would anyone think that. Has the Church in Europe generally and perhaps particularly in the north and west of Europe actually appropriate things to the universal Gospel that are at best only relevant in that context or at worse a corruption? Even if you feel there is no such thing, surely those who have felt they are on the wrong side of the Church’s theological justification of Eurocentric attitudes should be heard.
    The article says, “Ironically, the Church’s historic complicity with racism is rightly deemed heinous precisely because it was “worldly”, because it repudiated the logic of the Gospel.” Is it not that the Church justified slavery (for example) as being not just acceptable to the Gospel but actually part of God’s plan that actually makes it heinous?
    Perhaps I am being obtuse, but I can not see how antiracism “grates against much of what was revealed and achieved in the Cross and Resurrection”, let alone what might be ‘obvious’ in the examples given.
    “We must allow the Gospel to interrupt us on its own terms”. Might those interruptions be to challenge racism (or virtual signalling institutionalised antiracism -although frankly surely the Gospel can bring good out of that), to challenge over reliance on dogmatic legalism or to challenge my intolerance of those I perceive as intolerant?

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  7. I found this hard to read, and hard to understand, although I have tried. Partly I think this is because I find it tricky to connect with words when I feel they are used to dismiss rather than affirm people. I’m sorry if you too felt dismissed when reading this piece.
    
    I understand that it can be difficult for those of us who are white to relinquish some of our power, and to hear what is being asked of us. I’m grateful for those who are trying, and am glad to be part of a church (The Methodist Church) who are committed to listening and learning. There’s still a long way to go.

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  8. “Churches have too swiftly adopted strategies of racial reconciliation which not only find their basis beyond the Gospel, but often actively undermine it. Obvious examples include new birth, expiation of guilt, divine grace, and paradoxical forgiveness – there are many more!”

    It is not as obvious to me as it is to you, Aaron, how strategies of racial reconciliation undermine the gospel. Perhaps you could spell out in more simple terms for me how striving for racial reconciliation undermines new birth, expiation of guilt, divine grace, and paradoxical forgiveness.

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  9. I agree with Aaron Edwards. Racism is not simply a white man’s disease, it is part of the human condition, an expression of mankind’s lust for power and control over others. It can only be eliminated in people who can look upon humanity with the eyes of Christ. Isn’t this why the great commission is not to solve the world’s problems, but to ‘make disciples of all nations’?

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  10. Pavel, the same thought struck me, how can strategies of reconciliation undermine the gospel? It would be good if Aaron responded.
    I was also interested in the paradox of forgiveness so I looked it up. I found this example which I got this from a site called Psychology Today:
    Imagine that Jason finds out that his wife Ava has had a love affair with another man for the past year. When Jason finds out, he is terribly hurt. Although Ava guarantees the affair is over, Jason wants time to think about whether he can forgive Ava.
    But then he gets stuck on the paradox of forgiveness:
    Either Ava is culpable or she isn’t.
    If she is culpable then what is the point of forgiving her.
    If she isn’t culpable then there is nothing to forgive.
    So, either way, it seems pointless to forgive.
    This is serious. the paradox implies that there is no such thing as forgiveness and yet I know with absolute certainty that I can forgive someone that wrongs me, and I know others have sometimes forgiven me, and, critically, I know that God forgives us all unconditionally.
    Can you or anyone explain what is going on here? I really would like to know. Not sure responses based on “what it says in the bible”, or “it is part of the tradition” or “it is divine mystery” or “because I say so” would help.

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    1. What is the point of forgiving? It’s because of the damage unforgiveness can do. We find family members and former friends who haven’t spoken for years. Bitterness can sour our whole lives, doing great damage to us personally and spiritually. Archbishop Desmond Tutu pointed out that, if you remain in a state of anger, hatred and resentment, this locks you in a state of victimhood. Some are constantly defining themselves as someone who’s been wronged. Others bottle it up inside but hurt deeply. It’s like a cancer in the soul. Corrie Ten Boom, a Christian who survived a Nazi camp, also struggled with forgiving those responsible but came to realize that, “Forgiveness is to set a prisoner free, and to realize the prisoner was you.” Jesus spoke a lot about freeing ourselves from the past and moving on. Forgiving those who have hurt us is a key factor in that.

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      1. Thanks Pavel. I am deeply aware of the damage unforgiveness can do and in view of that am somewhat bewildered by Aaron’s statement that “Christian theologians and churches have too swiftly adopted strategies of racial reconciliation which not only find their basis beyond the Gospel, but often actively undermine it”. It what sense can forgiveness and reconciliation undermine the Gospel?

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