Race matters

October 19, 2015

As an evangelical scholar of color, I live in a divided world. At the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I teach in a evangelical context where most of my colleagues and students are white. As an evangelical preacher, I get many invitations to preach in predominately white evangelical contexts and some in predominately black and brown contexts.

As a member and contributor to the broader academic guild, I spend most of my time critically engaging black, brown, white and various international scholars in my academic sphere and outside of the evangelical world. Although vast, each context plays a role in shaping me as an evangelical scholar and churchman of color.

Taboo race discussions

What often strikes me is how much I disagree on matters of race with those in the evangelical world with whom I have much in common theologically. I’ve discovered it’s very difficult at times for white evangelicals to talk about race, or to admit these discussions are an important and necessary step toward gospel reconciliation. Some even wonder whether talking about it is helpful at all.

One might think only white evangelicals in the U.S., who either have never or have suffered very little racial marginalization because of their racial identity, are the only ones guilty of the above.

But I’ve discovered some black and brown evangelicals, whose lives are entirely assimilated within a predominately white evangelical context, also wonder whether constant race discussions are profitable or helpful efforts of gospel unity. They may even recoil at these discussions.

In what follows, I offer some personal reasons why race matters and why evangelical discussions about race are necessary.

My story

I grew up in a small and racist town in Eastern Kentucky. My father was African-American. My mother is a combination of African-American, Anglo and Cherokee Indian. I was called n****r by whites, and called half-breed, high yellow, n****r-white, red bone, and Uncle Tom by the few blacks in my community.

I was always the only black person on my athletic teams throughout my childhood and teenage years. With the exception of my uncle, all of my athletic coaches were white and most of my teammates were always white—many of whom had very little if any social interaction with black people apart from sports. I played sports for at least two racist coaches, one of which called me a racist slur to my face.

In high school, my uncle had to explain to me why I, a black kid, could not take a white girl to the local drive-in theatre—and this was in the 1990s! I also had at least a couple of racist high school teachers. One particular white teacher made it a practice to say n****r in a class full of white students and one black student.

During my freshman year, a gang of white students attacked one of our school’s few black students. And a white teacher slammed the black student against the lockers to break up the fight, in spite of the fact that he was the one being assaulted. And the white principle put both the black student and the white students, who started the fight, in detention together—even though the black student was the victim. When the word spread that some of these white students planned to attack me for no apparent reason other than they did not like blacks, the best that one of my white teachers could say was “watch your back.”

Racism in the body

At the age of 17 in 1996, the Lord Jesus saved me. In my little Eastern Kentucky town, there were no “black” churches. There were only predominately white churches. I joined the Southern Baptist church in my community the Lord used to bring me to faith. I was the first African-American to join the church in its history. A year later, my uncle was the second African-American. This congregation personified racial reconciliation, but a very small minority within the congregation was not happy about a black kid (who at the time had a white girlfriend) joining their church.

This reality came as a shock, because it reminded me racism was inside of the church. Since then, I’ve discovered the very denomination of which I’m a part of came into existence partly because of racism. The same is true about the evangelical movement in this country.

Intellectual racism

During my four years of college, I did not have any black or brown professors. My white professors never made us read any books written by black or brown authors. Unfortunately, graduate school was not much different. I completed two masters degrees and a Doctorate of Philosophy. During this time, I never had one black or brown professor. And I was never required to read any black or brown scholars.

The most austere example of racial disparity in the academy is intellectual racism. As an evangelical scholar of color, I constantly notice black and brown scholarship is either dismissed or ignored in many evangelical and non-evangelical circles. Most evangelical colleges and seminaries have an overwhelming amount of white leadership with very few, if any, minorities sharing in institutional power and privilege.

Most books published by mainline white evangelical presses are written by white men. And, in many cases, black and brown intellectuals are not taken seriously by evangelicals unless some prominent white evangelical voice grants his stamp of approval. Instead, many within the evangelical movement view black or brown people as intellectually or theologically suspect until they prove themselves otherwise.

Therefore, as an African-American evangelical scholar and churchman with a multi-racial background, race certainly matters to me and to many other black, brown, and white people.

Here are some practical steps forward to help some evangelicals see race and intelligent racial dialogue matters.

Practical suggestions

  1. White evangelicals should not only surround themselves with white evangelicals. If they walk in all white circles with people who do not think race is important or who never think about race, then they will have a limited view of race.
  2. White evangelicals must recognize minorities can minister to them and teach them about many things. Race is only one of them.
  3. White evangelicals must understand there are many black and brown intellectuals. There are many great black and brown preachers. Most white evangelicals I have interacted with never even read one book written by a person of color. Or they’ve never even heard of some of the great black and brown expositors. Ignorance will only reinforce one’s racial biases.
  4. White evangelicals must understand black and brown people do not want or need a white savior. Instead, we want white allies in the work of gospel ministry.
  5. White evangelicals should understand the kingdom of God does not revolve around them. Jesus died for many black and brown people with strange names and strange accents. And God is using many black and brown people to advance the gospel in some of the most difficult places in the world.
  6. White evangelicals must recognize anything other than white is not abnormal.
  7. White and black evangelicals must stop insisting the color-blind theory is true. When white evangelicals deny they see my brown skin, they deny part of my identity that was created into the image of God. Racial progress will not happen by denying the obvious. We must acknowledge our differences and pursue love in the gospel in spite of them.
  8. White evangelicals need to look for ways to show they value the many contributions black and brown people have made, are making, and will make to the evangelical movement by including black and brown people in every part of the evangelical movement, and NOT only when they want to discuss race.
  9. White evangelicals should not play the race card when it serves their political agenda. It’s easy to be pro-black and brown at big conferences, or when a clear example of injustice exists. But it’s difficult when your white daughter says she wants to marry a black or brown man.
  10. If white evangelicals want credibility in black and brown contexts, they must befriend black and brown evangelicals that are without celebrity status. I’ve observed white evangelicals love to affirm black and brown celebrity evangelicals because it comes with privileges.
  11. White evangelicals need to recognize the evangelical movement lacks credibility on matters pertaining to race and justice with many black and brown communities, partly because of a failure to do the things mentioned in points one through 10.

May God deliver evangelicals from thinking race does not matter, and that race discussions are unimportant.

Jarvis J. Williams

Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24