Starting a conversation about race

September 24, 2014

I don't identify with the heroic tropes that are often used to describe preachers. I think it was Martin Lloyd-Jones who described a preacher as “theology coming through a man on fire” or something like that. I don't experience it that way, unless he means that it leads to burnout. For me, preaching feels like walking in front of a freight train. It feels like I'm being mowed over by God's Word, by my own inner tensions, and at times, by the congregation itself.

This past Sunday was a profound experience of this. I preached on Ephesians 2:11-19, but I focused in on Ephesians 2:14, where Paul describes how Jesus destroyed the “wall of hostility” between Jews and Gentiles. We—the elders at Sojourn's midtown campus—knew this verse was coming, and knew that it was an opportunity for us to begin a much-needed dialogue at the campus about race, privilege, and our neighborhood. Shelby Park, where the campus is situated, is about 50 percent African-American, and Smoketown, a few short blocks away, is about 90 percent African-American. But Sojourn is about 80 percent white. Despite our desire and efforts to move in a more diverse direction, things haven't changed much.

Starting a conversation about race

So we started a conversation. I talked about why churches in the U.S. are segregated (one statistic says that 93 percent of U.S. churches are made up by 80 percent or more of one race), tracing some of the history back through the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation. I argued—as Anthony Carter does in his excellent book, On Being Black and Reformed—that churches are segregated today because white Christians failed to welcome and acknowledge the full humanity of their black brothers and sisters long ago. Segregated churches, for African-Americans, had to be a kind of relief; at least they no longer had to endure the hypocrisy of their white sunday school teachers and ministers.

I talked about white privilege—a concept I believe is best summed up by Propaganda's line in Precious Puritans, “It must be nice not to have to think about race.” I argued that the failure to acknowledge its existence is itself a way of wounding our African-American brothers and sisters.

I then pointed to the Paul's formula for reconciliation: the cross is the only possible source of absolution for the horrors of racism, and in Christ, we're made “one new man.” The gospel compels us to come together and offers the only real and lasting cure for racial hostility.

I am thankful for the words one of my fellow pastors said to me. “There's sometimes a tension between getting it right and getting it out, and sometimes, if we wait forever trying to get it right, we'll never get it out. We started a conversation, and that's the whole goal.”

These are comforting words. Monday morning quarterbacking is a regular experience for all pastors, and in this case, I felt it more acutely than ever. Did I dot every “i” and cross every “t”? Did I avoid stereotypes and careless words or phrases? I'm sure I didn't. I'm not innocent of bias and carelessness, and if you combed through my words (I'm not asking you to), I'm sure you could find something that would offend you.

But I also learned some important lessons.

Racism, principalities and powers

When you deal with issues of race, you're stepping into the realm of principalities and powers. It's spiritual warfare. Racism seeks to dehumanize, belittle and limit the capacity of image bearers. Its entrenchment in our churches hinders the gospel. Satan has a lot invested in it, and perhaps his greatest weapon  amongst white folks is the conviction that it doesn't exist any longer.

As I said at the beginning of this post, preaching, for me, is exhausting, but that Sunday in particular, it was profoundly challenging. The further I pressed, the more tense the room felt. Some responded with tears and conviction. Some responded with anger and belligerence. It was unlike any teaching/preaching experience I’ve had in 14 years of ministry.

Rick Warren once posted on Facebook, “Preaching in 164 nations & pastoring members who speak 72 languages, I've found racism is a most common [and] least admitted sin.” I think our difficulty with admitting it is two-fold.

1. Oversimplifying racism

I think our conceptual framework for racism is oversimplified. We think of it as being something akin to political affiliation, something we can check off on a box. “Am I a racist? No. I believe we’re all made equal.”

But this is a purely intellectual framework, and it fails to account for more subtle ways that racism might be embedded in us and in our culture. In a New York Times Op-Ed, Nicholas Kristof asks “Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist?” The studies he cites point to prejudices that operate under our radar, without a lot of cognitive processing. In other words, you can check the box that says, “I’m not a racist,” and mean it, but still be operating with a certain level of bias.

I think James K.A. Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom provides some helpful ways of thinking about this. Smith makes the case for a kind of embodied knowledge, a “background” that operates with a measure of independence from our cognitive processes. When we talk about intuition or our “feel” for the world, we’re talking about this kind of knowledge. Smith is building on Charles Taylor’s concept of “social imaginaries,” a constructed way of making sense of our world that gets imbibed subtly through stories and rituals that are repeated throughout our lives.

It seems to me that this implicit, under-the-surface racism is best accounted for in this framework. It’s imbibed in repeated stories and images, and it’s built into our social architecture. So we can pass the tests of political correctness, even as we’ve imbibed and embodied bias.

It’s even more disconcerting to think of it from the perspective of African-Americans. Perhaps, when we think about reconciliation and healing wounds, we should ask questions about how the social imaginaries of African-Americans are being constructed. What are the images and stories—arising from a biased culture—that they’re imbibing about themselves?  What are their plausibility structures—their sense of what’s possible—particularly when it comes to issues of identity and opportunity?

2. Oversimplifying sin

At the heart of all of this, though, is a question about our attitude toward sin. When it comes to race, many Christians seem to think that we’re simply talking about a doctrinal issue. “I believe we’re all made equal.” But racism isn’t just a doctrinal matter, it’s a heart matter. It has more in common with pride than with a theory of atonement.

What makes it complicated, though, is that pride is a socially acceptable sin. If you’re in a small group setting and say, “I’m really struggling with pride”, or for that matter, you confess to struggles with lust, greed, or anger, your friends will pat you on the shoulder and pray for you. But if you say, “I’m really struggling with racism,” you’ll be met with blank stares or worse. The political incorrectness of racism has made it difficult to acknowledge and discuss on any level.

But it’s no different than these other sins. Racism exists on a spectrum, and like pride or lust, it has ways of infecting a culture and simmering under the surface. So we swim in that milieu, unaware of the ways it’s working on us.

What’s needed

The challenge of dealing with racism is that it demands a level of maturity from us. The power of political correctness isn’t just social, it’s spiritual. It’s pharisaical. It sets up a moral code of acceptability, and if we fail to conform to it, we open ourselves up to scorn, not least from ourselves.

If we haven’t come to a place where we can say, with Paul, “what a wretched man I am,” than any discussion of racism will get muddled in the need to defend ourselves.

Thomas Merton, writing in the midst of the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement, accused Americans of making “a fetish of action,” meaning that in the face of a problem, we are desperate for something to do. Hashtag activism is a great example of this fetish. We take tag our photos on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram with the cause of the week, but these efforts don’t actually involve us in the crisis. They primarily serve the purpose of soothing our consciences and enabling us to present a politically correct version of ourselves to the world. Merton argued that the first and best response to humanity’s great crises are prayer and reflection. The problems of humanity are always spiritual at their roots, and racism is certainly no exception.

So perhaps this is the best next step for us, both at Sojourn and in the church at large. We need to pray. We need to listen. We especially need to listen to the witness of our African-American brothers and sisters, and we need to resist the need to filter their stories through any particular political ideology. Maybe, in prayer, in community and in humility, we can bring ourselves to a place where we are more receptive to the reality of our situation, better able to see the darkness that exists both in the world and in our own hearts.

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