What’s the Big Deal With Race?

November 25, 2014

“So why your interest in issues of race and theology?”

The question was asked rather innocently of me in recent days. But it also betrayed some intrigue. Why would a thirtysomething white historian who spends most of his time working in academic administration be so fixated on questions of race, theology, and justice? Why in the world would I spend a whole semester leading a small group of seminary students through a study of race and theology in American Christianity?

I guess it’s actually a legitimate question.

So let me give you my answer. And, if I’m right, it might just help you consider why all Christians should be mindful of the gospel’s demands for racial reconciliation and justice.

First, racial injustice is, at its core, a sin problem.

Racism and all manifestations of racial injustice are not merely the result of historical forces, economic interests, or lacking education. The biblical account makes clear that our proclivity for self-exaltation is rooted in the primal sin of the Garden. As sons and daughters of Adam, we are spring-loaded to see ourselves as distinct and superior from other individuals, but also from groupings or communities of persons.

Is racial prejudice and injustice really a matter of sin? We have abundant biblical evidence to conclude that it is. Moses records an especially informative account in Numbers 12 that should help us understand just how seriously God takes this sin. We’re told that Miriam and Aaron “spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman” (Numbers 12:1). The reference to this woman as a “Cushite” is clearly intended to convey racial meaning–presumably she was of darker skin, from the region of Cush, in modern day Sudan and Ethiopia.

Interestingly, Aaron and Miriam’s accusations against Moses invoked the racial identity of his wife as evidence against his calling as a prophet of God. They cited her race as a way of delegitimizing Moses’ authority. But God’s response should tell us something. He summons the three siblings together at the Tent of Meeting and speaks to them, reaffirming his unique relationship with Moses and warning Miriam and Aaron. But not only that. We’re told that “the anger of the Lord was kindled against them” (Numbers 12:9). When God’s presence is removed from them, Miriam discovers she has been afflicted with leprosy and her skin is now “like snow.” We shouldn’t miss the irony here. Miriam, who had indicted her sister-in-law for her blackness is now judged. And her judgment takes expression in her whiteness. As John Piper has pointed out, it’s almost as if God says, “Oh, you think your skin color makes you superior? You think white is better? I’ll make you so white your skin will literally rot.”

But the sin of racial injustice is far more insidious than we often realize. It is not content to restrain itself to individual prejudices, beliefs, and attitudes. Injustice infects and perverts entire societies, institutions, and cultures. And when a fundamentally unjust system is perpetuated for generation after generation, the effects and consequences of that sin become far more deep-rooted than we often can begin to see.

Indeed, this kind of injustice is often harder for us to see. Well, maybe I should be more precise. It’s especially hard to see for those who are not victimized by it. But a historic Christian theology of sin will not be one that underestimates the insidiousness of sin. We see it all around us. We see it in a massive economic machine that preys upon poor and unmarried women, telling them that their choice to terminate a pregnancy is one of empowerment and security. We see it in state-run lotteries that disproportionately accumulate billions of dollars off the backs of the poor and those most desperate to see their luck change. We see it around us in an industrialized penal system that is overwhelmingly populated by young black men. And we see it in the recurring headlines of unarmed black teenage boys shot by police officers. Sure, we can trumpet the virtue of personal responsibility and try to sleep better at night, our uneasy consciences salved by the distance of “out of sight and out of mind.” But look more closely and you’ll see that sin is never confined merely to the orbit of individual choice or personal responsibility.

Second, racial injustice denies the truth of our universal kinship.

The great lie of Jim Crow and all forms of racial injustice was–and continues to be–that it perpetuated a system that implied a differentiation in human worth and dignity among human beings, all made in the image of God, all sons of Adam, sons of Noah (cf. Acts 17:26).

We literally share the same DNA, we are all part of the human family. So any system that elevates one branch of the family tree while denigrating or demeaning another on the basis of race or ethnicity contradicts this ancient reality. The spiritual kinship shared by the redeemed in Christ is enduring and eternal, one that supersedes genetic family ties. But we should not miss the reality that there is also a basic human kinship–we are all connected to one another by genealogy and blood, descended from the same first parents.

Third, racial injustice is contrary to the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

One of the implications of our universal kinship in Adam is that we are also all tied together in the sin and culpability of our first parents. But the good news of the Christ and his kingdom is that where the first Adam failed, the second Adam has now taken on our guilt and suffered the judgment we deserved (Romans 5). In exchange, he grants his perfect righteousness to men and women from every sector of the human family–every “nation, tribe, and tongue”–to reconcile us to God.

There’s also an eschatological vision to this. In his vision of the new heavens and new earth, the Apostle John relays a vision of the people of God, gathered together in worship of the Christ. This great assembly is not racially, ethnically, or culturally monolithic. Instead, the apostle tells us, it’s a congregation of ransomed sinners too large to count from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).

As civil rights hero John Perkins has noted, if God’s great plan of vertical reconciliation–to redeem sinners to himself through his Son’s sacrificial death and resurrection–required a deliberate and providential plan, then we should also expect that our horizontal reconciliation with one another will require a similar measure of intentionality. It won’t happen by sheer good intentions or by cultural inertia.

Fourth, evangelicals have a complicated history when it comes to racial justice.

As a historian, this truth haunts me. How could so many of my own theological forbears within my own denomination have been so right on biblical authority, the urgency of global missions, the exclusivity of the gospel, and the centrality of the cross, but have been so wrong on the issue of racial justice?

Of course, this historic reality has a humbling and sobering effect. And it should. It should serve to inoculate against arrogance or self-righteousness. Even God’s people, those who are sojourners and aliens, are still embedded within cultures and societies marked by injustice. And it is far easier than we realize for us to be lulled into it and simply make our peace with it.

Fifth, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the only full and final solution for racial injustice.

There are a host of good and necessary steps needed for racial justice and reconciliation. We can and should have reasoned and civil debates about matters of policy and law that will uphold justice and equity. But the only solution capable of rooting out the sin that is fundamentally responsible for this kind of evil is the good news of the Kingdom of Christ.

This is at the heart of the New Testament. As our great High Priest, Jesus Christ mediates a new and better covenant, reconciling us to God and to one another. In him, there is no longer a dividing wall of hostility–whether between sinners and God, or between the redeemed new people of God. Now Jew and Greek, slave and free, men and women are all “one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3.28; cf. Col. 3:11).

If the gospel of Jesus Christ really is the only full antidote to racial injustice, then we understand it as long as we wander through this present evil age, we will have to temper our expectations. Yes, Christ has conquered sin and crushed the head of the serpent. But until he comes again, we continue to wage war against principalities and powers recognizing that the conflict will not subside until the consummation of all things. So we work, we pray, we speak out, we listen, and we yearn for racial reconciliation and justice. But ultimately, we join with the church through the ages and with the Apostle in crying, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).

Matthew J. Hall
Matthew J. Hall (Ph.D., University of Kentucky) is vice president of academic services at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also teaches courses in church history. He is a research fellow of the ERLC Research Institute and co-editor of the forthcoming Essential Evangelicalism: The Enduring Influence of Carl F.H. Henry (Crossway, 2015).

Matthew J. Hall

Matthew J. Hall was appointed as provost and senior vice president for academic administration of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in April 2019. Previously, Hall served as dean of Boyce College in 2016 and senior vice president of academic strategy at Southern Seminary. 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