“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).