Race and Dignity

One of the most foundational pillars of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and teaching was the rightful importance he placed on the inherent dignity of every human person. As I preached in my sermon yesterday, when we fight the wrong war of being on the “right” side, we caricaturize our enemies and lose the dignity and nuance of a real person made in the image of God.

Instead, the war we are called to wage as Christians is one against our indwelling sin, and the death that must happen is the death of hostility (Ephesians 2). This is part of our identity in Christ, and what all Christians have in common with one another. It is the truth that unites us, even as we make every effort to work out the truths of our salvation in developed solidarity. In practice, this looks like each of us doing the loving, good action in word and deed, even when others may misunderstand us, disapprove of us, or even “cancel” us. Presently, the wars that voices in the world call us to engage in are largely wars of self-protection; they will not lead to the ends that Dr. King emboldened us toward. Dr. King lived a life of sacrificial love at tremendous personal cost, even unto death. This is the life our Savior has called us to live, as the author and forerunner of our faith in his own death and in enduring opposition from sinners (Hebrews 12:2-3). Dr. King faced opposition in the context of 1960s segregation. The flavors of injustice are different now, but still must be faced with prudence, so that we engage in the Christian conquest of peace rather than the worldly wars of division.   

As I have watched both Christians and my non-Christian neighbors struggle with questions surrounding racial justice, I have become increasingly less concerned with their ability to think about race than I am concerned about their overall ability to think about everything that is foundational to thinking about race. How does a Christian, or any human, think carefully and helpfully about race and racial justice if one doesn’t understand well the nature of the human person; the nature of moral reasoning; the intricate nature of social and political policymaking; the opportunities and liabilities of human emotions like fear, anger, and empathy; how trying to help people usually hurts them; what means can be employed with justice if we are combating a particular injustice, and so on? My greater concern is that Christians have not employed themselves in the great virtues necessary for a great democracy.

I don’t pretend to know all of the proper answers about racial justice in America. On one level, there may not be any answers. On another, there may be dozens of acceptable answers, depending on the particular question. We could pursue many possible futures and many possible solutions. I am concerned about racial justice, but because I am concerned about racial justice, I am more concerned about the faculties and virtues and wisdom we must possess in order to avoid doing more harm than good. The greatest tragedy a family might suffer is for a mother to give birth with great excitement, effort, and agony, only for the baby to emerge stillborn and the mother to perish. Our great goal in pursuing racial justice is to ensure a flourishing birth, but when it comes to racial justice, the child is most certainly breached. It will take more than outrage, and more than denial to bring forth a new birth of freedom and equality in the company of reconciliation, forgiveness, and solidarity.

It is reasonably likely that we will never achieve the beautiful society of prosperity, justice, and solidarity of which we dream. If what we imagine is a utopia, it will most certainly fail. But that does not mean we cannot achieve a society that is significantly more just than the one we have, and even given the realities of the human condition, I believe that more is possible. Yet to reach this goal, I believe that the Christian church, and much of the American public, will need to be elevated not just in their racial consciousness, but in their spirituality and humanity.

Consider this particular passage given to a group of Christians in a very unjust Greco-Roman society that appear to have significant division between the rich and poor in the church:

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

(James 1:19-27, NIV)

I want to encourage you to read this passage over the course of a few days. It’s all in there. This is a powerful summary of the kind of spiritual and moral elevation that can happen through the gospel of Christ and that is necessary for godliness both individually and socially. The political conservative, libertarian, and progressive will each favor some portion of it. Everybody will find a line that they might pick out to apply to the present conflict, but very few people would be willing to say all of it. Yet the written word of God holds all of these as both true and critically relevant:

  • You should be quick to listen to other people and slow to speak. Listen to people and empathize with their stories. If necessary, lament with their sorrows. This is a fundamentally human way of loving each other and a necessity for unity, reconciliation, and solidarity.
  • You should be slow to become angry and should recognize that anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Do you see anger around you? Do you see its willingness to flare quickly and recklessly? Anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires—and God desires justice, including racial justice. Anger has some possible benefits, but it has almost no constructive ones. If your goal is righteousness, including racial justice and reconciliation, anger will not and cannot produce it. If you are a believer, you must accept that and learn to discern what to do with anger when you rightly feel it as a signal of injustice, or when you recognize it as a signal of self-righteousness.
  • You need an absolute moral makeover in Christ. You cannot go along with the flow, because evil and moral filth are “so prevalent.” To reject this is arrogance of the worst sort. What we require is the humility to accept the word that was planted in us, the word that can cleanse us from moral filth and from going along with worldliness, but can also save us.
  • It’s no use to talk and not obey the word. We are responsible to obey all of the word of God that we know, and if we say we believe something and then do not act in accordance with that belief, we are succumbing to a certain kind of spiritual illness. We are like a person so forgetful that we can look at the mirror one moment and forget what we look like the next. To know the word of God and disobey it is like having no idea who you are after you just confessed it.
  • The righteous law of God brings freedom. That is, if you want freedom, pursue righteousness in accord with the righteous law of God. This is a freedom from the sin within ourselves and from the sin of sinners who are also changed by that law. Although the primary context here is freedom from the wretchedness of sin and internal spiritual weakness, the idea that the law brings freedom is also applied socially in the Old Testament—righteousness brings liberty.
  • Keeping a tight rein on your tongue is fundamental to truthful religious faith. The failure to control your tongue shows that your claim to be spiritual is self-deception, and your spirituality is worthless. This should be a chilling reminder to everyone in this season.
  • Pure and acceptable faith in God must include “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
    • First, this means that true faith has an irreducible social component. That component specifically includes the physical needs of a society’s poorest members, especially those blamelessly suffering poverty due to misfortune. Those who former religions would have said are suffering because of providence, Christians are to support disproportionately, rejecting the idea that the effects of the curse are the positive providence of God that we can use to judge the people who are suffering. Getting this right is fundamental to true theology, and actually helping those people with their physical needs is an essential part of it.
    • Second, you cannot separate a rejection of worldliness from engagement in social justice. There is an inextricable link between the social responsibilities that come from loving solidarity and our personal moral responsibilities to pursue godliness and reject worldliness. Any self-identified Christian who seeks to use their acts of social service as a way of excusing their sin and worldliness is deceived and lying about their faith. Conversely, anyone who makes great effort towards the disciplines and virtues of personal holiness, but has no recognition of their responsibility to love others in social solidarity—even the widows and orphans that come across their path—is also deceiving themselves, and their faith is worthless.

This is one of the reasons why I love Christian faith. God is no respecter of persons, nor of political movements. He does not favor the rich over the poor, nor the poor over the rich. He will defend the wife against the brutal husband, and he will, with equal seriousness, call out the disgusting behavior of the quarrelsome wife. He will demand that a slave owner treat his slave as a brother, and he will tell a slave not to steal from his master. He will put the weight of justice on the governor, and he will demand that every citizen be easy to govern. He disproportionately supports the poor and disenfranchised, not because they are better, but because they are unheard and need special attention. Yet he does not give them license to act unjustly towards their oppressors. He acts to ensure that they receive justice and that the people of God can live in peaceful harmony.

Our shared humanity and shared salvation in Christ relate us to each other with great equity and equality, regardless of our background, race, cultural identity, gender, or mixture of identifying characteristics. Spiritual equality before God is the basis for our equality before the law. But this same dignity is also the dignity that establishes God’s high expectations of his image bearers. There are no excuses for our behavior; there is only grace and the invitation to a new way. 

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