Can Christians Fight Racism?

George Yancey
George Yancey

Yancey is a professor of sociology at Baylor University. He is the author of several academic and Christian books dealing with race relations and anti-Christian bias.

Christian Racism

Constructive communication requires us to be charitable in our interaction with those who disagree with us. We must not only engage with their ideas but also strive to understand their motivation behind those ideas.

This piece of research has recently caught my eye. It shows that among religious groups, traditional Christian denominations tend to be the least racially diverse. I have been working with Christians on racial diversity issues for about 20 years now; it still breaks my heart to see what little progress we have made.

If our Christian faith has something to say about the morality of racism and bringing people together, we would be doing a better job of worshiping together in the same religious groups. Indeed, I believe that our Christian faith has something important to say about these issues.

Still, I wonder if we have been fully willing to live out the implications of that faith. Perhaps if we are eager to live out those implications, we would see an improvement in racial diversity in our denominations and congregations. We would also be able to provide a powerful example to the rest of society about dealing with racial unrest.

Usually, in the United States, people claim colorblindness, ignore racial issues, or take an aggressive antiracism approach to racism. I have critiqued colorblindness and antiracism in the past, and space does not permit me to do so here. But I have noticed a similarity between the two approaches. They both assume that if everyone follows certain norms – whether colorblindness or antiracism – we will have racial peace.

This call for ideological conformity is where we can distinguish these secular options from a Christian perspective. Christians believe that the sickness of human depravity impacts us all. We are all corrupted. Because of that corruption, any answer we deliver on an emotionally charged issue such as racism will be poisoned by our self-interest. Thus, the idea that an individual or a particular group will lead us out of this racial mess goes directly against our fundamental Christian beliefs.

Short of gaining direct guidance from God, how do we deal with this propensity to depravity? I believe that the best way, this side of heaven, to keep our worst instincts in check is through accountability. As it concerns race relations, that accountability can take the form of constructive interracial dialog. In that dialog, I have a chance of curbing my tendency to create solutions that serve me more than the rest of society. Rather than envisioning solutions whereby we must force others to accept colorblindness or antiracism, we work together to fashion win-win racial solutions better suited for everyone.

Anyone who thinks that what I am advocating will be easy has no real understanding of human nature. We do not naturally come together and try to fashion solutions that serve everyone. Rather, we force others to accept what we want. But moral suasion is a value in and of itself. If we’re going to persuade others, we do not yell at them or insult them on social media. Research indicates that to convince others, we must develop a rapport with them, admit when they are right, and find out what we have in common. The very process of working out solutions to our racial tensions can serve to lessen that tension if we approach it with the right attitude.

So Christians do have something to offer on racism, something that is missing in other attempts to address this problem. We can provide collaborative communication instead of name-calling and dehumanizing those in political and racial out-groups. But it must first happen among ourselves if we will have any moral authority on this issue. We must learn how to talk and learn from each other in respectful ways and model the type of relationships we hope to foster in society.

With this, let me point out a way in which we have not been fostering that conversation. I have heard many of my white Christian friends complain that they are told that they are racist when they disagree with a Christian of color. They argue that they are being shut down without being able to offer their perspective. And they are right. I have seen Christians of color use the charge of racism to end, rather than enhance, conversations.

However, there is a flip side to that. I have often seen white Christians accuse Christians of color of engaging in critical race theory or cultural Marxism when that Christian points out how racism manifests itself in modern society. This, too, is ending, rather than enhancing, our conversations. Most Christians of color so accused are not looking towards critical race theory as a worldview or solution but are merely pointing out ways in which institutional and historical racism impacts their communities. They are no more proponents of some version of cultural Marxism than the white pastors are proponents of racism.

Constructive communication requires us to be charitable in our interaction with those who disagree with us. We must not only engage with their ideas but also strive to understand their motivation behind those ideas. We do not build the rapport we need for having meaningful moral suasion by stigmatizing people with alternative perspectives. Those are the very people who can help us check our impulses to impose our solutions on others without considering how that solution will impact them.

So is there a Christian path away from our racial strife? Yes, there is. But suppose we want to take it seriously. In that case, we need to be willing to have difficult conversations and to stop labeling people we disagree with in ways that silence them. We must listen to them as they may offer perspectives that challenge our human depravity and tendency to seek out our good before the good of others. Perhaps if we can start doing this in our churches, then we will have a powerful message of racial harmony and unity for a hurting society. But until we get our own house in order, I fear that the best we will do is mimic failed programs of colorblindness and antiracism.


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