By Cedric Lundy, Pastor of Justice & Leadership
Benjamin Watson, NFL Tight End for the New Orleans Saints at the time, said it in the wake of the protests and riots in Ferguson. Clemson Head Coach Dabo Swinney said it when asked about the issues leading to football players taking a stance of protest during the playing of the National Anthem before games. I’ve seen many people echo the sentiment on social media.
“It’s not a skin issue it’s a sin issue.”
As a fellow Christian I must profess that this declaration of racism in America boiling down to a sin issue is a dangerous oversimplification. Before I get in to why, it would be useful to give a brief explanation of how sin has been widely understood or preached in America.
About 150 years ago the gospel was truncated into a message of turning from sin and going to heaven one day. Its key features were repentance and sin management. Over the last hundred years this version of the gospel eventually became obsessed with sexual purity. Noticeably absent was an ethic of breaking down the dividing wall of hostility and becoming one man in Christ (Ephesians 2.14-16).
Sin is a Symptom of Idolatry—The main failure of sin management, beyond creating legalists, is it only addresses the symptom, not the cause, of our individual and corporate obstacles to achieving harmony in life. To create an idol is to “make a good thing a God thing”. When we elevate our culture over and above another’s as superior, we are in fact suggesting that God approves of our culture over and above anyone else’s. It can become very easy to reject racial hatred while still believing your culture and its norms are somehow inherently better or more godly. The recent protest by pro football players during the National Anthem has exposed the idolatry of Christian Nationalism. Only idolatry would permit Christians to be more bothered by the perceived offense shown to the symbolism of a piece of woven cloth than the systemic dehumanization of others for any reason - race, gender, or otherwise.
Racism was used to Justify Colonialism— In 1452 Pope Nicholas V issued a Papal Bull statement on behalf of King Alfonso V of Portugal that said the following… “We grant you by these present documents, with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property [...] and to reduce their persons into perpetual servitude.” The history and legacy of racism in the United States is not simply a byproduct of individuals being marred by sin. Racism’s enduring legacy is European Colonialism, which used the authority of the Church to justify the annihilation and subjugation of other people groups who were indigenous to the lands the Church and the State sought to claim as divinely theirs (originally Portugal and Spain, but primarily England and France).
Denial of Implicit Racial Bias— One of the main obstacles preventing us from making progress in our fight against racism in America is our continued denial of implicit racial bias. We tend to make racism a binary issue and thus struggle to acknowledge or make room for anything besides racial supremacy and being “colorblind”. A lot of people fear that acknowledging they operate with subconscious biases based on race will put them in the category of being a racist. Therefore they work hard to deny the existence of implicit racial bias. So what’s the difference between implicit racial bias and racial supremacy/hatred? Racial bias says, "this is what ____ people are like, therefore I need to be more fearful and suspicious of them." Racial supremacy/hatred says, "_____ people are inferior, therefore I need to keep them in their place and exterminate them if they step out of line." We have no problem condemning the actions of a supremacist like Dylan Roof, but many struggle to condemn the biases that would lead a law enforcement officer, regardless of his/her color, to be more likely to use excessive and or lethal force with a black suspect than they would be with a white suspect.
Racism is a Corporate Issue, Not an Individual Issue—Years ago I led a group of students on a mission trip to urban Baltimore. I’ll never forget the responses of two students after a talk on racial inequality and injustice. One of my boys replied, “I don’t think like that.” He wanted to make sure everyone knew that he wasn’t a racist. Immediately after him one of my girls declared, “Oh my gosh! It totally makes sense now!” She talked about looks she noticed our group was getting when we were in a Wendy’s during our travel day. “I’ve never been looked at like that in my life. I couldn’t figure out why they looked at us like that. It totally makes sense now. They didn’t like seeing an all-white youth group being led by a black youth pastor.” I took that opportunity to point out to my kids, “Whether you think like that or not, you are affected by others who do whenever you all are with me.” Unfortunately, due the truncated gospel, we neglect addressing implicit racial bias and institutional racism beyond proselytizing, prayer and repentance, only to hold the vomit of racism and racial bias in our collective mouths. The racial divide in any form is only addressed from the pulpit when lamenting the explicitly racial carnage of supremacists (or condemning racial trauma expressing itself in destructive rioting.)
I recognize that most people who make this declaration of racism being “a sin issue, not a skin issue” have good intentions. They rightly infer simple legislation can’t establish racial harmony. However, it is dangerous for the church and its relevance in society to continue to infer racism will only be made better by personal sin management. We must address the deeper complex implications of racism being an issue of idolatry. Otherwise the church will continue in it’s legacy of being complicit in the persistence of the racial divide.