Note: the smaller navy blue text is Michael Burns’s response.
Recently a group of American evangelical leaders signed and released a statement on social justice to voice concerns that they have over what they see taking place in certain aspects of the larger Christian community. I was asked recently what I thought of this statement. While there is much in there that I would agree with, there is also much that is highly problematic. There is a pattern of not defining terms, setting up strawmen arguments, and flattening out topics or over-simplifying them to the point that the responses are unhelpful and even potentially destructive in some cases. In addition, I believe that some of their positions smack more of cultural conditioning than biblical truth. Due to factors of time and space I will address only the last two sets of affirmations and denials.
WE AFFIRM that some cultures operate on assumptions that are inherently better than those of other cultures because of the biblical truths that inform those worldviews that have produced these distinct assumptions. Those elements of a given culture that reflect divine revelation should be celebrated and promoted. But the various cultures out of which we have been called all have features that are worldly and sinful—and therefore those sinful features should be repudiated for the honor of Christ. We affirm that whatever evil influences to which we have been subjected via our culture can be—and must be—overcome through conversion and the training of both mind and heart through biblical truth.
WE DENY that individuals and sub-groups in any culture are unable, by God’s grace, to rise above whatever moral defects or spiritual deficiencies have been engendered or encouraged by their respective cultures.
Culture is a complex and multi-faceted element. This response treats the many aspects of culture as one monolith and because of that, the response is so one-dimensional that it is unhelpful to anyone who grasps the complexities of culture as it relates to the kingdom. There are both objective (above-the-surface expressions, etc) and subjective (below-the-surface values, etc) elements that are important aspects of culture. At times, the New Testament seems to affirm that there are portions of cultural beliefs and practices that need to be examined and no longer conformed to (Romans 12:2). For example, there are some cultures in Africa where the father is completely distant and uninvolved with their children. This is clearly unbiblical and not something to which we can or should conform. It is in these areas that we transform to the beliefs and practices of the kingdom community, creating a new culture in many ways.
There are other times, however, where the New Testament seems very interested in encouraging believers to embrace their own cultural beliefs, practices, and expressions and to learn about, participate in, if possible, and accept the culture of others (1 Corinthians 9:19-23; Romans 14:1-15:7). This is extremely complex and takes a great deal of discernment to determine what are unbiblical aspects of cultures and what are perfectly acceptable cultural expressions that we need to learn about one another and be all things to all people. The above definition flattens out culture so much that it would make us incapable of truly responding the depth of cultural expressions and values and be the people that God wants us to be.
The above definition very much leaves it open for the dominant culture in a group to basically deny that it has a culture except for that of Christ and to continue to dominate the others and subtly expect that the other groups assimilate into its culture in order to be part of the group. For example, our family of churches tend to embrace cultural expressions that are consistent with white, Western, and American customs. One simply needs to go to non-white, non-Western, non-American cultured churches to see the differences in culture and see that it is true. This is not wrong in and of itself, but the Bible calls us beyond simply closing our eyes to this and refusing to move beyond our own cultural comfort zones which is what the above statement affirms without a doubt. Their statement rejects the examination of one’s own culture and an all-things-to-all people approach that the Bible demands of us.
Additionally, the assertion that anyone holds the position that certain cultural groups are unable to rise above their so-called “spiritual deficiencies” is a strawman. It is, in other words, a position that no serious Christian holds to. While it is true that some aspects of cultures are more spiritual than others, it is deeply problematic to affirm that some cultures, as a whole, operate on better assumptions than others. These types of blanket statements are dangerous over-steps and beg the question as to who determines which cultures are superior.
WE AFFIRM that racism is a sin rooted in pride and malice which must be condemned and renounced by all who would honor the image of God in all people. Such racial sin can subtly or overtly manifest itself as racial animosity or racial vainglory. Such sinful prejudice or partiality falls short of God’s revealed will and violates the royal law of love. We affirm that virtually all cultures, including our own, at times contain laws and systems that foster racist attitudes and policies.
WE DENY that treating people with sinful partiality or prejudice is consistent with biblical Christianity. We deny that only those in positions of power are capable of racism, or that individuals of any particular ethnic groups are incapable of racism. We deny that systemic racism is in any way compatible with the core principles of historic evangelical convictions. We deny that the Bible can be legitimately used to foster or justify partiality, prejudice, or contempt toward other ethnicities. We deny that the contemporary evangelical movement has any deliberate agenda to elevate one ethnic group and subjugate another. And we emphatically deny that lectures on social issues (or activism aimed at reshaping the wider culture) are as vital to the life and health of the church as the preaching of the gospel and the exposition of Scripture. Historically, such things tend to become distractions that inevitably lead to departures from the gospel.
To use a term such as racism without carefully defining it is problematic to say the least. This section is so loaded with white Western perspective that it’s difficult to know where to start. The fact that they deny that only those in positions of power are capable of racism demonstrates that the authors seem to have no grasp of how these terms are used. Those who would make such a statement connecting racism with power (a sentiment that I believe is accurate) would say that racism is the historic and systemic abuse of power and oppression of groups that do not have the same historic and systemic access to that power. Given that definition, it is obvious that those in power are the only ones that can engage in racism. Anyone can be guilty of prejudice or discrimination or bias, but not racism in this definition.
They go on to deny that the evangelical movement has a deliberate agenda to elevate one ethnic group over the others. This is intentional blindness. To repeat the mantra over and again that everyone is equal in God’s sight and that’s all there is to it, is to ignore hundreds of years of sinful oppression that have caused massive inequities. Should those inequities not be recognized and addressed by the people of God? Take for example a country like South Africa. Hundreds of years of oppression has resulted in a situation where the minority white population is far more educated and prepared for a position such as teacher in the church, whereas the other 90% of the population has not historically had the same access to opportunities. Should the church just close their eyes to that and accept that this would mean that 90% of the teachers (if not more) will be white even though they comprise 10% of the population? That would be to exalt one race by silence (and I am glad to report that this is not the case in our family of churches who are aware of these societal inequities and working hard to address them in the body of Christ). This is not to say that we should embrace the solutions of the world, but that we should find kingdom-based solutions to right the wrong and sin of the world. If we don’t then we are baptizing the sin of the world by keeping its effects ongoing in the church.
There is a pigeon-holing of issues of ethnic harmony and cultural competence here that paints them as a side issue and distracts from the gospel to a degree that is stunning to me. It ignores that the gospel itself is a call to gather the nations. It ignores that cultural competence is at the heart of many of Paul’s letters as he taught the churches the importance of these issues. And it smacks of someone who has never allowed Paul’s letters to speak for themselves as the primers on cultural harmony and ethnic unity that so many of them are. Are there dangers of turning to the world’s solutions on these issues? Absolutely. But this response is just as unbiblical and will result, I fear, in a further exodus of non-white Westerners from churches in the West that would embrace these types of positions and views. In short, in my opinion, this response is thoroughly evangelical but not thoroughly biblical.