My aim in this article is to reduce the instinctive, white, evangelical reaction against the idea of structural racism or systemic racism. Not that I assume only whites, or only evangelicals, have problems with these terms. But that’s the group I know best and relate to most closely.
My strategy is to show that, if your mind is Bible-saturated, you would consider it absolutely astonishing if structural racism were not pervasive wherever sin is pervasive. In other words, Bible-shaped people should expect to see structural racism almost everywhere in a fallen world.
My other strategy is to show that structural racism is a child of structural pride, and a sibling of the fraternal triplets, structural greed, structural fear, and structural lust. My assumption is that Bible-shaped people are going to resonate with the idea that pride, greed, lust, and fear are imbedded in social structures and institutions like entertainment, advertising, capitalist business processes, university tenure procedures, the practices of party politics, and more.
So this is a very limited goal. It will leave the reader with several, “So then are you saying . . .” questions. If I don’t say it, it might be best not to assume I do.
Let’s be crazy and start with definitions. This is crazy because racism is the sort of thing where it pays to be vague. Everybody’s against racism. Even racists. So why not just get on with the article and avoid trouble? Besides, it sounds fishy, asking for definitions. Like you’re trying to evade something. Find a loophole for something. Well, I’m not. Just the opposite. I want to slam shut all escape routes. I want to close the loopholes.
Definitions can do that. I don’t like walking in a haze of imprecision. People do escape things that way. But they also fall off cliffs. I don’t think that agreement which only survives in a fog is worth much.
So here goes. These are my definitions. I didn’t borrow them from anywhere. They simply tell the reader what I mean when I use these terms. If they overlook important realities, that’s because I have blind spots, or prejudices, or a short memory, or all three. Hence the vulnerability of attempting definitions.
Race. The difficulty of defining race is captured in the fact that Barack Obama will forever be known as America’s first black president although genetically speaking he is as much white as black. Why? Mainly because we have elevated skin-color, hair type, and facial features to the defining level of racial differentiation. Which means that the genetic basis of our usual way of conceiving of race is about .01% of our genetic makeup.
Moreover, the line between races, conceived this way, is impossible to draw. There are too many appearance-variations of each race. They merge at the edges. Not only that, but there are just as many, or more, differences of greater physical and intellectual significance within such appearance-based groups as there are between them.
This inclines many of us to want to speak of the one human race in God’s image, rather than giving undue weight (with historically destructive power) to the divisions of humanity based on non-essential surface differences.
Nevertheless, virtually all of us who share this concern have little choice but to use the terms “racism” and “racist” because of the injustices that exist historically and currently based on such non-essential differences. And there is imbedded in the term “racism” an assumption about the meaning of the word “race.”
For that reason — in order to use the term “racism” in a way that relates to our present situation — I do not define “race” scientifically or sociologically, but on the basis of appearance, with all the ambiguities and disadvantages mentioned above.
A race is a group of people distinguished primarily by skin color, but also by facial features and hair type. I choose this simplistic, street-level definition simply to be able to communicate when I talk about racism.
Racism is an explicit or implicit feeling or belief or practice that values one race over other races, or devalues one race beneath others.
Racist, as a noun, refers to a person who is characterized by racism without hating, renouncing, and seeking to eliminate his own racist attitudes and actions, and the harmful effects of them. The implication is that while everyone, as sinful and self-centered by nature, is tainted with racist tendencies, not everyone should be labeled a racist.
Racist, as an adjective, refers to the quality of any feeling, thought, act, speech, object, idea, expectation, norm, rule, policy, law, procedure, or anything whatsoever, which embodies or expresses racism.
Structural racism is the cumulative effect of racist feelings, beliefs, and practices that become embodied and expressed in the policies, rules, regulations, procedures, expectations, norms, assumptions, guidelines, plans, strategies, objectives, practices, values, standards, narratives, histories, records, and the like, which accordingly disadvantage the devalued race and privilege the valued race. Implicit in this definition is the important fact that structural racism, therefore, may have its racist effects even if non-racist people now inhabit the institutions where the racist structures still hold sway.
With those definitions in place, I turn now to show why it would be astonishing if structural racism were not pervasive in institutions where sin is pervasive. The reason is that human sin, a supernatural devil, and an evil world system collude to weave pride, greed, fear, lust, and racism into all human institutions.
The Glory and Ignominy of Man
The biblical worldview attributes to human beings great glory, and great corruption. Humans began as the apex of God’s creation on earth (Genesis 1:26, 31). And the redeemed humanity will one day, as children of God (John 1:12), be conformed to the incarnate second person of the Trinity (Romans 8:29; 1 John 3:2), share his rule of the universe (Revelation 3:21), judge angels (1 Corinthians 6:3), and be “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).
This glorious destiny is owing to God’s merciful intervention into the present evil of humanity. It is not owing to our worth or our intrinsic ability to improve ourselves. God sent his Son into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15; John 3:16).
Personal Human Sin
In our present condition, apart from God’s saving grace, we are all, without exception, sinners (Romans 3:9–23). We have exchanged the glory of God for his creation (Romans 1:23). By nature, we prefer other things to God. We are darkened in our understanding (Ephesians 4:18). In our natural, fallen condition, we do “not accept the things of the Spirit of God,” but regard them as folly. We are “not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
In our unwillingness to submit to God’s law, we show that we are deeply “hostile to God,” even when we feel warm thoughts about him in our unsubmissive selfishness (Romans 8:7–8). We are “slaves of sin” (Romans 6:17). In this condition, we are “alienated from the life of God” (Ephesians 4:18), and are “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3).
Not only did God send his Son as a Savior into this horrific human insurrection, but he also exerts a common grace to restrain humanity from doing as much evil as we would if he didn’t (Genesis 20:6; 2 Thessalonians 2:6–7). But even so, the amount of evil that man commits against man is incalculable. Listen to the words that the New Testament uses to describe the kinds of sins that humans commit against humans: malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, gossip, slanderer, arrogance, insolence, boasting, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, heartless, ruthless, hated by others and hating one another (Romans 1:29–32; Titus 3:3).
And what is the effect of all this sinfulness on racial and ethnic relations? The Bible uses one main word: “hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). If you let your eyes run back over the list of sins in the previous paragraph, asking, with each word, what its effect would be on our attitudes to other races, you will not be surprised by that. If we are “malicious,” how much more with those different from ourselves. If we “murder,” how much more those who are different. If we “deceive,” how much more the alien. If we “slander,” how much easier it is to slander those who are different. If we are “arrogant and insolent,” how easier to exalt ourselves over those “others” we see as inferior. If we “hate,” who better to hate than those not like us.
The history of humanity has no chance in a million to not be a history of racism. Where racism does not hold sway among unredeemed sinners, it is because common grace has restrained it. But be assured: in the very soil of the culturally restrained disapproval of racism, other sins are growing strong, ready to corrupt the appearances of racial harmony.
Now add to this fallen condition of the human heart the fact that in the world there is a great supernatural power working at odds with the purposes of God. He is called “the devil and Satan” (Revelation 12:9), and “the ruler of this world” (John 14:30), or “the god of this world [who] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 4:4). He is “the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9). His deceit goes hand in hand with his intent to destroy. “He was a murderer from the beginning. . . . When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).
He does not work alone, but has demonic subordinates who do his destructive work in the world. He is called “the prince of demons” (Luke 11:15). When Paul described the demonic adversaries of Christians, he said, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
Therefore, the power of human depravity to produce racism — along with every other sin — is compounded by the supernatural demonic power to secure and intensify that evil. This supernatural influence is so pervasive in human affairs that John says that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), and Paul says the “prince of the power of the air . . . is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2).
Since his age-long modus operandi is lying and killing, can we be surprised if he works through all the social institutions of this world to cultivate misunderstanding, distrust, bias, partiality, suspicion, ill-will, antagonism, hostility, murder, pogroms, lynchings, ethnic cleansing, holocaust, genocide? The persistence, the pervasiveness, and the global scope of racist horrors and ethnic strife bear witness to a kind of evil that fits the biblical picture of supernatural deceit and death.
Evil World System
Then, add to human depravity and supernatural demonic power the fact that the Bible sees this collusion of human and super-human wickedness as producing a “present evil age” (Galatians 1:4), a “present darkness” (Ephesians 6:12), and a “world” that we should not love (1 John 2:15), whose wisdom is foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:20), whose spirit is not of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:12), whose form is passing away (1 Corinthians 7:31), whose elementary principles are enslaving (Galatians 4:3), and which we must overcome (1 John 5:4).
Sin in the human heart and mind and deeds is strengthened and extended by Satan into a global matrix of evil called the “world” or this “evil age” or “this present darkness.” The point of this language is to help us see that the global and historical reality of evil is greater than the sum of its human parts. Evil in the world is vastly more than the sum of individual human sins. The effort to capture this reality leads many to use the phrase “world system” for the biblical word “world.”
In this worldview, I can think of no sin that is not systemic or structural (I’m using the terms interchangeably).
Father-Sin of All Sins
The great granddaddy of all sins is pride. Pride is the love of self-definition, self-exaltation, self-dependence, and superiority over others, including God. Therefore, pride prefers being served over serving, being praised (when strong) over praising, being pitied (when weak) over pitying, and being respected over respecting. At the bottom of pride’s happiness is self, not God.
God abhors pride (Proverbs 8:13; Amos 6:8). “The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day” (Isaiah 2:11). It was the downfall of Satan (Jude 1:6), and then of the human race. Adam and Eve embraced self-direction, and self-dependence, and self-exaltation when they rejected God as their trust (Genesis 2:16–17; 3:6).
No sin is more systemic and structural than pride. It is woven into every human institution. Selfish ambition, vain-glory, looking out for our own interests first, valuing the world over God — these are the building blocks of all human life and institutions, until “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16; Philippians 2:5) replaces the “mind of the flesh” (Romans 8:7), makes the glory of God supreme (Philippians 2:11), and frees us to “count others more significant than [ourselves]” (Philippians 2:3). Until then, even philanthropy (1 Corinthians 13:3) and Christian ministry (Philippians 1:17) are systemically suffused with selfishness and the diminishment of God.
Only where the gospel of Jesus breaks the power of this darkness and puts the grace of God at the bottom of life, and the glory of God at the top (2 Thessalonians 1:11–12), does the fabric of structural pride begin to unravel. Otherwise, the exaltation of man and the marginalizing of God are imbedded in the policies, rules, regulations, procedures, expectations, norms, assumptions, guidelines, plans, strategies, objectives, practices, values, standards, narratives, histories, and records of every human institution.
Three Children of Father Pride
The fraternal triplets born to pride are greed, fear, and lust. I call them fraternal because they are not identical. But I call them triplets because their motivational DNA is so similar.
Greed is the desire for the wherewithal (usually money) to get what satisfies me, while regarding God as unsatisfying and people as expendable. Pride creates and nourishes greed as the unbending principle of self-centeredness beneath unredeemed desire.
Fear is the anxious mirror image of greed that dreads losing what greed craves. It spurns God not only as satisfaction but also as protection (Isaiah 51:12–13). Therefore, other people are not only expendable; they are threatening. The only respect and kindness that greed and pride can show is manipulative. Who can I use to get what I want? Who must I eliminate to keep what I have? Pride creates and nourishes fear by feeding the all-governing predisposition that I deserve what I want.
Lust is greed’s little brother. His craving is narrow, but as strong as death. He only wants sensual pleasure. Greed may crave a great library. Lust just wants the librarian to take her clothes off. He is a weathervane twisting in the winds of sexual stimulation. In the lustful heart, God is repressed, and people are objectified. As long as they serve sexual euphoria, they are wanted. Otherwise, they are disposable. When pride is not busy creating self-righteous ascetics, it creates and nourishes lust by feeding the mindset that the body’s desires are its rights. Lust is, therefore, especially good at shrinking the human soul to a tiny cauldron of craving which has the effect of blinding the soul to glorious things like the image of God in every person and every race.
Institutionalizing Pride, Greed, Fear, and Lust
When the Bible speaks of “this present evil age” and “this present darkness” and “this world,” it is reminding us that the systems and structures of the world are permeated with sin — like pride, greed, fear, and lust. The point is not that institutional policies, rules, regulations, procedures, and more can feel pride, greed, fear, and lust. The point is that they reflect, embody, preserve, and advance them. They institutionalize the mindset of the proud, greedy, fearful, lustful people who create them.
While Satan is the “god of this world system,” and while humans are, at best, only partially freed from the “mind of the flesh,” and while God’s common grace restrains only some of the cancer of pride, metastasizing in every human institution, there will always be structural pride, structural greed, structural fear, and structural lust.
There will be policies that promote a visible pecking order that feeds on and furthers pride. There will be strategies of cut-throat competition that grow with the nutriments of greed. There will be procedures of micro-management that waken and exploit fear. There will be assumptions of dress that exploit lust.
Inconceivable Absence of Structural Racism
In such a world, it would be inconceivable and utterly astonishing if there were no such thing as structural racism. In this world of sin and Satan and a decadent world system, it is incomprehensible that one sin would be privileged to escape systemic expression. This is true not only for statistical reasons, but for organic ones. Racism is the spoiled child of pride. And structural racism is the sturdy child of structural pride. They are organically connected. Pride gives birth to racism. Structural pride gives birth to structural racism.
Racism is an explicit or implicit feeling or belief or practice that values one race over other races, or devalues one race beneath others. Why do we do this? Because of pride. Egotism. Haughtiness. Vain-glory. What could be clearer than the fact that we devalue other races in order to exalt our own, and gain the advantages that go with it? This is why racism is also the sibling of the fraternal triplets greed, fear, and lust. We value our own race, and devalue others to gain benefits (greed), avoid perceived loss (fear). And all the while lust aids and abets the process by sucking the vestiges of decency out of our souls.
Remedy: The Mind of Christ
I conclude, therefore, that in a biblical worldview, structural racism is a given. It finds expression everywhere that pride, greed, fear, and lust do. Where cultural winds blow against it, which thankfully they do today, it tends (tragically) to go underground.
But beware of thinking that, because structural racism is pervasive, it is the decisive cause of all injustice or all inequalities. The pervasive presence of one type of cancer cell in the body does not make it the cause of every malady. Therefore, it is seldom helpful to wave the flag of structural racism without putting the finger on specific manifestations. The likelihood may be high that it played a part. But a good physician does his tests.
Jesus Christ is the decisive antidote for the disease of pride, greed, fear, lust, and racism. The only sin we can successfully defeat is a forgiven sin, and only the death and resurrection of Jesus secures that forgiveness before God. When we are united to him by faith, his death and righteousness counts as ours. Our punishment is past (because of his death); our perfection is imputed (because of his righteousness). Now we are in a position to make war on pride and greed and fear and lust.
In Christ, the God-opposing “mind of the flesh” is crucified (Galatians 5:24). In Christ, the God-exalting “mind of Christ” is created (Galatians 6:15; Philippians 2:5). At the heart of this newness is the miracle that “in humility [we] count others more significant than [ourselves]” (Philippians 2:3). That is the end of pride, greed, fear, lust, and racism. Humility and servanthood replace pride and selfishness. Generosity replaces greed. Peace replaces fear. Covenant love replaces lust.
Undaunted in Doing Good
This kind of person — this new creation in Christ — not only renounces racism in his heart and deeds, he also seeks to discern and dismantle the structures that grew up around it. One way to do this is to invite different ethnicities to look closely at the way an institution works and tell you what they see. You may not agree with their assessments, but we have little hope of overcoming blind spots without seeing the world through other eyes.
The person who has the mind of Christ is not surprised by what he finds in the fallen world. Nor is he inclined to spend much of his energy blaming others. He knows too much of his own sin and remaining imperfection. He is not utopian or naïve about the limited possibilities of justice in this fallen world. Nor is he paralyzed or daunted by those limits. His job is not to create the kingdom of God. His job is to magnify the all-satisfying greatness of Christ, and do as much good as he can (1 Peter 2:12; 3:11, 17; 4:19).