There’s a lot to unpack in the conversation on racism among Louie Giglio, Lecrae, and Dan Cathy. I’m going to skip the obvious ridiculousness of “white blessings” and get to the heart of a Christian issue that is deeply problematic.
For those who don’t know, Giglio is a megachurch pastor of Passion City Church here in Atlanta. Dan Cathy is son of the founder of Chick-Fil-A and the current CEO, who is a devout Southern Baptist and acts accordingly. Lecrae is a Christian rapper known for actually having bars (no shade) and enjoyed great fame and accolades in the Christian music community until he took a stand against White evangelicalism and was “canceled” by much of the community.
I know Passion City because I went to a church that had similar base theology for many years. Both my old church and Passion, along with North Point and several other churches in the area, are non-denominational churches. Not all would describe themselves as “reformed”, which is basically a theologically conservative modern take on Calvinism, but all share a heavy belief in the primacy of a traditional and literal-ish interpretation of Scripture, historical male-female roles, and most of the other things you’d expect from a conservative church, albeit with a renewed emphasis on love and relationship over judgment. I have friends from my old church that rotated between mine, Passion, and a couple of others based on location and personal preference.
Many churches in this system are specifically trying to tackle racial reconciliation, excited by the vision in Revelations of people of all nations bowing before the throne of God and worshipping together, and trying to bring that into the present. You’ve heard the take on diversity vs. inclusion vs. equity. Diversity means you’re invited to the party. Inclusion means you’re asked to dance. Equity means you picked the music.
Well, from my experience, the churches tend to be strong on diversity, marginal on inclusion, and missing the mark on equity. You will see faces of all races on stage and in the congregation, and genuine love and friendships form. But do they get to participate if they are not conforming to the standard culture? Ehh, maybe, a little. And do they get to set the tone and direction? Almost never.
The local White Baptist-Pentecostal cultural understanding of Christianity tends to dominate, even though the language and the hearts may be softened quite a bit. The policy prescriptions may be more progressive than your average conservative church due to people actually entering into other people’s stories, but the culture still comes from that understanding. (For the unfamiliar, we’re not talking Jesus Camp, but we are talking about standards on language, modesty, belief, and behavior that are subtly culturally enforced).
Now that you understand what we’re talking about, let’s look at the problem. In minute 35 of the conversation, Giglio says, “Injustice is about the system, and the system needs help. But racism is about the heart, and only God can change the heart.” Here’s why he, and the many Christians I’ve heard say this type of thing, are wrong.
Prejudice and tribalism are natural human behaviors. We identify in-group and out-group for our safety, and we socially bond with our in-group for our mutual good. A notion of superiority is also to be expected — my group is good, your group is bad is a logical outworking of the fear-based relationship to the “other”.
Racism, however, is not a natural human behavior. The notion that specific phenotype traits indicate intelligence or capability or evil in scientifically measurable ways is only about 500 years old, created by Johann Blumenbach and used to assuage the cognitive dissonance being created by the brutality of European colonialism. His theory stated that Adam and Eve came from the Caucasus region of Central Asia and produced the European race, while other races are basically degenerate versions. With this binding of bad science to the cross of Jesus Christ, Europeans had all they needed to comfortably subjugate most of the world and call it, well, a blessing.
Racism is not prejudice or tribalism. Prejudice and tribalism give way to relationship, every time. Tribes can form alliances when proof of safety is assured. Individual prejudices melt away when one actually gets to know the “other”.
This “scientific” racism that Blumenbach created calcifies in laws and customs. It creates false tribes where there is no common ground. Even when the beliefs of individuals go away, if there is no reckoning, it can go on and on, continuing to grind bodies under its wheels. Racism isn’t a bad idea or an individual selfish notion like a typical sin. It’s a cancer of the soul and of the society, and it must be cut out and diligently monitored to ensure no regrowth, like a cancer.
Along with patriarchy, it’s what I would call a second-order sin, a malignancy born out of a natural trait. Men and women are different, but the notion of a natural inferiority, while much older than the pseudoscience of race, is something we made up to assuage the sins of our cruelty and abuse of relative physical strength. For me, it was transformative for me when my old pastor preached that the term for Eve in the ancient Hebrew, עֵזֶר (ezer, but I don’t read Hebrew so those that do forgive me if I copied something crazy), which is commonly translated as “helper”, does not mean “sidekick” or “assistant”. It means something closer to “the one who strengthens and protects”, she who guards your soft and vulnerable places. My wife is definitely that for me, so that resonated. And that is a distinctly different dynamic than what is commonly preached in conservative churches.
(I’ll briefly acknowledge the heteronormativity of this whole thing, but that is beyond the scope of this discussion, so please bear with me.)
In the same way, it is natural to distrust the other, and common to view the unknown other as inferior. Both behaviors may be sinful, but it’s part of our wiring. It is the making of sin into science that is the injustice that Giglio generously says “needs help”, but that I say needs to be completely broken. And any theology that has it woven into it needs to be broken down to the studs and rebuilt.
We must name racism not as a malignant prejudice of the heart, but as a pseudoscientific lie enmeshed in our systems of power and designed to divide, kill, steal, and destroy (does that sound familiar, Christians?). And as a lie enmeshed in our systems of power, we must relentlessly excise those parts that uphold it. If that means tearing the police force apart and rebuilding it from scratch, so be it. If that means honoring our broken treaties to Native Americans at great expense to the country, or calculating the cost of Black reparations to restore some portion of the stolen wealth even since slavery, let alone before its abolition, so be it. Until we do, individual hearts will be mended and individual relationships will continue to form, but we won’t see true justice done at scale. We’ll all be standing on the wall at the party, but the music will not change, and not nearly enough of us will dance.