Beyond Racial Gridlock

Over the last several months I have been saddened by how the church has approached the topic of racism. Not simply because some communities have chosen not to engage in the dialogue, but also because many of the churches which have entered the dialogue have only used secular resources. In fact, the first resource presented to me was White Fragility by Robyn DiAngelo. I do not want to speak ill of this book or indeed any of the secular resources on the topic, because they can offer helpful insights into the human condition. However, I have found something amiss in such resources, something I could not quite name. Thankfully I discovered George Yancey’s Beyond Racial Gridlock. This is the first resource I have encountered that tried to deal with the realities of race relations through a Christian lens. We should be clear, racism is a problem with relationships, and from a Christian perspective all relationship problems are the result of sin. Also, whether I want to admit racism is widespread or not, if someone claims it is I have an obligation to look into such claims to see if sin truly is harming my society. I cannot bury my head in the sand because I do not like the work, and I cannot simply look to resources which point to causes other than sins and solutions not found in God. I must treat racism as a spiritual danger and look to God for its resolution.

Yancey articulates the problems of racism through the language of sin, repentance, and forgiveness which should resonate with the Christian body. We recognize these concepts as integral to our relationship with God and neighbors; what Yancey does so effectively is show how they can be incorporated in the specific issue of racism. It is somewhat simplistic but, if sin is what keeps us from truly relating well to others, then sin is a necessary starting point for issues like racism. However, I do not want to reduce Yancey’s work to this point because this simple recognition is not enough to truly impact our culture. It would be easy to, from a Christian perspective, simply label everything as the result of sin and then sweep the issue under the rug (as so many seem to do). Christians do this by telling themselves that Jesus deals with sin and it will be taken care of in the next world. Solving the problems of sin in this world is not as easy as saying, “Jesus died for sin.” and walking away hoping God will magically intervene and wash away the problem. Rather, if we take a New Testament concept of sin seriously, we understand that God gifts us with the Spirit precisely so that through the Spirit we can overcome and undo the effects of sin. In other words, if we chalk racism up to sin, then we are bound to and able to work with God to help cure the condition. Of course, one may recognize that sin prevents humanity from truly loving one another, but one must also be able to provide practical steps for overcoming sin (i.e. what does repentance look like in this situation, or what is the result of forgiveness).

Not only does Yancey provide the steps to healing in the book he models them. He gives wonderful critiques of other models of dealing with racism. I am sure that he does not have the same level of respect for each of these models; yet, he provides positive critiques for each of them. He recognizes an ideal that each model attempts to uphold and this shows where it falls short of reaching its ideal and dealing with the problem (because the model fails to recognize we are all sinners). I found the approach validating, Yancey helped me to see my own blind-spots because he did not write-off my thinking as “wrong” or “racist”. He showed he understood what I was trying to say, he pointed out how the approach would ultimately need some correction and provided a corrective. But unlike so many others who deal in the subject, he placed blame where it belongs and not where it does not. He recognizes that many individuals (particularly those who are concerned about the subject) need correction not rejection and I think this comes from his understanding the each of us is a sinner.

Yancey will be the first to admit that he is creating a skeleton plan, a model that others can take and flesh out. But I found this to be wonderfully helpful; he provided me a basic pattern for me to observe my own beliefs and patterns as well as the beliefs of others. In short, I was shown how to model Christian practice in the division of racism. I am deeply troubled by the fact that many Christians are not turning to such wisdom to deal with the problems around us. We act as if racism is not a spiritual problem, which necessitates Christian solutions. Somehow we see racism as either a nonissue or a societal issue disconnected from faith. Racism is inherently a problem of relationships, and if we are to take that seriously from a Christian perspective we must look to Christian responses. Healing from such wounds caused by sin is going to necessitate listening to wise voices; individuals who who understand where our problems begin. I have found George Yancey to be one of those individuals. My hope is that the Church can rise above the secular cultural divide on racism and provide a pattern for true healing. As Yancey says this will not happen so long as we simply parrot secular responses to the issues.

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