Arguing about race and justice: an apologist’s perspective

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship drew critical attention for a talk on racial justice delivered at Urbana 15, its recent student missions conference. After plenary speaker Michelle Higgins called out pro-life activism and explained Black Lives Matters to evangelicals, InterVarsity issued a clarifying statement. Many conservative Christians struggle to understand where Higgins’ message comes from, but it is not a new one in the Christian church or even for InterVarsity. What she said is important to understand, because everyone should know and speak truth and act justly.

 

What Higgins Says

Most people will find things to agree with and disagree with in what Higgins says. In an online video of her talk, she shares her personal story, or her narrative. For her, this includes the brutal killing of a mixed race man by white authorities in 1837, not far from where Higgins lives and the Urbana conference is periodically held. Disappointed that evangelicals don’t want to talk about racial justice in the wake of several high profile police killings of young black men, Higgins asserts that her fellow evangelicals have edited and “blanked out” parts of their own story. She believes evangelicals have inherited a burden of white supremacy that says, “white is right.” Higgins affirms that God alone gives people their dignity, and that Christians should give control of their narratives to him. Practically, this means standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matters rather than remaining comfortably indifferent. Finally, she asserts that we have the means to end racist and classist oppression, but we need the will to end it.

Insight from an Apologist

As a mixed race son of a white American father and an immigrant Thai mother, I have long questioned personal identity claims. I don’t fit neatly inside many boxes. Having come to Christian faith in adolescence, I was deeply involved in an InverVarsity community all through college and for years after. But like many others, I wasn’t adequately equipped to interact with some of InterVarsity’s views on racial justice. It took a few years before I learned to critically examine worldviews through my involvement with Christian apologetics. Like I suspect Higgins does, I believe Christians should speak and act truth in love, and this extends to race and justice.

Telling Truth Carefully

In the face of those who deny it, Michelle Higgins correctly exhorts students at Urbana “to tell the truth, the whole truth.” But she overgeneralizes when she ascribes denial to North American evangelicals. For example, Higgins reports the evangelical heart attitude this way:

We’re not ready to talk about the fact that black bodies are grotesque to us, we don’t want to admit that. That’s a part of our story we’ve blanked out.

I can see this as an appropriate expression of righteous anger over a particular harm. I can see this as rhetoric to alert evangelical imaginations to some overlooked truth. But to assert that a whole group is in denial about something is a broad brush stereotype and a stumbling block to mutual understanding. Evangelists know that people bristle when they are told they are guilty of some sin they are unaware of, so why do social justice Christians speak so cavalierly? To so readily peg another’s heart attitude easily comes off as a manipulative and bald assertion. Prophetically speaking truth to power is appropriate for those who stand guilty, but it is far from established that evangelicals individually or collectively are guilty of all that Higgins lays before them.

At another point in her talk, Higgins says evangelicals have inherited a dominating Eurocentrism from the first missionaries arriving on the continent. She sums the inherited attitude this way:

I will not translate my Bible into their language; I will teach them what my Bible says according to me and have them learn what I believe Christianity to be.

Any Christian who is familiar with missions work knows that for centuries missionaries have diligently translated the Bible into native tongues. And for decades missionaries have been sensitive to the error of transmitting cultural non-essentials to people groups being reached out to. These, perhaps more so than the arrogant errors of four or five hundred years ago, are also evangelicals’ inheritance.

In the face of broad rhetorical accusations, many evangelicals have legitimate and unanswered questions. Speaking for InterVarsity, Greg Jao acknowledges the dissonance students experienced after Higgins’ talk:

“This was the first time many of them heard a message like this, and they were really wrestling with the implications: What does white complicity look like? What’s my responsibility as a member of the majority culture, and how do I know that what they’re saying is true?”

Advancing Agreement through Argument

The rhetorical questions Jao asks are familiar to me as an InterVarsity alum. I’ve heard asked many times, “What does it look like . . .?” This is not a bad way to proceed from established truths. But “white complicity” is controversial; it isn’t established in the church, the academy, or North American society that the crime of whiteness implicates any particular individual in any historical or systemic transgression. This is not denial but careful truth-telling. Merely finding that one’s values and tastes come from Europe rather than Africa doesn’t make one guilty of dominance. Social justice Christians who want to assert otherwise need to do more than just start conversations with open-ended questions. Requests for clarification and making distinctions aren’t always excuse seeking or the mere side effect of feeling uncomfortable. Instead, they are often crucial steps toward having constructive arguments that help lead to agreeing upon publicly shared truths.

Christian apologists do this in the broader culture, keeping in mind Peter’s advice to

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15)

An attitude of charity rather confrontation, and a disposition of credulity rather than suspicion, is required in helping others to see a truth that you see. Across the belief spectrum, it feels good to stand prophetically, speaking truth to power, but invoking imaginative sympathy and standing in solidarity aren’t enough to love God and neighbor. We must carefully speak the truth in pursuit of a deliberative consensus. Human imagination doesn’t just motivate feelings of sympathy and acts of solidarity, but enables acts of accurate understanding. If we can speak charitably rather than mislabel each other in the church, we will be closer to fulfilling Jesus’ words in John 13:35 that “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

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