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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The Sheeple’s Judge: on the Moral Monster

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To call others “sheeple” is to dismiss their beliefs with a broad brush.  Taking this rhetoric at face value is genetic fallacy.  That some people may not think through the belief thoroughly does not make the belief untrue.

Reading the lively comments following Caroline’s fairly recent two-part post, “Judging Our Judge,” I was encouraged.  The participants, as long as they remained open to discussion, had not succumbed to the sheeple fallacy.

A few weeks out, I’d like to see if I can add some value to the conversation.  I propose to work with this statement: “In the Bible, God is a moral monster.”  By “moral monster” I mean “evil.”  The other day I heard JP Moreland supply a definition of evil: when something is not as it ought to be.  Feel free to lodge a qualification, but focusing on the statement for this post will allow, as Dennis Prager says, clarity over agreement.  After all, agreement is impossible if we mean different things.

Reading evil

Concluding that God is evil from reading the Bible is a literary exercise.  On postmodernism, there is no “naked eye” to read the text; we all come to it with our own interpretive lens.  Fortunately, we can evaluate an interpretation by what informs it.  Knowledge of cultural context, a plausible understanding of the characters, and a moral ontology are some things that necessarily inform a reading of God as Moral Monster.

The need for historical and cultural context is self-evident.  Relatively late in church history, some Christians mistakenly began to read the Bible in light of “plain truth.”  Moral Monster replicates this error.  For the most part, people have read the Bible critically, employing contextual aids and contemplating for years on the consistency and coherence of its content.  Scholars, theologians, and lay people have built a tremendous body of interpretive resources.  To supply an off the cuff reading that doesn’t even try to engage with those resources is hasty.  At least, the reading must fare well against authoritative scholarship.  Not the popular works of physicists or geneticists, but peer-reviewed scholars of literature or divinity.

What is the moral standard?

The reading is also informed by its moral ontology.  This is the set of values and obligations that constitute a moral system or standard.  A moral system lays out not just whether any given act, object, or circumstance is good or bad.  It also can stipulate who owes what to whom, and if its conditions are absolute or situational.

The obligatory nature of a moral system requires it to be objective.  Subjective or relativistic systems are practically meaningless if they are not independent of personal belief.  Morality, if it exists, must be necessary, not contingent.  A supernatural being who is all powerful, all knowing, and all good remains by far the most credible explanation for objective morality.

Consequently, to say “In the Bible, God is a moral monster” is really an in-house debate between theists.  A Muslim or a follower of Baha’i might raise the moral monster critique meaningfully.  But a naturalist or materialist who invokes the reality of evil needs to explain why what he calls morality is not merely subjective or illusory.

Justice and the Supererogatory

In appealing to what ought to be, Moral Monster is a claim to justice.  If God is good, he must be just.  Critics focus on the fact that evil is committed in the temporal world, the part of creation in space-time.  But justice is done when all debts are paid on the flip side of creation, in eternity.  That which not ought to be is erased.  The NIV translation of Revelation says of the righteous, “He will wipe every tear from their eye.”

Still, the question remains, why does God allow any evil at all?  At this point the critic needs supply a reason why goodness needs anything more than justice.

But Christian theology already supplies one.  Prior to creation, God was perfectly good.  He decided to do something extra that was meaningful.  He created moral agents who have no rights except to not arbitrarily suffer injustice.  They, who freely rejected him and became subject to justice, have a second chance to enjoy him in his full goodness for eternity.  This is the supererogatory act: doing not just what’s required of him, but going beyond it.  Some call it grace or mercy.  The critic is free to offer an alternative account of good and evil that is a more compelling fit for reality.

Conclusion: the stakes of evil

Cashing out one’s own views on evil will move one closer to theism and away from atheism.  One who is a theist, or who supplies an objective moral standard, can critique the God of the Bible.  However, well informed readings of the Bible find God to be not merely just, but merciful as well.  This is the best fit for our real experiences of good and evil.

The Elephant in the Room of Economic Development

A couple weeks ago, David Kestenbaum of All Things Considered reported on the Indian economy, artfully mixing interviews of Indian economic experts with the slice-of-life story of an elderly, impoverished, street-dwelling shoe-shiner Umrao Singh.  The words of both the Indian academics and Singh pointed to a shared sense of fatalism.  In pondering why the Indian growth rate has in recent decades been much lower than comparable developing economies, the experts jokingly alluded to the “Hindu growth rate . . . maybe it is there in the scriptures.”  Meanwhile, Singh justifies his poverty as he looks on the dwellings of his wealthy neighbors by saying, “this is what God has chosen for me.”  Like his countrymen, he concedes that “what is written is written, you can’t change it.”
A famous destination for seekers of wisdom, peace, and enlightenment in the 1960s, India has  regained the spotlight in recent years as a new wave of thinkers and celebrities have  attempted to answer the question of “happiness.”  Michael J Fox touted the Indian culture of cosmic acceptance in his 2009 TV special, Adventures of an Incurable Optimist.  I even read a New York Times article that somehow was able to proclaim a certain Tibetan monk as if with some degree of scientific authority, the happiest person in the world.  Fatalism and acceptance are compelling themes for the frenzied denizens of postindustrial societies.  But do these ideas really do justice to the marginalized poor in developing economies?  Given the shared outlook of Singh and his nation’s experts, and the fawning enchantment of India’s onlookers, does a problem of justice and marginalization even exist?

In his report, Kesterbaum supposed India’s problem was a lack of manufacturing jobs.  And while manufacturing has been credited with building the modern middle class everywhere from America to China, it is not the key ingredient that India lacks.  Rather the one thing that will satisfy the technical questions of the economists, the existential needs of the poor, and the postindustrial search for happiness is a proper fulfillment of the Christian concept of Imago Dei.  As apologist JM Njeroge noted in a recent interview, this idea is the root of much of human progress in recent centuries.

To answer the economists’ riddle, consider the innovators and the moralists who steered their societies through the original industrial revolution.  The scientists who accumulated knowledge of the physical world and the inventors who applied that knowledge as technology took as a given what astronomer-astrologist Johannes Kepler posited in the seventeenth century: because man is made His image, we can “think God’s thoughts after Him.”  Likewise, what would become the human rights movement snowballed with the successive propositions of moral philosophers.  In the American Revolution, we clearly see ideas and corresponding actions rooted in the affirmation that man is created in the image of God.  The same is true for subsequent moral movers, including abolitionists, suffragists, and labor activists.  Even when modern authorities on development point to the necessity of institutions like the rule of law, they are indirectly appealing to the outworking of Christian faith.

A society’s confidence in Imago Dei is also the basis for its sense of agency, without which the innovators, capitalists, and producers of wealth will find it hard to be motivated beyond immediate gain.  Wherever this notion does not prevail, you will see a society’s actors either jockeying among themselves for a sliver of a fixed socioeconomic pie, or consigned as ones marginalized without
hope for advancement.  But where there exists this understanding of agency, it enables those with economic capital to grow the sum of human wealth, and it allows both reformers and the destitute an actionable hope for change.  For this reason it is important that we permit ourselves to make meaningful distinctions between cultures and parse through the differing assumptions that animate them.

Whether informed by detached, journalistic diggings like Kestenbaum’s, or the ponderous musings of would-be “happiness” gurus, our notions of human development and spiritual fulfillment will remain incomplete if we forget that the Image of God has been the singularly transforming force for good in our world.

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