In words attributed to Albert Einstein, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” When it comes to race relations, I often feel our society has gone insane. We have the same arguments again and again. We make no real progress. As we try to find ways to enforce our particular racial viewpoint, we dehumanize those who disagree with us.
Can our Christian faith offer hope to break out of this mess and make real headway on overcoming racial alienation? Yes.
While modern concepts of race weren’t around during biblical times, dealing with intergroup hostility was an important issue. To this end we can look to our faith for unique insights that bring more light and less heat. There is more to this alternative path than I can say in this short article. I’ve written a book due next February that deals with the topic in more depth. For now, I’ll challenge four common solutions to racial issues and propose a better solution.
Four Inadequate Solutions
1. Humanism Isn’t Enough
The racial solutions on offer today are basically secular in nature, and they build on the worth and value of humans. Humanists find great value in humans as we have a tremendous capacity for rationality and goodness. They contend we can find rational answers to the problems before us—and science and education are seen as the paths toward a better society. Christians also find great value in human beings, but that value does not come from our capacities. Our value comes from being created in the image of an eternal God.
Both humanism and Christianity, then, address racism by appealing to the worth of humanity. But what differentiates Christianity from secular philosophies is our understanding of human depravity. We’re fallen creatures in need of a Redeemer. We are made in God’s image, but we aren’t basically good. We’re basically depraved. In our natural state, we’re prone to be self-serving and ethnocentric. This problem isn’t limited to any particular racial group; it’s a general proclamation about all of us. We don’t have to be taught to dehumanize others and to seek advantage over them—such tendencies are already natural and common among us.
2. Education Isn’t Enough
If humans are basically good but just need the right moral education, then providing more education is the solution to racial alienation. We may want to educate people to ignore race. We may want to educate them to be antiracist. Either way, our solution is to educate others to accept our ideas and so make a better world.
Education doesn’t appear to be the answer to racism—it may just better equip us to hide our racism.
But our confidence in education does not hold up to scrutiny. A research study indicated that educated whites are less likely to disclose racism in their answers to questions about where they’ll send their kids to school. Yet educated whites are also less likely to send their kids to racially integrated schools. Education doesn’t appear to be the answer to racism—it may just better equip us to hide our racism. If we don’t deal with the core issue of our desire to have an advantage over others, then education will not be our salvation.
3. Intelligence Isn’t Enough
Nor can we rely on intelligence to find the best solutions, since our depravity leads to confirmation and self-serving bias. It feeds our temptation to tell others the “proper” solution, regardless of whether we’ve taken their interests into account. In some ways, we can’t even rely on our faith to find the best path. We have such a powerful ability to interpret our faith in ways that place our needs above those of everyone else.
4. Power Isn’t Enough
Another common strategy is to try solving our racial problems by overpowering those who disagree. We use social, cultural, political, and even legal power to force people to conform to the ideas we want them to support. This is true across the political and racial spectrum.
State legislatures are now voting to remove critical race theory programs to enforce their preferred racial solutions. Antiracist activists seek to implement an aggressive diversity training regime to enforce their preferred racial solutions.
As long as we see the answer as forcing compliance with our particular solution, racial fighting in our society will continue.
Better Solution: Collaborative Conversation
The best way to deal with the problems of depravity is to hold each other in check. You may be able to see my failings more easily than I do because my depravity blinds me. Likewise, I may be able to see your shortcomings more easily than you because you are compromised. So the best way to deal with this problem is through collaborative conversation.
Collaborative conversation is “a purposeful, outcome-driven conversation aimed at building on each other’s ideas.” If we stop talking past each other and instead start talking to each other, we might be able to devise solutions that are accepted across the racial and political spectrum. But if we think that using polemical arguments to push forward our social and political agenda will result in any better outcomes than what we currently have, then we are, in the words of Einstein, insane. That type of power struggle is what we’ve been doing for decades, and yet our racial alienation seems as bad as it’s been since the days of Jim Crow.
If we stop talking past each other and instead start talking to each other, we might be able to devise solutions that are accepted across the racial and political spectrum.
Continuing to fight can’t be the way we find racial peace. We know this instinctively. If two friends, lovers, family members, or coworkers have conflict, do we attempt to sit them down to hear each other out until a solution can be found? Or do we tell them to keep fighting it out until the stronger person wins? If you chose the second option, I don’t want you mediating any disputes in my life. But if you advocate for the first path, you know we can figure out workable solutions if we sit down and deal with others in a respectful, personal way.
This doesn’t mean we simply accept the perspective of others. It doesn’t mean we’re content to live in a society centered on the desires of whites (or on people of color, for that matter). We need discussions in which we can get our point across to others. We should seek to change their minds, and they should seek to change ours. All of us need to learn to listen to the perspectives of others, and to work at fashioning solutions that try to meet everyone’s needs. Considering the needs of others is an awful lot like dying to self—a key Christian value often missing in our racial discussions.
Considering the needs of others is an awful lot like dying to self—a key Christian value often missing in our racial discussions.
Persuasion Can Unite
Some think that moral suasion is just another way to compel others to do what we want. Perhaps they imagine a wild-eyed preacher haranguing his audience, or a liberal professor indoctrinating her students. Nothing could be further from the truth. Real moral suasion requires that we build rapport with those we want to persuade. We must accurately understand their point of view; we must learn to admit when they are correct; and we must be willing to find areas of agreement with those we’re attempting to persuade.
In other words, real moral suasion is about building relationships, not browbeating. Done properly, it has the power to unite us by making us want to identify with and care for each other. But trying to use social and cultural power to force others will only tear our communities apart.
Real moral suasion requires that we build rapport with those we want to persuade.
Can Christians find ways to sit down with each other and discuss the racial challenges before us? In a post-Christian age, we must find real answers for a hurting world. The church should be the place where we’re known for racial conversations that heal rather than divide.
Our faith provides us with some of the tools necessary for bridging the racial divide. It’s now our responsibility to use those tools to tear down the walls of mistrust and move ahead as God desires.