One of the great needs in our day is for pastors and Christian leaders to think theologically about the pressing issues of race and justice. To be sure, general biblical principles are discussed and promoted. We know that every person from every race has been made in the image of God and has inherent worth and dignity. We know that the Bible presents a beautiful picture of heaven where people from every language, tongue, and tribe gather around the throne to worship the risen Christ. We know that we are called to love our neighbor and that the Lord hates injustice. These are precious truths, and we ought to be reminded of them often.
But once these important convictions are quickly affirmed, then what? Can theological reflection—relying on the Bible and the best of the Christian tradition—help us sort through any of the questions that divide us? Do pastors—trained in Greek and Hebrew and steeped in centuries-old creeds and confessions—have anything meaningful to say? Should people who have spent years—in formal education and in daily study—learning 2,000 years of Christian doctrine (and only a few weeks reading articles about police brutality) try to contribute to the discussion?
Recently, I served on our denomination’s study committee dealing with issues of same-sex attraction and identity. These are highly charged, personal issues just like race. But at least in talking about sexuality, one can find immediate help from our confessional documents and from the best of the church’s theological tradition. Christians have done a lot of thinking over the centuries about marriage, sex, desire, temptation, original sin, actual sin, indwelling sin, and progressive sanctification. Even if the reason for the sexuality debate is new, many of the church’s categories and careful nuances—developed over centuries of reflection, argument, and codification—overlap with the most important theological questions Christians are facing.
It feels different with the most vexing racial issues. And on the one hand, it is different. The Bible can tell us about injustice, but it will not tell us what is going on (just or unjust) in American policing. The Bible tells us clearly that racism is a sin, but it will not tell us the reasons for continuing racial disparities. This doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t write on these issues. We should care about them deeply, read about them widely, and put forward our best arguments with open hearts and with open minds.
- Are black men being killed at alarming rates by police officers, many of whom have been shaped by a policing culture of brutality and dehumanization? Or is there no evidence of anti-black disparities across shootings, and the basic premise that cops disproportionately kill black Americans is false? Or might the truth be somewhere in between, that the police use non-lethal force against blacks in greater numbers, but there are no racial differences in officer-involved shootings? Perhaps that is the way to make the statistics and the stories make sense.
- And how should we understand persistent racial disparities in everything from income and education to health care and home ownership? Does the responsibility for disparate outcomes rest with systems of oppression? Or are disparities largely due to excessive governmental regulation and cultural factors shaped by misguided social policy? Maybe systemic racism isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition or even the best way to describe racialized systems.
These are massively important questions. And even if a basic consensus can be reached that we must do better in the areas above, we then have to determine how policing can be best improved (better training? end qualified immunity? break up police unions? get rid of the bad apples? rebuild from the ground up?) and how disparities can be best reduced (reform the criminal justice system? invest in education? teach personal responsibility?). All that to say, these are difficult, complicated issues, and we should not mistake our preferred YouTube explainer video—from the left or from the right—as the final word on the subject or the way that all good Christians should think.
Need for Theological Reflection
So where is this argument going? My point is not to discourage Christians from caring about these things, becoming experts in these things, and working for change where change is needed. I am not calling for less engagement in the political and civic issues of our day. I am calling for more theological work to be done on a number of related issues. The issues swirling around us are not just about disputing policing data, about which the Bible says nothing. The issues are also about sin and guilt and holiness and justice, topics about which the Bible speaks an authoritative word.
Over the coming weeks I hope to explore several theological issues related to our ongoing racial tensions. I fear that we are going about our business in the wrong order. We start with racial issues we don’t agree on and then try to sort out our theology accordingly, when we should start with our theology and then see how racial issues map onto the doctrines we hold in common. Good theology won’t clear up every issue, but we might be surprised to see some thorny issues look less complicated and more hopeful.
Lord willing—and with the caveat up front that this list could change as we go along—I’d like to write about three topics over the next month:
- The image of God
- Sin and guilt
- Life together in the church
In short, I want to explore how Christian anthropology, hamartiology, and ecclesiology might encourage, confirm, clarify, and correct our thinking.
One last personal note as I wrap up this introduction.
I realize there is almost nothing harder to talk about in America than race. The pain is deep, the anger is often justified, and the fear on all sides—of being misunderstood, of being hurtful, of being hurt, of being canceled—is not irrational. For the past several weeks, my head and heart have been in constant turmoil. Like most pastors (or most people for that matter), I have wrestled with what to say and how to say it. Given the complexities and personal intricacies of these issues, I’m hesitant to say anything at all.
There is no way to speak about these issues that can possibly hit all the right notes. Even among those who agree on the same big ideas, there is still the question of what to emphasize and which audience we are trying to reach.
- Are we trying to rebuke neo-Confederate sympathizers?
- Are we trying to guard against a godless, entirely mainstream, leftist agenda seen all around us in sports, media, and entertainment?
- Are we trying to correct Christians who see everything through the lens of electoral politics?
- Are we trying to convince black brothers and sisters that we care and that we are listening?
- Are we trying to help honest Christians worried about mobs and riots?
- Are we trying to encourage godly police officers who feel discouraged and abandoned?
- Are we trying to critique woke pastors dividing their churches?
- Are we trying to critique timid pastors who don’t dare say anything?
- Are we trying to express lament for obvious racial injustices past and present?
- Are we trying to help confused white Christians who wonder if they are guilty of sins they didn’t commit or if they can disagree with any part of the social justice agenda without being racists?
These are all important questions, and one would be right to address any of them. But short of an entire book, it would be hard to meaningfully address all of them. My aim is to work theologically through a few issues, trusting that many of the audiences can be appropriately addressed along the way. No approach will be without its critics. Like everyone else, my read of the current situation depends on an imperfect sense of what I see in my circles, among my friends, and on my social media feed. Inevitably, I will emphasize some points more than others, highlighting those points I think are either underappreciated or misunderstood. I’m sure I won’t say everything that needs to be said.
And yet, sometimes it’s worth saying something even if you can’t say everything. As Christians we should always be eager to reason carefully and winsomely from God’s Word. While I don’t believe every controversial issue surrounding race in this country is theological in nature, I do believe that every culture-wide conflict is bound to have a number of theological issues at its core. The issues in the early church may have looked like practical disagreements about meals and food and ceremonies, but the apostle Paul saw in them the most important issues of the gospel. Paul always brought his best theology to bear on the most intractable problems facing his people. We ought to do the same.