We Must Find a Better Way to Talk About Race

Last year was not a good year for race relations in the United States. Whether you think the main culprit is the police, politics, or protesters, I think most of us—Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, or whatever—look at the racial tensions in this country and, at least on our worst days, feel a dangerous mix of confusion, discouragement, frustration, and hopelessness.

And if things are bad in the country at large, it’s hard to see how they are better in the church. While I’m sure many Christians are still laboring behind the scenes to love their neighbors and to give people of a different skin color (or people with a different approach to skin color) the benefit of the doubt, the public face of Christianity—the way we talk to each other and talk about each other—is not impressive. Our witness to the world does not scream Isaiah 1:18 (“Come now, let us reason together”) or John 13:35 (“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another”). On the whole, when it comes to talking about this country’s most painful and most vexing problem, we are often getting Spurgeon’s dictum exactly backward: we are making soft arguments and using very hard words.

I can imagine what the rejoinders might be to that last paragraph. From the left, some will say, “Of course you want us all to settle down. That’s your privilege talking.” And from the right, some will say, “Just what I expected. More tone police when the church is being overrun by heresy.” If you think perpetual outrage and recrimination is the way forward, I suppose you are entitled to your opinion. But that doesn’t mean everyone else is obliged to share your opinion. For my part, I refuse to believe that talking about racial matters in a way that is reasonable, thoughtful, careful, and charitable makes one beholden to Whiteness or makes one a compromised squish.

The simple, honest truth is that Bible-believing orthodox Christians are not setting a Spirit-infused example in how to talk about racial matters. That’s the bad news. The good news is no one else is setting a great example either, which means it’s not too late for grace-filled, truth-loving followers of Jesus to show to the world a still more excellent way (1 Cor. 12:31).

What might it look like for Christians to talk about race in a more constructive and more helpful manner? Here are three suggestions.

1. Focus on ideas, not labels.

I’ll be blunt: I am no fan of Critical Race Theory. Judging by this introductory volume, I disagree with CRT’s aggressive color-consciousness (17), its jaundiced view of American history (48), its rejection of legal neutrality (3), its emphasis on economic redistribution and equality of results (29, 115), its interpretative principle that divides the world into rigid categories of oppressors and the oppressed (58, 78, 81), and its insistence that racism is pervasive and at the center of everything (8, 91). If that’s CRT, I see little to be gained by using it as a hermeneutical lens, let alone as an all-encompassing worldview.

And yet, I will be the first to confess I am no expert in CRT. While I think every point in the paragraph above comes directly from the book in question—and, consequently, from two leading proponents of CRT—I’m more interested in debating those ideas than I am in debating Critical Race Theory per se. To be sure, there are some experts among us who have deeply studied the major CRT texts. I’m happy for these Christian thinkers to discuss CRT at length. But for the vast majority of us (myself included), CRT is something we’ve heard a lot about and have studied very little. Consequently, one person hears “Critical Race Theory” and thinks: Marxist, leftist, postmodern, anti-Christian ideology. Another person hears “Critical Race Theory” and thinks: helpful tool for demonstrating that racism is more central to our history and has more explanatory power for our present situation than we thought.

My concern is that CRT has become an issue of symbolism before substance, a flag to be waved (for or against) in order to prove that we are sufficiently orthodox or sufficiently sensitive. The result is that Christians end up one step removed from discussing the issues we really need to be discussing. Too often, we think we are fighting about the gospel or fighting about whether we should love and listen to minority brothers and sisters, but really we are fighting about how to define Critical Race Theory. As a pastor, that’s way down on the list of fights I want to have.

When I served on the PCA’s sexuality study committee, we made the decision early on not to mention Revoice, even though everyone could see that was a major reason the committee was formed. But we knew that if we made the report about Revoice, there would be endless arguments about what Revoice is, and who is a part of it, and what so-and-so really meant. We thought it much better to focus on the theology we wanted to promote, the ideas we wanted to warn against, and the pastoral approach we wanted to encourage. In the same way, I think our discussion about race would be greatly helped by saying a lot less about Critical Race Theory and a lot more about the specific ideas that we find promising or problematic.

2. Approach the conversation with intellectual integrity and personal maturity.

What does this mean? Several things in my mind.

Don’t take everything personally. Don’t turn up every disagreement to 11. Recognize when people change their minds or nuance their views. Don’t define someone by their worst statement, and don’t then define every institution they’ve ever been a part of or any friend they’ve ever had by that statement.

Whenever possible, isolate the issue you mean to talk about. Don’t make the issue about gospel fidelity, if the argument is actually about interpreting American history. And don’t make the issue about whether you agree with the prophet Amos, if the argument is about how to interpret policing data.

Let’s show ourselves as Christians to be more logically rigorous and definitionally precise than the world. Don’t confuse correlation with causation. Don’t look for the worst examples on the other side to prove the rightness or righteousness of your side. Don’t assume that the person not entirely with you on every point is, therefore, an enemy not to be trusted on any point. Don’t think that courage means you can’t be careful with your words, or that compassion means you can’t ask uncomfortable questions.

3. Be willing to work with a few common sense both/and propositions.

If there is one kind of argument I generally loathe, it’s the lazy third way approach to solving all of life’s problems. I’m not against finding middle ground (see below). I’m not against seeing how Christianity sometimes transcends our labels and differences. What I am against is intellectual laziness masquerading as above-the-fray, third wayism: “I’m not liberal; I’m not conservative; I’m just Christian!”

Having said that, it seems to me there are a few basic both/and propositions that could turn down the temperature of our rhetoric, while also pushing the racial conversation toward greater clarity and usefulness.

For example, might we be able to acknowledge that systemic injustice can exist while also asking for evidence that, in whatever particular situation we are studying, it does exist? That seems like a reasonable starting place for further conversation. “I acknowledge that structural racism could play a part, but let’s take a closer look at the evidence for that claim.”

Similarly, might we be able to acknowledge personal choices and cultural factors almost always play a role in shaping who we are, the mistakes we make, and the opportunities we find? I’m sure we will still disagree about the relative importance of each factor but recognizing that we are all complex people—not merely the product of environment and circumstance, nor simply the accumulation of our individual decisions—is surely a better way to talk about racial matters than assuming that every disparity is the result of discrimination or that personal responsibility alone can right every social wrong.

Likewise, isn’t it possible that American history is both worse than most white people think, when it comes to race, and still a story with much to celebrate and be thankful for?

Isn’t it reasonable to think that minorities have different experiences than members of the majority and that members of the majority may be blind to those experiences, while nevertheless rejecting the kind of standpoint epistemology that circumscribes the right to speak, and even defines the measure of truth itself, by the standard of one’s lived experience?

These both/and propositions won’t remove all our different emphases and suspicions, but they might help us inch toward one another in finding common ground. That is, if we want to find common ground. The incentives in church discourse are unfortunately the same as in political discourse. There is more to be gained (humanly speaking) by dealing with racial issues in Manichaean categories of absolute light and darkness. Nuance and precision don’t get you much, except the expectation of being shot at from all sides.

There is no way to make an honest conversation about race an easy conversation. There is too much in our history for that. There is also too much in the human heart that is self-justifying, other-accusing, and innocence-seeking to make race and racism a simple intellectual discussion. But with the power of the Spirit and the hope of the gospel, we need not despair. God can yet give us the humility, the rationality, and the charity we need.