The Chicken Came First

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On the way home from T4G, a very gracious man came to talk with me in the airport. He was prayerful, respectful, and gentle. I admired his manner even before he asked his questions.

He humbly posed a question I realize I should answer more publicly. I thought I had done this before, but apparently I have not. Here’s how my friend and brother put the question:

You have said you have not moved from your 2008 T4G talk on “race.” When I think of your recent writing it seems to me you have. Can you help me understand how it could be the case that you haven’t moved?

I wish I could convey his humble and honest tone in a blog post, because it’s a model for how you ask a question about a controversy.

Here’s my answer in a nutshell: The 2008 talk was a biblical theology on “race” arguing that there is only one “race” descended from Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:21; Acts 17:26). I absolutely believe that today. It’s what the Bible teaches.

But the talk was not a biblical treatment of racism. That would be an entirely different sermon, because unlike “race,” racism is real. I would have rooted racism in sins like pride, hatred, partiality, and a failure to love all expressed along the lines of “race.”

Chicken or Egg Question

Now, many people think that by dispelling the notion of “race” we thereby dispel (or at least make more difficult) any claims to racism. For them racism is what happens when we do bad things with “race.” They assume “race” comes first and racism perverts it. So if we could only get rid of “race” then we can be done with racism.

I actually don’t agree with this line of thinking. I think the opposite relation exists between “race” and racism.

First comes racism, then comes “race.” The idea of “race” is not the root of racism but the fruit of racism. “Race” is the debunked pseudo-scientific theory that racist philosophers and “scientists” made up to give racism legitimacy. Then racist thinking, covered in a patina of scientific credibility, worked its way into the bloodstream of white society and eventually nearly all societies. It became so dominant a way of thinking that both those who benefited and also those who suffered from racism adopted the theory and worldview. I am indebted to Fields and Fields in Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life for helping me see things in the opposite direction.

So, I do not write or speak about racism because I assume the reality of “race.” I write about racism because I see the reality of racism and want to pluck up that poisonous root. When you hear or read me decrying racism, do not think, Why must he bring up “race.” I hope you will think, How does he see racism—fear, prejudice, partiality, hatred, favoritism, and so on—at work?

“Race” is a distraction, an illusion created by charlatans hiding their sin. Today many people, like audiences at a magic show, wittingly and unwittingly, participate in the racists’ parlor trick. But progress can only truly be made if we simultaneously reject unbiblical anthropology while calling out a real biblical sin. I am trusting that as intelligent readers and listeners you will hold together two complementary strategies simultaneously: the rejection of “race” as a biological reality, on the one hand, and on the other the identification and rejection of the real sins at the root of “race.”

The chicken racists of bygone centuries laid the egg of “race.” If we wring the chicken’s neck with confrontation and confession we won’t have to worry about their rotten eggs.

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