Updated: Sep 8, 2020
We must begin with the idea that racism, as an outwork of sin, is real, alive and active. It was not defeated by “We Are the World” in 1985, nor the cultural shift towards political correctness and affirmative action in the 1990’s, nor the ascension and election of Barack Obama in 2008. It likely won’t be fixed, either, by the tsunami of “woke” literature and thought that seemingly all White Americans are being encouraged, or coerced, to surf. Those are mile-markers on a roundabout, signs that suggest another direction we could go, but that don’t stop us from driving in circles. To suggest that any single program or movement—educational, social, economic—holds the solution to racism is to say that the problem stems from some flaw in our human systems. Any pattern of thought that concludes something like, “If we could only reform the schools, or the markets, or the city councils, or our speech,” is both mistaken and perilous. Most reform movements are simply systems of wealth- and power-transfer between human groups. The riotous reform movements we have been watching throughout 2020 make seemingly zero effort to hide this fact. Racism, however, is not simply the result of any subset of human programs or institutions, nor can it be fixed, once and for all, by reform of them. The fallenness and brokenness of humanity—malware inside the human system—is what proliferates racism across every generation and nation, no matter how educated, enlightened, or culturally enriched.
The church should have no reservations in admitting this. We know that this world is a broken and fallen place under the influence of sinful and evil entities, only some of which are strictly flesh-and-blood (Eph. 6:12). We know the people in the world are affected by sin and in need of redemption through Jesus. The implication of what happened in Genesis 3 is so powerful and universal that it cannot possibly be overstated: Adam and Eve committed the first human sin and got all of us kicked out of Eden. A curse was placed on all humankind—male and female alike. For Adam and Eve, the “mother of all living,” and every generation of humans that has come after, sin became the condition we have had to contend with. As Paul puts it, death spread to all humankind through this one couple (Rom. 5:12).
The human story only gets more miserable after Genesis 3. By the time of Noah, our hearts were completely overtaken by sin: The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart (Gen. 6:5-6). Though the great flood essentially rebooted human life on earth (quite the reform program), even that was not enough to change our condition; Genesis 8:21, written after the flood, reads almost exactly as 6:5-6 does, And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in His heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21). What was true of our ancient ancestors remains true of humankind today. Sin still touches every human heart. When God looks into our hearts today, He finds the same evil intentions. We know this condition as our “sin nature,” or, in the language of the New Testament, “the flesh.” Check Romans 5 and you’ll find Paul talking about how we all share in an ongoing struggle with the brutal, selfish, unconverted parts of ourselves. There are no exceptions made for race, gender or social status.
Speaking openly and with conviction about racism can be an uncomfortable exercise. Perhaps some of that discomfort reflects imperfections in the discussion itself. “Discussions about race” are often allegations levied at the White audience and only seldom resemble real dialogue. That’s why we begin to talk here about racism by acknowledging our shared sin nature. We can now absolutely affirm that racism is alive and active in our nation, even in our community, because we know that this world, and everyone in it, is affected by sin and its all-corrupting power. When God talks about the evil that lives in human hearts, He’s right. That evil leads to alienation, extortion and violence. The same forces that have given us a pornography industry valued in the billions, and an equally-valuable global human trafficking industry, also feed racism. We should feel as free to speak about racism as we do addiction, dishonesty, murder or any of the other tragedies caused by the diabolical endemic force Scripture calls sin.
Speaking more specifically about Derek Chauvin and George Floyd, we can admit that, based on our understanding of sin, people in positions of authority are also touched by sin. Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd because of the sinful intentions at work in his heart. Since I began writing this essay, the full video of George Floyd’s arrest has been made public, but it remains true that George Floyd was taken out of this world because of the sin nature of the one police officer who choked him for eight minutes, forty-six seconds, and the four who stood by, watching. Even the most pro-police and patriotic Christians among us should feel no hesitation to admit this. We share in the same struggle against our sin nature that Derek Chauvin does. It is not anti-cop to admit police officers share in the same human struggle against the flesh that we do. Because of their unique place in society, a police officer’s sinful actions can end in much greater public tragedy than when you or I do. Calling out Derek Chauvin (or, even, George Floyd) as a sinner is simply admitting that they are homogeneous to us. Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd is one of a countless number of sinful murders that have been happening in this world since Cain killed Abel (Gen. 4:8). We praise God for the many unnoticed instances when police officers successfully de-escalate as situation, save lives and keep the peace, but we lament in the situations when they fail, when sin and death are more evident than grace and peace.
The church should also be open, on the basis of our understanding of sin nature, to the idea of police reform. No amount of patriotism or tribalism should stop us from seeing the prevalence and perilousness of sin. Police departments, after all, are human-made institutions, made, owned and operated by sin-affected humans. It is natural, then, that imperfections will arise within that system that can cause great harm and injustice. If we, as individual humans, need to be reformed, then so, too, do the structures we build. Reform is part of the church’s family history—before and after 1517. When we decry the public school system, we recognize that human institutions are failing our children; when we decry government overreach, we recognize that human institutions are doing injustice to us by stripping us of Constitutional rights and liberties. The same voices that demand recalls and reform from those institutions cannot rationally place police departments beyond criticism. They are, after all, all man-made structures and Scripture does not declare them to be sacrosanct. Our opposition to sin is ontological, against the fundamental idea of it, not teleological, dependent on outcomes.
It was the ancient equivalent of police officers, Roman soldiers, who beat and mocked Jesus before His crucifixion (Mt. 27:27-31). Abuse from men of authority is part of Jesus’ story. He tells His disciples it will be part of their story, too: Jesus’ followers will be dragged before kings and governors and suffer violence for their faith (Mt. 10:18). Jesus delivers these words as a promise. The New Testament after Jesus’ ascension proves the truth of Jesus’ promise. Stephen’s, Paul’s and John’s stories feature prominently state-sponsored violence and persecution. Revelation tells us that state persecution is part of the end-times drama: if we assume that nation-states as we know them still exist in the end-times, then the overarching narrative of persecution against followers of the Lamb during the Great Tribulation must include systemic, state-sponsored violence against Christians. Agents of the state and its laws will likely carry out much of this persecution, as they have in the past, and do in the present. The Chinese Communist Party’s persecution of Christians (and Uyghr Muslims, who perhaps are being treated even worse and should not be forgotten) shows us at dramatic scale the flawed nature of human institutions, governments and programs.
None of this is to say that we should not love and support police officers. I am merely stating that there is no biblical nor theological reason to consider police departments and policy as above reproach. We can participate in discussions about police reform without sacrificing or harming our patriotism precisely because we know the reality of sin and its affects on public life. Pro-police movements like “Back the Blue” that express our affection and support for police officers in our community are valid and appropriate. The church can be both pro-police and pro-police reform.
Just as sin touches police departments in every corner of the world, so, too, does it affect the riotous protests that have erupted in our nation since George Floyd’s murder. When I preached this message in June, 11 people had been killed by violence masquerading as protest. A federal officer had been shot and killed in Oakland, California. A police officer in Las Vegas had been shot in the back of the head. David Dorn, a retired police captain in his seventies, was shot and killed in St. Louis while trying to stop looters from harming a business in his community. None of that brings peace. None of that accomplishes justice. None of that is justified. If the church is free to discuss police reform, it should be equally free to publicly criticize and call out riots and the groups supporting them. People have been killed and many more have had their lives irreversibly changed by violence and destruction, yet this revolution is no closer to accomplishing its ends. One wonders if “peace” and “justice” are even among those ends (which deserve much greater scrutiny than they are getting from our sense- and policy-making institutions). These tragic stories, along with George Floyd’s, testify to the realness and painful effects of sin nature. Racism and violent riots are both part of the birth pangs (Isa. 26:17) of this world as we wait for our Savior to return with the fullness of His Kingdom, which will finally, eternally set things right.
Getting our theology of sin correct not only allows us to acknowledge and condemn racism, but also shapes our next steps. If we view sin as something external, the end-result of human action but not necessarily part of our human nature, then we will find the cure for sin in equally-external corrective action. If sin is the result of bad policy, then sin itself can be cured through better policies. We just have to find those policies and the people who will make them. Scripture doesn’t give us permission to view sin as something so plain and external. Sin is both the outcome and source of bad policy, because it is active inside of the women and men who write it, vote on it and enforce it. If we understand sin as a universal, innate condition of humanity, then we can conclude that no human structure will ever be perfect, that injustice will exist for people of all groups, and that racism will remain with us, until Jesus returns. This is not as defeatist as it might sound at first hearing. This does not reduce our cries for justice to defeated nihilism. This is an honest and biblical view that does not allow us, or any generations that might come after us, to believe that we have finally, uniquely accomplished justice or defeated racism in all forms. It does not allow us to convince ourselves that the answer can be found in new reform movements or policy ideas. It does not allow us to consider that there might be a singular answer, other than the Parousia (second coming). Rather, this view compels us to live in our part of the ongoing struggle against sinful patterns, to live with compassion for both the victim and the officer, and to recognize the world’s deep need for Jesus, His Gospel, His ethics, and His community.
Riots and Racism Series
Pt. 2: Racism, the Fallen World, and Sin Nature (you are here)
Pt. 4: Racism and the Disciple (You!)
Pt. 5: Racism and the Body
Pt. 6: Final Thoughts