Wednesday, June 24, 2020
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Wednesday, June 24, 2020. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
How Should Christians Understand Structural Sin and Systemic Racism?
The terminology of structural sin or systemic sin has become extremely common in our cultural vocabulary these days. It's talked about in the press. It becomes the stuff of political conversation, and it leads to a huge question, what should Christians think about this? More recently, we have seen the specific issue of structural racism or systemic racism. Is there such a thing? How would we know it? How is it confronted? How was it made right? How are we to understand the worldview behind it? Those are huge questions.
First of all, let's just begin with a biblical understanding of sin. That's fundamental. The Bible tells us that sin is fundamentally a revolt against God's authority. It is a seeking, as Romans 1 tells us, to rob God of his glory. It is a transgression of God's law. It is a violation of God's character. It takes the form of disobedience, and then is translated into all of our lives. Furthermore, the biblical understanding of sin reminds us that we do not merely become sinners by our sin. We are born sinners under the federal headship of Adam. This is the doctrine of original sin. We are conceived in sin. There is not a single human being after Adam who has to do anything to achieve the status of being a sinner. That comes by the fact that we are of Adam's seed.
Thus, the doctrine of original sin tells us that we begin even the entirety of our lives as sinners, and as all of the historic creeds and confessions of the church remind us, as soon as we become able, we sin on our own. Our own will is involved in sinning and thus every single one of us is a sinner and every single one of us will, the scripture says, answer for our sin at the judgment seat of Christ. But there's more to it than that, of course, and that's the background of the gospel, the great good news of God's salvation of sinners through the atonement accomplish by the Lord Jesus Christ. So that those who come to believe in him have our sins forgiven. Our sin is imputed to Christ on the cross. His righteousness is imputed to us by faith. That is the great good news of the gospel, the gospel of the forgiveness of our sins in Christ and of the promise of that forgiveness to all who call upon his name, who come to believe on him. As we find in Romans 10, the promise comes in this way: that if we will confess with our lips, that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in our hearts that God has raised him from the dead, we shall be saved. That's the great good news of the gospel.
It becomes good news, of course, over against the horrifying reality of our sin and our inability to deal with our own sin, but the Bible presents an entire comprehensive biblical worldview of sin. It comes down to the fact that sinners sin, and it comes down to the fact that when we sin, we do so often not only individually but corporately. So, as we think about structural sin or systemic sin, it basically comes down to the fact that when sinners sin, it has consequences in the society around us. Sin corrupts every single human system in one way or another, because it's made up of sinful human beings. Furthermore, sin sometimes even takes the structural form of laws and policies, rules, and habits and customs. All of these are often corrupted by sin in a way that is quite obvious to us.
So, in its simplest understanding, the biblical conception of sin begins with sin as an offense to God, a breaking of God's law, a transgression on the part of a human sinner. Human sinners together as we form societies, neighborhoods, villages, institutions, congresses, legislatures, laws, we also bring that sinfulness into the making of laws, into the establishment of policies. As I said, sometimes you can see the sin quite evident.
The authors, Humberto Belli and Ronald Nash made this point very clearly when they wrote, "Orthodox Christians have no difficulty understanding how individual sin comes to have a structural character." They continue, "But they are obviously dissatisfied with any view of sin that fails to see it as an offense to a holy God and a violation of God's holy law." Again, as Belli and Nash said, orthodox Christians have no difficulty understanding how individual sin comes to have a structural character. As soon as you put us together and we formed structures together, our sinfulness comes into that structure.
Now, just consider that in our current American conversation, but it's not just in the United States, it is also throughout much of the rest of the world. The issue comes down in the American context to the terminology of structural racism or systemic racism. Do we believe in it or not? Well, you have to answer this question by saying yes in one sense, no in another. Do we believe that sin is often represented in a way we can see much less than a way that we can't see by its subtlety in structures and in systems? The answer is yes. Let's not start with structural racism. Let's start with something like the scandal of abortion, the horror of the legal murder of the unborn.
Consider the fact that even as we talk about abortion as a sin that comes down to individuals—the woman seeking the abortion, the doctor performing the abortion, the entire system of individuals who are involved in making that abortion happen. Well, we understand that yes, there is individual responsibility, and it is individuals as we shall see who will stand before the judgment of God, but those individuals have now in their sin of abortion into a structural arena, into the systems of society. They have done so through, for example, the Supreme Court handing down the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. They have done so by legislatures, as we have seen in New York, in Illinois, and in other states even adopting more radical abortion rights legislation. They have done so through higher academia and its sell out to the entire culture of death. They have done so through the habits and customs of our society, where you have many people who simply assume that abortion must be the answer to the complication of an unplanned pregnancy. All of that demonstrates that, yes, you have to start and you end with individuals responsible for individual sins, but we also understand the human society being made up of those sinners influenced by those sinners, legislated by those sinners, brings the sin into the structures and systems of society.
Now, taking it back to the issue of structural or systemic racism. Do we see that? Well, we certainly have through much of American history. You certainly see it in the founding, even in the Constitution's allowance for race-based chattel slavery in the United States for human beings to own other human beings, and the definition of black people in the United States as less human than non-black people in the very same country. You see it throughout the history, not only of slavery, but of segregation and race based discrimination, but even in more recent years, you see it in economic policies. You see it in banking and zoning regulations.
Even in more recent days, there's been attention drawn in Minneapolis to the fact that there have been legally authorized deed restrictions in some neighborhoods in that state, disallowing the sale of certain parcels of real estate to African Americans. You just look at that and on its face that is evidence of injustice. Even if a court right now would not allow those deed restrictions to be enforced, the fact is they were enforced when they were put in place and the continued existence of those deed restrictions is a continuing testimony and indictment to racism in the United States made into policy.
In many, if not most communities around the United States, there was at least at some time, the practice of red lining, where civic authorities and banks would indicate by a red line territory in which African Americans were not to be allowed to qualify for mortgages or other arrangements in order to purchase property. That is on its face racist. That is on its face by any biblical understanding unjust. That is a violation of the biblical principle that every single human being is equally made in the image of God. It is a violation of Christ's commandment that love of God must be translated into love of neighbor. Those kinds of policies are profoundly, let it be clearly said, a violation of God's law and of the love of neighbor. That should be abundantly clear.
Furthermore, we understand that even in the United States where a consciousness of the sin and wrong and injustice of racism has made tremendous steps forward over recent decades, even as those kinds of deed restrictions would not be legally justifiable now—the vast majority of Americans would surely see them as immoral and unjust—the fact is that there is a continuing impact of those policies in most communities, not just some, but in most communities around the United States. In the Bible itself, there is testimony to this kind of sin that goes beyond the individual.
Just look at the Old Testament. Not only are we told the individual human beings in Israel sinned, that's made abundantly clear, but the Bible actually refers to Israel itself sinning. Israel rebelling in the wilderness. There is corporate as well as individual sin that is made clear, and of course, that's not just true of Israel. It is true of every single human organization or human society. Where you have human beings, you have sinners and sinners bring their sin with them.
The reformer, John Calvin, dealt with this by looking at two biblical passages. The first was Lamentations 5:7 in which the text tells us, “Our father sinned and are no more and we bear their iniquities.” That is the statement that the successive generation bears the iniquities of their fathers. But, then we read in Ezekiel 18:20, "The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father nor of the father the iniquity of the son, but the soul that sinneth, it shall die."
Now, how do we put those two together? Well, Calvin said they are not contradictory. When you look at the final judgment of God, it will be individual human beings, sinners all for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God who will be judged. The question of heaven and hell is for individuals. It is not for organizations, nations, and societies. But as Calvin also made clear, there is a sense in which we understand exactly how Lamentations 5:7 is clear and evident in history and that is because the consequences of sin, the legacy of sin are passed on to subsequent generations.
The way I have often spoken about these twin trues in the past is to say that when you look at God's judgment, it will be meted out at the individual level on the day of judgment, but it is hammered out in history for human organizations, for nations, for civilizations. God's judgment upon those nations shows up in the course of human history, but it is the individuals in those nations who will face the final judgment of God and who upon that judgment will go either to heaven or to hell.
I love the language that John Calvin uses in speaking about this understanding of the effects of sin passed on to subsequent generations. Calvin says, "The children are loaded with the sins of their fathers." There is a sense that as you consider, not only the Bible, but you look at history around us, we understand what it means in the course of history for the children to be loaded with the sins of their fathers.
What Is Liberation Theology? The Definition of Sin Is at Stake
So, how do we now arrive at the current discussion about systemic or structural sin, systemic or structural racism as a specific demonstration of sin and come to understand it from a biblical worldview, from a clearly biblical theology? How do we think about this? Well, we have to understand some dangers first. Danger number one is evidenced by Protestant liberalism, to which we often have to look. The Protestant liberals of the 19th and 20th centuries began to replace the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news being God's salvation of sinners to the substitutionary atonement, the blood atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ. It became translated instead into what was called the social gospel. That is that it is instead of good news, they argued, about the improvement that is possible in human society, translating the church's mission from conversion and evangelism to social progress and political and social agendas. That became very, very clear. By the way, many of the injustices to which the Protestant liberals pointed were we as biblical Christians would have to acknowledge genuine injustices. You're looking at poverty. You're looking at crushing effects of sin throughout much of society.
What was wrong with Protestant liberalism is that it actually denied the gospel of Jesus Christ and sought instead to come up with a political methodology or a political mission and strategy for the church. It wasn't just that the social gospel said that the gospel has social implications. It is that the social gospel replaced the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ with a different message entirely. It came up with an entirely different conception of the Christian Church. Then of course, as I said, it is rooted in Protestant liberalism. It is rooted in a lack of confidence in the transcendent truths revealed in Scripture and instead it was a turn to a far more earthly mission for the church.
The second danger we have to observe is the arrival in the middle of the 20th century and especially in the last half of the last century of what is known as liberation theology. This you might say was a social gospel taken to its quantum level. Liberation theology emerged first among Roman Catholics in central and South America but soon it became translated into other cultural contexts, the United States and Europe. It also became something that was adopted by at least some Protestants. It started out as a movement among Roman Catholics. It didn't stay that way.
It emerged in particular in a time of the modernization, as it was called, of the Roman Catholic church. It came as many of those who were in South and Central America saw what can only rightly be called injustices, but they were committed to a form of Marxism. They basically took the biblical gospel and replaced it with a Marxist understanding of social revolution. They changed the good news of the gospel as salvation in Jesus Christ to the good news of social and moral progress that would come by liberating human beings, thus liberation theology, and doing so through the appropriation of a Marxist revolutionary context and platform.
So, liberation theology openly borrowed from European Marxism categories that were then translated into theological terms, but liberation theology was not just about the theology addressed to oppression in Central and South America. It also became in North America a variegated format or constellation of positions that include what had been called black liberation theology and feminist theology, and even more recently, the theologies of liberation as they have been styled that have been appropriated by the LGBTQ community. All of them follow a similar pattern. That pattern comes down to an explicit rejection of Western civilization as a whole, and we have to note, orthodox biblical Christianity is considered to be a part of that Western civilization that is in itself has Karl Marx alleged an exercise of oppression.
So, here's what we have to understand. The social gospel of the Protestant liberals of the 19th and 20th centuries gave way in the second half of the 20th century to these theologies of liberation, but the theologies of liberation did something else. The Protestant liberals started this. They took it to its ultimate conclusion, and that was the redefinition of human sin.
Sin was redefined so that it was no longer the transgression of God's law, the breaking of the commandment, robbing God of his glory, an individual act of revolt against a holy God. It was translated into social structures alone, nearly exclusively, if not absolutely exclusively. Sin is now a systemic structural issue. It is not an individual issue. It's not a matter of my sin and your sin, our violation of God's law. It is instead the reference to systemic, corporate, political, economic oppression. The answer to that kind of oppression, said the liberationists, is revolution, a communist Marxist form of what they called praxis in the place of a biblical understanding of the gospel.
So, in the perspective of those who operate from this liberationist methodology, when they talk about structural or systemic sin, structural or systemic racism, they mean that it's not really about individuals being responsible for this sin and it's not about even those individual sins and individual sinners effecting the society systemically and structurally and as laws and policies. They mean a revolution by which the entire experiment of Western civilization, its virtues, its values, its structures, its institutions, and biblical orthodox Christianity as a part of the shaping influences of Western culture, these have to be undone.
Liberation will only come and oppression will only cease, they say, when the society is revolutionized by a Marxist revolution and that which is, is no more and there will be a new liberated age on the other side of the revolution. Now, understand that that's the energy behind so much of the political and cultural left in the United States. It has been for some time, but rarely with the kind of evidence that we have seen of late.
When you look at this kind of Marxism, I think it's right to refer to it as cultural Marxism, you see it dominant in the American academy. It's just taken for granted as the orthodoxy. This is one of the reasons why so many in higher education look to our own nation with such antipathy and suspicion. This is what's driving so much of the political left in the United States and it is increasingly the dominant worldview of those who are producing the culture right down to the fact that even the cartoons these days are highly politicized.
But understanding what the revolutionaries now demand, I think John Hirschauer writing at National Review gets it right when he says that many of them are using the term systemic racism, a term he says that they cannot quite define. They use it "nevertheless to advance a political revolt beneath the language of racial reconciliation."
He goes on to say that the rioters and their apologists demand what amounts to a total reorientation of the entire society. Speaking of this revolutionary energy, he then writes, "Their intellectual leaders tell us that capitalism is white supremacy, that immigration enforcement and patriotism are racist and tax cuts reify racial inequality."
What Should the Christian Response Be to Systemic Racism?
So, now you understand the complications. Do we believe in structural racism and systemic racism? Yes and no. Yes, in that human beings being sinful have brought our individual sin, indeed our racism into the structures and systems of society. We've seen that, that has taken place over the course of centuries, decades, years. We see that the legacy of many of those policies, laws, habits, and customs continues. We must understand that Christians have to see all of this as sin, as injustice. Even as we worship a God who is just, we are called upon to call injustice what it is and to seek, to bring about in the entire society justice rather than injustice.
We also come to understand that as we're thinking about this systemic and structural representation of sin and the effects of sin, it goes far beyond racism. That's one of the reasons why we have to continually point to the murder of the unborn as one of the most unjust, unrighteous, and heinously wrong policies and practices within our nation. Yes, it takes systemic and structural form. It has warped the entire structure of our society.
But there's another sense in which we have to be very careful because in the national conversation right now, the terms structural and systemic racism or structural and systemic sin have more to do with this Marxist idea of liberation than they do with a biblical understanding of sin and the consequences of sin, individual sin and its corporate representations.
One of the symbolic misunderstandings of the 20th century was a book by the famous Neo-Orthodox theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr at Union Theological Seminary. His book was entitled Moral Man, Immoral Society. That's a title that's half wrong. Actually, we're talking about immoral man, immoral society. It's not just the society that is worked by sin, it is the individual human sinners who are accountable.
One of the most fundamental problems by the way of liberation theology or any form of cultural Marxism or any form of political utopianism, one of the problems with any call for revolution is the fact that it insinuates that on the other side of the revolution, all things will be well. But this is where Christians understand and have to emphatically insist even as on this side of the revolution there will be sinners, there will be sinners on the other side of the revolution as well. In other words, the fundamental problem would remain. Christians understand that it is fundamentally false to believe that if we just change the structures—should we change them when they're unjust? Sure!—but if we just change the structures, we are not going to eliminate the problem of sin.
At their best, confessions of faith are summaries of what the Bible teaches. I think on this issue the Baptist Faith and Message adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in the year 2000 gets this just about exactly right. In article 15 of the Baptist Faith and Message, we read this:
"All Christians are under obligation to seek to make the will of Christ supreme in our own lives and in human society. Means and methods used for the improvement of society and the establishment of righteousness among men can be truly and permanently helpful only when they are rooted in the regeneration of the individual by the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ.”
The statement continues:
“In the spirit of Christ, Christians should oppose racism, every form of greed, selfishness, and vice, and all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography.”
The statement continues:
“We should work to provide for the orphaned, the needy, the abused, the aged, the helpless, and the sick. We should speak on behalf of the unborn and contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death. Every Christian,” says the statement, “should seek to bring industry, government, and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love.”
“In order to promote these ends Christians should be ready to work with all men of good will in any good cause, always being careful to act in the spirit of love without compromising their loyalty to Christ and His truth.”
I think in that article the confession of faith of the Southern Baptist Convention gets the answer just about exactly right. So, I'll leave it there.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.