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The Social Justice Statement and the Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience

racial harmony
People of different races hold hands as they gather on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. bridge in Charleston, June 21, 2015, after the first service at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church since a mass shooting left nine people dead. |

On September 5, 2018, James White, John MacArthur and other evangelical leaders issued a statement on "Social Justice and the Gospel." Other than some clumsy wording about Sola Scriptura, I agreed with everything it said. But I wouldn't sign it because of what it doesn't say.

I scrolled through the statement on my phone, approving of every affirmation and denial. Then suddenly I reached the end and wondered where the rest was, the part where we grieve with those who grieve, where Christians show they're not just about right doctrines – orthodoxy – but also about right passions – orthopathy – and right behavior – orthopraxy. The statement betrays a pastoral obtuseness to racial issues. It's not racist. It simply demonstrates a blind spot, a lack of awareness. It's the product of people responding to issues they may understand cerebrally but have never experienced. It's two-dimensional in a three-dimensional world.

I should know, though. Awakening to something that one has never, personally experienced, especially something as often nebulous as racism, is difficult. I was raised in Alabama but my parents who rarely, if ever, mentioned race. After a parent-teacher meeting, in third grade, my mother asked me earnestly, "Why didn't you tell me your teacher was black." I remember thinking in my 8-year-old brain, "I hadn't noticed." It wasn't something that I was sensitive to. The question made as much sense to me as asking, "Why didn't you tell me your teacher had curly hair?" Why is that a trait someone would think is distinguishing?

We were visiting my grandparents, in eastern Arkansas, in a small town just across the Mississippi river from Memphis. I remember hearing my grandmother use a word, repeatedly, a word I didn't hear at home. She frequently disparaged the "niggers." Being an impressionable little child I picked it up. In the car on the way back to Alabama, before we had even crossed the bridge into Memphis, I was chattering and dropped that word. My father immediately and sternly interrupted me and said, in no uncertain terms, "We do not use that word in this family." I've kept my father's order: I've not used that word since then except when telling this story.

He explained that, though raised in that typically racist Southern atmosphere, when he was in the US Air Force, he learned to treat and regard black people as equals. It didn't matter if a man was black or white, if he had a superior rank to you, you had to salute and follow orders; if he had an inferior rank to you, you couldn't cause divisions by showing favoritism to some subordinates over others. It was the US military that taught my father not to be racist. And that's a good thing. But think what that means. Why was it not the church that confronted and changed that racism? After all, my father and my grandmother regularly went to the Baptist church in their town. Why was it, year after year, that that Baptist church never challenged the idea that there were some neighbors they didn't have to love as themselves? When visiting my grandparents we went to their church; I remember shaking the pastor's hand as we left the building. Why didn't that pastor and the rest of that church ever confront them about this problem the way the military did? Why was it that the US Air Force had the conviction and courage to change what a Baptist church would not? Today, by the way, I'm a Baptist pastor.

In college, my Greek class, at a Baptist university in Birmingham, Alabama in 1986, had a barbecue at the professor's house. We were encouraged to bring dates. I didn't have a girlfriend but I did have a female friend — named Josephine — who was on the track team with me and who also attended the same church I did. She was a nice girl; attractive, intelligent, with a vivacious personality, and an earnest Christian. She was also Nigerian. I decided to invite her and she accepted my invitation. It never occurred to me that her complexion would be an issue. But it turned out to be a very tense evening. I can't describe any outrageous acts of overt racism. No one angrily shouted "N---er lover!" at me. But I could tell, in the withdrawing glance, the stymied greetings, the stiff conversation, that many of my fellow students there — Baptist ministerial students — were bothered. Subtle but unmistakable. Nothing publicly manifest. Just the look in the eye, whispers out of my hearing followed by the glance as if I was leprous. As obtuse as I can be, I could tell that I had done something that must not be done. I felt sorry for Josephine; I didn't know what to say. I was flabbergasted and totally incapable of processing what I was experiencing. We left early. I should have apologized to her. This article is that belated apology.

Through most of my seminary years at Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, California, I hung a Confederate flag on my wall. I was proud of my ancestry, a Southerner by the grace of God; a son of Confederate veterans and plantation owners. I could argue that states' rights is a good cause, as it can be. I could have been specimen #1 that the symbols for the old South were about "heritage not hate." I hated racism and loved the South. Still do. But I was on a journey, from sweet home Alabama.

Like John Piper, who went through Fuller about 20 years before me, the compilation of articles on race by systematic theology professor Paul K. Jewett shook my world. Many of the articles reported race-motivated attacks in places in Alabama that I knew. The church bombing that killed four African-American girls in Birmingham, Alabama, was just blocks from where my father is buried. I was sitting in California, reading these stories about home. But I had known almost nothing about them up until then, maybe vaguely heard about them but it was, in the white Southern culture, muted background noise. Our conversations were always about other things. Now, from California, I got a new view of Alabama. So I got mad.

It was another step in what the Liberation theologians awkwardly call "conscienceization," more recently — but just as clumsily — called "woke." People who haven't experienced it, as orthodox as they maybe, don't see it; often don't understand that we're not just called to fine-tune our theology but "love mercy." They need to be awoken to something that still lingers in the air to this day. It's like what the US army did to Germans, when they came upon Nazi death camps. At the end of World War II, the US army would find the concentration camps, full of dead bodies and starving people. The German residents of nearby towns would say they knew nothing about what was going on there. So the US army took the Germans out of their towns, to the camps, then made them walk through the middle of the camps, so they couldn't deny what had been done there. They were made aware. What happened to me in California, reading about what had been going on in Alabama, was like that.

I took the final step toward orthopathy in Singapore. Sometimes one has to be completely removed from something that is all around them to see it. Someone said, "If you want to know about water, the last one to ask is a fish." If you want to know about racism and its lingering effects, you might have to step out of the United States. Meditating on "let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a never failing stream" (Amos 5:24), I spoke before a lunch-time Bible study of business people in Singapore. I described the racism that had pervaded in my native South, the suffering of black people, the history we take for granted, the way some Christians in the United States justified slavery and racism. A young, Chinese-Singaporean lady looked up to me, with the most quizzical expression and asked, "How could they do that?" I saw her earnestness and realized there was no answer. All the historical context arguments we use to explain how our racial situation developed still doesn't explain, much less justify, the mystery of its evil.

I put away my Confederate flag. Today I'm the pastor of an intentionally multi-racial church in a racially divided county in the South. In between Fuller Seminary and my calling now, I pursued a Ph.D. in church history that landed me in a "Business Ethics in Historical Perspective" course at the University of Chicago taught by Nobel Laureate Robert W. Fogel. Fogel had done his work on the economics of American slavery, overturning many assumptions. When I entered his class, he was finishing a book on "The Fourth Great Awakening" in which he argued, in part, that just as it had in the past, American Evangelicalism would help lead America forward spiritually and morally. Fogel, a self-described "secular Jew," had found that slavery was not undone by economic forces, as he suspected when he started his research, but by a moral revolution spear-headed by evangelicals. I, a Reformed evangelical, wrote a paper for him in which I argued that while evangelicals had done that in the past, when they were closer to their Puritan fountain-head, they (we) were far too other-worldly now to be looked to for such a moral revolution again. We have a theology — or perhaps, spirituality — too often, that allows us to remain unconscious to parts of the world around us. He called me in to his office to discuss our differences of opinion; he politely plied me with questions, didn't change his conclusions, and the next year asked me to be his teaching assistant for the same course. He even gave me the responsibility of giving the lecture on his controversial findings on slavery.

Professor Fogel had found, with his empirical approach to economic history called "cliometrics," that Southern slavery was 36% more efficient than free Northern farms and that despite the fact that generally the soil in the North is better. Led by slavery, the economy in the South was growing at twice the rate as the North's in the decade prior to the Civil War. Slavery was so efficient because slave owners organized their slaves in a very business-like fashion, assembly-line style. By the purely materialistic approach to economics, then, slavery should have flourished. Modern economics generally works on the premise that if something is efficient and produces a better material out-come, it therefore will succeed and is, by definition "good." So was slavery good? No. Fogel's answer was a resounding "No," as shouted by the titles of the books which bore his research: Time on the Cross and Without Consent or Contract.

But if slavery is efficient, why isn't it good? The answer to that simply cannot be found in economics. It's found in a system of morality that comes from beyond mere materialism. And Fogel saw that it was Christians who provided that morality. And to them, America owes an enormous debt. He told me that he was amazed, as a professor in some of America's leading universities that he had no idea, up until then, the moral revolution wrought by Christians. He concluded that if the tide of Northern opinion had not been turned so decisively against slavery, primarily by Christian abolitionists, then the South would have continued to grow faster than the rest of the country; adapt slavery to industrialization, been unconquerable if a later Civil War had broken out, and likely have spread slavery indefinitely, probably until this day. Slavery was on the ascendancy as the Civil War broke out. To argue that it would have petered out, without the United States making war against it, flies in the face of the fact that even a century after the Civil War, the South was still oppressing African-Americans, still sending them to the back of the bus, to inferior schools, humiliating them with separate water fountains, laws against inter-racial marriage and the like. It still took further governmental action a hundred years after the original Confederates laid down their arms.

Today, some evangelical leaders are so numb to that suffering, to the struggle required to bring justice to the laws, that they pine for the good ol' days of the Confederacy. Self-proclaimed "paleo-Confederates," including evangelical pastor Douglas Wilson, champion the Confederacy's emphasis on "states' rights" against a burgeoning federal government. Behind his causes and that of the drafters of the Statement on Social Justice, I believe, is a political agenda. They are reacting against the causes the federal government, particularly the Supreme Court, has foisted on the country in the last generation, from abortion on demand to "same-sex marriage." Even if they are right about that, their obtuseness to racial issues does their cause a disservice. It is perverse, from a Biblical point of view, to suggest that states' rights is a higher value than the lives and freedom of millions of African-Americans. They rarely seem to have stopped and understood that because justification for slavery and Jim Crow was clothed in the rhetoric of "States' rights," how their embrace, now, of States' rights strikes African-Americans and others concerned with racial justice. The Confederate flag is, in my opinion, a beautiful, striking flag, with bold colors, simple and symmetrical design but the fact that it was the banner under which Southern states fought for slavery and George Wallace, and others, rallied against justice, for segregation, makes that flag a repugnant symbol to the lover of justice. That's why I eventually put my Confederate flag away. He has shown us, o paleo-Confederate, what is good and what does the Lord require of us (Micah 6:8). And states' rights didn't make the top three.

Such evangelical leaders, like Wilson and the drafters of the statement on Social Justice, insist that they are not racist. I believe them. Ironically, I believe that is part of the problem. If such leaders had been racist in their youth, like John Piper, they probably would have felt some of the process of becoming conscious of that sin and known something of its bitter taste. Frankly, many white people in America who I believe are free of racism, have, because of that freedom, no consciousness of it. So they sometimes blunder into some racial controversy, clumsily making claims that "slavery produced in the South a genuine affection between the races that we believe we can say has never existed in any nation before [the Civil War] or since." (Wilson and Steve Wilkins, "Southern Slavery: As It Was," p. 38) or "There has never been a multi-racial society that has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world." (ibid, p. 24). Or produce statements on Social Justice that make it sound, by silent implication, as if the European and African ethnicities in America had equally suffered at each others' hands, or that racism surrendered at the Appomattox Court House, that it's ancient history.

The real scandal is not that there is a phalanx of crypto-racists in American evangelicalism resisting justice. The scandal is evangelicalism's stunted conscience.

In 2013, the scandal of the evangelical conscience broke out again, when some African-American Christian leaders, like Bryan Lorritts, brought up, again, Douglas Wilson's book Black and Tan. Thabiti Anyabwile, pastor of Anacostia River Church and a columnist for the Gospel Coalition, began a series of blog articles about the controversy saying that it was "correct to drop the heaviest hammer on such foolishness" — referring to Wilson's praise of the Confederacy. While commending those "dropping the hammer" on Wilson, Pastor Anyabwile's series of articles critiquing Wilson's views were heralded for their civility, including by Wilson himself. Hammer dropping is out of style. He handled Wilson with patience and fraternity. Five years later, Wilson was quick to sign on to the Statement on Social Justice.

Meanwhile, in April of this year (2018), first Douglas Wilson engaged Thabiti Anyabwile and then James White chimed in, with Anyabwile reproducing White's article on his blog, unedited. A debate on racism and social justice played out on the Gospel Coalition blog. I listened avidly to White's comments on the controversy on his "The Dividing Line" podcast. Having the e-mail addresses of both White and Anyabwile and being admirers of them both, I sent a letter to them both, hoping to broker peace. I specifically told White, "The few times, James, I've heard you comment on racial issues, I've noticed a lack of expressed sympathy for the enormous sin done to black people in the past through about 250 years of slavery and a hundred years of segregation. I agree with you about what needs to be done now but I don't hear you expressing awareness for what black people have gone through. I don't disagree with almost anything you say; it's just that I sense an omission." I didn't know that, at the time, he was working on (or was soon to start working on) the Statement on Social Justice along with John MacArthur and others.

MacArthur (born June 19, 1939) was ministering during the Civil Rights era and even admirably travelled with John Perkins, Mississippi based pastor, preaching to black churches there. He was once detained by a "bigoted" sheriff for his inter-racial ministry. He writes, "I deplore racism and all the cruelty and strife it breeds." I believe him. To accuse him of being "racist" because he doesn't share the social and political agenda of "progressives" is slanderous. But a search of MacArthur's archived sermons reveals very little about racism, only about 23 hits using the term "racism" of all his sermons and most of them referring to the culture of the New Testament. Of his blog posts on the issue, many are recent ones as part of his role in drafting the Statement on Social Justice. What does it say of the awareness of a man who largely ignored the issues of race, even when the debate over Civil Rights was raging in the United States but is suddenly provoked when evangelicals start echoing the calls for "social justice"? The scandal is not that he's racist. He clearly is not. It's that he has a blind spot. He brilliantly (and ironically) describes the problem himself in a recent blog article:

People everywhere still tend to be oblivious to or inconsiderate of customs, traditions, community values, and ethnic differences outside their own culture. Culture clash is a universal problem, not a uniquely American quandary—and it's not necessarily an expression of ethnic hostility. But Americans' contempt for racial bigotry is now so acute that even accidental cultural or ethnic insensitivity is regularly met with the same resentment as blind, angry racism—and even a simple social gaffe is likely to be treated the same as bigotry.

Amen. The scandal is the inconsiderateness, the obliviousness, the insensitivity so that even an orthodox statement, like the one he worked with James White on, seems, I think rightly, to be a social gaffe.

The scandal is that so many of us aren't more offended by lauding the Confederacy, more shocked by the evil of slavery and racism that that has not yet woken us up, that we're still so capable of drafting perfectly orthodox statement so lacking in orthopathy. The American evangelical conscience is so unconscious of the reality suffered by some of our brothers and sisters that we're still blundering into clumsy, one-sided statements. Again, the scandal isn't James White's obtuseness on the subject or John MacArthur's MIA status through the Civil Rights era or Douglas Wilson's perversely idyllic descriptions of a supposedly heavenly harmonious racial relations prior to 1865 in the South (never minding that tiny detail about slavery). That's not the scandal. The scandal is us. How are we still, after all these years and shocks, so numb, so asleep, so lacking in orthopathy?

The scandal isn't racism, per se. It's two-dimensional faith, a flat orthodoxy, against a full-orbed faith — orthodoxy, orthopathy, orthopraxy — that loves the Lord with all one's heart, mind and body and, connected to that, loves one's neighbors, all the kinds of people God puts in one's way.

In 2012 I spoke at the funeral of a 13-year-old boy, Damion Farmer. He was black as were most of the people who turned out at the funeral, held in our gymnasium. Our gym had been originally built for a segregated school in the 1970s for the purpose of keeping kids like Damion out. I mentioned that fact to the assembled mourners and then the triumphant fact that King Jesus had other ideas and gave that gym to us as a place of worship for all His people and a place for all kids, like Damion Farmer. The crowd erupted in applause and I could feel a wave of relief that someone — someone who professed the same Lord, held to the same orthodoxy — felt, to some degree, something of the pain of their 300 years of racial oppression. They ached for someone to feel their pain, to just show they cared. Do you?

John B. Carpenter (M.Div., Fuller Theological Seminary, Ph.D. Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago) is the pastor of Covenant Reformed Baptist Church in Danville, Virginia.

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