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Structural Racism Isn’t Wokeness, It’s Reality
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Structural Racism Isn’t Wokeness, It’s Reality

Christians must not deny the full consequences of centuries of intentional, racist harm. 

One of America’s most influential pastors is facing a crisis. No, it’s not the crisis of personal scandal. It’s the crisis of church division—over race, ideology, and minutiae of church procedure. Putting aside the procedural arguments, that division is a microcosm of the racial conflicts that are dividing the larger American church and the nation itself

David Platt is a bestselling author, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board, and the pastor of McLean Bible Church (MBC), a huge and influential church located outside Washington, D.C. Platt is facing a revolt from self-described “conservative” congregants, a revolt that culminated in a lawsuit filed against the church by a group of its own members, demanding that a Virginia state court intervene in the church’s elder selection process to, among other things, preserve their alleged right to vote in those elections and to mandate a secret ballot.

I’m not going to address the church’s procedural disputes. (Though I will note that it is contrary to basic principles of religious liberty to ask an arm of the state—a judge—to intervene in matters of church governance.) I am going to deal head-on with the prime underlying complaint that has triggered outrage and national media coverage of a struggle for control in one of America’s largest and most influential churches. The charge against Platt and his team can be summed up in one word: wokeness.

The congregants object to what they perceive as a pastoral embrace of critical race theory, and they assert that the Bible alone contains teaching sufficient to address America’s race problems. You can read the comprehensive complaint against Platt and his team here and the allegations of teaching or advocating CRT here

Without restating all the contents of these lengthy documents, they include complaints that Platt and his MBC colleague pastor Mike Kelsey marched in a Christian black lives matter march and that Kelsey has endorsed the “CRT concepts” of “systemic racism” and “white privilege.” They also condemn Platt for this comment, which argues that the absence of overt prejudice doesn’t absolve one of the problems of racism and racialization: 

A disparity exists. We can’t deny this. These are not opinions—they’re facts. It matters in our country whether one is white or black. Now, we don’t want it to matter, which is why I think we try to convince ourselves it doesn’t matter. We think to ourselves, “I don’t hold prejudices toward black or white people, so racism is not my problem.” But this is where we need to see that racialization is our problem. It’s all of our problem. We subtly, almost unknowingly, contribute to it.

The dissenters argue that the “solution to the ‘race’ problem in America is more Bible, not more sociology books. It is not the Bible plus a secular reading list, but sola scriptura.” It’s not just unwise to rely on secular scholarship to address American racism, they argue: It’s unbiblical.

This argument echoes tenets of the secular right-wing consensus on race—that racism exists only when there is individual malign intent, that remedies for racism should be limited to imposing consequences on individual racists, and that there is no intergenerational obligation to remedy historic injustice (“I’m not responsible for my ancestors’ sins”). 

Under this mode of thinking, the concept of “equality under the law”—as mandated by the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act—is both necessary and largely sufficient to address the causes and consequences of centuries of slavery followed by generations of Jim Crow.   

But on the core issues of American racism, Platt is biblically and historically right, and it’s his detractors who are biblically and historically wrong. These “conservatives” have placed a secular political frame around an issue with profound religious significance. They’ve thus not just abandoned the whole counsel of scripture, they’ve even contradicted a core component of the secular conservatism they claim to uphold. 

To understand the flaw in their argument, let’s first turn to biblical text. A pastor friend of mine recently reminded me of an intriguing and sobering story from 2 Samuel 21. During the reign of King David, Israel was afflicted with three years of famine. When David “sought the face of the Lord” regarding the crisis, God said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house.” (Saul had conducted a violent campaign against the Gibeonites, in violation of a covenant made with the Israelites many centuries before.)

Saul was king before David, and God was punishing Israel years after Saul’s regime because of Saul’s sin. It was the next king, David’s, responsibility to make things right. And so David turned to the remaining Gibeonites and said, “What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?” 

The Gibeonites’ request was harsh—to hand over seven of Saul’s descendants for execution. David fulfilled their request, and “God responded to the plea for the land.” 

Note the underlying conception of justice here: Israel remained responsible for its former leader’s sins, and they were required to make amends. This is a consistent theme throughout scripture. I’ve referred to it before. In the book of 2 Kings, Josiah “tore his clothes” and “wept” when the high priest found the Book of the Law neglected in the temple. Why? Josiah said, “because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book.”

Josiah was far from alone. Daniel confessed the sins of Israel’s fathers. In the book of Nehemiah, the Israelites confessed the “sins and iniquities” of their fathers. In the book of Leviticus, God commanded the Israelites to “confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers.” 

The reason for this obligation of repentance and atonement is obvious. The death of the offending party does not remove the consequences of their sin. Those who’ve been victimized still suffer loss, and if the loss isn’t ameliorated in their lifetimes, that loss can linger for generations.

Let’s apply this more concretely, to the United States of America. Enforcing the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause and passing the Civil Rights Act was (and is) necessary to end overt, legal discrimination, but it was hardly sufficient to ameliorate the effects of slavery and Jim Crow. These effects are so embedded in our system that powerful people often perpetuate those structures even when they lack any racist intent at all.

To illustrate this reality, I’ll turn to perhaps the most commonly cited example (because it’s so significant) of how racism can be truly “structural” or “systemic” and thus linger for years even when the surrounding society over time loses much of its malign intent. 

Residential segregation, through redlining and other means—especially when combined with profound employment discrimination and educational disparities—resulted in the creation of large communities of dramatically disadvantaged Americans. Because of centuries of systematic, de jure (by law) oppression, they possessed fewer resources and less education than those who didn’t suffer equivalent discrimination.

While the passing of the Civil Rights Act meant that black Americans had the right to live elsewhere, they often lacked the resources to purchase homes or rent apartments in wealthier neighborhoods with better schools. Indeed, to this day, the median net worth of a black family ($17,150) is roughly one-tenth the median net worth of a white family ($171,000). That means less money for down payments, less money for security deposits, and overall fewer resources that enable social mobility.

One of the solutions to this problem is permitting more multi-family housing in wealthier communities. But that’s exactly when NIMBYism rears its head. Even if every member of a local zoning and planning commission isn’t racist, there are multiple non-racist reasons for them to resist greater population density. There’s traffic congestion. There’s school overcrowding. There’s the potential consequence to property values. There are environmental objections. There are a host of related infrastructure concerns.

These non-racist reasons to block multi-family development are a reason why even the most deep-blue, race-conscious progressive neighborhoods so often bitterly resist new development, school zoning changes, and other concrete reforms that would grant individuals in historically segregated neighborhoods greater access to the educational and economic opportunities of historically white communities. 

Time and again, there are non-racist reasons for wanting to maintain the structures racists created. Thus, you can begin to understand the cultural and political divide. A person who harbors absolutely no racial animus gets angry when they’re told they’re perpetuating systemic racism, or that racism can exist without malign intent. To be told you’re perpetuating racism when, in your heart of hearts, you know you’re making choices based on road safety, your child’s education, or the beauty of your environment can feel deeply offensive.

Conversely, a person who lives in the midst of the economic and educational deprivation originally created by racists are understandably angered when they’re told there is no racism present when powerful people repeatedly block reforms that would change the status quo. Justice fails when the same unjust outcomes are perpetuated, even though the newest generation of elites may possess different intent.

So how is a Christian to respond? First, let’s go back to scripture and recognize that the obligation to “act justly” is intergenerational. If there is injustice that predates our personal power, it is still our obligation to do what we can to set it right. Second, when you see these racist structures at work, you recognize that you need sociology, history, and economics to help understand not just their reality, but their remedy.

“Sola scriptura” doesn’t tell us how we should zone our communities, district our schools, or protect civil rights. Indeed, there’s an entire Christian doctrine of common grace that teaches us that truth can come from many sources. Even those “conservatives” who resist David Platt likely understand this in their daily lives. Is it the case that we can rely on non-Christian wisdom in, say, military strategy, trade policy, and law enforcement tactics, but when trying to untangle the effects of centuries of racial oppression, the Bible alone will be our guide? 

Now for a note about conservatism. I simply don’t grant that the dissenters’ objections to Platt are “conservative.” Right-wing, yes. Conservative? I object. Years ago, my friend Rod Dreher wrote that “the business of a conservatism with integrity is not to impose an idealistic ideological narrative on reality but rather to try to see the world as it is and respond to its challenges within the limits of what we know about human nature.”

I love that framing. Applied to race, it means that when we discern “the world as it is” (complete with understanding the structures that racists built) the policies a conservative might propose will be different than those of a progressive, in part because conservatives often (but not always) have a different view of human nature and human frailty than their friends on the left. 

In other words, a conservative might have a different conception of “what works.” Progressive-dominated institutions haven’t cracked the code. Can conservative ideas do any better?

A conservative like me is suspicious of the effectiveness of central planning to ameliorate systemic injustice. I’m less likely to want to pour money into vast, centralized public school bureaucracies and more likely to empower school choice to grant families options in the short term and to provide competitive incentives for public schools to improve over the long term.

With regards to zoning, I’m more likely to suggest that property owners should be granted more economic freedom and that limits on multi-family housing are perpetuated by limiting people’s freedom to buy and develop land. The balance between planning and property rights should tilt more towards liberty. NIMBYism exists in part because government authorities sometimes control my backyard more than I do.

When it comes to inequities in policing, a conservative should double down on the Bill of Rights and seek to restore the original, expressed intent of America’s civil rights laws, which were explicitly designed to grant victims financial compensation when the state violates their rights. 

Regardless of my ideology, the objective is justice. It’s not “conservative” justice or “progressive” justice. It’s simply justice. So if my ideology leads me astray, and the solutions I propose are inadequate to the enormity of the task, it’s my moral obligation to rethink my philosophical frame. 

Finally, it is vital to approach the immense challenge of racial justice with an extraordinary amount of humility. Christians should not be so easily triggered by words that sound “progressive” or which they believe might be “inspired by CRT.” A movement that long derided the “snowflakes” on the other side now reacts as if allegedly offensive pastoral word choice is a microaggression all its own.

Moreover, no one person—no matter how intellectually or spiritually formidable—has discerned the single best way for our nation to “act justly” after so very many years of oppression. So approaching this topic requires grace. Every one of us will be wrong to some degree. 

But even in the midst of all this complexity, some things are still clearly true. We still live with the legacy of the discriminatory structures our forefathers created. Our obligation to seek justice does not depend on a finding of personal fault. Christians must be open to truth from any source. And there is nothing—absolutely nothing—“conservative” about denying the reality of the consequences of centuries of intentional, racist harm. 

One last thing …

This song is new, it’s from two of my favorite Christian artists, and it’s powerful. I hope it blesses you like it blessed me.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.