22 October 2018

Statement on Social Justice, 12: Race/Ethnicity

We are now in the final sections of The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel. Here is number 12 on Race/Ethnicity:

We affirm God made all people from one man. Though people often can be distinguished by different ethnicities and nationalities, they are ontological equals before God in both creation and redemption. “Race” is not a biblical category, but rather a social construct that often has been used to classify groups of people in terms of inferiority and superiority. All that is good, honest, just, and beautiful in various ethnic backgrounds and experiences can be celebrated as the fruit of God’s grace. All sinful actions and their results (including evils perpetrated between and upon ethnic groups by others) are to be confessed as sinful, repented of, and repudiated.

We deny that Christians should segregate themselves into racial groups or regard racial identity above, or even equal to, their identity in Christ. We deny that any divisions between people groups (from an unstated attitude of superiority to an overt spirit of resentment) have any legitimate place in the fellowship of the redeemed. We reject any teaching that encourages racial groups to view themselves as privileged oppressors or entitled victims of oppression. While we are to weep with those who weep, we deny that a person’s feelings of offense or oppression necessarily prove that someone else is guilty of sinful behaviors, oppression, or prejudice.

There is no doubt that people are different from each other and that some of these differences run along group lines. Yes, individuals differ in a variety of ways, but some individuals share characteristics that place them together in a particular group. That group may be a concrete communal structure such as marriage, family, state and church institution. Or it may be a very loose society based on common patterns of interaction, customs and mores. Greeks, Italians, Iranians and Kashubians would fall into this category.

More controversially, people have often been grouped into distinct races based on skin colour and (possibly) facial characteristics. Prior to 1945 the term race was also applied to various ethnic groups such as Germans, Poles and Russians. Since that time we have generally used the term ethnic group to describe them, as in, for example, ethnic Greeks and Turks in Cyprus. Prior to the 1960s the American South was characterized by an especially vicious form of racial segregation, and South African apartheid only ended in 1994 after forty-six years. The European colonization of the Americas could have occurred only on the assumption that the indigenous peoples were somehow inferior to the colonizers.

Although racism lost the support of western opinion moulders decades ago, and although its popularity is far less than it once was, the effects of racism linger, especially in large American urban centres such as Detroit and Chicago. Here in Canada we have our own legacy of racism, but in this country the cleavage is not so much between white and black as between European and aboriginal, or First Nations, as they are often called today.

The authors are correct that our common identity in Christ outweighs any other group identity that we might have. As Lesslie Newbigin puts it, "Before the cross of Jesus there are no innocent parties. His cross is not for some and against others. It is the place where all are guilty and all are forgiven. The cross cannot be converted into the banner for a fight of some against others." This is where liberation theologies fall into error. In pitting oppressed against oppressor, they risk drawing the antithesis between good and evil between groups defined by their status relative to oppression, whereas Scripture makes it clear that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Moreover, it is clear that, as Newbigin observers, "most people are in an ambivalent position, oppressors in some situations and oppressed in others." There can be no permanent categories of oppressor and oppressed.

The statement's authors are also correct in denying that "a person’s feelings of offense or oppression necessarily prove that someone else is guilty of sinful behaviors, oppression, or prejudice." Oppression is often defined so broadly that virtually any perceived offence can be subsumed under the term. But perceptions are frequently faulty, and we often feel deeply about matters that are in reality more complicated than our emotions would suggest. This is why emotions are not a solid foundation for doing justice or even for judging right and wrong.

That said, I must repeat what I wrote earlier. While it may be technically correct for specific persons to absolve themselves of objective guilt for the consequences of racism, this may not be the most helpful means of addressing ongoing racial divisiveness. I believe that the gospel offers powerful testimony to God's ability to break through the divisions separating peoples and to unite them in their shared identity in Christ. But it means that we must be open to a variety of ways in which this might be accomplished. Inducing in people feelings of guilt over what their ancestors may have done or over their apparent racial privilege will not bring people together and is more likely to produce a backlash. Encouraging people to reach out across lines of division is a better approach and looks to the future rather than to the past.

Next: Culture.

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