Divided by Sin

In the critically-acclaimed book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, a very popular and highly-recommended read among evangelical social justice advocates, authors Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith assert that: “As a nation, Americans have devoted extensive time and energy discussing religion and race. But the connection between the two, especially religion’s role in the racially divided United States, is grossly under-studied.”

For the sake of this commentary, I will grant Emerson and Smith the benefit of the doubt that they are correct in their assertion. In fact, there is ample evidence that countless Americans continue to devote extensive amounts of time and energy – and money – toward investigating the relationship between religion, especially Christianity, and race. It is a reality that is difficult to miss.

One need only look around his or her local bookstore (do they still have those?), grocery store checkout, or social media footprint and it becomes evident rather quickly that the number of books, podcasts, and blogs that are focused on matters of racial reconciliation and social justice, from both a theological and philosophical perspective, are ubiquitous and unavoidable. So much so that racial reconciliation has developed into its own special category of ministry within the evangelical church. Case in point, Lifeway® Christian Stores, a division of the Southern Baptist Convention, has an entire section of its website dedicated to the topic.

But to whatever degree the aforementioned statement by the writers of Divided by Faith is valid, what is equally true, if not more so, is that the gospel has been so grossly under-studied, even by many Christian social justice advocates, as to fail to comprehend or acknowledge the genesis of such a divide.

It is the church’s decades-long insistence on broaching this matter of ethno-relational partitioning through the lens of political solutions as opposed to gospel-centered root cause analysis that has led to this latest cycle of evangelical activism – because there truly is nothing new under the sun – which is merely a regurgitation of previously-argued dogmas and credendas that have simply been repackaged and relabeled (e.g. ‘woke’) (Eccl. 1:9). Were this not the case, I would not be spending my time writing nor, conversely, would you be spending your time reading, this commentary.

The fact that many Christians continue to exclaim that “Racism still exists!” – as if racism, a term I dogmatically disapprove of but will use for the sake of this article, should be treated as if it were the attitudinal equivalent of a carton of milk that has reached its expiration date – is testament to the level of naivety that exists in failing to realize that politics and, by association, politicians, is wholly inadequate in meliorating not only the effects of such a mindset, whether individually or systemically, but also the cause of it (Eccl. 5:8; Gen. 6:5).

The 17th century Puritan theologian Thomas Watson (1620-1686) wrote, “God’s knowledge is foundational. He is the original pattern and prototype of all knowledge. God’s knowledge is instantaneous. He knows all at once. Our knowledge is successive. We know one thing after another and argue from the effect to the cause.” [1]

Christian social justice advocates are the type of people of whom Watson is speaking in that they tend to argue their case from the effect (e.g. injustice) to the cause (e.g. “racism”). Whereas God always argues from the cause (sin) to the effect (injustice) (see Lev. 19:15-18).

One of the clearest examples of this is the exchange between God and Cain in Genesis 4:1-7. Cain was “very angry” (v. 5b) because his offering had been rejected by God and his brother, Abel’s, offering accepted by Him. But God, being fully aware that Cain was contemplating murdering Abel out of jealousy and envy, warned him not about the act he was considering, but about the sin that was “crouching at the door” of his heart (v. 7a) and that, if he didn’t “master it” (v. 7b), would lead to his committing the act that he was already contemplating against his brother.

And we all know how that turned out (v. 8).

When one considers the protestations of social justice advocates both biblically and holistically, one invariably comes to the conclusion that they are demanding that which is humanly impossible. I say that on the basis of Ps. 106:3, which reads, “How blessed are those who keep justice, who practice righteousness at all times.”

Social justice advocates are, in my humble opinion, admirably but misguidedly hoping to remake this present world into one wherein justice and righteousness are consistently observed by all. But if God’s Word is clear about anything, it is that you and I are innately unrighteous and, consequently, we are wholly incapable of consistently adhering to society’s ever-shifting standards of righteousness let alone God’s (see Rom. 3:23; Ecc. 7:20). Which is why the vision of the late Dr. James Hal Cone (1936-2018) – a man whom many regard as one of the founders of black liberation theology – that “Love should be a controlling element in power, not power itself” will continue to be a mirage in this life, because the same sin that divides us from God divides us from one another. [2]

Or, to put it differently, the problem is enmity not ethnicity.

The gospel of Matthew records that the angel of the Lord commanded Joseph to name their child ‘Jesus’ for the “for He will save His people from their sins” (see Matt. 1:21). I mention this to suggest that social justice activists would do well to remind themselves that Jesus is a Savior, not a divine Social Worker. Christ’s larger purpose in this world is eschatological not sociological, to prepare for His elect a new world to come, not a better world here (see Jn. 18:36; 2 Pet. 3:13).

1.    The Great Gain of Godliness
2.    Black Theology: A Documented History, Volume 1: 1966-1979, p. 21