We need to be realistic about the depth and width of the sin of racism in our hearts and in our churches. It will remain a struggle but if we admit that we are sinners, if we do not pretend to have arrived or to have been perfected (Phil 3:12) then we can admit what we are: simultaneously justified and sinner (simul iustus et peccator). If we are not pretending to have arrived, then we can and must hear admonition from our brothers and sisters. If our congregations are marked by an openness about the pervasive reality of sin as well as the transforming reality of grace, we can and will become welcoming congregations where all the nations are gathered together at the feet of Jesus worshiping and serving together and reflecting the inaugurated (but not yet consummated) final reality of the new heavens and the new earth.
The traditional definition of racism, the definition that I learned as a boy and that was generally accepted until recently is this:
racism (rāˌsizəm) noun. prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior…the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races…(Oxford American Dictionary)
More recently a re-definition has been proposed wherein racism is said to be less about thinking and doing and more about being. It has come to be re-defined in terms of privilege and class, which are Marxist terms of analysis. According to the re-definition then, one is a racist simply by virtue of where and what and when one is, regardless of what one thinks, says, or does. It is a state from which one can never escape. In theological terms, the re-definition is a law from which there is no redemption.
This redefinition is untrue and unhelpful and should be rejected. Nevertheless, this is not to dismiss the sin of racism. Indeed, one reason why the re-definition should be rejected is that it unintentionally and ironically relieves individuals of their moral duty to acknowledge the reality of racism, to repent of it, and to fight against it.
The unrest of the last several years and particularly in the last few weeks has been an opportunity for Reformed Christians and the confessional Presbyterian and Reformed Churches (P&R) to reflect on the sin of racism within our midst. Even under the traditional definition we must admit that there is racism in our hearts and in our midst. If we deny it then we are deluding ourselves and denying our own doctrine. In Heidelberg 5 we confess that we are prone by nature to hate God and our neighbor. Racism is among those sins against which we must fight all our lives (Heidelberg 32). In Heidelberg 60 we confess that even though we are justified by grace alone through faith alone, nevertheless, even in a state of grace, “I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them,2 and am still prone always to all evil…”. We are not perfectionists.
I am not here commenting on the value of the corporate statements that some denominations have discussed and adopted. I am talking about sanctification and the good works that are the fruit of our gracious salvation. After all, there are three parts to the Christian faith: our guilt, God’s grace, and the grateful, Spirit-wrought gratitude that flows from grace. We say that sanctification is a necessary consequence of our salvation and our union with Christ, that “it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness” (Heidelberg 64). We say that the fruit of our sanctification contributes (but is not the basis of) our assurance (Heidelberg 86).
The 1974 OPC report on race was correct, the OPC and the rest of NAPARC is mostly white and, in that regard, not much has changed in the intervening decades. As such, most of our churches and most of their members have a different experience from that of racial minorities. As a white person I do not have to wonder whether the loss-prevention staff are following me around the store or if it just coincidence. I do not get pulled over for driving in the “wrong neighborhood.” When I walk into a NAPARC congregation (most of the time) people do not give me funny looks, touch my (non-existent) hair, ask me if I am an illegal immigrant, ask me where I am really from, tell me that my English is pretty good for a foreigner, or make racist jokes at my expense. That sort of thing has happened to friends of mine, in NAPARC congregations, just in the last few years. These things have all happened within the last 24 months. In my 36 years of experience in a wide-swath of NAPARC churches I have heard racist jokes. I have heard God-fearing P&R Christians use the N-word about others without shame. It would not be difficult to expand this embarrassing catalogue of episodes.