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D. A. Carson on the “hard case” of racism

[The American Vision] …
D. A. Carson on the “hard case” of racism |

D. A. Carson is acknowledged widely as one of today’s foremost conservative evangelical scholars, certainly in New Testament scholarship. His commentary on the Gospel of John is considered among the very finest. His book Exegetical Fallacies and collaborative Introduction to the New Testament are required reading for seminarians all over the world, and rightly so. He has authored so many books I will not even try to list them all.

But Dr. Carson is no mere academician. His grasp of the gospel and teachings of the New Testament are strong and he has applied them in various works again too numerous to mention. In some cases, he is downright challenging and perhaps a little ahead of the conservative status quo. Perhaps being Canadian helps him come across that way in some areas.

I was certainly surprised, happily, at his comments on racism in a book I recently found in the American Vision library. For a conservative Reformed Baptist voice in America, this is certainly a little surprising, but far more welcomed. I’d like you to take the time to review some of his more pressing and thoughtful comments with me. I will review them with commentary below. All of the following quotations come from D. A. Carson, Love in Hard Places (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002), particularly the first half of the chapter, “Love and Forgiveness: Two Hard Cases,” pages 87–108.

Before some of our more traditionalist (perhaps reactionary) conservatives get too uncomfortable at the outset, let’s make some things clear. I agree with Carson up front that “we must disavow those forms of multiculturalism that insist all churches and belief systems are equally valid and equally valuable in every respect” (p. 107). Working for racial harmony, etc., must not in any way compromise the Gospel or God’s laws. As Carson makes clear, this endeavor must instead be squarely centered upon the cross, the proclamation of the Gospel, the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, and the good works God has planned for us to do according to his power and law (Eph. 2:10) (see pp. 104–105).

Indeed, it is precisely due to these realities defining and leading the life of the Christian that what follows, as challenging as it may seem to some, is nevertheless necessary. Are you and I willing to make our lives Christlike examples of sacrificial love for our brethren, particularly the more vulnerable?

Racism and Power

This first point on which I dwell may be the most difficult to receive for some, but stick with me, because we will come back to it. This will require a little patience on our part at first, but the truth is there, and when you see it, you will realize it is not even radical. (As an aside, an interesting meditation at that point will be to ask yourself why it seemed radical to begin with.)

I don’t agree with everything Dr. Carson says, particularly in regard to a couple points to which I think he has not been able to give more thorough attention. This will seem for a moment like a little bit of a digression, but like I said, this point of “power” will surface again momentarily.

Carson does object to those who limit the definition of “racism” to a sin of those who have power, and thus “they think of racism as the sum of racial prejudice plus power.” By this definition, blacks “cannot be racists since they do not have power.” I think Carson disagrees with this for a similar reason most whites immediately reject it as well: we believe there must be some objective standard which applies to all sides equally.

Were there nothing else to this discussion, I would probably side with the latter as well, but there is certainly more to it. See the following footnote for my more developed thoughts.

I will simply state here that the distinction to which he refers is an academic one and mainly a semantic one, and I don’t see any problem to let it be a barrier. Let those most affected by it define the terms in a way with which they are comfortable, make sure all the important categories are still in place, and then move forward.

I would happily defer to those more impacted by the offense in making that choice. The important thing is that we simply all be on the same page as the discussion moves forward. I am not in 100 percent agreement with Carson, then, who seems to object even to allowing that possibility, even though his arguments go ahead to acknowledge the importance of the very factors that would make it logical. He is nevertheless, very much further down the right path than most conservative white scholars I’ve read on the topic.

Love demands self-control

This acknowledge would, I think, be in perfect keeping with the warning by which Carson closes this section, which is worth our attention here at the outset: “certainly we must not be perceived to be knee-jerk reactionaries who are dragged into racial reconciliation kicking and screaming, bringing up the end of the pack, the last to be persuaded” (p. 107). The sad truth is that for the majority of their existence, the conservative Protestant and Evangelical churches have only arisen to the level of being dragged kicking and screaming at their better moments. Much of the time was instead fierce opposition. I would happily join Carson’s warning here with a 100,000-watt bullhorn: if our lampstand has not already been removed over this issue, now is the time to get sanctified on it.

Carson also acknowledges more than once that pursuing this issue will be difficult and will require lots of theological work, including difficult personal reflection. For example, he says,

Moreover, some leaders on both sides of any racial divide love to play the race card to keep themselves in power. George Wallace used to do it all the time, flagrantly and repeatedly, until he had a change of heart; not a few of our contemporaries follow the early George Wallace, not the later George Wallace. The early Wallace stance was profoundly repulsive, deeply evil (p. 94).

The acknowledgment that there are still George Wallace types among us today is important to hear. It’s an important focus from an Evangelical leader.

His elucidation of this problem answers those who would argue that “slavery ended 150 years ago!” and “Jim Crow ended 60 year ago!” so why should racial healing be any concern of ours today? Carson answers with good insight:

Because of the many legal sanctions now in place, some forget the bitter degradation of the Jim Crow culture. The attitudes wedded to the Jim Crow culture have not everywhere been expunged. I suspect that most European-Americans have very little understanding of the cumulative destructive power of the little degradations that almost all African-Americans, especially older African-Americans, have experienced—to say nothing of the less common but still too frequent threats, racial profiling, and frankly illegal (to say nothing of immoral) injustices they have suffered (p. 94).

This is crucial for two reasons. First, it acknowledges that while some structures of laws ended, the attitudes and hatreds and feelings of white supremacy or superiority did not always end. These attitudes not only continued throughout that generation, but are stoked and still glow hot with some people today. The recognition that while the laws changed many hearts have not focuses us on a real source of real problems which in many cases is situated right in our pews on Sundays.

Secondly, these resonating attitudes can manifest within the same power structures as before, only now surreptitiously under the color of legality. These are very difficult to detect, and even more difficult to prove and to root out. Carson acknowledges this when he lists the “racial profiling, and frankly illegal . . . injustices” minorities suffer today. These, again, are real problems that only allow for the continuance of resentment, and that only breeds even greater social and political problems down the road.

For these reasons, among others, Carson’s discussion calls us to intense self-reflection. This will include reflection of how we ourselves speak and act, but also how we view the continuation of a variety of social ills which originate in pervasive racial attitudes in positions and structures of power. Dare we use the word “systemic” here? Because that’s exactly what is meant by it.

The church must lead

Since the church possesses the oracles of God, the promises of God, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, it would seem natural that changes begin here. Yet Carson must devote considerable space to problems of racial unity that not only took place there historically, but which persist there. Even in cases where churches show more integrated diversity, it still seems that the world is ahead of the church in this regard, and the church is merely following.

Discussing why some churches are already well integrated and others are not, Carson says,

Moreover, precisely because the changes are demonstrably taking place in the broader culture, it is less transparent that the churches are at the front end of such change. In some cases, at least, they are simply going along with the trajectory of the broader culture. Where that is the case, it is hard to see that a more integrated church is necessarily more spiritual than a less integrated church in a less integrated part of the country. . . .

Not for a moment am I suggesting that no racism operates in our churches. Moreover, to have a truly integrated church (reflecting the demographic profile of the neighborhood in which it is found) takes hard work, very substantial forbearance, self-sacrificing winsomeness, patience—in a word, love. But the issues are complex, and the relationships between the culture and the local church have many layers. There is an urgent need for fresh biblical and theological reflection on many of these questions (p. 97).

This need is especially apparent when many churches are so far behind that even the most fundamental questions might raise eyebrows:

[M]any a white church in a mixed-race community is full of people who honestly think they are above racism and yet who have people who have never once fully tried to understand what it would be like for a black family to come into their church. “Of course they’re welcome,” these fine folk might protest. “Anyone is welcome here.” But all it takes is for one member to say something really insensitive, and all of the courage it took to walk in the door dissolves in disgust and a sense of victimization. Would a white member who indulged in such condescending malice face church discipline? Would the black newcomers be invited to white homes and treated as peers? And if there are economic disparities as well, would there be any reflection on the fact that some white/black economic disparity is a function of years of discrimination that, morally speaking, ought to be vehemently opposed by concerned Christians? Moreover, if the black couple visiting the white church has a teenage boy who asks a white girl out on a date, what will be the response? (pp. 100–101).

Given some of the backlash I received from calling out professing-Christian opposition to interracial-marriage, I have to admit, sadly, that Carson’s suspicions here are not ill-founded.

Is our love cold? Is our view of the gospel so perverted that we think our blood is more powerful than Christ’s? Are our obedience to the Great Commission and our love for the brethren really so weak as to fall powerless at the Great Wall of ethnicity?

Power and a passion for justice

Carson’s conclusion of the need for greater love finds application in the need for those of us in position of greater power (majority) to lead the charge for greater justice. Here is where the discussion of “power” comes back in.

I doubt we shall improve much in Christian circles until the parties with the most power reflect a lot more than in the past on matters of justice, and the parties most victimized reflect a lot more than in the past on forgiveness. . . . All of us need to return to the cross. For the cross teaches us that if all we ask for is justice, we are all damned; it teaches us that God himself is passionately interested in forgiveness and its practice. . . . Both justice and mercy cry out for more examination. . . . (pp. 101–102).

It will be a sad fact that a few readers (hopefully only a few) will get nothing out of this article except that D. A. Carson said those who have been most victimized need to learn to forgive. This constant, selfish siding with power and refusal to hold it accountable to the detriment of real victims not only characterizes the thoughts of some on race, but has sent many a black-eyed battered wife back home to her abuser: “you need to learn to forgive.” But I digress.

People can haggle over the finer points of the definition of the word “racism,” but what really matters now is whether those who have more power are willing to serve and sacrifice for those of our brethren who don’t. What matters is whether we have a passion for justice, and are ready to turn that passion into real, physical, relational solutions.

I certainly won’t follow Carson if he thinks any kind of government program of redistribution of wealth is the answer, but it certainly does not scare me to discuss “distributive” justice in general, for that can simply mean the need for private, charitable solutions from Christian individuals and churches. And this most definitely is God’s law for us today.

Thus, when Carson discusses the need for a passion for justice, he does not hesitate to acknowledge it has real, practical manifestations:

Most discussions recognize the distinction between retributive justice and distributional justice—the justice that punishes the miscreant and the justice that tackles structural evils that control and manipulate the weak. . . . But whatever our disagreements on the pragmatic outworkings of justice, the passion for justice must characterize all who claim to serve a just God . . . . and we had better be more interested in effective results than in the slogans of the party faithful (p. 102).

These conclusions are crucial going forward. We must acknowledge, with Carson, that some of the problems at issue are indeed structural evils. Even if these are not specifically stated (in law) to target and affect minorities today, they do nevertheless. They either allow racial prejudices to manifest through the system (as noted above), or they affect minorities who through history and other factors are more vulnerable to the wrath of the system.

Do we have a “passion for justice,” and are we willing to get pragmatic about it, to the point we see results?

This will be a difficult question and meditation for many people, and that fact in and of itself is unfortunate. The fact that this last sentence or its conclusion are even remotely controversial lead me to embrace, strongly, Carson’s closing thoughts for his section on race:

[W]e who are Christians must be constantly on guard against all forms of cultural and ethnic pride (especially in our own hearts) that mark out others as intrinsically inferior. . . . And although the ways in which we will live out the gospel mandate of becoming one new humanity may take somewhat different shapes in different subcultures, we must be doing something to realize that gospel goal; certainly we must not be perceived to be knee-jerk reactionaries who are dragged into racial reconciliation kicking and screaming, bringing up the end of the pack, the last to be persuaded (pp. 107, 108).

If the church—you and me—remain last on such an obvious issue, I wonder what good we are to begin with, really. Are you ready to take this issue seriously?


Joel McDurmon is president of American Vision and has authored multiple books, including his latest The Problem of Slavery in Christian America.


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