Category Archives: race

Letters to a Young Protestor, 7: On Racists

Dear Niecie,

It’s been too long since I’ve heard from you or written. I was glad to talk with your mom and see that she’s doing well with the new cancer treatments and to hear you’re doing well in school. I praise God for that.

I was also in turns a little amused and a bit shocked to hear about the run-in you had at a recent protest. I guess you’ve discovered that “racist” is a loaded term! There’s no longer any safe way to use the word, unless the person uses it of himself.

In fact, we’ve entered a time when any use of the term excites anger, confusion, feelings of abuse or manipulation, and a fair amount of eye-rolling. It’s become more difficult to prove that racism exists, not because the evidence isn’t there but because the term has been so misused and over-used for so long now. There’s a cultural backlash. No one likes to be called a “racist.” It’s become one of the ugliest labels you can use. The racist receives no respect from anyone. They are now reviled in much the same way they once reviled others. So it’s at once a powerful and a hated word. My dear niece, use it as sparingly as possible that you might label only when necessary and that it might retain its proper force.

That means we have to know a racist when we see one. And since being thought of as a racist is such a hated thing, many people work …

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Why Did Edwards Miss It and Haynes “Get It”?

Last week I had the privilege of joining Derek Thomas and the saints at First Presbyterian (Columbia, SC) and Erskine Seminary to deliver their annual John L. Girardeau lectures. It was a wonderful and engaging time with both members of the church and many of the professors and students from the seminary.

Since the lectures are named in honor of John L. Girardeau (1825-1898), who pastored a congregation of slaves at the height of the institution and alone opposed segregation in the Southern Presbyterian Church, I thought I’d take a historical look at social justice and Reformed theology. The lectures have the general title, “Bondage or Freedom? Questions in Early American Theology.”

In the first lecture, we considered Jonathan Edwards’ almost complete silence on the greatest social justice issue of his day: slavery. In the second lecture, we considered a theological descendant of Edwards, Lemuel Haynes, and his rather developed abolitionist stance against slavery. We tried to compare and contrast the two men according to their social location, theological preoccupations and biblical interpretations and ask how those factors affected their positions on slavery.

It was a joy to reflect on these questions with the saints there. I heard many touching stories about the power of the gospel and the march of grace in the hearts of people with family histories closely associated with these historical issues. We stood across the street from places that played significant parts in South Carolina’s secession from the Union and the resulting Civil War. Our time …

Also posted in Jonathan Edwards, Lemuel Haynes, Slavery | | 22 Comments

“Disunity in Christ”: An Interview with Christena Cleveland

Note: Christena Cleveland is a social psychologist with a hopeful passion for overcoming cultural divisions in groups.  She regularly blogs about reconciliation, race and privilege. Drawing from a vast body of research, she uncovers the underlying processes that affect relationships within and between groups and helps leaders understand how to promote an appreciation for diversity and build effective collaborations with diverse groups. Christena earned a B.A. from Dartmouth College and a Ph.D. from the University of California.  She has published numerous scholarly articles and held academic appointments at the University of California, Westmont College, St. Catherine University and Bethel Seminary. She coaches pastors and organizational leaders on multicultural issues and speaks regularly at organizations, churches, conferences and universities. In addition to speaking, coaching and writing, she serves on the pastoral preaching team at her church and is a volunteer Young Life leader in urban Minneapolis. She recently completed her first book Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart

I had the privilege of offering an endorsement of Christena’s book, which I loved as a social scientist. Here’s my plug:

In Disunity in Christ, Christena Cleveland provides an insightful analysis of why we all say we want unity but find it so difficult to gain it. Combining a humble Christian tone, familiarity with many types of churches and skillful use of social science, Disunity in Christ reveals to us those very human tendencies that keep us divided. Along the way, Cleveland helps us to see, laugh at and rethink our very selves. This book will …

Also posted in books, community, conflict, ethnicity, Interviews | | 9 Comments

“Don’t Be Talkin’ About My Mama”: The Black Family in Politically Conservative Discourse

Today I’m writing about something I did not expect to write about early this week. Once again it’s something that’s captured my attention in the wake of the Martin/Zimmerman situation, specifically in a couple of conservative responses to the trial and the protests that followed. A couple persons have either tweeted or left in the comments thread video reaction from conservatives responding to what they see as “race baiting” in the Zimmerman affair and offering what they believe to be the unvarnished truth about Black America’s problems. I’m speaking of a Bill O’Reilly “Talking Points” video and a video from Bill Whittle called “Afterburner: The Lynching.” The videos both use a newsroom backdrop and feature a monologue from the hosts. Though there were some differences in what was presented and some details, both videos narrowed their focus at one crucial point: the African-American family.

Essentially, both conservative hosts pinned all the problems of African America on the breakdown of the Black family. In a pretty typical conservative point of view, they emphasized personal responsibility in things like sexual behavior, marriage, and so on. That, we’re told, is really the problem in the African-American community. And both guests wonder, “Why isn’t anyone talking about that?” Civil Rights leaders are castigated for ignoring the real problems and instead bottom-feeding on the country’s “racial” weaknesses. They’re presented as opportunists of the worst sort, unable or unwilling to face “the truth.”

After getting this comment a couple times in comments threads and seeing it …

Also posted in Family, fatherhood, Francis J. Grimke, manhood, marriage, public policy | | 26 Comments

Why Statistics Don’t Justify Our Prejudice or Our Profiling

Over the past several days I’ve had a number of exchanges with good people perplexed about what to do with “racial” profiling. Most of these persons have focused not so much on public policy but on their own hearts and fears. They’ve been concerned about their own reactions in situations that, to them, require some level of profiling. They think they’re being “rational” in their profiling or prejudice. And that’s what bothers them most. They think the failure to profile represents an irresponsible risk, and yet they see the injustice—potential and real—of profiling and stereotyping.

Most all of these people are white, work in office settings and have advanced degrees. But few of them actually work with statistics for a living or have much training in their use. Yet, the sole factor that makes them feel rational and justified in their profiling are national crime statistics (in fact, it’s not an actual statistic at all, but a general sense that African American men commit more crimes). They’re left wondering, How do I account for disproportionate rates of crime when it comes to my personal interaction with African-American men?

I’ve been asked this enough and seen it on enough media outlets that I thought I’d offer a couple comments. Take them for what they’re worth.

A Few Common Mistakes with “the Statistics”

Do national crime statistics provide any meaningful information for personal safety? Most people would like to assume so. But, depending on how you use the statistic and what conclusions you draw, you’re actually …


Before Leading Your Congregation in a Discussion of “Race” and “Racism,” You May Want to Check a Few Things

The past couple of months have afforded the United States ample opportunity to discuss “race” and “racism.” Most of the opportunities surfaced in response to significant and problematic events in the country’s life. Cheerios found itself harangued and harassed by viewers who objected to an adorable commercial featuring an “interracial” couple. Czarina of Southern cuisine, Paula Dean, touched off a firestorm with racially derogatory comments. And most recently, the Zimmerman verdict has elicited a range of emotional responses from people on every “side” of the issue. Even from the distance of the Cayman Islands, it feels as if we’ve been swimming in a vortex of racial confusion, despair, hostility, protest, grief, and anger.

Not surprisingly some people have turned from their initial reaction to now ask tactical questions: What next? What solution? How…?

That’s an appropriate, if daunting, turn. There are no easy solutions. Even the President, in his excellent personal reflections on the Martin-Zimmerman situation, struggled to put forth decisive next steps. He’ll have the brightest people in the world at his disposal. Yet, he’ll have little more wisdom than you and me. That’s why I think President Obama was absolutely correct to offer a friendly word of caution when it comes to forums on “race.”

And then, finally, I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching.  There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race.  I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations.  They …

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Some Different Advice to Those Raising African-American Boys in the Wake of the Martin Shooting and Zimmerman Trial

If you use social media–or any media really–it’s impossible to escape the reactions to the recent Zimmerman acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Understandably there are a lot of questions and a lot of emotions prompted by a “not guilty” verdict in an undisputed shooting of an unarmed youth.

One observer tweeted a link to a column called “How to Talk to Young Black Boys about Trayvon Martin,” authored by journalist Toure nearly a year ago. I missed this piece when first published. The person leaving the tweet thought the piece prescient and pertinent in light of the verdict. I found it deeply problematic. I find it so troubling that I’d like to post the opening lines of the eight talking points Toure proposed (for the full text follow the link above), interact with them, and then suggest an alternative message.

Toure’s Talking Points for Young Black Boys

1. It’s unlikely but possible that you could get killed today. Or any day. I’m sorry, but that’s the truth. Black maleness is a potentially fatal condition. …

2. If you encounter such a situation, you need to play it cool. Keep your wits about you. Don’t worry about winning the situation. Your mission is to survive.

3. There is nothing wrong with you. You’re amazing. I love you. When I look at you, I see a complex human being with awesome potential, but some others will look at you and see a thug — even if their only evidence is your skin. Their racism …

Also posted in Christian living, parenting | | 18 Comments

Yet One More Personal Take in the Aftermath of Trayvon Martin and the Zimmerman Verdict

It’s almost too risky to join the chorus of reactions in the wake of the Zimmerman trial. It seems everyone has an opinion–most strongly held and some volatile.

Some voices loudly declare justice has been thwarted. Some other voices quietly doubt the injustice is as great as claimed. These latter voices tend not to speak up for fear of being labeled and harangued. Christian voices make excellent appeals to Scripture, to forgiveness, prayer and a host of other spiritual virtues–all of which can sound hollow to unsatisfied viewers hungering for justice, for a verdict that seems to affirm Black life and exonerates the country of its racist past.

Words fail us. World-renown columnist Nicholas Kristoff tweeted pictures in place of prose:


I suppose it’s twitter’s version of that powerfully moving closing argument in “A Time to Kill.”

President Obama offered prose instead of policy:

The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son. And as we do, we should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen …

Also posted in Christian living, Christianity and politics, Civil Rights | | 201 Comments

A Final Wrap-Up: Thabiti Anyabwile and Douglas Wilson


When our discussion first started, we were both surprised at how well it went, and both of us are very grateful to God, and to one another, for this great blessing. We have also been grateful to the readers and commenters who participated in this discussion in the same spirit, praying with us, and laboring to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3).

We wanted to bring our discussion to some sort of formal close, and so this is it. As we understand it, our points of agreement are:

1. Mankind is one in Adam, which means we share a common humanity, and a common slavery to sin. We together believe that mankind cannot come together in a true unity until they do so in the second Adam, the only one who is capable of overcoming the sorts of things that divide us.

2. We both believe that racism is a grievous sin, and we believe that it is a sin that has the practical effect of undercutting the gospel. Jesus came to cast down the middle wall of partition, not only between Jew and Gentile, but also to cast down any other walls that exist between any other races, nationalities, tribes, or tongues. Worthy is the Lamb, for only He could do this. But even He had to do it with the price of His own blood (Rev. 7:9).

3. The logic of the gospel is jubilee logic. This means that the messianic promises all looked forward …

Also posted in books, Christianity and politics, Slavery, Uncategorized | | 71 Comments

The Current Battle for Richmond

HT: @davidmbailey and @cscleve for tweeting out this article on racial reconciliation efforts in churches in Richmond, VA. Here’s a city that has its own ugly past regarding racial issues. So it’s an awesome testimony to God’s grace and the power of the gospel to see the Lord at work to  heal the old wounds through Christ.

The article does a good job of bringing out both the blessings and challenges of being the diverse people of God united in Christ. Mention is made of privilege, power, equality and the like. As we’ve seen in many posts of late, reconciliation work ain’t easy, but it’s worth it. Moreover, the article helpfully illustrates one of the concerns Wilson points out in all of this: the way even good efforts at something like reconciliation can be seized upon by things contrary to Scripture. For example, one pastor commented, “Multicultural worship is an image of the kingdom of God, and in the kingdom of God everybody is included — black, white, gay, straight, young, old, liberal, conservative.” Interesting to note how “gay” sauntered into the list as an aspect of “multicultural worship” as an “image of the kingdom of God.” We’re always in danger of righteousness being abused by unrighteousness.

The article reminds us that the number of diverse (more than 20% from a minority group) congregations has grown but remains low. I’m encouraged by the progress but there’s still work to do in living out the reconciliation Christ purchased (Eph. 2:14).

Which brings me …

Also posted in African American church | | 15 Comments