Four Essential Questions to Ask About Our Views on Racial Justice
Chad Brennan challenges readers to think through where our beliefs are coming from.
I have an unusual ministry. Over the last sixteen years, I have facilitated research and training focused on helping Christians to have a biblical and effective approach to racial dynamics. For example, I have overseen climate surveys and focus groups on thirty Christian colleges. In 2019-2020, I directed a national research project focused on racial dynamics in U.S. Christianity. The research was conducted in partnership with the Barna Group and lead researchers Drs. Glenn Bracey and Michael Emerson. I also recently co-authored a book titled Faithful Anti-Racism with Dr. Christina Edmondson which is scheduled to be published this March.
With our work, I find that many Christians need to sort through a great deal of confusion and misinformation before they can develop a biblical approach to racial justice. That was my story, as well. My journey as a white christian has led me to seek answers to four questions, and process of searching for the answers to these has been helpful for both my personal reflection and working with others.
What does the Bible say about social justice?
Sadly, many Christians in the U.S. have a very limited understanding of what the Bible teaches. According to a 2020 study by the Barna Group, only 38% of Christians read the Bible on their own at least two times per week. A similar percentage of Christians (39%), only read the Bible on their own 3 or 4 times per year or less often. In addition, Christians who are more familiar with the Bible often have little or no knowledge of the many passages that emphasize God's desire for us to practice justice in our relationships and economic, political, and religious systems. That is often referred to as "social justice." They are also unaware of the Bible's emphasis on providing special kindness and protections for groups in society that are often overlooked or oppressed, like widows, orphans, and foreigners (for example, see Deuteronomy 24:17-22). Understanding those passages is essential in order to have a biblical approach to racial justice.
I grew up in a committed Christian family where the Bible was a central focus. Typically, I would be in church two or three times a week learning about the Bible. I was very involved with a campus ministry throughout college. I then earned a Master's of Theological Studies from a respected seminary. And yet, I can now see that I had a very limited understanding of the Bible's teachings on social justice. There are many historical and cultural reasons why White Christians and predominantly White Christian organizations, like the ones I was a part of, often ignore or downplay the Bible's teachings on social justice. We must avoid that trap. History shows, removing or neglecting any part of the Bible has devastating consequences for ourselves and others.
I have not met anyone who doesn't have an opinion on the topic of racial justice. But, I have met many Christians who are unaware of the social, economic, political, and religious forces that influence our racial views. I used to believe I autonomously developed my opinions on topics like racial justice, but I now realize that isn't the case. The people around me, the organizations I'm a part of, books, and media sources powerfully shape my views. Outside influences can be helpful, but they become problematic when we adopt others’ perspectives without careful study of the Bible, prayer, and reflection.
As I'm sure you are aware, many Christians are currently very concerned about Critical Race Theory (a topic addressed previously on CT). When I talk with Christians about CRT, I typically find their understanding of the concept is very limited. Their views are often based on media sound bites, a few lines in political speeches, or an article or two. When asked why they believe CRT is contrary to the teachings of the Bible, it is difficult for them to provide specific examples. They have a general sense that CRT is "bad" or "dangerous," but are typically not aware of how they reached that conclusion or the influences that shaped that view.
It's important to keep in mind that fear has always been one of the primary tools used to maintain racial injustice. Psychological manipulation and violence has been used to stoke fear among individuals of color. And, foreboding predictions of chaos, instability, immorality, and violence have been used to stoke fear of racial justice efforts among White individuals. Fear can be a powerful tool, regardless if it is based in reality or not. For example, imagine if there was a well-funded, national campaign that promoted the idea that baseball had roots in pagan rituals where people hit each other with bats. And, it taught that baseball is secretly corrupting America and will lead to its downfall. Even if there was an attempt to correct that misinformation, there's a very good chance that many people would continue to believe that baseball is dangerous.
Regardless of how we feel about CRT, I believe it is helpful for Christians to reflect on the rapid rise of the anti-CRT movement over the last few years. When did it start? What prompted it? Who were the most outspoken critics of CRT? What was their level of knowledge regarding the Bible, racial dynamics, and CRT? Why did they claim CRT is dangerous? What was their motivation? Exploring those types of questions can provide helpful insights into how our views are influenced by individuals and economic, political, and religious institutions. Then we can discern whether those forces are aligned with the teachings in the Bible and accurate information about our society.
Further reflection: Make a list of the individuals, organizations, and media outlets where you look for information on topics related to racial justice. Do those sources base their views on the Bible and accurate information? How do you know?
Do I have an accurate understanding of past and current racial realities?
One of my biggest surprises with studying racial dynamics in U.S. Christianity is how many Christians base their racial views on an inaccurate understanding of past and present racial dynamics in the U.S. In 2019-2020, our research team found that well documented realities like the oppression of racial minority groups in U.S. history and systemic racial injustice in our society today are denied by large percentages of Christians. For a detailed analysis of our research findings, see the Beyond Diversity report by the Barna Group or our upcoming book, Faithful Antiracism.
I find that trying to help Christians grow in their understanding of racial dynamics often feels like trying to help someone understand how the U.S. government operates when they deny there was ever a U.S. Constitution and they don't believe that U.S. Senators have any political power. When fundamental past and present realities are denied, distorted, or ignored, it is nearly impossible to make sense out of racial dynamics in the U.S. I have found that one of the most difficult and important steps for growing in my racial understanding is being willing to let go of inaccurate information that I have been taught.
Further reflection: Watch the 18 minute video Race in America by Holy Post. Read The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby.
Is my clarity on this issue hindered by groupthink?
Groupthink is defined as "a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics." Simply put, it is believing something is good or true because the people around you believe it is good or true. It is difficult to avoid groupthink. Seeking out other perspectives requires time, energy, and courage. It is much easier and less agitating to surround ourselves with people who think like we do. Who doesn't love to be constantly reminded that our views are correct? I sure do. If we take the time to seek out new perspectives, it can be frustrating at times, but also immensely rewarding if we listen with humility and teachability.
A recent powerful example of groupthink took place around the presidential election in 2016. During that time a national study found, "More than seven in ten (72%) white evangelical Protestants say an elected official can behave ethically even if they have committed transgressions in their personal life—a 42-point jump from 2011, when only 30% of white evangelical Protestants said the same." It is very unlikely that the rapid, very large shift in views between 2011 and 2016 was the result of Christians studying the Bible's teachings on the moral qualifications for leadership. More likely, a high percentage of White evangelicals rapidly adopted a new view as a group, because of the influence of political and religious leaders and media outlets. The 42% shift shows how groupthink can quickly and powerfully influence our moral compass and take precedence over the teachings of the Bible. For obvious reasons, that is very dangerous.
Further reflection: Prayerfully seek out ways to learn about racial dynamics in the U.S. from perspectives that are outside of your typical circle of influence. For example, develop new friendships, spend time in other neighborhoods, read authors with a different viewpoint, or follow the news on different media outlets.
Christians in the U.S. today must wrestle with many complex moral issues. Few, if any, of those issues have bigger stakes than our approach to racial justice. Our collective decisions will impact the life experiences, opportunities, safety, and health of millions of Americans today and for generations to come. Our decisions also have powerful implications for the future of U.S. Christianity. A recent survey asked why young people stopped attending church. Two of the top four reasons given were "Church members seemed judgmental or hypocritical" and "I disagreed with the church's stance on political/social issues." Many people are leaving the church because it looks more like a self-serving, political movement then a self-sacrificing, faith movement. Sadly, in many cases, they are correct. One of the most powerful ways that Christians can be salt and light in our world is by living out God's will for love, compassion, unity, and justice. I hope and pray that will become our reputation in the decades ahead.
The Better Samaritan is produced by the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, which offers a M.A. in Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership and a Trauma Certificate. To learn more and apply, visit our website.
Chad Brennan is coordinator of the Race, Religion, and Justice Project, and founder of Renew Partnerships, a Christian research and consulting ministry that focuses on diversity and race in faith-based organizations. Chad is co-author with Dr. Christina Edmondson of the forthcoming book Faithful Antiracism (IVP, 3/22).