Systemic Racism and Individual Responsibility
One of the debates that sits at the heart of all of the racial tension that we see and feel in America and around the world is the issue of Systemic Racism. Systemic racism refers to the idea that there is inherent racism in a given “system,” whether that system is political, economic, religious, or anything else. Do police stop, search, and arrest certain races of people at a biased rate compared to other races? Do employers give preferential treatment to certain races of people in hiring, firing, or promoting their employees? Do juries convict and give longer sentences to certain races compared to others? Is America systemically “unfair” toward minority cultures and self-protective of majority culture, what is known today as “white privilege”?
This question stirs up lots of emotion, therefore many institutions and people tend to avoid it altogether. After all, to admit that there is inherent bias in any system means you are admitting that some aspects of life may be “easier” for some races than others. As a result, some may feel this diminishes the accomplishments of majority culture and alleviate the personal responsibility of minority culture for their individual actions. At the same time to deny that there is inherent bias in any system means that we are denying the unjust reality that so many people of minority culture experience every day. As Christians, we do not need to fear conversations like these. The Gospel gives us the perfect framework to wrestle with these tensions and paradoxes that exist around us every day.
- When sin entered the world, prejudice and racism entered the world. Pride is at the heart of satan’s rejection of God before the world was made.1 And pride is at the heart of Adam and Eve’s rejection of God in the garden.2 Therefore, it should be no surprise that we see one of the natural forms of pride in racism prevalent throughout the Biblical telling of history and beyond.3 It is a natural expression of our rejection that we are all equally who God says we are from the beginning. Racism is real.
- Because every human is born sinful, every human struggles with the sin of prejudice that can lead to racism. In this conversation, words can be very inflammatory. Some use the word “racism” or “racist” to define any thought or action that is not perfectly unbiased. Others would make a distinction between prejudice and racism. For our statement, we will use both prejudice and racism as two different ideas. We will define prejudice as any preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience. And we would say that everyone struggles with some degree of prejudice toward other races, no matter how hard they try to fight against it in their own spirit. We will define racism as any prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior. And although many of us may struggle with true racist thoughts and actions more than we may realize, based on these definitions, we would say that everyone struggles with prejudice, but not everyone may take their prejudice to a truly racist thought or action in their sin. That being said, even though every person does not struggle with prejudice or racism to the same degree or in the same way, the idea that any person, except Jesus Christ, is perfectly unbiased toward every race is simply not biblical.4 We are all tempted to protect and exalt ourselves by protecting and exalting our given race. The good news of the Gospel, however, is that this reality doesn’t mean that we have to give into that temptation. By the power of the Holy Spirit who indwells those who believe in Jesus Christ, we can and should try to yield to His power in us to crucify our temptation toward both racism and the prejudice thoughts and actions that precede it.5 But not deny that it is a universal temptation that we need to fight against every day, and that none of us are perfect in our fight against it.
- Because every system is made up of sinful people, there must be inherent sin in every system, including the sin of prejudice and racism. The only perfect system is a system created by God and un-affected by sin. On the earth, that system will only exist when He returns and creates a new heavens and new earth and makes all things right once again.6 When Adam and Eve sinned, the earth and all the people who would ever be in it, except for Jesus, fundamentally “broke.” And therefore, everything created by humanity, including broader systems, is broken.7 This does not mean that we cannot create systems and institutions based on the highest biblical principles of justice and fairness, but as soon as a human being tries to lead, manage, or serve that system, their inherent sinfulness affects those principles. Even our best systems will be affected by prejudice and racism, and that is appropriate to admit.
- Although sinful systems can tempt people to sin because of the unfairness they feel, each person is responsible for the choices they make within even a flawed system. Satan can tempt mankind to sin, but he does not cause anyone sin. Trials can tempt mankind to sin, but they do not cause anyone to sin. Even other people’s sinful actions can tempt us to sin, but they do not cause us to sin. All of these temptations, merely give us opportunities to do what our own desires want to do.8 No matter how unfair any system truly is, we are all called to live within it in a responsible way.9 This does not mean we cannot protest it. This does not mean we should not strive to change it.10 But it also does not mean we can break its laws or rules without accepting responsibility for those actions. We live in a fallen, broken world and yet we will all have to answer for our individual sins to God.11 Praise God that Jesus Christ has forgiven us for our sins so that we are innocent in His court for all eternity!12
- Every Christian should care about the inherent unfairness in our systems and strive to make them fairer, not just those from minority culture. It is not only the responsibility of those who are negatively affected by any given system to fight for change, but it is the responsibility of those who benefit from it as well.13 Acknowledging that systems are inherently biased is not enough. Those from minority culture should feel those from majority culture using the unfair privilege they have in the system to fight alongside them to bring about change, even to the seeming “detriment” of majority culture’s current advantages. In the Kingdom of God, no one race will be exalted over another. There will be Jesus, and then there will be the rest of us. The world should see us striving for that reality, even if in a broken way, now.
FOOTNOTES: 1 Isaiah 14:12-14; Ezekiel 28:14-18 2 Genesis 3:1-6 3 Genesis 9:24-27; Genesis 12:11-12; Genesis 16:11-12; Genesis 21:22-24; Genesis 24:13-31 4 Mark 10:18 5 Ephesians 2:11-22; Ephesians 3:14-21 6 Revelation 21:1-22:5 7 Genesis 3:14-19; Genesis 6:11-12; Romans 8:19-22 8 James 1:13-15; James 4:1 9 Romans 12:13-13:7 10 Psalm 10:16-18; Amos 4:1-3 11 Romans 6:23 12 Ephesians 2:1-10 13 Genesis 4:9
For further study, see our Position Paper on Biblical View of Race.