What are we supposed to do?
A friend of mine, Kyle West, posed this question to me in response to a blog post about racism in my community. The answer requires more space than my blog allows. But I can provide some beginning thoughts.
The gospel has the power to heal historical and cultural wounds, and it’s no secret that the American church is doing a poor job of it. Sunday mornings remain the most highly segregated day of the week in the entire country. Despite what the Bible has to say about “neither Jew nor Greek,” Christians continue to segregate themselves by race and class. The result is that the church continues to perpetuate social injustices.
What do I mean by this?
I mean many things, but at a basic level, the people in our social spheres are the ones who benefit from the value of our company. They are the ones who borrow our money, who get a ride from us when they don’t have a car. They get our job recommendations and old furniture, our wedding gifts and poorly made casseroles when they’re having a baby. When we choose to only associate with people like ourselves, we are excluding everyone else from the benefits and privileges we offer. The Bible condemns this as partiality. Today, we call it prejudice, an umbrella term that describes everything from racism and classism to bigotry and sexism.
The church is filled with prejudice, but no one wants to admit it. Don’t believe me? Walk into your church on a Sunday morning. If 85 to 90 percent of the people are from the same race and class, your church is prejudiced. Look at your own social network. If 85 to 90 percent of your friends are from the same race and class, you are prejudiced.
I am prejudiced.
I took a class over the summer called “Cultural Pluralism,” and I asked my professor the same question that Kyle posed to me. I was feeling hopeless. As someone who strongly believes that government assistance is absolutely critical, I nevertheless reject the idea that government programs solve systemic injustice anymore than Band-Aids heal a wound. So I asked my professor, “What are we supposed to do?”
She told me that the only person you can change is yourself.
Our social and cultural problems were not created by the government. They were created by a mass of individual choices and behavior, and the government has been their instrument. As cliché as her response might have been, I think my professor is right. The problem gets fixed when individuals fix themselves, when people stop thinking of what “we” should do and, instead, start thinking of what “I” should do.
Christians believe that the Gospel has the power to do this — to change the individual — but when it comes to prejudice, we don’t let it do so. We have a personal responsibility to take the word of God seriously when it says things like, “Sell all of your possessions and give them to the poor,” and “Show no partiality.” But we don’t. The fact that so few Christians view racism and classism as a priority to address in their lives is shameful to our faith. We are quenching the Spirit of God in our lives and obstructing the power of the Gospel.
When we talk about systemic oppression and injustice, we are talking about a form of evil that is so embedded within a civilization that to suddenly fix it would require the complete collapse of the entire society in some kind of transformative revolution that allows for an impossible “fresh start.” This never happens because it can’t happen. New forms of oppression are always created.
So what are we supposed to do? If we really want to fix systemic injustice we will start with ourselves. Stop thinking of what others should do, or even what “we” should do. Instead, start thinking of what “I” should do.
The only way I know to do this for me is found in the words of Jesus: “Repent and believe in the gospel.” Repent of the prejudice in your life. Repent of the ways you have allowed racism and classism to control your behavior. Allow the Gospel to change you. Take the fresh start given at the cross. Live your life accordingly.
Show no partiality.