Racism, social justice, crime, sin and idolatry

This is a follow up article to my most recent article on #BlackLivesMatter and specifically to some comments, questions and interaction.  One notable comment was to the affect that

  1. Justice was being done in the George Floyd case because the policeman was standing trial
  2. Christians should stick to preaching the Gospel and not spend time talking about social issues.

I thought it would be helpful to respond by thinking about the issue against the three different criteria of crime, sin and idolatry. Let’s look at them in  a bit more detail

Crime

The policeman accused of causing George Floyd’s death is therefore accused of committing a crime, manslaughter or possibly even murder.  The State chooses to identify particular wrongs as crime. The aim here is to identify where the authorities should exercise justice.  I would suggest that generally speaking the following issues need to be considered before determining something as a crime

  • Does it cause danger either through the risk of harm or actual harm to others.  In my opinion this should be an objective test.
  • Was there intent. Now this may include a level of reckless negligence as well as malice aforethought.

Admittedly, the lines have been blurred in recent years by an increased move to strict liability offences and the creation of “hate crimes.”  However generally speaking, the law should not be interested in issues where there isn’t objective harm and where there isn’t some form of intent on the part of the accused.

On that basis, the law should solely be interested in whether or not the policeman was committing an offence. It isn’t really interested in whether or not the policeman is a racist except that if there was evidence of racism that could be seen to have created the motive for intentional assault or encouraged a reckless disregard for the life of another.  However, those factors are there as evidence to determine if he committed manslaughter or murder.  They don’t amount to the crime itself.

Sin

Something may be a sin without the country considering it a crime.  It may appear not to have victims (although in many cases there are) but primarily it is a mark of our rebellion against God. Furthermore, whilst crime (apart from recklessness) is about the commission of an offence, sin can include omission – our failure to do something.

If the police officer concerned was motivated by racism then he was in sin.  If a Christian consistently demonstrates racist attitudes, words and behaviours then this should be a matter of pastoral correction. I would also argue that persistent, unrepentant sin in this area should lead to a level of church discipline.

Why is racism a sin?  Well to understand that, we need to go back to Genesis 1:26-28 where we are told that man and woman were made in God’s image. When we look down on someone because of their colour we are denying that they were made fully in God’s image. This disregard for the image of God equals a failure to love God with our whole heart and to love our neighbour as ourselves.  Furthermore, so often the root cause of racial prejudice is ethnic pride. It has often been observed that ethnic pride as well as self-righteousness was the stumbling block of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. Going back to Genesis, what was it that caused Adam and Eve to fall?  Wasn’t it envy of God and pride in themselves?  Finally, when racism is expressed in hatred whether in our thoughts, words or actions then we are reminded of Matthew 5:21-22

 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgement.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother[b] will be liable to judgement; whoever insults[c] his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell[d] of fire.”

This is important because it reminds us to check our own heart attitudes to others. We may not have committed a crime, we may not even have said or done anything hurtful but this does not excuse a thought life that harbours pride and/or jealousy.

Idolatry

A lot of people talk today about structural discrimination, implicit bias and corporate sin. Personally, I prefer to talk about idolatry at this point because I think that gives us the best sense of what is going on in Biblical terms.  At this stage we are talking about a society where consistently people find that they experience discrimination. They are excluded from jobs, they are disproportionately more likely to come under police scrutiny, to struggle with education and to suffer from the worst housing conditions.  In church they find that they are less likely to be given the opportunity to serve with their gifts.  These are also the sorts of issues that are wrapped up under the umbrella label “social justice.” Often those involved in the discrimination are not consciously singling some people out. It just seems to be that the structures of society are set up to favour some and exclude others.

Why do I refer to it as idolatry? Well, Psalm 115:6-8 reads

4Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
5They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
6They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
7They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
8Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them.

Notice two things here. First of all, there is the sheer uselessness of idols, they are deaf, blind, unable to speak or to smell, they cannot act. Idols are helpless. They cannot do anything for their worshippers. They cannot even benefit from the worship offered to them. 

Secondly, notice that idol worshippers become like their idols. This means they they become useless and helpless too.  I think this is generally true in that we become useless like the idols we worship. However, there us a cultural aspect here. Greg Beale has observed that Israel’s idolatry, especially her stiff neck appears to reflect the specific form of idols chosen for worship.  A nation and a culture will become increasingly like its idols so that the culture itself is idolatrous. When this happens then those people who most reflect the idolatrous characteristics and values are moved to the forefront and those who do not share them are ignored, excluded, isolated.  This is the root cause of nationalism and racism.  It is one of the reasons why we want to be with people who are like us. 

What this means is that someone may not consciously be racist in their thoughts and attitudes and yet the whole of society is structured in an idolatrous way which means that the person who does not conform to the idolatry of the age is restricted and excluded. Christians of all people should be alert to this as we see the results of secular idolatry as it pushes us to the margins and beyond.

The point then is that a person may not be consciously sinning in a specific manner when racial discrimination is at work. However, they may have allowed themselves to be conformed to this world.  When Christians choose to speak up on systemic and structural issues, what we are in effect saying is that we refuse to conform to this world, we refuse to bow our knees to idols.

Conclusion

In the case of George Floyd, we cannot read into the policeman’s heart to say for definite that he was a sinner in regard to racism, although evidence in his trial may or may not lead us to that conclusion. We will be able to judge whether or not a crime was committed.  Furthermore, many people see the evidence of idolatry at work which means that black people are more likely to find themselves in such types of confrontation.

Our response as Christians should be to

  • Ensure that where there is a crime that it is reported and the relevant authorities enabled to deliver justice.
  • Challenge, rebuke and correct sin
  • Resist being conformed to the idols of our age.

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