The Trayvon Martin incident seemed to be clothed with the issue of race from the beginning, and once again awaked a sleeping giant in the American subconscious. The complexity of the race in America is paralyzing and the consequences are profound. On the one hand, African-Americans (myself included) are constantly frustrated with the non-inclusion of appropriate racial matters in cultural and public discourse. On the other hand, whites feel as though they are walking on eggshells whenever race is introduced into a conversation. I am convinced that both sentiments are justified, and are often intensified by careless interaction with the issue from both sides. This challenge has historically caused a stalemate, but at this juncture a clarion call must be issued to move forward with careful thinking and bold conclusions that are tempered with Christ-like compassion.
Over and under racializing, as well as tactless interaction with racial issues have contributed to the rifts in our cultural landscape. The aftermath of Treyvon Martin’s death is an example of both tactless interaction (see my blog Richard Land, Treyvon Martin and the SBC), and over-racializing an event (I will deal with the problem of under-racializing and the importance of diversity in the next installment).
The introduction of race into the Martin scenario is in no small part due to the contribution of nationally recognized Christian leaders. Soon after Martin’s death, leaders of every stripe should have heralded a cry for justice, no matter where the verdict fell. Instead, we immediately heard that “blacks are under attack!” Upon the publication of these words our nation was led to believe that this killing was, at its core, a matter of race. Onlookers never had the chance to grapple with the demands of justice, but were immediately forced to relive the racial history and progress (or lack thereof) in our country.
This is a subtle yet significant shift away from the motivation of Martin Luther King. MLK and his contemporaries incited public demonstrations and made speeches due to a passion for social justice that was deeply rooted in biblical convictions such as human dignity and the understanding that every human is made in God’s image.
At present, some Christian leaders over-racialize situations, not because of the healthy biblical vision, but because they operate from a posture of victimology. John McWhorter explains victimology as “an adaptation to victimhood as the core of one’s identity.” With racial victimhood as a starting point, actions by “outsiders” can only be understood as having a negative and racist motivation. Furthermore, due to the effects of victimology, the self-perception of the African-American will always be a socially constructed reality from America’s turbulent racial past, never graduating to a biblical self-image.
I am not dismissing the realities of systemic and individual racism. Rather, I am merely noting that there is an important difference between offering a solution that accurately accounts for victimization, as opposed to using victimization as a starting point. The former allows Scripture to act as the starting point, which provided real solutions. The latter will never lead to a solution, since the system constantly focuses on the problem.
Reclaiming the biblical centrality that fueled the ministry of MLK will provide the foundation that is necessary to move forward. The grand narrative of scripture (that can be summarized as creation, fall, redemption & new creation) is essential in describing the significance of ethnic race and the importance of race relations in the context of Christ’s redemption of all things.
The biblical story uniquely describes the restoration of the four-fold relationship that was broken at the fall of Genesis 3: The relationship between man and God, man and fellow man, man and self, and man and the created order. The restoration of these relationships through Christ is essential to progress in Christian thought on race. Moving forward, I will attempt to sketch a framework for a Christian engagement with race from the foundation of the grand narrative of scripture, highlighting the importance of unity and diversity rooted in the triune God.