I am flummoxed over much of the discussion about race going on in the evangelical world right now. There are several contributing factors to my bewildered state, not the least of which is that brothers with whom I share deep theological convictions and from whom I have learned so much address the issue in ways that I find unhelpful and at points, unbiblical. That is how Thabiti Anyabwile’s recent article, “The One Sin that Must Not Be Confessed,” lands on me. I have much love and respect for Thabiti. My concerns with what he has written are not personal, but theological and ethical.
“Racism” has become an omnibus sin into which is packed everything from vile actions like lynching and man-stealing to impossible-to-define micro-aggressions like not admitting to white privilege or not repenting of the sins of one’s ancestors. No small part of the difficulty is that “race” is a social construction and not a biblical category, a point that Thabiti makes as he expresses sentiments that I share:
“Race” (a fiction) and racism (a very real sin) are quagmires or mazes that once entered are terribly difficult to escape and often result in compounded sins. I think we all want a way out. I know I do. For some people opting for a theological and biblical term (“sin”) seems like a way forward.
He sees this option of using the broad term, “sin” instead of the term “racism” as a verbal sleight-of-hand that ultimately obscures the real issues—and sins—at stake:
However, if we intentionally or unintentionally come to the conclusion that what must be confessed is “sin” abstractly rather than racism specifically, then I’m afraid our doctrine of sin and confession become a hindrance to repentance, sanctification, and reconciliation rather than a help. We can’t overcome something we won’t admit.
I agree with him completely that sin must be confessed specifically. When “sin” is used as a generic cover to avoid confessing specific “sins” there can be no real repentance as spelled out for us in 2 Corinthians 7:11, “For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter.”
Thabiti then goes on to list several specific, biblically defined sins to illustrate his point—adultery, lying, and disobedience to parents. These three examples, it should be noted, are violations of the 7th, 9th and 5th Commandments, respectively. Though he obviously knows this, I think it necessary not to assume that everyone following this conversation knows it. And it is at just this point in his article that I find Thabiti’s argument to make an unhelpful turn.
Until the spouse’s adultery is confessed and repented, the roommate’s lying confessed and repented, or the child’s disobedience confessed and repented, there can be no firm foundation for repairing the breach in relationship. Calling the breach what it is and identifying the specific source is not the problem; it’s actually the first step in a solution.
That’s what makes avoiding the admission of racism a mind-numbing affair. I cannot think of a single particular sin people would encourage someone to avoid confessing except for the sin of racism. I can’t think of a single instance of by-standing, partiality or indifference in the face of sin and injustice Christians would excuse except racism. Some treat racism as the one sin that must not be confessed forthrightly, identified specifically, and repented of with fruit particular to it [my emphases].
Adultery. Lying. Disobedience to parents. Racism. One of these things is not like the others. And the way in which it is different is what makes this issue so difficult. The complaint that Thabiti raises about “sin” being too abstract is the same concern I have about “racism.” Though I am fully aware that the mere asking of this question frustrates (or worse) some of my brothers and sisters, it must be asked and answered if we are going to make any headway along biblical paths to real understanding. Without such understanding, there can be no biblical reconciliation. What exactly is the sin of racism?
The Bible says, “Through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:21) and “Where there is no law, there is no transgression” (Rom 4:15; cf. 5:13). The Second London Baptist Confession helpfully explains:
The same law that was first written in the heart of man continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness after the fall (Rom 2:14,15) and was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables, the four first containing our duty towards God, and the other six, our duty to man (Deut 10:4) (19.2)
Until racism is defined in biblical categories—which should not be confused with trying to substitute the sin(s) of racism for the generic idea of “sin”—I think the conversation will largely stay stuck in the quagmire of misunderstanding. By that I am not suggesting that there are no real sins in mind that are bound up in racism. What I am saying is that until those real sins are defined biblically, the charge of “racism” will likely miss its mark in the minds of many because it is so nebulous.
Brothers and sisters, surely we who have the Word of God and the Spirit of God can do better than this. Surely we can help each other to identify sin biblically so that we can help each other repent biblically.
I will even offer a start. Any teaching or encouragement to look on any human as less than an image-bearer of God who has dignity and is worthy of respect is guilty of bearing false witness and breaks the 9th Commandment. Anyone who subjects another person to unjustified violence on the basis of skin color is guilty of murder and breaks the 6th Commandment. Anyone who, simply on the basis of skin color, prevents access to opportunities or resources that belong lawfully to people is guilty of stealing and breaks the 8th Commandment.
No doubt, more could and should be said, but this way of addressing the issue of racism, because it is grounded in God’s Word, offers much more hope for godly resolution than any others that rely on an undefined charge. I am willing to be corrected or helped to think about this more biblically. In fact, I welcome it. As I see things, this is the only way that each person can, as the Second London Baptist Confession puts it, “repent of his particular known sins particularly” (15.4).