Racism, Civil Unrest, and the Hope of the Gospel: A Difficult Yet Necessary Conversation, Pt. 1
Few would dispute that the past few weeks have been some of the more tumultuous America has experienced in recent years. Far from merely political or cultural tensions, the most recent crisis is a matter of life and death and can be seen most clearly in the three faces of those who unjustly lost their lives: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. These three names don't represent isolated incidents and the great travesty is that the list of names keeps growing. As has been repeatedly said, this is a fundamental human rights issue, one that goes to the heart of America’s struggle with racism, prejudice, and discrimination. In this episode, Thinking Out Loud hosts Nathan Rittenhouse and Cameron McAllister are joined by their colleague Brandon Cleaver for a candid discussion about this cultural moment and how Christ’s life, death, and resurrection intersect with our current predicament.
Follow the Thinking Out Loud hosts on Twitter:
Editorial credit: Ira Bostic / Shutterstock.com
Want to listen to this later?
Please Note: Thinking Out Loud is produced to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Cameron McAllister: Hello and welcome to Thinking Out Loud. Thinking Out Loud is a podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope. I'm your co-host Cameron McAllister.
Nathan Rittenhouse: And I'm your co-host Nathan Rittenhouse.
Brandon Cleaver: And I'm your co-host Brandon Cleaver.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! That's a new one. Hey, everybody. For those of you who are used to listening to Thinking Out Loud, Cameron and I are delighted to have our good friend and colleague, Brandon Cleaver, with us on Thinking Out Loud today. Brandon is one of the people that I really value in this world for a lot of different reasons. But one of them is because in the ironies of the way things work out is that when we travel as a speaking team, I often get to room with Brandon Cleaver.
Brandon and I come from very different backgrounds. I think I heard him chuckle when I said that because it's so obvious. One of the big ones is that he has style and I don't. He is organized and nice and neat and tidy and well thought out and calculated, even the first letters of all his children's names have perfect alliteration. He is a neat and tidy, well put together kind of guy. Then he hangs out with me.
We have a great time, and we could give his kind of the more professional things of what makes Brandon a wonderful person to have with us today. But I would like to say, on a personal note, that Brandon and I have spent a lot of time talking about race, and culture, and classism, and social issues. Of course, all of these as true Christian men who work as evangelists and apologists.
The great thing that I value about Brandon is that I often say stuff that doesn't make sense or that needs to be corrected and clarified. When I say things in race conversations that are dumb or miscalculated, Brandon doesn't treat that as if I'm evil. He just treats that as if I need more information and need to be educated. And so, we have very productive conversations, because we know the heart of the other. It isn't a clear-cut “us and them, he's right, I'm wrong, because he's evil” kind of thing. It's just that, well, maybe you should look at it from this way.
And so, we spend a lot of time laughing and coming up and bouncing ideas off of each other and having that freedom and fun. He often irons his shirt. So while I'm lying on the floor and then I say at the end of it he's got all the wrinkles out of his clothing and out of my weird questions, too. So it's a great honor to have him, and Cameron can say his piece here, too. But Brandon's a pile of joy in all kinds of categories of life, and it's fun for us to have him on the podcast with us today.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, I'm really grateful for Brandon as well. Yeah, never a truer word said about style. He's elegant, he's graceful, and I think we have probably embarrassed him enough here at this point.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Perfect.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, I mean we can heap more compliments on him here, but we're just so grateful to have him for this discussion as well. Obviously, this is a difficult discussion and a necessary one. There's a lot of tension when we talk about race, especially right now.
I think the subject is unavoidable because of what is going on around our nation right now. I think probably the events that really have spurred on this current conversation, which has been a long time coming, probably are those surrounding violence, and specifically police violence. We think of names like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many more.
We can get to those names, but I think it's important that as we think through this topic that we just begin to have that sort of conversation to talk it through, think it through, and push aside some of the knee-jerk defensiveness that comes along so often, or some of the convenient forms of evasion that many of us will often use.
I think my entry point here before I just hand it over to Brandon will be that one of the sentiments that's really caught my eye, and it's really a prophetic word...And, Nathan, you and I have actually...We've recorded some stuff on this before. But one of the placards at the protests, one of the phrases that's really stood out to me is “no peace without justice.” That phrase has become really haunting to me. Also, on a personal note, a point of real conviction for me involve the word "peace."
You can think about how everything has just come to a boil in recent months because of a pandemic, because of all of these events. In some ways, you see almost a perfect storm happening. But what's very apparent is that things were not so peaceful when they were "normal." I often find myself in unreflective moments, thinking, "Oh, I just wish things could go back to normal." Then I realized, yeah, normal, if this is what's under the hood, so to speak, normal was not normal and peace was not in fact peace. That was a very eye-opening moment for me.
So, yeah, with that said, welcome, Brandon. As we have this discussion, it's great to hear your voice here. I guess let's get started.
Brandon Cleaver: Well, thanks so much, guys, for the very kind introduction. I think my wife will want to rein in some of those benevolent terms you used. But I'll make sure I keep her from listening to this podcast, at least for a little while. We're not going to say, Nathan, I thought that the most overt difference between us was your robust beard and my meager goatee. I have a lot of work to do.
Nathan Rittenhouse: But the gospel unites us.
Cameron McAllister: This is true.
Brandon Cleaver: This is true. But, yeah, thanks guys so much. I love and adore both of you. I've only been with RZIM officially now for a little over a year, but I've been blessed by both of your work for quite a while now. So it's great to just be in constant fellowship and community on this and on many other topics.
What you bring up, Cameron, is so interesting and I'm thinking caused a lot of confusion, this “no justice, no peace,” particularly when it's seen through the Christian eyes. I was reading a blog post the other day by a friend of the ministry, a former AKA alumni, Abba , Abba Ciano. He wrote this article dealing with a lot of the emotions and the historical underpinnings for a lot of the racial and ethnic conversations that's going on.
In that article, he had this quote by Gary Chapman. Now most of us know Gary Chapman by his book. He's the author of The Five Love Languages. But he also had this really interesting quote about anger. He said that anger is evidence that we're made in the image of God. It demonstrates we still have some concern for justice. When one ceases to experience anger, one loses the sense of moral concern.
I think when we dial down on this a bit more, and particularly bringing into it some of the black experience, I think a profound and prolific writer like James Baldwin...Although his quote may seem to have a bit of a sharp edge on it. Just allow me, please, to articulate it and hopefully bring you into the feelings I think that a lot of us in the black community feel. He said that to be a Negro in this country...And he said this back during the civil rights time, so back in the 1970s or so. He said to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.
What he's referring to is this historic accumulation of racial and ethnic injustices and inequities in our country that have brought us to the point of where we look at a lot of statistics in contemporary times and we say, "Wow! There's these huge gaps in education or employment or in housing or in prison and incrimination," those types of things. But again there's this historic accumulation or this historic billowing of injustices that have occurred.
But the beautiful thing, I think, about the Bible and the gospel is that God gives us this space to experience these emotions and feelings. It's okay to be angry as long as you're righteously angry and you don't sin. It's okay to be frustrated. These things can actually point to the fact that, hey, something is really wrong.
The problem then becomes when we let our anger consume us to a point that the minor prophet Amos talks about in chapter five or seven, where he says don't let your pursuit of justice become like a poison pill. He said don't let your pursuit of justice become something that becomes something like vengeance or revenge. Keep in its right context.
So I think when I hear something like “no justice, no peace” from a Christian perspective, but a Christian perspective that's also in the black community, that's how I parse language like that.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah. I think the understanding of making room for anger, “be angry, and yet do not sin,” that's a fascinating insight there as well. Again, scripture is replete with it. You mentioned Amos chapter five, Brandon. Then there's those terrifying verses at the end, which are quite celebrated, I think beginning in verse 22, where the Lord says through his prophet to the nation...many of the people in the nation of Israel, they're still going through the religious motions, so to speak.
See, this is why these are very terrifying verses for us here in the United States, where the influence of Christianity, a super influence, a superficial influence of Christianity is quite strong. But he says, basically, "I despise your solemn gatherings, and your sacrifices are a stench to me," because you're going through these motions and yet you're continuing to oppress people, you're continuing to mistreat them.
Of course, this is not an isolated case. I remember Isaiah, in chapter 58 on through 59, many of the same allegations are made. "For your hands are defiled with blood and your fingers with iniquity, your lips have spoken lies, your tongue mutters wickedness. No one enters suit justly. No one goes to law honestly. They rely on empty pleas. They speak lies. They conceive mischief and give birth to iniquity."
It's interesting that the language here surrounding law, I mean we're talking about systemic forms of injustice here. We're talking about corruption. We're talking about corruption of the institutions that are supposed to be upholding justice. A lot of quite colorful and angry language here in the Old Testament, but it's interesting that if we're thinking along the lines of sin in a more robust and full-blooded fashion, we're going to see systemic manifestations of it.
So all that to say, again, to me, it's interesting to hear you quote James Baldwin about being in a rage, because when this is your lived experience day-to-day, but then for somebody like me where I've been sheltered from so much of this and then to suddenly be slowly opening my eyes, but not only just to what's out there but to my part in it, the feeling is one of intense conviction and also just a recognition that, my goodness, this is so much bigger than I ever imagined.
I think one word that comes to mind, Brandon, for people who are often in my position, is just a feeling of being overwhelmed and then thinking, "Where do I start? What can I do?" I know that's going to be the experience of some of our listeners right now, but, yeah, I mean I think...So it's helpful to hear those honest words from you when this has been your experience. I mean just to be really honest and vulnerable.
I mean, Brandon, I was on the phone with you not long ago for about an hour, and I actually didn't share this with you. But afterwards...I mean you were just sharing yet another one of your daily struggles that you're going through, in an educational setting this time. As I was explaining it to my wife, I just started...I'm not a very emotional person, but I just started weeping because I just thought, "I can't imagine." I mean every single facet of your life is punctuated by struggle along these lines.
It was just giving a whole new meaning and a whole new sense to the phrase "I'm tired." I mean it's difficult to think, but it's so necessary to press into this. I think that's why a lot of us will avoid it because we just think, "Well, this is painful. We need to move past this."
I think Anthony Bradley, who teaches at King's College, and I believe he's now the theologian-in-residence at Redeemer, City to City, he just wrote a fantastic article in Fathom Magazine, talking about the benefits, the practical benefits, of what's been referred to as transitional justice. But he talks about a deeply American habit of trying to, "Okay. We made a mistake. Now let's race past it. Let's get past it. Let's just move on to practical solutions."
In that article, he really hammers home the need for, “no, we've got to remember. We need to talk to people who went through Jim Crow. We need to hear their stories. We need to remember day-to-day life and we need to know now what people are going through today.”
This isn't over, but just the necessity of pressing into that also and just that deeply American impulse to just sort of, "No, no, no. Let's move on. Let's push past this. Let's move on." That, of course, has such practical shortcomings to it, as well as it just really impedes our growth, our moral growth. But, yeah, there's me just freewheeling there for a while, guys, processing out loud. That's what this episode is called, processing it out loud.
Brandon Cleaver: I really appreciate and really...I guess the only language I can find, I can dredge up is to hear your reaction in talking to your wife a little bit about some things I dealt with, like you said, in an academic arena recently, is that it soothes my soul. I think when Ravi talked so eloquently about unity and diversity, I think that's emblematic of that and it's emblematic of us being able to really have compassion for each other.
Again, when we go through translations...And this is great because my wife, her first language is French. And so, she's talking French to the kids all the time. I have no idea what they're saying. But oftentimes I ask her, "What did you say?" and she'll say, "Well, I'm trying to think of what's the best way to translate this in English. There isn't a direct English translation for what I'm saying in French."
I think that's what we often experience in translating some of the ancient Near East languages to our English vernacular. So a word like “compassion,” we typically think of it just being as something like “care.” But its Latin etymology, its root really means “to suffer with.” Two words, to “suffer with.”
Of course, we see an abundance of theological ramifications with this, so explicitly in Jesus' teachings, too. We have these divine mandates to weep with those who weep, to mourn with those who mourn, to rejoice with those who rejoice, to bear each other's burdens. These are things that we see.
So when you tell me that you experienced it, I'm like, “man, yes,” we come from two very different racial and ethnic backgrounds, perhaps two very different cultures. But, man, this is unity and diversity. This is real compassion for each other.
I would say along those lines as well, that it's been a while since the deaths and the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and also the black police officer...I think he had just retired or he was about to retire...David Dorn, who also lost his life rather tragically. There's so many other people and names that have happened and the things that have occurred over the past few months.
I would say when this all originally started back with Ahmaud Arbery, but then when things really got kicked off with George Floyd, I was trying to write something. It was peculiar because I started off as a journalist, so I just love writing. I mean I'm probably not the best writer in the world, but I love writing.
So I usually don't have too much trouble getting my thoughts on paper, but I was experiencing this wave of conflicting feelings. I was feeling hope and anxiety, frustration, and optimism, cynicism, and love. I mean it was just this cascading of emotions that I was experiencing so it made organizing my thoughts so difficult.
I was saying now I'm at the point where I would say that, if I can be just honest, there's still a bit of cynicism. I say that because I do have a solid understanding of history, particularly dealing with race and ethnicity and how things have gone. There's been these great moments of triumph, but then almost every time there was quick and decisive actions that made sure any progress of ethnic minorities was snuffed out pretty quickly.
I don't want to be overly dramatic with that, but there are a lot of key historical markers all the way back from the reconstruction period, right after the Emancipation Proclamation, that leads me to have a bit, a bit, of cynicism still. But I would say right now I'm actually filled with an overwhelming amount of optimism. I mean if we look at it, there's unprecedented global cross-cultural desire for more awareness. There's these shifts I see that are occurring.
So like you said, Cameron, even though I have these conversations with you and with others where I'm like, "Man, I'm so tired," I'm frustrated a little bit in some of these conversations, part of what keeps pushing me on is the progress that I'm seeing. I'm seeing these shifts around people who, prior to all these things occurring, they were at this point of apathy. Now they move from a point of apathy to awareness. Now a lot of them are like, "Okay. I'm starting to become more aware. I'm starting to inform myself and become more informed on some of the historical relevancies of these things going on. Now I want to move from awareness to alliance or advocacy." And so, it's the shift that really gives me a lot of optimism.
Look, as a Christian, hope is never too aloof. Hope is always right there because of our shared belief and faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. So I'm never devoid of hope. But I think when things like this occurs, that hope in our present circumstances also adds on to my eternal hope as well. So, yeah, that's where I'm at, I guess, emotionally right now.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, that makes sense. I think in a conversation before, Brandon, you've said to me how different would the George Floyd atrocity have looked if it hadn't been captured so fulsomely on camera and that footage hadn't been so widely disseminated. So I think it's very understandable that...I think cynicism is a completely understandable response, especially when there's...It's not like this is an isolated incident. It's not like this is infrequent. It's not like people haven't been trying to say for so long, "We need help. Things have not changed dramatically the way so many think that they have."
I think that's really understandable, but also how does that affect our hope, especially our gospel hope? Because here I want to steer us into potentially another thorny section of the conversation, and that has to do with when we talk about...It's one thing to talk about the full-blooded hope of the gospel, but sometimes I think we tend to...And I say “we.” In my circles, in the culture that formed me, I can tell you that often there's a real sense in which we want to race right ahead to reconciliation and all of the more liberating aspects of hope without doing the hard work of repentance first.
That's where I think, as a nation, that's where, Brandon, I'm so glad to hear that you're encouraged, I am too, because I think a lot of what we're seeing, although there's a lot of deep unrest, there seems to be a growing moral awakening and there seems to be a growing recognition of the need for many of us who have been on the outside of this experience, have either been actively ignoring it or apathetic or simply haven't really done much, or have suppressed it, pushed it away, tried to avert our gaze, so to speak, there's a growing awareness of the absolute need for repentance and true moral introspection here as we move from awareness into advocacy.
So let me put it this way real quickly before I hand it over. So these remarks were made about COVID-19, before it was called COVID-19. I remember months ago, there was a lot of talk about how this was going to make waves, this was going to be very dangerous, and already you were starting to see the word "hope" used a lot. One scientist and a healthcare official, I believe, responded by saying, "Yeah, okay. That's great. Hope is not a strategy. We need feasible solutions. We need to really be working toward taking the proper measures to counteract the spread of this disease."
I understood what he meant. What he meant was we need feasible solutions, not empty sentiments. But actually in saying that, he betrayed a misunderstanding of the word "hope", at least in the Christian sense, because hope...Let me put it this way. If hope is not a strategy, then think about your own life when you're in the midst of total despair. You're not going to get much done probably. You're not going to be pushing forward in the midst of struggle. You're not going to be working to meet challenges because you'll view it as inherently hopeless.
So hope, full-bodied, realistic, eyes open in the darkness hope, is absolutely a strategy, but it's keeping that realism in the picture. It's actually opening our eyes to what is going on. For somebody like me, a white Caucasian, European male, part of that journey begins by looking at the part I have played. I know that that will rattle some listeners, but I know it to be true in my heart and in my conscience.
That's how this began for me and that's the beginning of hope for me. Not racing past the painful work of moral introspection and repentance, but facing that head on and then recognizing the beauty of the grace offered by Jesus Christ and the way that liberates you to truly love the Lord with all of your heart and with all your soul, with all your mind, all your strength, and then to love your neighbor as yourself, which, by the way, that's a supernatural kind of love. You cannot do that on your own strength. Never is that more apparent than in the face of grave injustice.
Brandon Cleaver: What you said there about hope actually reminds me of Proverbs 13:12, which says that hope deferred makes the heart sick. But a longing fulfilled is a tree of life. I've had so many conversations over the past week or so. I even was texting with a dear friend this morning, and he was telling me about his shifts also, like what you just communicated, Cameron, how some of these, I guess, revelations that you're having, that you're experiencing, what that's doing not only to your psyche, I guess, but also emotionally and relationally.
With Christianity, the interesting thing is that all these virtues can seem very abstract. They can sound very ethereal sometimes. But in Christianity, these virtues are not disembodied. They're embodied in Christ. Christ actually came an embodied hope. He is the living embodiment of hope. He is the living embodiment of truth, of justice, of forgiveness, of redemption, of all of these different virtues that's bound up in these conversations dealing with race and ethnicity.
So I think for the Christian, we have to remember that Christ...We have to keep our eyes on him. We have to keep our eyes on what he says on the gospel, the full good news of Jesus Christ, the entire biblical narrative. You talked a little bit about the Old Testament and also many of the narratives in the New Testament. That should be our north star, our guiding light in these conversations and in our pursuit of truth.
As we think of truth, we not only think of it in...We talk about truth as Christians in just a biblical sense, but truth is also very relevant in our everyday lives and in this conversation. What is the truth about the racial and ethnic history in our country? Are we really ready to be reckoned with what that truth is?
I mean as apologists and as evangelists, we really, really value truth. I mean we do our historical due diligence on the reliability of the Old and New Testaments. We examine, for example, the validity of the resurrection narrative. We understand that there are these incredibly important historical markers that lead us to the conclusion that Jesus is who he claimed to be.
We need to be, as Christians, as human beings, as brothers and sisters living on this earth that will one day be reconstituted for heaven, for our eternal place, we need to be just as scrupulous in our pursuit of truth for who Jesus is in all these other elements as we are in a historical analysis of our current country and our current environment. If we do that, I think we'll really attain some mutuality and some real progress towards revealing what that truth is, and then how we can reckon with that and hopefully repair some of the things that have been done and also move forward.
Cameron McAllister: I have a question for you, Brandon. Here, I know you've got some thoughts on this, but I think it'd be helpful for the three of us to talk about how critical race theory is often used as...I'll put it like this. It's often used as a kind of escape hatch in certain Christian circles to dismiss out of hand any discussion that looks seriously at institutional or systemic racism. I think that might be a helpful direction to go.
If you're listening and you're tensing up right now, just breathe here. We're going to do this in a measured approach. We're going to look at how the gospel frames this conversation for us, again because you're listening to three Christian evangelists. But, nevertheless, this is a phrase now, and it's interesting because, in some ways, it's just an academic heading, but that has become so loaded. I think it's helpful to bring it in here because I think it often is used...Not always, but I think it's often used to short-circuit this conversation.
Brandon Cleaver: Yeah, critical race theory. Yeah, now we're diving into the deep waters here, Cameron and Nathan. Here we go.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, got my snorkel. Got your snorkel.
Brandon Cleaver: But, seriously, yeah, critical race theory has become this really hot topic, really contentious point of discussion, particular within the church. It seems like every other day, I see a new article written or another "expert" being brought onto a podcast or some form of media to ring the alarm bells and discuss how we can't allow CRT within the walls of the church.
I'd love to hear both of your opinions on this, but I guess I have somewhat of a more measured approach to CRT. Let me say at the outset, I want to be very, very clear for the listeners, I am not in any way pro-critical race theory. I'm not pro-critical race theory. But I'm also not viscerally anti-critical race theory. I just accept it for what it is.
So in this very bare naked framework, CRT just examines the societal element. It's a part of the social sciences that examines societal elements such as race, law, et cetera. It uses terms that can serve as firebrands in a way. So something like white fragility. That's a phrase that I think there's a lot of confusion about, but there's a lot of also frustration with that phrase. We also have words like oppressor and oppressed. So these articles often talk about...This secular philosophy, or whatever it might be, this is something that we shouldn't even entertain as Christians.
So just last week, I had a conversation with a colleague. I'm not sure if this person will want this out there, so I'm not going to say their name, but we were talking about this. Part of what he said helped to frame it in my mind a little bit. He said, "Does the Bible talk about these dualistic words, oppressor and oppressed?"
Yes, I think we would all agree that the Bible speaks vehemently and very frequently about both of these terms, almost obsessively in a way. As Christians, though, I think what we can do is say that, yes, the Bible does speak to these things, but the Bible doesn't leave us there. It doesn't reduce us to just these states of oppressor and oppressed. We're not as simplistic as that.
So I think that when we look at this, this is a real opportunity for us as the church to speak to someone who does hold to CRT. Just as a point here, I've actually never met anyone who said, "I'm a proponent of CRT. I'm pro-CRT." I've heard people use the language, but really a lot of the meanings behind these words have been used for centuries. Maybe they've just been codified in these more contemporary phrases and things like that.
But, anyway, if you do meet someone, I think it's an opportunity for us as Christians, as people who are called to be salt and light in this world, as people who are priestly representatives to enter into these conversations and say, "Okay. So let's talk about oppressor and oppressed, for example. What does the cross have to say about that? The cross has to say that for the oppressor, there is real redemption. There is real forgiveness. For the oppressed, you do have real dignity. You do have this unestimable worth and this incalculable value."
That's just a small example, but we can actually use some of this terminology to say, "Okay. Yes, some of it is actually emblematic of our society, of parts of our society, or parts of the biblical narrative, but let me then show you the fullness that the gospel can bring to some of these phrases and the beauty, the truth, and the goodness that Jesus Christ can really bring towards these conversations."
Nathan Rittenhouse: Brandon, do you think there's a sense here where we have to be extremely careful with our definitions? As you were talking about, even the phrases “oppressed and oppressor.” I was remembering you and I were at a university a little over a year ago, and we were speaking to a young lady who was very much using language that was in keeping with this. This was after an event. We were talking about oppression, justice, and being oppressed, and, in my mind, I knew we weren't communicating clearly.
She was talking about the ways in which she'd been oppressed. Then she threw in this phrase. She said, "And I recognize that I'm an oppressor also because I can see. And so, being a person who isn't blind means that I'm an oppressor of people who are blind."
When she said that, I was like, "I think maybe that's different than the way that I think about oppression." Maybe there's some connection there that I'm not seeing. And so, to say that you have an advantage because you can see, that's definitely true. That's a great benefit in all aspects and elements of society. Does that benefit make you an oppressor and is that something that you can repent of and be forgiven of? So when we say the gospel offers repentance for the oppressor, can you repent of being able to see?
Do you think the way that the words are used differently, is that part of the problem here, that we're using the same words, but we're not communicating?
Brandon Cleaver: Nathan, I think you're spot on with that. I think that's a big part, and it's a part of why, in these conversations, we can't get off the proverbial starting block in a real way because we're defining things differently.
It's interesting that you mentioned that. I actually gave a talk on slavery in the Bible, and one of the titles that I have for it, depending on the environment, is the Contemporary Conflation of Slavery in the Bible, because there's often this conflation or equivocation, this mixing of terms with slavery that's described in the Bible, or the slavery that took place early on in the birth of this nation, in antebellum times.
But, yeah, I mentioned, I think, earlier that I was communicating with someone just this morning on some of these topics. This is a younger white male, a Christian, and he said to me, "I'm starting to realize that a lot of times we're working from different definitions of, for example, racism." "For example," he said, "I only ever saw racism as these very blatant and overt things. So if I wasn't using some derogatory language like the N-word or I didn't have these sort of visceral racial and ethnic attacks, then I wasn't racist. So to call me that or to call someone who I have never seen do those things seemed a bit outlandish."
But he said that, "I'm starting to learn that racism has a much broader meaning than that. Racism can manifest itself not only in overt ways, but also covert ways," or, as Ta-Nehisi Coates says, I think accurately stated, “More insidious ways, these ways that aren't as apparent, but still purposely disadvantage some of the most vulnerable people in our society, particular ethnic minorities.”
So I do think it's important, and this is part of the importance of having a conversation with someone. I would implore everyone, as hard as this may be, don't have these conversations on social media. There's a lot of pious platitudes and social media charades that goes on some of these platforms. I'm more of a social media curmudgeon, so forgive me if I have more of a negative view of social media.
But, seriously, I think that when we get in these private conversations and we can really take the time to really listen to each other, like Nathan mentioned. Nathan and I have spent so much time in the same room, because we've slept in the same room for so long, that we've had a chance to really drill down on some of these definitions.
Part of it is like, hey, Nathan comes from this background that I'm unfamiliar with and, hey, I come from Detroit, this other background that he may not be as familiar with. As we seek to understand each other, this understanding may start ten feet apart. But as we continue in the conversation, it gradually gets closer and closer to where we can at least come to a point of some type of understanding of the grounding for our thoughts and our emotions and our cultural backgrounds. Then we can move forward in the conversation. But, yeah, we have to define those things upfront if we're really looking to make any type of progress in the conversations.
Nathan Rittenhouse: So, Cameron, given what Brandon just said, when you're talking about the language of critical race theory as it relates to the church...Let me say this, Brandon, and you see if I'm saying it correctly in relation to what I think Cameron is thinking. That should be clear for everybody, that part of doing cultural apologetics is using the language that people are using in order to have conversations with them. That does not mean you're embracing the ideology behind all of the terms, rather you're using it as a bridge into a conversation. And so, categorically, reject the terminology means that you're excluding from the conversation that people with whom you're trying to interact.
So you're using the phrase as saying can I use certain words without all the Christians immediately assuming that I've abandoned ship, but as a way of reaching out and having a conversation with somebody who I disagree with. Is that the balance that we're striking here?
Cameron McAllister: I think so. I mean think about...Of course, one of the apologetics hallmark passages is, of course, Acts 17, you could also look at Acts 14 as well, where Paul takes a different approach with some of the more blue-collar pagan audiences that he encounters there.
But in both cases, in Acts 14 and in Acts 17, Paul latches onto objects of worship to gain common ground with his audience and to talk to them. In Acts 17, in the very famous instance of the Areopagus, it's the altar to the unknown god. Now he doesn't stay there. First of all, he doesn't begin with the word of condemnation, "Oh, you backwards pagans. You don't understand anything, this altar to the unknown god." He doesn't begin there at all.
Of course, he says, "I notice you're very religious in all respects. You're very spiritual. I noticed this altar to an unknown god. What you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you." So then he moves from that altar to the unknown god, which is a starting point, the bridge, as you said, Nathan, and then he begins to proclaim Christ and the resurrection.
Then something very normal, common, and realistic happens. Some people are with them, some people are curious, and some people reject what he has to say. So that's a pretty common response from audiences of various stripes when they hear the message of the gospel. A lot of people are interested. Some people, it takes longer. Some people shake their heads and say, "What is this?"
But when we're talking about something as charged right now as critical race theory, I think it's important to recognize, as our late friend and mentor Ravi Zacharias always said, I've really seen the wisdom of this Indian saying that he often used in a whole new light in recent years because of our cultural divisions. But he said “If you cut off somebody's nose, there's no point in giving them a roast to smell.”
So instantly beginning by saying, "Well, I completely reject CRT. I think it's absolutely compromising. It's wrong. It's ideological. It's totally bankrupt." Obviously if you're going to begin with some version of that response, you're shutting the conversation down from the start.
But also I want to challenge some of us to think about the implications of original sin and to think about the scriptural implications of sin in general. I tried to do this on the Vital Signs Podcast, when I've been talking about the effects of communal sin. But if sin is not a purely individual phenomenon, but if we are inherently relational creatures, then that means that there are no purely private sins. In fact, I would go so far as to argue there are no purely private acts. Everything you do sends out ripples, and it affects others around you.
And so, that's why the Old Testament, if you go through the law, it's got so much emphasis on sins of commission and sins of omission. In Leviticus, I mean you come across passages that outline the laws for offering sacrifices for sins that you weren't aware of. Then when you become aware of those sins and when you face your guilt. In other words, you're guilty before the Holy God whether you fully understand your sin or not.
Stanley Hauerwas, the theologian who...I believe he's still at Duke University. But he has this exercise with the students where he'll say to them, "Do you think you should be held accountable for things you don't understand?" Of course, they immediately say, "Well, no." He says, "Well, that makes marriage unintelligible because you never really know the person you're marrying, and yet you're held accountable for faithfulness and loyalty to them." It makes children unintelligible and, in Hauerwas' unsparing words, you never get the kids you want. We try to plan for them, but you can't.
But think about it. That also applies in all sorts of other instances. Think about so-called crimes of passion or just moments where you just get heated and you say something. You don't know the full implications of the vicious thing that you've just said, the shock waves that's going to send out, the ways in which it's going to permanently destroy a person's sense of their identity and that they're going to require years and years of recovery from the trauma of it, and many of them may be permanently altered. In other words, there's this disproportionality between what we often do in the heat of the moment and then the actual repercussions.
So all that to say we need a more full-bodied and complex and rich understanding of sin and, if we recover that, if we look at the true scriptural picture, which is shot through in the Old Testament all the way to the New Testament, then we will recognize that we should expect to see systemic manifestations of sin, and that critical race theory and some of these other academic disciplines that may be far from the scriptural path in some respects, one of the areas where they really do seem to offer some powerful corroboration is in the ways in which corruption works systemically through human institutions and just how difficult it is to undo. There's no instant off switch that you flip.
That's why Anthony Bradley, to go back to what he said in that article, that's why he said it's so harmful and so naïve to act like, "Okay. Well, we recognize that chattel slavery was so wrong, so now we're just going to move on." But it's impossible practically. You can't just move on. You don't just flip a switch. If there's corruption in police departments, if there's corruption in government facilities and public sectors, it doesn't instantly stop. It's a process.
But, again, if we are taking the words of scripture seriously, I'm going to use a phrase that Nathan often uses, this is very sad, but it's not surprising. We should expect to see this. I think part of what's so deeply revealing about a blind spot of a huge segment of American culture is just how much the communal aspects of sin feel like news to some of us. Some of us are so individualistic. We're pretty blind to a very obvious outworking of our theology here. Anyway, I've said enough to create all sorts of trouble for us so I'll stop there.
Brandon Cleaver: No, I mean talking about the communal aspect, and also the contextualization is so important. Like you said, in the west, we have become very individualistic, which is very different than the milieu that we find in the ancient Near East, particular throughout the biblical narrative. It was very communal. So I'm not one that would say that individualism in and of itself is negative, but we do have to understand its limitations and weaknesses as well, particularly as Christians.
But also I think the example you gave in Acts, with Paul at the Areopagus, was perfect. If I could just add one more example to that as far as a way in which we can use something that may be more of a cultural term and less biblical, probably the most used word in the Christian lexicon is “gospel,” and its Greek equivalent will be “euangelion.”
Euangelion was not a distinctively Christian term. This was a very cultural term. In fact, this was a term that was often used by Caesar and other Roman authorities to announce that there's this new king or this new authority figure. And so, this was supposed to mean "good news" for the society or for the empire.
Well, then Christ comes along and now Christ Jesus uses this cultural term to say, hey, there's good news. The apostles are using this to say, hey, there's good news. But this good news is not only for the Roman society or the Roman Empire. This is transcendentally good news. This is good news for all people of all different backgrounds, of all different languages, tribes, nations, and such. This is the good news that your Lord and Savior, your very creator, came to this earth and died for your sins.
And so, this is another way and another example in which we can take a cultural term, perhaps a term that we may have some discomfort with, but again use it in a way that can really point towards Christ. I think that we engage in evangelism and apologetics as our vocation, as our everyday vocation, but everyone who's a Christian is an evangelist. Everyone who professes their fidelity to Jesus Christ is an apologist.
So I think that these are important tools and tips for anyone listening, not just for those who may be giving talks and speaking on some of these issues on a regular basis. This is something that can be edifying for everyone to think about.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Well, as we push into our definitions or terms on how we engage with the world around us, there is a point earlier on when both of you were expressing a certain amount of optimism when we were talking about hope. I'm optimistic in those categories, but there's an underlying element that I'd like you guys to get me to help think through here that makes me more cynical for the long-term impact of what it is that we're experiencing right now, and it's this.
Part of the tension here is not just in how we think about these issues as Christians, but also how we think about them as a country. If we go back to one of our core documents, the Declaration of Independence, you have this phrase that it's self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights and so on and so forth. We recognize a bitter irony in that statement because even the definition of a man at that point wasn't what we use today of a person.
So there are certainly ways in which we could see progress of taking apart and more fully defining what that means, but part of the struggles that we're wrestling with at the moment is that the equality of humanity is not self-evident. Ravi has pointed this out. Marilynne Robinson in her essay “Austerity as Ideology” points out this. How do we route the value of humanity?
Well, value is a relational term. So can we as humanity come up with a system for equally valuing each other? Robinson would say when we're in moments where we're frustrated with our culture, we look at these idealistic, utopian social structures. She's intentionally trying to factor God out of this at the moment and saying that we have never, as a group of people, been good at this, but the logic that it should work out, that there'd be mutual reciprocity and equity and fairness, the logic of it is so sound in our minds that we're surprised every time when that doesn't happen, even though that's one of the most common features of human cultures and societies.
That's where this idea of sin comes into it. She's like, it's almost like some anthropologist beats us to every unknown culture and we find out that they're homicidal and xenophobic as a natural part of their culture in the way that they interact.
Now that might be an overly negative view of humanity to some, but I would say that our global historical narrative would bear out that our societies have not done a good job by their own lights establishing equality and equity. That being said, this comes back around to the point that...And, Brandon, you'll want to comment on this too, when we talk about the civil rights movement of the '60s and Martin Luther King Jr. and recognizing that he was not universally well-loved by white Christians at the time.
But what he was doing was, he was making an appeal to the moral conscience of a Christian people and saying, "Look, you're not living consistently with the values that you claim to be holding. If you're a Christian, you have to be interested in these concepts and these important human experiences because Christ commands you to do that." He was, in effect, trying to hold people to be accountable to a standard that they already held.
Where I get slightly less optimistic is the fact that we use phrases like "a moral awakening" in our time, but we don't know what that collective morality is grounded in. And so, back to the declaration, as endowed by the creator with inalienable rights, well, when you factor out a theological backstop for the grounding of that morality, do we have legitimate reasons to be hopeful that we as a culture...If we only had enough people on Twitter, we could figure out what justice is?
That's where I start to get cynical because it seems like this is different in the sense that we no longer have a common language and a common route for what is good, and what is righteous, and what is true. And so, in the past, there've been social movements that it's been easy to answer the question of, well, why is racism wrong?
It sounds bad to even ask that question because it seems so silly to us from a Christian perspective regarding the sanctity of life and the diversity and the beauty of the way God creates the world, and the value of humanity isn't just in the fact that we're made in the image of God, but that Christ was willing to die for us. Value is illustrated in the degree to which something is willing to be paid for and God himself sacrificing himself for people of every tribe and nation. The full ethnos is represented in the Kingdom of God.
And so, the reason that Brandon and I can have these fun conversations, and we've even thought about having a podcast, with Brandon falling asleep and me keeping him awake by asking more questions, the reason that happens is because we share a core definition. When Brandon corrects and critiques me, as I need to be educated in some of these things, he's holding me accountable to a standard that I already accept exists.
So when we talk about collective repentance, you can't repent if you don't know what the standard is, or where the line of infringement has been. And so, it seems to me, and this is my cynicism, is that, culturally speaking, we don't necessarily have those clear definitions of the why behind some of these things and that it then feels to me like it's more virtue-signaling than it is actual empathy. I can get myself in a pretty deep funk pretty quickly when I start thinking through that.
On the other hand, I am completely optimistic because I'm a Christian, but I see the gospel as holding the foundational definitions of some of these terms in a way that makes the most sense cross-culturally for a collective kingdom under the lordship of Christ to have a unified ability to wrestle with these terms in a real way.
And so, perhaps I'm not articulating that and actually stop talking and let you guys ask me some questions about what I'm trying to say, or perhaps I am getting that through. Somebody help me out.
Brandon Cleaver: Yeah, I think what you said right there is so important. It's funny, Nathan, as you were articulating that, initially, I was thinking to myself these are two different discussions in a way. So there's this discussion that's happening within the church and there's this discussion that may be happening with those outside of the church. But, in a way, there are obviously some differences, but I also think there's a lot of similarities. Either way, there has to be one standard. There has to be that objective standard.
Now for the Christian, I would hopefully lovingly and hopefully gracefully try and steer them towards, okay, how are we thinking about these things in light of our Christian convictions, in light of the belief that all of our groundings for the virtues that we are trying to achieve here, or for the maximization of these virtues, these things are all grounded in Christ? Are we seeing these things through that prism?
There's already an assumption of Christ, but I think there sometimes may need to be a recalibration of the focus or reorienting of the focus. But for those outside of the church, we may need to start a few steps back and say, "Okay. Well, what is your grounding for this? Is your grounding just that these things feel good, that they seem to be nice to the person who is your neighbor?" Well, there's a lot of times we can look at society and say, "Well, yeah, the person who put forth these certain ideas thought they were actually benevolent."
This may seem like a distant example, but Hitler, I mean he thought some of his ideas were good ones, were benevolent ones, were things that would be good for his specific race and ethnicity of people and, more broadly, good for the world. But, of course, we wouldn't agree with those.
So I do think that there's this need for us to establish the basis, the objective standard by which we look for these virtues. I think that when we examine the ways that we can look at achieving this objective standard, that Jesus Christ is the one who embodies these things.
Ravi had said it so magnificently, so I'm going to butcher this. But he talked about...He spoke, I believe, it was at the United Nations. And so, he has all these different people of all different backgrounds and cultures. In his joking way, he's like, "Oh my goodness. I have all this time, but I have to somehow have this consensus in my talk. But I'm speaking to all these different people."
So he's speaking to all these different things. Then he gets to this point that everyone can agree on. He said, "We can agree," and he named these four virtues. Forgive me, I can't remember them all. But he said things like love, and justice, and redemption, all these different things. He said, "Well, think about where is the one place in history where all of these virtues, all of these ideas that we all hold so dear converge." That's on a cross on Calvary 2,000 years ago. And so, I think that that example that he gave is something that can be in the back of our minds as we engage in these conversations both within and outside of the church.
Cameron McAllister: Well, obviously there's so much more that can be said. We've just scratched the surface. But part of what we aim to do here is to really to get you thinking more deeply about certain topics. And so, we hope we've done that, and I hope that this is not the last time we have Brandon Cleaver on the show, by the way. There's so much more we could talk about.
Nathan, I think where you're coming from there is so needed. You put me in mind of Alasdair MacIntyre's famous book, After Virtue, when he talked about when we have our moral conversations these days, we're speaking completely different languages, which really hampers us.
The reason I think I've got some cautious optimism going here is because there seems to be not just the feel-good kind of sentiments being expressed on a national scale, but a kind of national reckoning that's happening. So it's painful, it's deeply unsettling, but it seems to be, at least in my mind in many ways, unsettling for the right reasons. People were finally not looking away. We're finally getting a good look at corruption. We're finally getting a good look at the human heart, because it's not beginning on the flattering grounding of inalienable rights and made in the image of God. It's beginning on a more somber note of fallenness, sin, brokenness.
I think that offers some real fulsome hope. I put in mind of Alan Jacobs book, Original Sin: A Cultural History. In that book, he makes the audacious argument that actually the doctrine that really can unite us, and especially in modern times, given modern forms of corruption, maybe we don't begin with the image of God because that's been so abused. Some people said, "Well, some people aren't made in the image of God. Some people aren't even people. Some people are more in the image of God than others."
He says maybe the one that actually can unite us is original sin, which levels the playing field and shows us our total need for a savior, our total need to be saved. I think we look at where we're standing, and I think some people are finally beginning to recognize not necessarily the truth of the gospel, but why it would be good news, why in our affluent, comfortable world we actually would need to be saved.
At this moment, with a pandemic with deep civil unrest and racial injustice and all of these factors coming together, that's the eye-opening experience I'm seeing a little bit, and it is giving me a note of optimism here.
But thank you so much for listening. You've been listening to Thinking Out Loud, a podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope.
Every article, podcast, and video on this website is made possible by the kindness of our supporters.
If you'd like to support our mission of sharing a thoughtful Christianity to the world, you can donate through our site.