why racism is wrong

My friend and colleague Frank Beckwith is singing my song in a recent blog post. Responding to an essay by Princeton’s Keith Whittington, Frank writes,

Without a doubt, racism ought to be opposed at every turn. But that is only because racism is a false view about the nature of human beings. At religious institutions, such as the university at which I am honored to serve (Baylor), the rejection of racism is baked into the very Christian idea of the imago dei, that human beings are by nature made in the image of God. But that image is not merely symbolic, it is descriptive of the aspect of our nature that is the most “Godlike,” our intellects. As St. Thomas Aquinas put it: “Since man is said to be the image of God by reason of his intellectual nature, he is the most perfectly like God according to that in which he can best imitate God in his intellectual nature.” Consequently, it would be a mistake for Christian institutions to try to emulate the project envisioned in the Princeton faculty letter. For it would undercut the epistemic grounds for why we believe racism is wrong: it is wrong because it is false. But that judgment depends on what the truth is, something that we can only know because of the power of our intellects. Thus, a Christian university that takes its stand against racism by giving identity politics and group perceptions pride of place over the pursuit and acquisition of truth not only diminishes the imago dei and violates the very reason for its existence but cultivates in its students reflexes that do not fulfill the demands of Christian charity: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (I Corinthians 13: 4–7).

This is related, I think, to something I wrote recently about Baylor, where Frank and I teach:

President Livingstone likes to say, “The world needs a Baylor.” If Baylor simply echoes the language and the policies of other institutions, then no, the world really doesn’t need a Baylor. But if we think and speak and act out of a deep commitment to the Gospel of the Crucified and Risen One, then we can make a difference indeed.

If Baylor has a problem with racism — and I think it does — then that didn’t happen because we were insufficiently up-to-date with whatever the outrage of the moment is. It happened because we did not think and live out of the Christian convictions we claim to have. It happened because our adherence to our tradition was nominal rather than substantive. It hapened because, while we may have agreed, if asked, that all human beings are made in the image of God, we had not internalized that doctrine in such a way that it shaped our thoughts. And that’s the shortcoming that we should be attentive to. It is a moral and spiritual one, but also an intellectual one. That matters especially at a university.

After the killing of George Floyd, when universities around the country were scrambling to put together anti-racism statements, Baylor scrambled too. But if we had consistently lived up to our convictions we wouldn’t have had to. A Christian institution should be leading the way in critiquing racism, and should be doing so in distinctively Christian language that arises from sprcifically Christian convictions; it shouldn’t be chasing the pack and echoing the pack’s language. Think of William Wilberforce and the other evangelicals who led the way in ending Britain’s slave trade — and Phillis Wheatley, and Olaudah Equiano. Those people should be our models.

There’s opportunity for some serious self-reflection here, should we choose to take it. A few years ago I wrote a post about Christian organizations that were changing their views on sexuality, and there I argued that there are three ways to interpret such a change:

1) At one point, the organization held views about sexuality that were largely determined by its social environment, but it has now reconsidered those views in light of the Gospel and has come to a more authentically Christian understanding of the matter.

2) At one point, the organization held authentically Christian views about sexuality, but has succumbed to public pressure and fear of being scorned or condemned and now holds views that are determined by its social environment.

3) The organization has always held the views about sexuality that were socially dominant, bending its understanding of Scripture to suit the times; it just changed when (or soon after) the main stream of society changed.

The interpretation is not possible is that these organizations have been consistently faithful to Christian teaching. At some point, and probably (I think) at all points, they were merely reflecting social norms.

I would apply the same logic to Christian institutions that are just now discovering the tragedy of American racism. If racism has always been endemic in American life, and the Christian faith gives us the intellectual and equipment we need to diagnose and combat racism, why are you just now noticing the problem? How have you been thinking about racism in the past — or not thinking about it? Isn’t it likely that when a kind of quiet racism was socially acceptable you accepted it, and when it became socially imperative to denounce it you denounced it?

Self-reflection is hard, and it’s easier, even if stressful, just to chase the pack. And there’s another factor to be considered. The cause of the moment is anti-racism, and Christianity, properly understood, is full-throatedly anti-racist, even if its reasons for taking that view are quite different from those of many activists, and its preferred means for redressing it will often be different too. But if you try to think from the heart of the Christian tradition, often you will find yourself moving in a direction very different than that of the pack — and the pack is not tolerant or forgiving of dissent. “Joining the crowd / is the only thing all men can do,” and for the crowd joining is mandatory. In these circumstance chasing the pack, even if it’s not heroic, will always be not just easier but also safer.