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As a member of the racial majority who grew up in an evangelical Christian context, I think reflexive defensiveness around race issues is often the product of simply not seeing racial injustice.

This may sound wildly implausible to those for whom racial injustice is a glaring and painful reality. But recognizing racism requires more than goodwill, strong faith, or good personal morals ; it also requires a worldview that registers those aspects of society in which racism is embedded.

Yet the worldview of the particular strain of evangelicalism in which I grew up renders these very features invisible. For those who subscribe to this worldview, identifying the pervasiveness and seriousness of racism requires a fundamental paradigm shift.

In my case, it took years before I stopped perceiving people speaking out against racial injustice as sowers of discord. I started to see them as prophetic voices clearly and eloquently communicating hard but vital truths.

There are two characteristics in particular central to the worldview I grew up with.

Biblical Social Justice
The first is a theologically imbalanced understanding of salvation. One of the great legacies of evangelical Christianity is its emphasis on a personal relationship with God. It takes seriously the idea we are sinners in need of salvation through accepting Christ in our hearts. Once we are saved, the transforming work of the Holy Spirit helps us overcome sinful tendencies in our lives.

This commitment to identifying and overcoming personal sins made the congregations of my youth particularly sensitive to social issues involving individual actions that are concrete, easily identified, and avoidable. For instance, these congregations were especially outspoken on the issue of abortion, because there was an identifiable chain of individual behaviors that led to pregnancy, and an ostensibly clear decision made to terminate that pregnancy.

Within the terms of a worldview so attuned to personal actions and their consequences, the ethical stakes involved were too blatant to ignore (the same is true of persecution of Christians, sexual slavery, and virtually every other issue on which these communities were vocal).

Individual salvation is vital to Christianity, but it isn’t the whole. Jesus makes clear  those who neglect the poor, the widow, the orphan, the hungry, the naked, and the imprisoned forfeit their salvation (Matt. 25:31-46). Furthermore, the prophets lay out a comprehensive vision of a just society and the obligation of those who fear God to address social injustice in both its individual and structural forms.

Racial justice seems a natural extension of this vision, especially given this country’s shameful legacy of slavery. I have God-fearing people in mind as I write. If convincing them to take Biblical social justice into serious account was all a productive conversation on race required, then I would just start a conversation on the persecution of fellow Christians.

America The Beautiful…?
Yet there is a second characteristic of this worldview preventing people from even seeing (let alone discussing) racial injustice: a belief in America as an exemplar Christian nation. This view maintains the U.S. owes its success as a nation to the fact it was founded on Christian principles, and that its structure remains fundamentally Christian even though evil things happen within that structure.

Thus by definition, sinful things that happen in the American context cannot be a part of the nation’s core structure. Slavery, for instance, was sinful; but through the hand of God, slavery was abolished, and with it, the threat slavery posed to America’s Christian identity.

Similarly, in the terms of this worldview, abortion is sinful; but the legal system that keeps it in place was imposed by outside forces. To eliminate the threat that abortion poses to American morality, one simply has to dismantle the legal apparatus enforcing it.

Once these peripheral threats are eliminated, exhibiting a just society within the U.S. context means figuring out how to align one’s personal morality with the country’s Christian core. Get the personal morality right, and a Christian society will take shape.

Unjust Core Elements
The persistence of racial injustice, however, suggests there is something structurally wrong with U.S. society —that its very core is set up in a way that unjustly favors some people while dehumanizing others. Conceding this point means admitting personal morality is not enough; after all, even people with impeccable personal morals benefit from, and therefore are complicit in, unjust structures.

And if the structures are unjust—then maybe there are anti-Christian elements at America’s core. For many people I know and love, letting go of a worldview that establishes such a seamless correspondence between Christianity, personal morality, and national identity is too painful to even consider. Yet this is precisely what engaging in conversations on racial injustice requires.

Conversations on racial injustice challenge those of us in the racial majority to take responsibility for systemic sins that we didn’t personally commit, but from which we have often unwittingly benefitted. This, in turn, implies rethinking the individualized vision of salvation and the Christian-nation vision of America that anchor the outlooks of many evangelical Christians.

In my case, my understanding of biblical ethics, and of the relationship between Christianity and the founding of the U.S. underwent considerable revision before I was able to even begin to see how pervasive racial injustice continues to be.

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