The demand for justice that issues from Black Lives Matter is a sufficient warrant unto itself to demand the full solidarity of Christians. What follows should not therefore be taken to suggest that a certain theological investigation -- especially one coming from a white man like myself -- is in any way “necessary” for Christian solidarity or that BLM’s demand for justice is somehow deficient until it’s “approved” by theology. In fact, it is precisely the opposite that is the case. However the scourge of racism appears to the eyes of faith, it is crucial that Christians keep in view the fact that racism is an entirely this-world problem, intelligible and therefore available for abolition on its own terms. Unfortunately, much of the overthinking and ambivalence that plagues the (white) Christian response to racism stems in part from a failure to recognize this fact; a fundamental misidentification of the kind of problem that racism is.
Excursus. It is a truism on the left that capitalism stands out for its remarkable ability to distort our perception of things. Furthermore, because it arises from within a Christian imagination, capitalism gains a significant amount of its endurance and plausibility from the manner in which it reconfigures certain claims of Christianity.
For instance, consider how capitalism is predicated on the doctrine of the Fall. If liberal rationality presumed to understand things as they “really are,” then the social relations as imposed by capitalism were likewise understood to simply be the “natural” relations of human beings. But this required a conflation of what Christian theology had at least traditionally kept separate. No matter how thoroughly pervasive the effects of the Fall were on the human race and the creation in which it lived, the Fall was nevertheless considered to be a defect of a prior integrity. However, capitalism makes this defect constitutive: the distinction between humanity as originally created and humanity as depraved by sin is effectively erased. Having collapsed the competitive impulses of an estranged and alienated humanity into the nature of things, capitalism constructs a new natural law, a new realm of neutrality. As a result, while moral judgments about those impulses are still permitted, they are limited merely to what are seen as the deviations -- whether of excess or deficiency -- of what is otherwise stable and natural (a standard of judgment that has incidentally proven most useful in the racial categorization of black people vis-a-vis white people). Morality is thus permitted to judge only the exceptions to the rule; and, as we learn from Augustine’s idea of evil as a privation of the good, exceptions are neither inherent nor essential to their corresponding norms. Moral judgments of capitalism’s sins thereby serve to reinforce the normativity of capitalist social relations and human conduct . Because capitalist social relations are located in a public realm of facts -- and are therefore “natural” -- those relations themselves are necessarily exempted from moral judgment, since moral judgments are conversely located in the private realm of individual preference.
The irony, however, is that far from abolishing Christianity, this bifurcation offers it an enticing role to play in the liberal-capitalist order. Christianity will always have job security under capitalism because, as a private matter itself, religion is tasked with the moral regulation of individuals that disciplines them into proper capitalist subjects. Once confined to their properly private realm, both religion and moral judgments alike perform a vital function in the maintenance of capitalism. But religion doesn’t merely perform this task as though it were an assignment sent down from upper management. On the contrary, religion internalizes this task into its theological imagination. Our doctrine, our churches, even our account of “the Gospel” itself, are aligned with this task so as to produce a mutually reciprocal relationship between capitalism and religion.
I begin with this excursus on capitalism because it is essential for understanding the difficulty of (white) Christians to properly identify the kind of problem that racism is. After all, as the theory of “racial capitalism” as developed by Cedric Robinson suggests, it is doubtful that capitalism and racism were ever separate to begin with (see also Willie James Jennings on this point). So, the manner in which many Christians across the political spectrum attempt to address the problem of racism reveals that our theological imagination is coextensive with capitalist logic.
“Sin” is a theological category, even for progressive Christians who readily admit its “systemic” dimensions. But recall that, under capitalism, to identify something theologically is to categorically remove it from facts, from nature, from politics. It is to immediately frame it as something separate from the world and society, and therefore as something that is unintelligible apart from the “private” claims derived from divine revelation. So, to identify something as “sin” is to transpose it into an otherworldly key, inadmissible to the world on its own terms. Granted, this theological account has a longstanding precedent in certain streams of the Christian tradition that are not reducible to capitalism. Indeed, not far beneath this whole discussion is the perennial question concerning the relationship between nature and grace. But the affinity between this theological account and the capitalist conception of nature is nevertheless significant, as the logic of capitalism maps the distinction between nature and grace onto the distinction between public and private. Consequently, if one accepts the configuration of religion as established by capitalism, then a theological category such as sin becomes an incredibly convenient tool with which to mystify capitalism’s manifold injustices, racism included.
For American Christians, the claim that racism is a sin is hardly controversial. What is hotly contested is rather the kind of sin that racism represents; it is, in short, a dispute about whether racism is a “systemic” sin as opposed to a “personal” sin. And yet, our consensus about the sinfulness of racism leads inexorably to a further consensus about the kind of solution that Christianity proposes. Whether conservative or progressive, some account of “the Gospel” is what is nearly always put forward as what our society needs to overcome its affliction of racism. And this makes sense for a religion that hopes for the redemption of a sinful world. But what this fails to examine is the nature of sin itself, as well as what we are saying when we identify the “sin” of racism. It too often takes for granted both the construction of nature under racial capitalism and the corresponding privatization of religious claims, having internalized both under the guise of theology.
What this looks like in practice is when Christians routinely assume that if racism is a sin, it must necessarily be some kind of ineffable evil that is ineradicable without the redemption offered by “the Gospel.” Even if one grants the historical and structural conditions of racism, the moment that racism is identified as a sin, it effectively becomes a problem whose solution can only be seen with the eyes of faith -- a private vision. Note how often BLM is framed as something that has to be “related” to Christianity, as if from the outside, as opposed to something that may be already incumbent on us simply as human beings. And it’s irrelevant whether it is related positively or negatively, because in either case, many Christians -- particularly those who are white -- remain unable to account for Black Lives Matter except from a position that is theologically detached from its politics: a detachment that presupposes the racialized exemption of white people from the demands of BLM even as it strives to induce in them a spiritualized solidarity as white Christians. The attempt to build support for the cause of black liberation upon exclusively theological appeals -- such as to the “sinfulness” of racism -- can mask an unspoken admission that there are no other appeals that can be made. To put it in Ibram X. Kendi’s terminology, even if Christians reject the “racist” belief that “problems are rooted in groups of people” -- as opposed to the “anti-racist” belief that “locates the roots of problems in power and policies” -- the problem is that sin is rooted, if not in select groups of people, at least in people generally . Sin only pertains to “power and policies” to the extent that people implement or reinforce them (since power and policies are incapable of committing sin on their own), which is why the exclusive framing of racism along the lines of sin/redemption disqualifies it from being properly “anti-racist” as defined by Kendi. So, without the necessary critique, the concept of “systemic sin” can get distracted by precisely the kind of individualistic moral conduct that it seeks to transcend. And this happens to play right into the hand of the conservative Christian reaction against BLM by needlessly entangling the natural imperative to abolish unjust structures with the spiritual drama of sin and redemption.
Now, I would be at risk of succumbing to the very bifurcation I’ve already critiqued if I were to claim that Christianity has nothing to say about the problem of racism. To bracket our theological critique of sin from our solidarity with the politics of Black Lives Matter would simply be to hop on the opposite side of the capitalist partition that’s imposed between religion and politics. So, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Christians are in need of better theology than a wholesale dismissal. Nevertheless, when it comes to the problem of racism, this better theology will be marked by a respect for the integrity of a thoroughly “natural” politics of abolition and the moral obligations that fall upon us as humans. And even if we register it as a “sin” (which we absolutely should), the effects of this sin will still be those whose abolition need not necessarily involve the gift of grace. The racist sins which induced the managers of white supremacy to implement its structural dimensions may in fact be so grave that only the power of God can redeem (or damn) them, but fortunately for us, those structural dimensions are not so ineradicable. Nor do we need stand by as we wait patiently for the piecemeal repentance of every white person’s complicity, as though the structures of racism were the symptoms of individual sensibilities and not the other way around. That isn’t to say that the personal sins of racism aren’t formidable in their own right or that they can always be neatly detached from racism’s structural dimensions -- there’s certainly a reciprocal relationship between the two. And within the church we should be most vigilant in disciplining any vestige of racism as a grievous sin. But even still, the appeal to Christians for the abolition of racism as a structure of injustice must begin not with “sin” or any particularly “theological” category at all, but with a critique of the concept of “nature” as established by racial capitalism -- a critique that is accordingly rooted not in theology, but in a rival political account of nature such as that put forward by Black Lives Matter. For it is the presumption that these structures represent the inviolable laws of nature that leads us to imagine that only a divine injection of an otherworldly grace can abolish, if not the structures themselves, at least the private sins of the individuals within them. In short, Christians access the politics of BLM first as humans, accountable to the demands of justice that are discernible within the natural order already -- we are indeed “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20) -- and only secondarily as Christians who are accountable to the even higher standard of discipleship.
Perhaps I’ve made my point already. That the response of so many white Christians to Black Lives Matter is one of cynicism and resignation reveals just how insignificant their inner dispositions are to the abolition of racism. However, notwithstanding the incredible capacity for reactionary violence that cynicism and resignation possess, this response is ultimately one of disavowal: it is the only reaction left when the sheer artificiality of racism is exposed for all to see. Which is just one of the reasons why Christians should concede that, with regard to the abolitionist politics of Black Lives Matter, we aren’t induced to participate for any specifically “Christian” reasons. Far from impugning our theological vision or the redemptive potential of the Gospel, however, this concession witnesses to their radical clarity. The humanity of those fighting to dismantle white supremacy is as conspicuous as the structures that must be dismantled -- which is more than conspicuous enough. Our theology lends its greatest solidarity by refusing to obstruct the view.