Practice in Precision

Tim Keller, founder of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, has done much for the kingdom of Christ.  Let me emphasize that – Pastor Keller does more good, say, on any given Thursday, than I’ve accomplished in my life.  He’s written many fine books, several of which I’ve read with profit.  I know no one more adept than Keller at relating Christian doctrine to the modern, secular city-dweller.    

However, that no one is perfect is a truth that applies to even the best of pastors.  No matter how much fine material a pastor or theologian has previously turned out, one cannot afford to receive his new work uncritically, without waving around the discernment antennae.  When it comes to Pastor Keller’s recent online treatments of the topic of racism, I find his reasoning to be facile and, unintentionally, misleading.  I’d like to demonstrate that over a few posts by interacting with this recently written article:  

The purpose of these posts is not to smear Keller or steer you away from his writing.  Rather, the hope is that we’ll get some practice in biblical precision, we’ll dip our toes into the contemporary discussion of racism, and generally remember our calling to a love that discerns (Philippians 1:9).

1. Keller’s use of the word “racism” is vague and gratuitous. 

The Bible describes humanity as composed of two segments – the humanity in Adam and the humanity in Christ.  For many reasons, it’s crucial to follow the Spirit and broadly distinguish the population just that way (2 Corinthians 5:16).  So the shared ancestry of either Adam or Christ form the two races of humanity.  People in these two races certainly weren’t arbitrarily set into one or the other of them; neither are the races separated from each other according to any external feature of their populations; rather each human being is located in one race or the other on the basis of his being inside or outside of the new covenant with God.  So, we should follow the Bible’s lead and reserve “race” for that fundamental distinction of in Adam or in Christ.

Other chief ways that Scripture delineates segments of humanity are by family clan and by nation. 

Keller’s technique, though, is to take divisions of covenant, clan and nation, and collapse all these into a concept of race.  From there, some equivocation begins, where the biblical denunciations of so-called “racism” are applied directly to the racism conversation today.  (The “direct” part is one of the problems.) Some examples:

  • He claims that Deut 10:17, 18 is a discussion of “race prejudice.”  But was the foreigner among Israel of a different race, or simply from a different clan or nation?    
  • Keller says that the Good Samaritan reached out to the injured man of a “different race.”  But the Samaritan traces some of their ancestry to the Jews – could Samaritans and Jews then be separate races?  
  • While referencing Galatians 6:15, Keller claims that circumcision and uncircumcision is a “metaphor for racial and ethnic differences.”  But actually, in using circumcision and uncircumcision, Paul is designating the former way of dividing humanity under the terms of the Abrahamic covenant.  
  • Also in Galatians, when Paul rebukes Peter for not eating with the Gentiles, Keller states that Paul was “reminding [Peter] that his racism was a failure to grasp the good news of God’s salvation.”  But Peter’s act can hardly be called “racist” in a way that the term is used today.  Rather, out of a fear of man, by his actions Peter was disavowing the truth that Christ had opened up a new covenant with new terms applying equally to Jew and Gentile.  Peter’s decision to suspend eating with Gentiles was an oblique attack on the Gospel, but wasn’t racism.           

As we’ve already seen, one problem of eliding race with ethnicity/ clan/ or covenant is that it sets one up for faulty exegesis of both the Scripture and the culture (more on this later). “Racism” is not a word the bible uses, nor does the notion behind it take into account the basis upon which the bible groups people. For that reason, it’s a word primed to be misused.

And it is misused. “Racism” is used vaguely and quickly to account for what are actually many other possible reasons behind a particular wrongdoing. Which means, charges of racism often don’t serve to lay bare actual problems. Yet even with all the confusion surrounding the word, among Christians “racism” has attained a special status as a problem in itself, with particular issues peculiar to itself. The problem is, when racism is placed into its own exclusive category, one can find only a few and doubtful biblical verses which can be applied to the problem behind the word (see above). And to the extent that the diagnosis is faulty, hope is diminished for an effective antidote.

However, when one grasps that the sin of so-called “racism” is actually yet another species of vainglory, malice, rivalry, selfish ambition – now a whole host of passages can be brought to bear against it.  For instance, in Titus 3 Paul says that, before the washing by the Spirit, humanity passes its days “in malice and envy, hated by other and hating one another.”  Dismissal or judging or mistreatment another on the basis of national origin or skin color is yet another expression of unredeemed humanity’s malice, envy, and hatred.  

Mislabel the problem, and the mind immediately rushes to all manners of solutions, well-intended and irrelevant – more policies, more money, putting everyone on equal footing etc.

The problem called by its right name – now we’re in a position to apply the biblical and only antidote. Listen to Paul again, after he has spoken of our ubiquitous and ancient hatreds: But when God, our kind and loving Savior God, stepped in, he saved us from all that [malignancy, including species of hatred]. It was all his doing; we had nothing to do with it. He gave us a good bath, and we came out of it new people, washed inside and out by the Holy Spirit. Our Savior Jesus poured out new life so generously. God’s gift has restored our relationship with him and given us back our lives. (Titus 3)  

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