Practice in Precision: Pt 2


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. (see previous post)
  2. The third section of Keller’s article – “Is racism a corporate as well as an individual sin?” – is logically and exegetically confused.

I’ll start the criticism by focusing on the incoherent thesis, and to set the context I’ll include the sentences leading up to it (pp. 9, 10): “The claim [by some] is that there is deliberate, individual racism, but also there are social structures that are supported by the dominant racial group that exclude and oppress racial minorities even though the individuals sustaining the systems may themselves not individually hold or practice conscious racist views and behaviors.  Even if individuals are not personally racist, they bear corporate guilt and responsibility for not working to dismantle the structures that oppress.  Is this view true?  When stated just as I did, I think the answer is yes, there is both systemic and individual racism.”  (my emphasis)

I’ve already quibbled with Keller’s (and most everyone else’s) use of “racism,” so I won’t address that again here.  So let’s ignore the big label and get to the reasoning…  

By God’s grace, I don’t despise or judge or show partiality to anyone on the basis of his skin color; but then, on the other hand, I’m not working to “dismantle the structures that oppress.”  At this moment, I don’t even know what and where those are.  

So would Keller be prepared to declare me guilty of and responsible for racism?  At the start of his thesis statement, it sure looks like that’s where things are headed: “they bear corporate guilt and responsibility…” And then as he moves closer toward his conclusion, “I think the answer is yes,” it appears he’s about to pounce and declare someone like me guilty.   

But then notice how Keller wraps up these sentences, with a little non sequitur.  “Yes, there is both systemic and individual racism.”  

Wait, hold on!  Look back – where did the individual(s) from the start of the thesis go?  What happened to assigning to them guilt and responsibility?  At the last moment he has backed down from the direct charge, and instead settles for a docile reportage: there is both systemic and individual racism.  What an anticlimax!  

I point out this little shiftiness for a couple of reasons.  For one thing, this is one of several breaks in logic throughout.  In fact, in my analysis I’m actually skipping over the section “Is racism a modern sin?” because I find the reasoning there to be too tortured to bear commenting.  Secondly, I believe that what Keller does in this thesis epitomizes the non-committal vagueness and indirection woven through the entire article.  The technique is to insinuate and suggest, but never directly pronounce.  A lot of bobbing and weaving.  A topic so important as this could use some Larry Csonka directness.   

Pastor Keller (I’d like to say to him), just come out and say it!  Are individuals who are not “personally racist” still very possibly guilty of racism?  Ok, if so, when did that guilt pass on to them?  At birth?  Or is there an age of accountability by which time they should have clued into the presence and location of oppressive structures?  And how is their guilt removed?  Surely we want it removed! Via punishment?  Punishment by whom?    “Corporate guilt” – into which group am I incorporated that has rendered me guilty?  America?  Ok – Federated America or my particular state?  Is my guilt increased or decreased for my French and English ancestry?  Or is it a certain shared skin color that confers guilt?  Then by which contract did I come to be in solidarity with whites throughout the generations?  And “responsibility”?  What’s the least I need do to fulfill and discharge said responsibility?    

The point being: bandy around serious words like guilt and responsibility, then you better be prepared to get precise.  

Moving on to more logical confusion.  “There is both systemic and individual racism.”  Get that assertion clear in your head.  Keller is claiming that, up till today, some individuals mistreat others on the basis of skin color and there are also “structures that oppress” others on the basis of skin color.  

Ok, now listen to the sentence that follows, which contains Keller’s first support of his assertion: “The first reason is that the Bible speaks of both individual and corporate sin, guilt, and responsibility.”  By this (even though he won’t come out and say it) Keller is suggesting that white people are guilty now for what white people did in the past.  

Now…quickly! Go consult that opening assertion again.  And then one more time, look at the follow-up sentence.  What you’ll discover is more muddled misdirection: this first reason (basically corporate guilt) doesn’t support the assertion (there is systemic racism)!  How exactly is corporate guilt logically connected to systemic racism?    

I promise, in pointing out these lapses of logic, I’m not looking for the “gotcha.”  Rather, I’m evincing that the argument here (and throughout, as I said above) is confused and moves forward in disconnected claims.  And that’s too bad.  Treating such a pertinent topic at such an explosive time requires rigorous logic and clearer thinking than this.      

But even though it doesn’t follow, let’s still look into that “first reason.”  “The Bible speaks of both individual and corporate sin, guilt, and responsibility.”  Of course, he’s right about that first claim, the Bible speaks much of individual sin.  In regard to corporate sin, Keller references four such instances: Daniel 9, Joshua 7, Deut 23:3-8, 2 Samuel 21:1.  He’s mainly correct (I get confused by the word ‘responsibility,’ but no matter), the Bible does speak of corporate sin.  But his indiscriminate application of corporate guilt to our issue of “race” is wrong, since, among other oversights, it particularly disregards the notion of covenant.  

  • Daniel 9 – Daniel confesses the sins of all Israel, in his and previous generations.  “We have sinned, we have done wickedly…for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers.”  But notice, Daniel confesses sin as a leader of a nation that was uniquely bound together in covenant with God.  The sin against God of one member of the covenant community rendered the whole community guilty, because together they made up one of the parties to the covenant (the other party being God).  The sins of one member of one generation were a stain on the covenant community of every generation.  They were in legal solidarity with one another because of the covenant.  

However, this intra-generational covenant guilt before God can’t be applied to other bodies of people, including groups of people that share the same skin color, because there’s no covenant as such that legally binds together their members.  True, any of us have “inherited” plenty of “futile ways from our forefathers” (1 Peter 1:18), but that’s not to say that we’re guilty for their transgressions.

  • Joshua 7 – According to one interpretation, Achan’s family is killed alongside of him because of Achan’s theft and deceit.  In explaining this, Keller gets a little slippery and hauls out the straw man: “Contrary to our western individualistic view, the Bible recognizes that our character and actions are not purely the result of our personal choices.  A person’s character is in large part forged by family and community.”  Well, no kidding, I think even a dull modern westerners like I has picked up on the fact of familial influence!  But never mind that.  The thing to point out is that this passage isn’t clear on a couple important things: 1) No doubt, Achan’s children were forced to be present at his execution, but it’s unclear whether or not they were also executed.  (My reading is that they weren’t.)  2) We also don’t know whether Achan’s children were involved in his crime.   

So, there are things we don’t know and thus we should be cautious in our applications.  But what absurd application should we not take away from the story of Achan?   We have no reasonable basis for believing that people of one generation are guilty because of the transgressions by people of previous generations who happen to be of the same skin color.  

  • Deuteronomy 23:3-8 – Here God is excluding Ammonites and Moabites “even to the tenth generation” from entering the assembly of the LORD.  Ammon was barred because they did not offer sustenance to the Israelites as they left Egypt; the Moabites because they hired Balaam to curse Israel.  Due to the offenses of these two tribes, God writes into the covenant a stipulation, set to expire ten generations hence, that prohibits their worshiping with Israel.  General message: penal consequences deriving from the actions of one generation can be, for a set time, deliberately carried over into subsequent generations.  

As a reminder, this stipulation is one of the terms within a historically unique covenant.  Today, there isn’t a covenant with any ethnicity or nation or any other group that parallels this one.  Moreover, these terms don’t provide an example of “corporate guilt,” “corporate sin,” or even “corporate responsibility.”  The odd Moabite in, say, the fifth generation from this stipulation, didn’t hire Balaam. Neither was he guilty for the hiring of Balaam.  And he wasn’t responsible to do anything because his ancestors had hired Balaam.      

Being a little more complicated to explain, 2 Samuel 21 will be reserved for the next time.  Let me summarize by quoting from Keller:

“Achan’s family was deeply involved in the man he became and was therefore complicit [Dictionary – Complicit: “the state of being involved with others in an illegal activity or wrongdoing”] in his actions.”  


“In the same way, Daniel recognized that he was the product of a community that had sinned against God, and he recognized his own corporate participation in it.” 


“Texts such as Deut 23: 3-8…show that God still holds nations and peoples responsible [Dictionary – Responsible: 1) having an obligation to do something, or having control over or care for someone, as part of one’s job or role 2) being the primary cause of something and so able to be blamed or credited for it 3) morally accountable for one’s behavior] for sins after the individual perpetrators had died.” 


Next time we’ll examine Pastor Keller’s ideas for repenting from systemic racism.  

2 thoughts on “Practice in Precision: Pt 2

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  1. James Landry says:

    I’ve read through both of these – and looking forward to #3. I’d just like to acknowledge the amount of time, thought, and labor that must have gone into preparing this analysis. Impressive. Will you plan to send to TK?

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