SINCERE STATEMENT OF ADMIRATION AND ASSUAGEMENT:
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 treatment 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: https://quarterly.gospelinlife.com/the-sin-of-racism/
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).
- Keller’s use of the word “racism” is vague and gratuitous. (see first post)
- The third section of Keller’s article – “Is racism a corporate as well as an individual sin?” – is logically and exegetically confused. (see second and third post)
- Finally, because Keller hasn’t laid the logical and exegetical foundation, his instructions for repenting from racism are hollow, unhelpful, and, again, gratuitous.
Systemic Racism Today
Before we get to repentance, however, a quick comment on Keller’s evidence for systemic racism today. In the relatively lengthy (16 pages as my printer renders it) article on the sin of racism, surprisingly Keller spends only a page and a half providing modes of systemic racism. Please review this section, beginning with the paragraph that starts, “How does systemic racism actually work.” In this section, you’ll discover…not a lot. As an illustration, let me excerpt a long passage. Read this slowly:
An even less formal but pervasive form of systemic injustice is how cultural processes shape white people in the U.S. to distrust other races. A recent New York Times article pointed out that, while France has had much better outcomes from its handling of the COVID pandemic than surrounding nations, the French people are far more negative toward its leaders than the other nations. The reason, as one professor put it, is that “Distrust [especially of leadership] is a structural element in French society.” It has developed over centuries and is deep in French culture, passed along in millions of informal, personal interactions, passed down from generation to generation. In the U.S. a distrust of non-white people, especially African-Americans, is likewise as structural and as deep. And it shows up in countless ways–in how teachers, doctors, bankers, and business owners treat non-white people. The sum total effect of all these figures with influence and power toward certain people groups serves to hold them down educationally, psychologically, economically and physically.
“It shows up in countless ways” – just take my word for it, is the implication. That’s the thrust of this entire section: vague assertions but without any examples of policies that would actually put the word “systemic” into play. Pastor Keller (I want to ask), which policies, on the federal or state or local level, are directed at inhibiting people with black skin from moving up and forward? Or even apart from policies, what inimical practices exist that are explicitly and widely accepted? I’m not claiming there aren’t any; but in an article like this examples should be front and center. (I’ll scarcely mention the patronizing tone toward black people contained in this paragraph. As a matter of fact, even when there were unjust policies of segregation, people with black skin didn’t allow themselves to be held down.)
Repenting from racism
But on to Keller’s prescription for repentance from racism. First thing, if you’ve been following along with these ramblings thus far, would you do me the favor of reading C.S. Lewis’ essay, “The Dangers of National Repentance” contained in the collection God in the Dock?
Keller says that our first gestures of repentance should be directed toward God, and, of course, he’s right that every sin is primarily God-ward. Keller says we should repent of deliberate, that is, self-conscious, acts or attitudes of racism. And then, according to the spirit of Psalm 19:12 (though a dubious interpretation), “repent for the ways in which we may be doing ‘racial Othering’ of which we are barely conscious.”
Now, I do appreciate this prompting from Keller, and we should never balk from exhortations to consider the blatant and subtle – subtle even to ourselves – ways we do people wrong. But the problem is that Keller has spent a good deal of the article claiming that we are guilty of racism in ways that we couldn’t be conscious of, because we’re guilty for the sins of some of our ancestors.
And that brings us again to the question: how can we go about the process of clearing ourselves of guilt for things that we haven’t done? And in answering that, you can’t bring up the case of Adam’s guilt imputed to us, because a point of the gospel is that that sin has been wiped away. But assuming guilt keeps extending out through the generations (a point which I don’t think Keller has carried), how can it ever go away? Can there be any repentance that allows the generational guilt to be erased? That’s a huge point.
Then Keller turns from repentance before God and opens the next paragraph: Is there any way for people in the US to do the kind of corporate repentance we see in Daniel 9 and elsewhere? There are many proposals, but I will mention just one. What!?? 13 pages establishing that there’s a problem, only then to provide just one avenue of repentance? But it makes sense; in this airy discussion where vague insinuation is the constant, much specificity is well-nigh impossible.
What is Keller’s one mentioned proposal for corporate repentance? Don’t airbrush history. That is, remember there’s been egregious wrong done in the USA, committed by state and citizenry alike, against black people. Furthermore, we could add to these lesser wrongs done against Indians (feather), Japanese, Chinese, Irish, Italian… a lot of terrible things have happened in the ‘home of the brave,’ sometimes accompanied by a rank hypocrisy.
Yes, and from a child I learned of these deplorable acts. In my suburban, conservative, Christian school, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was mandatory reading. And my experience was typical, wouldn’t you say? Let me ask generally: is there an American reading this who has not in his elementary – high school education been regularly exposed to American’s ethnic misdeeds? And more specifically, since Keller’s instruction is directed at Christians, is there an agenda in the American corner of Christendom that would seek to conceal poor treatment of people in American history? No and No.
Rather, is there not from greater society and within American Christianity a concerted effort – even perhaps to the point of overemphasis – acknowledging the ethnic injustices in America’s past? And yet, in spite of this widespread education, the one instruction in corporate repentance against systemic racism that Keller gives to us is…more of the same.
The Fruits of Repentance
Finally, Keller highlights two (key?) manifestations that would demonstrate a thorough turning from racism, “fruits of repentance.” This is potentially an important section in this article, because if churches already have these practices ‘on the vine,’ they very well could be past being charged with the “sin of racism.” So what are these fruits? First, one of the ways to bear fruits of repentance is for the members of more and more churches to make the sacrifices of power and comfort needed to form churches that show how in Christ the racial and cultural barrier that divide the world outside the church do not divide them inside, because of the power of the gospel.
But what does this mean? Those were the only words that Keller uses to describe this important “fruit,” and I, who makes a living interpreting words, cannot say for sure what he’s suggesting. Is he simply recommending that churches make the effort to hire black persons onto their staff? I would wholeheartedly agree that churches should not overlook black persons in their search for fit, talent, spiritual maturity. But then is that it? If so, in all my exposure to many churches, I’ve never smelt a whiff of a hiring restriction around skin color.
Keller’s second proposed fruit of repentance: Outside the church Christians should work against racial injustice and equality, and here the possibilities are too many to name. Working for educational equality and a reform of the criminal justice system seem, to me, to be on the very front lines of the battle.
Very quickly, currently I don’t think there’s much reforming needed. But again, we’re left with high-level vagueness. Should the many Christians who are educators and involved in the criminal justice system work to make sure that they are impartial, giving everyone equal opportunities and a fair shake? Yes! Should the very few Christians who are crafting policy do the same? Yes, and make sure that you’re doing so thoughtfully, and not as a lemming! But to Keller’s point, is anyone arguing against these practices? Not that I know of.
This wasn’t a good article. Not well-reasoned, vague in diagnosis and prescription, exegetically confused in almost every bible passage that’s mentioned. And yet, and yet – I’ll keep reading Keller. Throughout their careers, the best of preachers experience plenty of off Sundays. And the most helpful writers will occasionally lay an egg. Again, I want to say that I’m not trying to smear the ministry of Pastor Keller. And I appreciate the opportunity to interact with some of his work. May God continue to bless him and his family.