Racism, Rules, and Rethinking Theology

I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection between 1) certain unspoken and sometimes unacknowledged theological priorities of modern American Christianity and 2) the desire I’ve heard from some (mostly white) people for Black Lives Matter organizers to offer a clear set of rules for them to follow so as not to be racist. 

Listening to a podcast conversation about anti-racism work, it was suggested that white people don’t want to know the rules about what counts as racist so that they can do the work to end racism. White people instead want to know the rules so that we can protect ourselves from being accused of doing something wrong. As long as we have a set of rules that we can point to and say “what I did isn’t on that list,” then no one can tell us that we are at fault if our actions lead to problematic outcomes despite having played within the rules.

Setting aside for a moment whether this is an accurate assessment of racism and the desire for rules, the general notion that “people want to know the rules we can’t break far more than we want to make progress toward a desired outcome” is an idea that intersects with a much deeper problem I have with a great deal of Christian thought and practice. 

We very rarely work in the church toward a constructive view of the kind of life we are hoping to make possible with our theology and practice. One of the single most significant failures of at least the mainline and evangelical branches of the American church is the radical overemphasis on defining the list of rules we cannot break rather than seeking to define and create the kind of life toward which God is guiding us. Our theology of heaven and hell has created the world in which we are so overly concerned about not doing the wrong thing and about being absolved of those moments when we do the wrong thing anyway, that we cannot help but run everything through the lens of personal responsibility and guilt. If all that matters is a ticket into heaven and avoiding hell for me, no other lens really matters. 

I’d argue that personal responsibility and guilt are not irrelevant topics for Christian faith and practice, but they only take on meaning or significance within the systems and assumptions of the world as it actually is. Starting with personal responsibility and guilt is like asking if it’s wrong to turn left. The answer depends at least on where I am and where I’m trying to go. We’d be much better served trying to assess if we’ve arrived at our actual destination than critiquing every potentially wrong turn along the way. Doing so would anchor thought and action in a constructive consideration of the kind of life and relationships we’re actually called to seek after, rather than complete focus on the rules of the road. 

Reliance on rules further creates the fiction that I can be a neutral observer – not making things worse by breaking the rules, but also not going above and beyond to advocate for positive change. In reality, we are always making imperfect decisions about which way to go based on imperfect information about the world and an imperfect representation of our own situation and motivation. If we don’t even know where we’re trying to go, we’re very unlikely to arrive simply by obeying traffic laws. 

And of course, as much as we might want an exhaustive list of rules to ensure we don’t do anything wrong, any list of rules is just as likely to instill anxiety as it is to meaningfully guide us forward. 

Being more concerned about proving that I didn’t break a rule than I am about creating a better world is a perfectly logical outcome of a Christian faith more concerned about avoiding hell than about all God’s children experiencing and passing on the love of God. If the church hopes to have a role in dismantling problematic systems and generations long struggles, we have to stop worrying more about a mostly arbitrary list of dos and don’ts and begin to rediscover the heart of a faith that comes alive through the embrace of imperfection embodied in vulnerable relationship.

It rings deeply true to me that, within the above logic of a mainline or evangelical American Christian faith, most of our focus on naming rules is more easily understood as the product of a desire to not feel guilty rather than a desire to actually make the world a better place. If the goal is to do nothing that makes us feel guilty, then pretending everything is already OK is a far shorter path than publicly exposing our imperfections on the long path toward actual healing. However, perhaps the core assumption of the gospel message is that, before we are anything else, we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough. Attempting to live into the fullness of who we already are allows us to operate from a far different starting point than assuming we’re just one misstep away from losing salvation. Without that assumption at the core, the guilt of knowing I did something wrong too quickly devolves into the shame of feeling like I am something wrong. 

There is no finite set of rules to follow such that we can say we have done enough to be on the good side of some arbitrary line of salvation. In everything, we are either working to receive and overflow the grace of God that does change everything; or we are sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly leaning on a form of works based righteousness through which we will continue to fall short of perfection and reinforce the scars we bear and the wounds we cause. 

Which brings us back to the original comment on racism and rules. The notion that there are a finite set of rules to follow so as not to be racist is just as problematic as assuming the church could ever define a list of sins so as to not be a sinner. The assumption that creating a list of rules is even a possible, much less helpful, goal in the elimination of racism is certainly, at least in part, influenced by the American Christian manner of and focus on defining sin.

Namely, there is no finite set of rules to follow such that we can say we are ‘not racist’ enough to be on the good side of some arbitrary line. In everything, we are either working to understand and undermine racism such that powerful and entrenched systems do change for the better; or we are sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly leaning on a history of racist policy and choice through which we will continue to fall short of equality and reinforce racial disparities in opportunity and outcome. 

I don’t have any idea what every step will be toward creating a more healthy church and/or society, but I am confident that one of the first steps is giving up the assumption that progress is made by first defining the exhaustive list of rules for what not to do.

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