Note: A longer version of this essay is available HERE.

I appreciate Vincent Bacote’s contribution to the Theopolis Conversation on racism[i] in the American church. His firsthand account of his experience as a black Christian interacting with predominantly white evangelicalism reveals many of the problems we face. There is a great deal of common ground here, both in terms of how we understand the past and what we long to see in the future.

Bacote’s “once upon a time” examination of America’s past and his realization that racism remains a live issue is a sober reminder of how much racial injustice has been woven into American history. It is especially sad to consider the failure of the church to stand up against the sin of racism; indeed, for many generations, much of the church was complicit in overt and systemic racism. The way whites treated blacks for much of our nation’s history has been shameful. The slave trade, Jim Crow laws, lynchings, bombings, redlining: there is much in our past we can only lament.  Bacote notes that he penned an article in 1990 detailing the “theological failure” of the American church. I have also been critical of the American church in this area, especially my own Reformed tradition (and I must add the criticisms I made of the ”theological failure” in historic Presbyterianism, especially Southern Presbyterianism, were certainly not well received at the time, indicating that  many Reformed Christians are still not willing to make necessary theological revisions to address weaknesses in this area).

My city, Birmingham, AL, despite being one of the most “churched” urban centers in the world, was ground zero for some of the worst forms of racial terrorism in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite monumental victories in the Civil Rights movement and a widespread transformation of attitudes about race, it would be naïve to think racism is completely a thing of the past. For one thing, this past is not all that distant. An elder in my church was downtown and heard the explosion go off at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963, an event that reinforced the nickname “Bombingham.” Ruby Bridges, the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in New Orleans, and who received death threats for doing so, will turn 66 this year. Much of this history is still in living memory, and certainly reckoning with this past is crucial to understanding various aspects of the present.

Various forms of segregation and discrimination are still active within American culture, and even the church, though not nearly to the degree they once were. We must combat racism in any and every form, even as we combat other evils brought into the world by Adam’s sin. Bacote is right to sensitize us to these historic atrocities and their ongoing impact. Bacote is right to ask white Christians to interrogate themselves for complicity in these sins.

Bacote and I also agree in our hope for the future, the “happily ever after” dream of the kingdom where the church has become a racially diverse, theologically unified, catholic body. We want to see God’s promises to Abraham fulfilled so that every family on earth comes to share in the blessings of Abraham’s seed, the Lord Jesus Christ (Gen. 12:1-3; Gal. 3:8). We want to see what John saw in Revelation 7:9: “Behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” The church has a global mission, to disciple all nations. God sent his Son to save the world (Jn. 3:16), to break down the “dividing wall of hostility” between different groups of people, reconciling them to God and one another (Eph. 2:11ff).

This new humanity was previewed at Pentecost (reversing the Tower of Babel), as the earliest Christians were given the gift of tongues to proclaim the gospel to those gathered in Jerusalem “from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). The church is the true “united nations.” I have preached this anti-racist gospel vision and worked for it in my own life. While condemning the sin of racism is not exactly controversial in Birmingham in 2020 as it was in the 1960s (a true sign of progress!), most evangelical Christians agree there is work to be done in building relationships and catholicity across ethnic and racial lines. Even if we are no longer enforcing segregation with civil law, Christians of different ethnicities remain frustratingly distant from one another and our churches are largely racially homogeneous even in those places where there is a great deal of racial diversity. It is crucial for us to see that the work of racial reconciliation is not a distraction from the gospel; it is built into the gospel’s announcement of a new humanity in the resurrected Christ.

One of the sad by-products of this racist legacy was the rupturing of catholicity, as blacks were, of necessity, forced to form their own churches and denominations. When one considers how precious (and fragile) cross-cultural Jew-Gentile unity was in the New Testament church, one begins to get some sense of the magnitude of this travesty in our own history. In Galatians 2, Peter “segregates” himself from Gentile believers and Paul confronts him to his face because this is a denial of the gospel. The true gospel is a catholic gospel, in the sense of including believers of all ethnicities, nationalities, etc. Anything that divides believers from one another on the basis of skin color is anti-gospel; it is segregating that which Jesus came to integrate.

But what stands in the way of the “happily ever after” ending we long for? Here, Bacote and I part ways; indeed, I would say that Bacote’s approach to the race problem is likely to exacerbate it and repeat the errors of the past, albeit in the opposite direction. I fear the way Bacote has framed racial issues will end in another theological failure. This is the paragraph I especially wish to focus on:

The modern West (a culture and world constructed largely by those of European descent) constructs something called “whiteness” and regards that as the standard by which other humans are to be measured and judged. The extent to which this operates as a cultural norm among white Christians plays a sometimes hidden (more so these days, less so when racial discrimination was the law of the land) role when theology is constructed and ethical practices emerge out of faith commitments. When this unspoken factor has been at work, it helped set the stage for a segregated society, hence the emergence of African-American versions of denominations, and also the emergence of a theodicy problem for blacks who try to make sense of a Christian faith that has not often compelled their white brothers and sisters to seek their flourishing.

What is “whiteness”? And what happens when whiteness is problematized in this way? Bacote is not merely saying that many whites have racial blind-spots that make them inadvertently offensive to black Christians. No doubt, we all have blind-spots about all kinds of things. But whiteness is something different, something deeper. Bacote’s claim is that all whites inevitably and necessarily participate in systems of oppression, which in turn maintain various forms of white supremacy in our culture. In other words, even when whites make efforts to not be racists they are still racists. If the problem was identified as hatred of those of another race, or excessive pride in one’s own race, then whites could be called to repent of those things. Hatred and pride are identifiable sins. But how do whites repent of whiteness?

This is a classic example of a double bind. Whites are put in a no-win situation. Whites can either admit they are racists, or they can prove they are racists by denying they are racists. I have seen this double bind play out in many ways. For example, I have seen whites move into low income neighborhoods with the aim of helping minorities, only to be accused of gentrification. I have seen whites adopt minority race children with the aim of giving them a loving home, only to be accused of paternalism. Occasionally, the charges may carry a grain of truth, but most of the time they are attacks on kindhearted people who are simply seeking to help others as wisely as they know how. Of course, if they refused to help and kept to themselves, they would also be open to various charges of racism, indifference, etc. Again, it’s a no-win situation – the happy ending we want becomes impossible when the problem is framed this way. Given the assumptions of “whiteness,” everything whites do will be interpreted as racism. Whites cannot get outside their own whiteness, so the problem of race becomes permanently intractable.

Bacote says “whiteness” means whites make their own culture the standard by which they judge all humans – as if to be fully human, one must live as whites live. Thus, all whites are white supremacists at heart, even without knowing it or intending it.  Is this really what white evangelicals do? For my part, I certainly do not see “whiteness” as the ideal for humanity; I see Christ (who was not white!) as the ideal. But here is the real question: Does Bacote believe that a white person could disagree with a black person on various issues and that disagreement not be driven by racism? Or is any dissent on the part of whites taken as proof of racism?

Bacote’s approach is quite different from that of Martin Luther King, Jr. King certainly exposed the sins of whites, but he did not identify a sin called “whiteness.” King refused to play the game of identity politics. He was being profoundly biblical in his justly famous “I Have a Dream” speech when he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” But isn’t Bacote pre-judging whites on the basis of skin color when he identifies whiteness itself as problematic? What happened to King’s dream of color blindness? While King rightly stood up to the racism of whites, he also believed the best about whites, and thus believed that they could overcome the systemic racism that had plagued American society. But when simply being white makes one complicit in racism – “whiteness” -- the hope King had for whites and for a racially integrated society is negated.

Bacote is invoking the categories and language of critical theory when he speaks of “whiteness.”[ii] Critical theory (a better label than “cultural Marxism”) is not nearly as benign as Bacote suggests in his essay.[iii] Critical theory analyzes all relationships in terms of power struggles, which are inevitably zero sum games. One group will win at the expense of the other. Of course, critical race theory casts whites in the role of permanent oppressors, but it should be obvious this approach is a dead end if we are sincerely hoping for racial reconciliation. Those who advocate some form of critical theory actually stand in the way of racial reconciliation because critical theory, by definition, divides us into adversarial racial groups locked in power struggles. The dream of racial oneness is blocked, as skin color is allowed to trump ethical character and theological conviction. Critical theory does not include a message of or means to racial reconciliation; critical theory does not provide any basis for bringing unity.

To unpack this further: Why should race be treated as the most important feature of a person, as in critical race theory? What is more determinative, one’s racial identity or one’s Christian identity? If pressed to its logical conclusion, identity politics necessitates a black church and black theology.[iv] But how does the black church then relate to the rest of the catholic church and how does black theology relate to the orthodoxy defined in the creeds? How do black interests relate to Christian interests? Identity politics threatens the gospel as the only true basis for unity.

Bacote says he is not interested in pushing white guilt. Nevertheless, his approach inevitably produces white shame. Obviously, if whites and blacks are to be reconciled, this shame of whiteness must be overcome. How can this happen since critical theory lacks any redemptive element? No matter how much whites grovel before their black brothers, it will not change the past or atone for historic wrongs. The only solution is the blood of Christ, which both grants forgiveness for sin and compels us to forgive the sins of others.

Fundamentally, the historical issues of racist oppression and white supremacy in American history can only be resolved if they are re-framed as gospel issues, having to do with forgiveness, repentance, and restoration. But it is not clear how Bacote brings the gospel grace to bear upon this history. There is no mention of forgiveness. But without forgiveness, relationships, including racial relationships, are stuck forever on the wrongs of the past, never able to move forward into a healthier future. Race, rather than grace, becomes central in Bacote’s account. But I am afraid the more we focus on race, the less we are able to focus on Christ himself as the answer to racial division and every other form of brokenness that plagues human society. I do not object to Bacote bringing up the past – but at what point and in what way do past transgressions get forgiven? The past cannot be changed, it can only be forgiven. What does it take for that to happen?


Rich Lusk is pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL.


[i] It is worth pointing out that, technically speaking, there is only one race, the human race. What we refer to as various “races” are really a mix of biological variations and cultural constructs that distinguish different groups within the single human race (cf. Acts 17:26).

[ii] See, e.g., Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility..

[iii] Indeed, critical theory has been evaluated as an alternative religion, a rival to Christian faith. David French observes:

For the in group, it’s easy to see the appeal of the philosophy.There’s an animating purpose — fighting injustice, racism, and inequality. There’s the original sin of “privilege.” There’s a conversion experience — becoming “woke.” And much as the Christian church puts a premium on each person’s finding his or her precise role in the body of Christ, intersectionality can provide a person with a specific purpose and role based on individual identity and experience.

Likewise, Joe Carter:

As an analytic framework for identifying the effects of systemic sin, intersection theory may be of some use to Christians. But when it is used to justify the creation of ever more narrow and increasingly divisive identity groups, it becomes another secular worldview that Christians must reject.While characteristics such as race and gender are not erased when a person becomes a member of God’s kingdom, our identity as Christians is rebuilt around Jesus.”

[iv] This is why some black Christians have decided to divorce themselves from predominantly white evangelical churches. The once segregated have become the new segregators. This is not to say that white Christians cannot do a better job of welcoming Christians of other ethnicities into churches in which whites have majority membership, but it is to say identity politics is a way of thinking that runs contrary to the gospel.

Next Conversation
The Rhetoric of Race
Alastair Roberts

Note: A longer version of this essay is available HERE.

I appreciate Vincent Bacote’s contribution to the Theopolis Conversation on racism[i] in the American church. His firsthand account of his experience as a black Christian interacting with predominantly white evangelicalism reveals many of the problems we face. There is a great deal of common ground here, both in terms of how we understand the past and what we long to see in the future.

Bacote’s “once upon a time” examination of America’s past and his realization that racism remains a live issue is a sober reminder of how much racial injustice has been woven into American history. It is especially sad to consider the failure of the church to stand up against the sin of racism; indeed, for many generations, much of the church was complicit in overt and systemic racism. The way whites treated blacks for much of our nation’s history has been shameful. The slave trade, Jim Crow laws, lynchings, bombings, redlining: there is much in our past we can only lament.  Bacote notes that he penned an article in 1990 detailing the “theological failure” of the American church. I have also been critical of the American church in this area, especially my own Reformed tradition (and I must add the criticisms I made of the ”theological failure” in historic Presbyterianism, especially Southern Presbyterianism, were certainly not well received at the time, indicating that  many Reformed Christians are still not willing to make necessary theological revisions to address weaknesses in this area).

My city, Birmingham, AL, despite being one of the most “churched” urban centers in the world, was ground zero for some of the worst forms of racial terrorism in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite monumental victories in the Civil Rights movement and a widespread transformation of attitudes about race, it would be naïve to think racism is completely a thing of the past. For one thing, this past is not all that distant. An elder in my church was downtown and heard the explosion go off at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963, an event that reinforced the nickname “Bombingham.” Ruby Bridges, the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in New Orleans, and who received death threats for doing so, will turn 66 this year. Much of this history is still in living memory, and certainly reckoning with this past is crucial to understanding various aspects of the present.

Various forms of segregation and discrimination are still active within American culture, and even the church, though not nearly to the degree they once were. We must combat racism in any and every form, even as we combat other evils brought into the world by Adam’s sin. Bacote is right to sensitize us to these historic atrocities and their ongoing impact. Bacote is right to ask white Christians to interrogate themselves for complicity in these sins.

Bacote and I also agree in our hope for the future, the “happily ever after” dream of the kingdom where the church has become a racially diverse, theologically unified, catholic body. We want to see God’s promises to Abraham fulfilled so that every family on earth comes to share in the blessings of Abraham’s seed, the Lord Jesus Christ (Gen. 12:1-3; Gal. 3:8). We want to see what John saw in Revelation 7:9: “Behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” The church has a global mission, to disciple all nations. God sent his Son to save the world (Jn. 3:16), to break down the “dividing wall of hostility” between different groups of people, reconciling them to God and one another (Eph. 2:11ff).

This new humanity was previewed at Pentecost (reversing the Tower of Babel), as the earliest Christians were given the gift of tongues to proclaim the gospel to those gathered in Jerusalem “from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). The church is the true “united nations.” I have preached this anti-racist gospel vision and worked for it in my own life. While condemning the sin of racism is not exactly controversial in Birmingham in 2020 as it was in the 1960s (a true sign of progress!), most evangelical Christians agree there is work to be done in building relationships and catholicity across ethnic and racial lines. Even if we are no longer enforcing segregation with civil law, Christians of different ethnicities remain frustratingly distant from one another and our churches are largely racially homogeneous even in those places where there is a great deal of racial diversity. It is crucial for us to see that the work of racial reconciliation is not a distraction from the gospel; it is built into the gospel’s announcement of a new humanity in the resurrected Christ.

One of the sad by-products of this racist legacy was the rupturing of catholicity, as blacks were, of necessity, forced to form their own churches and denominations. When one considers how precious (and fragile) cross-cultural Jew-Gentile unity was in the New Testament church, one begins to get some sense of the magnitude of this travesty in our own history. In Galatians 2, Peter “segregates” himself from Gentile believers and Paul confronts him to his face because this is a denial of the gospel. The true gospel is a catholic gospel, in the sense of including believers of all ethnicities, nationalities, etc. Anything that divides believers from one another on the basis of skin color is anti-gospel; it is segregating that which Jesus came to integrate.

But what stands in the way of the “happily ever after” ending we long for? Here, Bacote and I part ways; indeed, I would say that Bacote’s approach to the race problem is likely to exacerbate it and repeat the errors of the past, albeit in the opposite direction. I fear the way Bacote has framed racial issues will end in another theological failure. This is the paragraph I especially wish to focus on:

The modern West (a culture and world constructed largely by those of European descent) constructs something called “whiteness” and regards that as the standard by which other humans are to be measured and judged. The extent to which this operates as a cultural norm among white Christians plays a sometimes hidden (more so these days, less so when racial discrimination was the law of the land) role when theology is constructed and ethical practices emerge out of faith commitments. When this unspoken factor has been at work, it helped set the stage for a segregated society, hence the emergence of African-American versions of denominations, and also the emergence of a theodicy problem for blacks who try to make sense of a Christian faith that has not often compelled their white brothers and sisters to seek their flourishing.

What is “whiteness”? And what happens when whiteness is problematized in this way? Bacote is not merely saying that many whites have racial blind-spots that make them inadvertently offensive to black Christians. No doubt, we all have blind-spots about all kinds of things. But whiteness is something different, something deeper. Bacote’s claim is that all whites inevitably and necessarily participate in systems of oppression, which in turn maintain various forms of white supremacy in our culture. In other words, even when whites make efforts to not be racists they are still racists. If the problem was identified as hatred of those of another race, or excessive pride in one’s own race, then whites could be called to repent of those things. Hatred and pride are identifiable sins. But how do whites repent of whiteness?

This is a classic example of a double bind. Whites are put in a no-win situation. Whites can either admit they are racists, or they can prove they are racists by denying they are racists. I have seen this double bind play out in many ways. For example, I have seen whites move into low income neighborhoods with the aim of helping minorities, only to be accused of gentrification. I have seen whites adopt minority race children with the aim of giving them a loving home, only to be accused of paternalism. Occasionally, the charges may carry a grain of truth, but most of the time they are attacks on kindhearted people who are simply seeking to help others as wisely as they know how. Of course, if they refused to help and kept to themselves, they would also be open to various charges of racism, indifference, etc. Again, it’s a no-win situation – the happy ending we want becomes impossible when the problem is framed this way. Given the assumptions of “whiteness,” everything whites do will be interpreted as racism. Whites cannot get outside their own whiteness, so the problem of race becomes permanently intractable.

Bacote says “whiteness” means whites make their own culture the standard by which they judge all humans – as if to be fully human, one must live as whites live. Thus, all whites are white supremacists at heart, even without knowing it or intending it.  Is this really what white evangelicals do? For my part, I certainly do not see “whiteness” as the ideal for humanity; I see Christ (who was not white!) as the ideal. But here is the real question: Does Bacote believe that a white person could disagree with a black person on various issues and that disagreement not be driven by racism? Or is any dissent on the part of whites taken as proof of racism?

Bacote’s approach is quite different from that of Martin Luther King, Jr. King certainly exposed the sins of whites, but he did not identify a sin called “whiteness.” King refused to play the game of identity politics. He was being profoundly biblical in his justly famous “I Have a Dream” speech when he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” But isn’t Bacote pre-judging whites on the basis of skin color when he identifies whiteness itself as problematic? What happened to King’s dream of color blindness? While King rightly stood up to the racism of whites, he also believed the best about whites, and thus believed that they could overcome the systemic racism that had plagued American society. But when simply being white makes one complicit in racism – “whiteness” -- the hope King had for whites and for a racially integrated society is negated.

Bacote is invoking the categories and language of critical theory when he speaks of “whiteness.”[ii] Critical theory (a better label than “cultural Marxism”) is not nearly as benign as Bacote suggests in his essay.[iii] Critical theory analyzes all relationships in terms of power struggles, which are inevitably zero sum games. One group will win at the expense of the other. Of course, critical race theory casts whites in the role of permanent oppressors, but it should be obvious this approach is a dead end if we are sincerely hoping for racial reconciliation. Those who advocate some form of critical theory actually stand in the way of racial reconciliation because critical theory, by definition, divides us into adversarial racial groups locked in power struggles. The dream of racial oneness is blocked, as skin color is allowed to trump ethical character and theological conviction. Critical theory does not include a message of or means to racial reconciliation; critical theory does not provide any basis for bringing unity.

To unpack this further: Why should race be treated as the most important feature of a person, as in critical race theory? What is more determinative, one’s racial identity or one’s Christian identity? If pressed to its logical conclusion, identity politics necessitates a black church and black theology.[iv] But how does the black church then relate to the rest of the catholic church and how does black theology relate to the orthodoxy defined in the creeds? How do black interests relate to Christian interests? Identity politics threatens the gospel as the only true basis for unity.

Bacote says he is not interested in pushing white guilt. Nevertheless, his approach inevitably produces white shame. Obviously, if whites and blacks are to be reconciled, this shame of whiteness must be overcome. How can this happen since critical theory lacks any redemptive element? No matter how much whites grovel before their black brothers, it will not change the past or atone for historic wrongs. The only solution is the blood of Christ, which both grants forgiveness for sin and compels us to forgive the sins of others.

Fundamentally, the historical issues of racist oppression and white supremacy in American history can only be resolved if they are re-framed as gospel issues, having to do with forgiveness, repentance, and restoration. But it is not clear how Bacote brings the gospel grace to bear upon this history. There is no mention of forgiveness. But without forgiveness, relationships, including racial relationships, are stuck forever on the wrongs of the past, never able to move forward into a healthier future. Race, rather than grace, becomes central in Bacote’s account. But I am afraid the more we focus on race, the less we are able to focus on Christ himself as the answer to racial division and every other form of brokenness that plagues human society. I do not object to Bacote bringing up the past – but at what point and in what way do past transgressions get forgiven? The past cannot be changed, it can only be forgiven. What does it take for that to happen?


Rich Lusk is pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL.


[i] It is worth pointing out that, technically speaking, there is only one race, the human race. What we refer to as various “races” are really a mix of biological variations and cultural constructs that distinguish different groups within the single human race (cf. Acts 17:26).

[ii] See, e.g., Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility..

[iii] Indeed, critical theory has been evaluated as an alternative religion, a rival to Christian faith. David French observes:

For the in group, it’s easy to see the appeal of the philosophy.There’s an animating purpose — fighting injustice, racism, and inequality. There’s the original sin of “privilege.” There’s a conversion experience — becoming “woke.” And much as the Christian church puts a premium on each person’s finding his or her precise role in the body of Christ, intersectionality can provide a person with a specific purpose and role based on individual identity and experience.

Likewise, Joe Carter:

As an analytic framework for identifying the effects of systemic sin, intersection theory may be of some use to Christians. But when it is used to justify the creation of ever more narrow and increasingly divisive identity groups, it becomes another secular worldview that Christians must reject.While characteristics such as race and gender are not erased when a person becomes a member of God’s kingdom, our identity as Christians is rebuilt around Jesus.”

[iv] This is why some black Christians have decided to divorce themselves from predominantly white evangelical churches. The once segregated have become the new segregators. This is not to say that white Christians cannot do a better job of welcoming Christians of other ethnicities into churches in which whites have majority membership, but it is to say identity politics is a way of thinking that runs contrary to the gospel.

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