On Individual and Institutional Racism

Dear King’s Cross,

I, along with our session and pastors, wanted to help put some theological clarity as to what and why we feel convicted to denounce certain evils and injustices that we see in our present day and land. I hope that in reading this, it will hopefully give clarity where there might have been ambiguity, and reason where there has been a sense of skepticism.

RACISM
In 2004, our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America was just starting to come to grips with ways we had promoted and aligned with racism particularly towards Black Americans. The definition given, states, “racism is an explicit or implicit belief or practice that qualitatively distinguishes or values one race over other races.”

Therefore, the inherent evil and sinfulness of racism is that we are distinguishing, favoring, judging and categorizing people and people groups by their particular physical features, particular ethnicity, cultures, and characteristics that God created, sees, and calls equally good, beautiful, honorable, and resplendent with His divine reflection. In other words, because God imbues his own glory into the uniqueness of being human, when we treat one another with anything less than the honor and dignity he has spelled out in Scripture, we are ultimately making judgement calls and estimations of God’s worth, beauty, and honor. That’s not to eclipse the real and tragic damage racism has on people—but I say that to show how offensive and personal God takes racism. When we are not in the wonder and awe of God’s character, we are bound to demean the realities he shows up daily in our lives through people.

INDIVIDUAL AND INSTITUTIONAL RACISM

One of the questions people at our church are wondering about and could be struggling with is the concept of institutional or systemic racism, (which are not precisely the same thing, but I am using them interchangeably here because they both refer to larger, culture-shaping means such as the education system, justice system, media, etc.) Institutional Racism is often seen as the systemic, unequal distribution of resources, power, and opportunity in favor of one race over another. Whereas, Individual Racism is often thought of as the acts and thoughts and beliefs that individuals harbor.

I think there is a very unhelpful “either/or” mentality when it comes to these notions of racism, which only sees two options:

  • Some people believe that racism is only an institutional problem. But the problem with this is you are relieving individuals from the responsibility of being good citizens, and bringing change to their lives.
  • On the other hand, some people believe racism is really just an individual’s aggression and bias towards those different than themselves. However you’re failing to see the greater cycles of culture that continue to influence and shape the way we see and treat and oppress others.

For many of us, because we don’t see a third option, we tend to go with whatever option makes us look less ignorant, and more informed and compassionate. However—how much of our responses are shaped out of genuine love, and not fear? Fear of being wrong, fear of being seduced by a political agenda, fear of being a bigot, etc.

I’d like to propose a third option. It’s the option I believe God lays out consistently from beginning to end in Scripture. The fact is, God always holds both individuals and institutions responsible for sin. From the first fall of Adam and Eve, you have individuals being held accountable for their actions—and yet, the entire institution of humanity is corrupted. In Joshua 7, you have a man named Achan, acting out of greed and breaking societal rules God set in place for Israel. And while he and his family have to face the consequences of his sin—it’s not before all of Israel experiences loss and breakdown and failure in their campaign.

For some of us, I can understand that the implications of Institutional Racism may seem outrageous. We love America and American culture—and the implications of Institutional Racism would mean admitting there is a malicious and grotesque mindset, pervading so deeply behind every chapter of our history. How could we ever take that sitting down? I get that, accepting this, paints a bleak alternative reality compared to how some, if not many, of us grew up seeing and understanding America.

However, it seems to me that the Bible actually paints a far darker picture of human beings than maybe we’ve been paying attention to. Somehow, I wonder, if Satan has painted little flowers and puppies throughout our bibles, when it’s really the story of the desperately tragic state of humanity’s wallowing in vile filth and corruption—from the individual human heart, (Jeremiah 17:9) to the cosmic and spiritual forces of darkness ruling over principalities, powers, and institutions of this present world (Ephesians 6:12). This is why we need a powerful Savior.

And something we have tried to stress in our proclamation at King’s Cross is that Jesus is not merely your individual savior—he is a kingdom savior, for a kingdom people. He is coming to overthrow not just your and my petty individual rule of our own hearts; he has come to overthrow the rules and authorities and principalities and yes, institutions of this world. He will bring all things under his good and righteous reign.

Friends, that is the gospel of the kingdom. That allows us to pursue individual reformation, while seeing that there is a constant need for Jesus to come in kingdom power to restore broken institutional standards made by broken, sinful people.

So, yes, because we believe the whole gospel that says the whole world is broken. Therefore we ought not be surprised or utterly crushed when we find human institutions failing us. The idea that a human institution (including the institution of American law and governance), where mere humans are the ruling heads and authorities could be free from bias, greed, slavery, and racism—ought to sound wrong to Christian ears.

We see how some people have come to the conclusion in our day, in a fit of despair, that the enemy is actually the very existence of institutions, themselves, and these people have turned to various forms of anarchy. But as Christians, we know of only one institution that has the power to repent and turn from its wrong doing. The Church is the only earthly institution that has its authoritative headship in someone who is absolutely perfect, and in whom we can completely trust.

Now, the Church body is composed of sinful broken people like you and me—and that means we have the potential to fall and fail just as hard as anyone else—and we do quite often. But when we are aligned to his will, and walk in the ways of his Holy Word, we begin to reveal something that the world is starving for more than ever, in this present age. And that means there is hope in this dark world as we live out the grace of Jesus offered to any and all who would see they are in need of so great a Savior.

Yours in Christ,

Pastor Rob