Book Response: Beyond Racial Gridlock

by | Apr 15, 2021

When I wrote this, there was a crisis in the Suez Canal. A 1300ft container ship, the Ever Given, ran aground in the Canal, completely blocking the canal and creating a traffic jam like no other. Of course, a gigantic ship stuck in the middle of the Suez Canal has almost unlimited meme potential in today’s cultural moment. It’s a perfect metaphor for what many situations feel like in a fallen world. So I guess I’ll join the multitudes: crafting a persuasive AND effective approach to overcoming racial strife in the church is like attempting to dislodge a giant tug boat stuck in the Suez Canal.

That fact alone is one reason why George Yancey’s Beyond Racial Gridlock (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006) was appealing to me. In the introduction, Yancey asks “What does our Christian faith offer to help solve [racial] problems? Is there a unique Christian solution, different from any of our societies secular alternatives?” (8) Though the book was written in 2006, these are still very timely questions. Yancey, a black Christian sociologist now at Baylor University, claims that there is a uniquely Christian solution to racial strife: mutual responsibility. While mutual responsibility does not answer every question, it provides a foundation for Christians to reason together. Mutual responsibility appropriates the strengths of the contemporary secular models of racial recognition (which Yancey identifies as Colorblindness, Anglo-Conformity, Multiculturalism, and White Responsibility) and yet bears a distinctively Christian flavor by actively incorporating the Biblical doctrine of depravity and the reconciling life and death of Jesus in its prescription. Mutual responsibility should not be taken to imply equal responsibility or suggest that victims of racism are responsible for the sins of racists. But if we acknowledge that caveat up front, there is much we can learn from Yancey.

Among many reflections I had in reading Beyond Racial Gridlock and discussing it with others, here are 3 with prayer requests.

 

The gift of sociologists to the church

Beyond Racial Gridlock is an adaptation aimed at Christian audiences of the more scholarly Transcending Racial Barriers (Oxford: OUP, 2011), which Yancey authored alongside sociologist Michael Emerson. Because Yancey is trained at dealing with data, the book’s tone and rhetoric is exceptionally balanced. Throughout the book, Yancey excels in making distinctions, a skill too few embody in the current conversation. Yancey’s careful work of describing, for instance, the four leading secular models of racism while altogether avoiding polarizing rhetorical frameworks was enlightening. With each, Yancey is able to see what is right in each approach before offering critiques. For instance, colorblindness rightly helps us celebrate the advances our society has made in God’s common grace.  It also helps us avoid looking for racism where it doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, it understates or ignores how past sin can have present consequences. Or take the White Responsibility model. This model rightly sees power dynamics as having real relevance in the relationships around us. Proponents of this model will not let us forget the awful effects of sin. And yet this model discounts the responsibility of racial minorities. Because of that, proponents of this model do not have a good track record of persuading whites who “do not already feel a significant level of racial guilt.” (69)

Father, please raise up more men and women who can bless the church by seeing the many complexities of our current social moment. We pray that in your common grace there would be sociological studies in our times that lead Christian leaders to make wise decisions that contribute to racial harmony. Help us learn to be discerning and thoughtful in our engagements over racial issues. 

 

The explanatory power of the doctrine of sin

G. K. Chesterton once quipped, “Christianity preaches an obviously unattractive idea, such as original sin; but when we wait for its results, they are pathos and brotherhood, and a thunder of laughter and pity; for only with original sin can we at once pity the beggar and distrust the king.”(1) Reflecting on the doctrine of sin produces good fruit in racial discourse. Yancey reminded me that because Christians reject human perfectionism, our solutions for overcoming racial gridlock will involve a heavy dose of humility and realism: “We are always going to have a strong affinity for solutions which help our racial group at the expense of other races.” (84) According to Yancey, this is the biggest reason why white people struggle to see racism in structural terms. To punch the other direction, “[I]f we fully understand the concept of human depravity, we should not be surprised that [minorities] play the race card.” (102) “Even victims have a sin nature” (100), Yancy reminds us. Acknowledging our shared fallenness has its limits of course. We have not all sinned in the same ways and the particular temptations of whites and non-whites differ. And yet the doctrine of sin does have a leveling effect. Because we both have sin natures, we both will be tempted to fear the other: “Whites are afraid of being labeled racist. . . . As a result, whites avoid addressing racial issues . . . .” On the other hand, “People of color . . . fear they will be ridiculed when they bring up their racial concerns.” (127–28) There is good news as well. Because both white and non-white people have sinned against each other, both play an active part in the healing. And because Jesus came to deal with our sin, Christians have confidence that our best days are ahead of us.

Father, we confess that we have sinned and fallen short of your glory. In our sin, we have tried to cover up our culpability and escape accountability for our contributions to the injustice in the world. We are more likely to see the fault in others than in ourselves. Make us more aware of our sin and help us to repent. Help us to see the spiritual nature of the racial division around us. Transform us by your love for sinners and promise to make all things new.

 

The relevance of Scripture for today’s problems

One of the highlights of Beyond Racial Gridlock was Yancey’s work of testing his Mutual Responsibility approach by the example of Jesus. Through an attentive reading of Jesus’s dealing with the Samaritan Woman in John 4:1–26 and the Roman centurion in Matthew 8:5–13, Yancey models well the kind of interaction Christians need to have with the Scriptures in order to make significant contributions in racial matters. In these texts, Jesus provides needed lessons for people of all races: “To those in the majority Jesus showed that it is inappropriate to focus on the maintenance of their own social position. . . . If we take Jesus’ actions toward structural sins seriously, then majority group Christians must be willing to get their own house in order before they attempt to address the problems of communities of color.” (123) At the same time, “[T]o people of color Jesus showed that even though he had concerns about societal evil, political revolution was not the heart of his ministry. . . . The life of Jesus challenges racial minorities to seek out and serve those who are not of their race, even as we pursue racial justice.” (124)

As a sociologist, Yancey helped me see things in the world I hadn’t before. As a Christian sociologist, Yancey also helped me see things in the Word I hadn’t before. That combination of insight and skill is one reason why Beyond Racial Gridlock is still as relevant in 2021 as it was in 2006.

 

Father, we thank you for Jesus, the perfecter of our faith. Thank you for the example he set for us. Help us to go to him with our problems and look to him for our interactions with others. We ask you would make us more attentive readers of your Word and equip us with discernment that we might bring your wisdom to bear in our world. 

 


(1) G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane, 1908), 292.

 


Prayer Requests:

  1. Father, please raise up more men and women who can bless the church by seeing the many complexities of our current social moment. We pray that in your common grace there would be sociological studies in our times that lead Christian leaders to make wise decisions that contribute to racial harmony. Help us learn to be discerning and thoughtful in our engagements over racial issues.
  2. Father, we confess that we have sinned and fallen short of your glory. In our sin, we have tried to cover up our culpability and escape accountability for our contributions to the injustice in the world. We are more likely to see the fault in others than in ourselves. Make us more aware of our sin and help us to repent. Help us to see the spiritual nature of the racial division around us. Transform us by your love for sinners and promise to make all things new.
  3. Father, we thank you for Jesus, the perfecter of our faith. Thank you for the example he set for us. Help us to go to him with our problems and look to him for our interactions with others. We ask you would make us more attentive readers of your Word and equip us with discernment that we might bring your wisdom to bear in our world.

 

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Author

  • Paul Billings

    Paul (MDiv, Southern Seminary) serves as the Director of Campus Outreach DC, a student ministry in Washington, DC and as an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. He and his wife Stephanie have three little girls. Paul loves working with college students, NBA Basketball, playing golf, and persuading you that Memphis (his hometown) has the world's best BBQ.

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