Racial Insensitivity and Moral Outrage

Warm up your keyboard and a tall glass of moral outrage, let slip the dogs of war; it’s yet again time for a good old fashioned indignation competition. In a 24 second news cycle, it is hard to keep track of what we are angry about today, and quite truthfully righteous rage has become a highly competitive category—budget deals, health care, umpires inserting themselves in an already childish back and forth between major league pitchers. Take your pick.

Last Tuesday a few faculty members at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary posted a photo that sparked a heated response and entered into the righteous rage competition.

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The photo shows five white professors dressed with chains, bandanas, and a poor attempt at swagger and self proclaiming themselves “The Notorious S.O.P (School of Preaching).”

The photo was obviously done in poor taste and was quickly deleted and with a subsequent apology. The photo should not have been taken, the photo should not have been shared, and the Christian response has not resembled Christ.

Before you write me off as a completely foolish white male who wouldn’t understand your plight if I lived your life for a week, I agree with you and that is really my whole point.

While I do believe we have cried wolf about 1,178,298 too many times in regard to recent race conversations, I DO think the photo was insensitive, but not racist. I know this is an argument of semantics and defining terms is incredibly helpful so for the purpose of this post when I talk about racism I mean the view that certain ethnicities are intrinsically better than other ethnicities (if you are of the “prejudice plus power” definition I would like to offer this video for consideration).

The semantics matter because the faculty in the photo have been beleaguered as racists from everyone who has a twitter account to the president of their Seminary, leading to the inevitable competition to be the most offended and deliver the most thorough scourging of the vile bible professors.

The photo was wrong and insensitive but I cannot assign the motive of ethical superiority to the professors. I can’t call them racist because I can’t see their motives and I do not want to be quick to assign such a hateful intention. Now perhaps there is other evidence I am not aware about that leads people to label these individuals as racists but as far as I can tell from the articles written, at most this is a case of ignorance and insensitivity, not racism.

Furthermore—and this is where I think this particular instance really matters when viewed through the lens of faith—the reaction from Christians has been particularly puzzling because it displays a refusal to allow mistakes.

I am a pastor of a small church plant in an urban environment. I spend a good amount of my time working with young black kids and in a culture that is entirely different from where I grew up, where I studied, and the communities I have known. I make cultural mistakes ALL THE TIME.

As the gospel has carried me into people’s homes and lives with a different skin color than me I have found myself not knowing what is happening or being talked about and that has resulted in me being insensitive about things common to different cultures. It isn’t intentional or derived from a position of ethnic superiority but the insensitivity is still there.

If I did not feel the freedom to make mistakes and learn, then I would have no chance at moving from a place of ignorance to a place where those cultural mishaps declined. This is no groundbreaking hypothesis; ask anyone who is married. It takes time to learn the culture of your spouse’s family and in the mean time you do and say foolish things.

What would happen if you got married, went to your first family event with your new in-laws, said or did something out of step with the established culture and were immediately removed from solidarity with your new family?

The faculty in the photo have taken down the picture and apologized, yet there are still Christians deciding that they are racists and unworthy of a second chance. They articulate a clear message, there is no room for mistakes when it comes to racial insensitivity.

This leaves a substantial portion of the church wanting to engage in the hard work of racial reconciliation but too scared that they will say/do something wrong and end up on the receiving end of the hashtag mob.

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There is no doubt that people who disagree with me will vehemently argue that, “the white evangelical church has been given plenty of chances to make mistakes in the realm of racial reconciliation and they have squandered every one of them, they don’t deserve another chance to make right what they keep getting wrong.”

To that end, I believe there is a straightforward response: frustration is appropriate, abandonment is not. I will make no attempt to suggest that the American church has not been woefully inept when trying to live out the gospel in relation to racial reconciliation, but if I am trying to live as Christ I should be leading with forgiveness, not indignation, for someone who apologizes and expresses a desire to grow.

Racism is the outrage du jour in our country right now. Societally, it is worse to be a racist than to be anything else. The church is not without our own self-inflicted black eyes related to race, but when we take that societal outrage and place it above the attitude of Christ we end up making an idol of our own self-righteous stance on a societal issue.

We would never in a million years stare down someone who has been through a very public struggle with sexual sin, acknowledged their wrong doing, express a desire to change, and then tell them that until they can prove they won’t make any more mistakes they are not worthy of help or forgiveness from other Christians. So why do we respond that way to racial insensitivity?

Is there any sin, any moment of ignorance, any moral failure that is accompanied by an apology and a verbal desire to change that should not be met with forgiveness? If yes, then the church places a giant canyon between itself and Christ in response to sinful people.

All that being said, it is important for the school to actually take steps toward having varied perspectives on their faculty. The individual apology should also be met with repentant steps towards a remedy. I am routinely nauseated at the growing trend in “starting a conversation” that leads to nothing.

Everyone wants to start a conversation. The seminary should leave the conversation on the cutting room floor and move to intentional interaction and integration with racial minorities and moments of insensitivity like this will diminish.

It is a fairly regular occurrence for me to sit with someone from the neighborhood that my church is in and want to bang my head against the wall at their poor behavior. People regularly skip out on their jobs, consume alcohol and cigarettes at alarming rates, and make poor decisions in relation to their sexuality. I work with a rough crowd full of classic first ballot hall of fame sinful performances.

And yet, even in the face of repeated moral failures they are deserving of the love of Christ, and subsequently my love as well. If it is true for a rough urban neighborhood, and it is true for me every day when I mess up and am forgiven, then it is true for some seminary bible professors.

I am a foolish white man who doesn’t understand other people’s experience. I fail in terms of ignorance, insensitivity, and morality with such frequency that it would be alarming to anyone who knew the whole truth. I am thrilled that my Savior does not write me off because of those shortcomings, I wish the church would follow suit.

3 thoughts on “Racial Insensitivity and Moral Outrage

  1. Mary Bledsoe

    I disagree that racism is the “outrage dujour” of our society. If it was, perhaps we would have less of it.
    “when we take that societal outrage and place it above the attitude of Christ we end up making an idol of our own self-righteous stance on a societal issue.”– racism is not just a societal issue. It permeates the church. Unfortunately sometimes society is ahead of the church…I think we are woefully behind the times. We should be the ones who are morally outraged when young black kids are being killed by police.

    Yes we should be full of grace for everyone, especially those who want to change. But we should not forget the issues of inequality and institutional racism that are the elephant in the room, or in the photo in this case.

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    1. Hey Mary,

      Thanks for the comment. I agree and disagree at the same time. I hope that it did not come across from the post that I think we should forget issues of inequality and institutional racism. I fully believe there are things in our culture that have led to racial inequality and still have lingering effects that would be foolish to deny.

      But I still don’t think I can place this photo under the label of racism. Now it really depends on how you use/understand the word racism, which is why I tried to define my terms a little bit. I have a hard seeing a motivation of ethnic superiority from a picture that was not well thought out. Ignorance, no doubt, but I don’t think it would be fair to say they are racist.

      The main point of the post was about leading with grace when people are repentant but there is also an element of jumping to race as the motivating factor and I would argue that society is far too quick on the trigger to label someone racist stemming from some sociological ideas, mainly the theory of intersectionality, that have made their way into everyday thinking.

      At its root, intersectionality attempts to explain systems of disadvantage and it does so by placing societal groups in opposing positions as oppressors or victims. White (oppressors) and black (victims). Men and women. Gay and straight. Educated and non-educated. The list goes on and on, but then it simply lumps everyone in the oppressor group as bad and jumps to a lot of moral conclusions really quickly.

      I could cite several examples of what I am talking about but I think one of the clearest is a simple chrome plug in that someone made that takes headlines from major news outlets and changes the word “white” to “black.” A quick glance through shows some really racially charged ideas that have become palatable as long as it runs the right direction.

      As far as being morally outraged when young black kids are killed by the police, it is never a good thing when people, especially kids, are shot by anyone. I would still attempt to apply the same type of thinking as to the photo trying to be careful to see a bad situation and immediately read motive into the situation. That does not mean there are not bad police officers with bad motives. But a bad shoot from a police officer can be a bad shoot and not be racial.

      I find racism vile and repugnant because I think it is in direct violation of the image of God that is imparted into all of humanity. I also know I am really grateful when people have been gracious to me when I make cultural mistakes and I hope to extend that same grace to anyone who walks into my life.

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