Two Models of Race and Racism Explained
Recently, this tweet caught my attention. (Note: I have omitted the person's identity.)
My mind immediately flashed back to the summer of 2020. In the wake of the social unrest, white evangelicals were exhorted to “listen to their brothers and sisters of color.” There was a strong push to platform minorities, host lament services, and create “diversity committees.” Anyone who wanted to ask questions or slow down the process was labeled a “racist.”
Monique and I strongly advised against this strategy two years ago. We still do. And the replies to this tweet are a great example of why. There were two distinct categories of responses.
Both of these lists include Christians who are ethnic minorities. Many are black. However, these lists are also symbolic of an important difference: many (not all) of the names represent vastly different approaches to conversations about race, including in their identification of the problems and the solutions.
If we were to zoom the discussion about race in the church all the way out, two different frameworks would emerge. Many prominent Christian leaders are putting forth one or the other framework, or model. Model #1 (what I call the "Racial Reconciliation" model) says, “Addressing racial injustice is a goal and there can be no reconciliation without concrete expressions and actions to bring about justice for BIPOC,” while Model #2 (what I call the "Biblical Unity" model) says, “Christians are already reconciled through the work of Jesus on the cross, and we live from that reality.”
Christians who advocate the Racial Reconciliation model would be exemplified by Be The Bridge, Jude 3 Project, and Jemar Tisby. The Biblical Unity model is utilized by voices like CFBU, Voddie Baucham, the Just Thinking podcast, Kimi Katiti, Dr. Carol Swain, and Every Black Life Matters, among others. It’s also helpful to be aware that advocates of both models will often see one another as a stumbling block to progress in the discussion about race and racism. As I unfold the general features of the models, I think it will become more clear about why that is.
To see some of the important ways that these models differ from one another, let’s look at nine critical questions.
What is “race”?
Racial Reconciliation: Race is a social construct, but it is also an essential part of identity. This is because the narratives that reinforce racial essentialism exist everywhere in society and are expressed in beliefs, values, and stereotypes, and in institutional practices within banking, education, criminal justice, and healthcare.
Biblical Unity: All humans are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27-28) and are physical descendants of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:20; Acts 17:26). The Bible categorizes humans by being "in Adam" or "in Christ" (Rom. 5), not by melanin content or physical features. The idea of race (arranging people according to melanin or ethnicity) is a social construct. What we call “race” is simply the result of physical micro-adaptations as a consequence of human migration and interracial procreation. It is not a core part of our identity.
What is “racism”?
Racial Reconciliation: Individual racism is real, but also an insufficient explanation for how racism manifests itself due to power dynamics that are endemic in systems. For this reason, racism is defined as "prejudice plus power” and is the ordinary, everyday experience of most people of color. Because of pervasive racist policies and values, racism results in racial inequities. Christians who hold this view often point to Roman oppression against the Jews as an example of this kind of an ethnic-based power dynamic.
Biblical Unity: Racism is defined as a combination of (1) ethnic favoritism (advantaging or disadvantaging a person or group based on their skin color, physical features, regional accent, or cultural heritage) and (2) hatred in our hearts (1 John 3:15) toward a person or group of people based on their skin color, physical features, regional accent, or cultural heritage. Racism can be expressed through individual acts, or when groups of sinners collaborate to exploit others.
What is the fundamental problem behind racial division?
Racial Reconciliation: Racism's root is America’s history with large-scale systems that have been created by white people to oppress people of color. The effects of these systems continue to marginalize and oppress BIPOC. Once systems of whiteness that perpetuate racism are eliminated and racial injustice addressed, then racism will be eradicated.
Biblical Unity: Racism is a sin that has been part of human history because of the fall of Adam. The root of racial division is an expression of humanity’s sinfulness through various acts of tribal (e.g., racial, ethnic, linguistic) discrimination. This kind of bias is present among every race and culture, not just within white cultures; It just looks different from place to place. Racism has played a major role in America's history and its development. It's good for all citizens to be aware of the depth of that. We should also recognize that various forms of racial and ethnic partiality have played a role in the development of other nations, as well. Being made aware of all the different ways this sin shows up helps Chritsians see that this kind of sin is a global issue, not simply an American one.
Who can be “racist”?
Racial Reconciliation: Because institutional power belongs to white people, only white people can be racist. People of color can engage in prejudice, but they cannot, by definition, be classified as racist, because the power dynamic is deemed to be absent.
Biblical Unity: All people can participate in sinful acts—including racism—against one another, both individually and corporately. There are no sins that affect only certain groups of people based on melanin content (or any other physical feature) or previous historical prejudices.
Who can be a victim of racism?
Racial Reconciliation: Because people of color lack institutional power, they alone can be victims of true racism.
Biblical Unity: All people, regardless of ethnic or cultural background, can be victims of race-based mistreatment. Institutional systems and structures can be set up to advantage—or disadvantage—any ethnic group. Such situations must be carefully investigated on a case-by-case basis using objective and biblical criteria.
This video by Pastor Eric Mason offers a good example of a Christian using the Racial Reconciliation model as a framework for identifying the problems and solutions of race and racism.
What is the foundation for racial unity?
Racial Reconciliation: Christians who advocate the "Racial Reconciliation" model generally affirm that we share a spiritual unity in Christ. However, they also say there is still a need for physical restoration or reparations. This is accomplished when everyone commits to doing the work of antiracism (actively fighting against policies that are deemed racist due to their inequitable results). Specific tasks for white people include lamenting past and present acts of racism, repenting of their whiteness, decolonizing Christianity, and supporting wealth redistribution and reparations.
Biblical Unity: As the gospel goes out to the ends of the earth (Matt. 28:19-20), people from every nation, tribe, and tongue will come to faith in Jesus’s death and resurrection (Rev. 7) and form one new people (Eph. 2:11-22). In Christ, all Christians become spiritual brothers and sisters. Unity between Christians from various racial and ethnic groups is an objective reality that already exists in the spirit realm, one that ought to be lived out in real relationships.
How do I walk in racial unity with others?
Racial Reconciliation: Racial unity can only be achieved when white people understand their position and privilege within society. White people must divest themselves of whiteness by forfeiting their privilege and work to amplify (certain) voices of people of color and other marginalized groups.
Biblical Unity: Unity can only be maintained when Christians cultivate the fruits of the Spirit and resist the deeds of the flesh (Gal. 5), walk in humility (Eph. 4:2–3), share with those in need (2 Cor. 9:7), and engage in empathy (1 Cor. 12:26). Christians should work toward racelessness (where melanin is no longer a way of categorizing people), or at least de-emphasizing race and ethnicity so that our identity and unity in Christ are of chief importance. When an individual has a personal offense with a fellow Christian, they should go to that person in private and work mutually toward genuine repentance and generous forgiveness (Matt. 18).
Is racism a thing of the past?
Racial Reconciliation: Racism is pervasive and always present. Racism is eliminated when white people allow their interests to converge with the interests of BIPOC people, since they are the ones that "hold the power.”
Biblical Unity: Race-based partiality is sin. As such, Christians must look to avoid two errors. We can't assume racism is only in the past but doesn't exist now. Nor can we assume that addressing systems will eradicate race-based partiality. As long as there are humans, there will be sin. There has been ethnic partiality throughout human history, and there will be ethnic partiality until Jesus returns and we move into the new creation.
How do I stand against racial injustice?
Racial Reconciliation: We must address disparities and inequities wrought by historical injustices. This is the only way to stand against racial injustice, even if that means disrupting equal opportunity for all. Anyone not on board with these remedies is seen as supporting on-going racism.
Biblical Unity: Racism can happen, but it also must be investigated and verified. Not simply assumed. Christians need to use their voices, votes, and money to promote a biblical definition of justice, which means advocating for the fair and impartial treatment for people of all races.
We recognize that some Christians would advocate some kind of hybrid model, mixing aspects of both models. But what we are outlining here is a brief breakdown of how the ideas generally align. These questions can help shape your own discussions with pastors and leaders, to see which model they are most aligned with.
In our view, the critical question is not, Which BIPOC voices should I follow? That question assumes that all BIPOC people think the same way about the issues, and that’s simply not true. There is no such thing as “the black perspective”—just as there is no such thing as “the white perspective.” Perspectives aren’t rooted solely in melanin. Humans are way more complex than that.
The leading question we ought to ask is, Which voices are discussing racial unity in a manner that is consistent with what the whole counsel of Scripture communicates about partiality and justice? And that is precisely the question that was often not asked back in 2020 when churches were recommending that their congregations read Ibram X. Kendi and White Fragility. Many pastors and other Christian leaders bought into the cultural belief that melanin brought special knowledge that was unavailable to people with less melanin. This error resulted in situations where melanin mattered more than biblical fidelity.
The truth is, the call to “listen to BIPOC voices” isn’t actually about race. It’s about lifting the BIPOC advocates who promote the culturally accepted ideology concerning skin color. And that usually looks something like the Racial Reconciliation model being amplified while the Biblical Unity model tends to get muted. This became evident in the summer of 2020 when social media thought Monique was part of the BLM stream. Facebook was pushing the Center for Biblical Unity’s content out to 150,000 people a week. But once their algorithms realized she wasn’t saying the “right” things about race and racism—in other words, that we aligned with the Biblical Unity model—they turned that spigot off. Yes, Facebook still sends us messages to “lift Black voices”—while simultaneously diminishing Monique’s voice.
It’s not about being BIPOC, and it never was. It’s about ideology.
1. Work through CFBU's Reconciled curriculum with your small group or team.
2. Krista did a livestream as a follow up to this post, where she included some practical examples of how these two models play out in real life.
UPDATED: February 2023