Racial Injustice and Broken Systems
As we have reflected in our series on racial injustice in the United States and the church’s response to it, we’ve had two key goals in mind: to understand the complex web of factors that perpetuate the brokenness of racism in our world, and to equip churches and ministries with tools that help them think biblically about these issues and act in ways that demonstrate God’s kingdom in their communities.
The Sins We Sin Together: Broken People, Broken Systems
This brings us to a question we haven’t yet discussed directly, one that seems to bring the most confusion: the systemic nature of racial injustice—the ways that intentional and unintentional discrimination in the past has created structures within the political, religious, economic and social systems that impact different groups of people differently. As philosopher James K.A. Smith writes, “racism doesn’t have to convince our intellects to co-opt our imaginations. It is absorbed through practices we never think about, even in spaces where [its explicit expressions] might be disavowed.”1 In other words, we can participate in and help to perpetuate broken systems even without realizing it or consciously having racist thoughts.
As followers of Jesus, we know the root of all brokenness in the world is sin—the serpent tempted Adam and Eve in the garden, and they fell into sin. As a result of the Fall, every part of God’s creation is distorted, and every part needs to be restored by God.
Sin is pervasive, so wherever you have human structures of authority, there will also be structural sin there; there will be some unjust things taking place and some unjust policies being put in action, whether we fully see it or not.2 If we want to truly love our neighbors, we need to recognize the ways that our neighborhood might be contributing to their plight. Broken people make broken systems, and these broken systems inflict more pain and brokenness on individuals.
Human beings are relational creatures, and this includes being social and political creatures. A church that is not faithful to call its people to acknowledge and address these implications of the gospel leaves their social and political discipleship to others—to cable news shows, to social media, to political parties, and to alternative visions of justice. The scriptures are rich with a way of life that reflects the character of our God who is both abounding in lovingkindness and our righteous judge. As Theologian Carl F. Ellis, Jr., writes, we need to check and recheck our assumptions based on God’s word, rather than “dumpster diving” for cultural definitions of justice and mercy that don’t take the fullness of what it means to be human into account.3
Ellis reminds us that our theology is always contextual, and when done rightly, applies God’s word to the core concerns of every person and every culture—which are different from culture to culture.4 When we don’t allow Scripture to speak to these concerns as well, our theology becomes impoverished, being reduced to what Ellis calls a “gospel of the gap.”5 That is, we tend to rely on our social systems to deliver most of what we need for “the good life,” and only apply Scripture’s teachings to things where the systems can’t deliver (spiritual concerns).
If our churches are unwilling to see the way systems affect different groups, we will miss opportunities to address each other’s core concerns and the gospel’s power to transform every aspect of life. At best, this can look like a failure to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15), at worst, we might even turn a blind eye to things that benefit us while harming our neighbors, “neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life.”6
A Case Study: Financial Systems
To illustrate this point, let’s examine a place where racial injustice and poverty meet—in wealth disparities and our financial systems.
In 2016, the median net worth of black households in America was $13,024. For white families it was $149,703. Astonishingly, this is a larger gap than in 1968, when black households had a median net worth of $6,674 and white households had $70,786 (in inflation-adjusted 2016 dollars). This gap is also evident across all education levels.7 But why?
Some might be tempted to say that the problem is with black people themselves: if they would only work harder, save more, and invest more wisely, these disparities would vanish. Yes, personal sin and bad practices can contribute to poverty—for people of any racial group—but to immediately jump to that explanation ignores systemic injustices against black Americans that have been in place for centuries. As we discussed in a previous article, there are five causes of poverty, so it would be wise to have a set of “lenses” that help us to see how any or all of them could be a factor in any given situation Indeed, systemic brokenness is a major part of the story when it comes to building wealth in America.
So let’s look at some of the historical background to this wealth gap. For 246 years, from 1619-1865, the majority of black Americans were enslaved and denied rights to own property and earn a living while their labor accrued profits to their enslavers. In the post-reconstruction South, black codes (known collectively as “Jim Crow” laws) prevented black Americans from accessing many tools for wealth creation, such as bank loans, insurance, and consistent education. Moreover, those whose prosperity in spite of these setbacks raised the anger of their white neighbors often met with brazen, unpunished, terroristic violence (see for example, the People’s Grocery lynchings in Memphis, TN, in 1892, the Wilmington, NC, coup of 1898, and the Tulsa, OK, massacre of 1921).
But there is more to the story, issues that affected the South and North alike, and often went below the radar.8
- During the great depression, the U.S. Government created the Federal housing authority to subsidize mortgages and increase home ownership (a key component of wealth-building in America), but black Americans were routinely denied access to these benefits, such that from 1935 to 1968 only 2% of federally backed home loans went to black borrowers.
- After World War II, the GI Bill (1944) provided benefits to returning veterans including mortgage assistance and funding for college education, but due to FHA regulations and then-legal segregation at colleges and universities, most black veterans were not allowed to capitalize on these benefits.
- Additionally, following FHA guidelines, realtors and banks denied loans to black homebuyers in many cities and discouraged investment in majority-black neighborhoods through a practice known as “redlining.”9 Even though this was outlawed in 1968, many banks continued to practice it, with some being fined for violating this law as recently as 2016.10
In the wake of the reforms resulting from the 1960s Civil Rights movement, it can be tempting to believe that historic injustices like this don’t affect life today, but household wealth isn’t built overnight. Wealth creates wealth. The impacts of compounding interest over long periods of time can make even small disparities in wealth—and these weren’t small—grow into enormous disparities over decades and centuries.
And these wealth disparities have spillover effects in the quality of schools (since public school funding is often tied to property tax revenue in the school zone), affordability of college, neighborhood disparities in policing and sentencing, lack of banking options that allow for predatory lending practices and crushing debt burdens, and lack of access to many personal and professional networks due to de-facto segregated neighborhoods.
These sorts of hidden realities are emblematic of the broken systems and materialistic beliefs and practices in mainstream American culture. When Christians fail to take these things into account in our ministry efforts (because the same systems that have worked against black families have often worked for white families), the materialistic solutions we offer (“find a better job,” “get a higher degree,” “move out of your tough neighborhood”) tend to be unattainable to many and can be unintentionally offensive.
Addressing Broken Systems
What does repentance and restitution look like in the face of such systemic sins in which nearly all of us have knowingly or unknowingly participated?
God’s word consistently speaks of injustice in broken systems and condemns those who use systems to oppress others (see Ps. 82 and Hab. 1:2-4 for example). And Scripture teaches us to long for God’s restoration of all things in the already-here-but-not-yet-consummated reign of Jesus over all the earth (Col. 1:13-20; Heb. 2:5-9; Rev. 21:1-5).
When God pronounces judgments on Israel for their violations of the covenant, it is often systemic, cultural sins He takes issue with. They were often blind to their collective sins, continuing in their religious habits while ignoring injustice in their midst. In Isaiah 1, for example, God calls His people “Sodom” and “Gomorrah” (1:10), tells them that He has no pleasure in their sacrifices (1:11), says their worship is “trampling His courts” (1:12), that He cannot bear their assemblies (1:13), that He hates their festivals (1:14), and even that He will not listen to their prayers (1:15)! The people of God maligned His name when they were supposed to reflect His character through obeying His law. God’s call to them is to return to doing justice and loving mercy: “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isa. 1:16-17, NIV). Their sins here are corporate, and God expects their repentance (and its fruits of righteousness) to be as well.
So how can churches apply this here and now? In our book A Field Guide to Becoming Whole, we write, “Address broken systems by navigating existing ones, creating alternatives, and/or reforming them altogether.”11 In our case study of financial systems, here is what that can look like:
- Navigating Existing Systems: The Chalmers Center’s Faith & Finances curriculum has trained hundreds of churches and nonprofits around the U.S. to help thousands of low-income participants learn biblical financial principles in ways that are contextualized to their daily lives while pairing them with allies who walk with them through opening bank accounts, understanding and managing their credit score, paying off debts, and more.
- Creating Alternative Systems: In the U.S., heavy banking regulations make creating alternatives difficult here (and there is great need for innovation in this area!). In places outside the U.S. with little to no access to the formal banking system, the Chalmers Center’s Restore: Savings curriculum equips churches to create savings groups where members gather weekly to worship, study God’s Word, pray, and contribute a small amount of money to the group. With the money they save together, members can invest in their businesses, pay for healthcare, or purchase necessities for their families.
- Reforming Systems: This aspect is harder for many churches to engage with, but as our black sisters and brothers have long known, there is a place for advocating for justice for the poor and petitioning both governments and businesses to provide equal access to financial systems.
Both people and systems are broken, so Christians and churches need to search out areas of both personal and corporate sin. The way of Jesus is incarnational—being willing to enter into the pain that others have experienced that we haven’t (or, in the case of the hidden nature of broken systems, pain that perhaps we have even participated in causing). In this area of racial injustice, when churches fail to consider the witness of those who tell us our systems do not work for them or look for excuses to ignore their core concerns, what damage might we be doing to our gospel witness as a people who pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?”
For Further Learning
Because systemic brokenness is a complex issue, we can’t possibly fit all there is to learn in one blog post. Many others have done good work to help us understand our societal systems, and so we recommend these resources:
- The Chalmers Center’s Practicing the King’s Economy book and online course from Michael Rhodes, Robby Holt, and Brian Fikkert provides practical tools for individuals and churches to live out God’s economic system.
- This personal testimony and video (along with a transcript with his sources and this follow-up) from filmmaker and author Phil Vischer provides a moving, succinct, and clear understanding of the impacts of systemic racial injustice in the United States.
- This article from pastor and author Tim Keller provides a very helpful, accessible understanding of biblical justice.
- James K.A. Smith, “What White Evangelical Christians Can’t See when They See Racism,” Religion News Service, August 6, 2020, accessed online at: https://religionnews.com/2020/08/06/what-white-evangelical-christians-cant-see-when-they-see-racism/
- Paraphrased from a lecture by Irwyn L. Ince, Jr., Reformed Theological Seminary, August 3, 2020.
- Carl F. Ellis, Jr., “It’s Time to Emancipate our Theology from Western Culture #AlwaysReforming,” MissioAlliance, November 21, 2017, accessed online at: https://www.missioalliance.org/time-emancipate-theology-western-culture-alwaysreforming/
- See the Chalmers Center’s curriculum, Practicing the King’s Economy, session 2, https://courses.chalmers.org/library/practicing-the-kings-economy/82438/about/
- Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 136, “What sins are forbidden in the sixth commandment?”
- Data from the Historical Survey of Consumer Finances via the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and University of Bonn economists Moritz Kuhn, Moritz Schularick, and Ulrike I. Steins, cited in Heather Long and Andrew Van Dam, “The Black-White Economic Divide Is as Wide as It Was in 1968,” The Washington Post, June 4, 2020, accessed online at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/06/04/economic-divide-black-households/.
- Summarized in Kriston McIntosh, Emily Moss, Ryan Nunn, and Jay Shambaugh, “Examining the Black-White Wealth Gap,” The Brookings Institution, February 27, 2020, accessed online at: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/02/27/examining-the-black-white-wealth-gap/.
- For an extensive history of this practice, see Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: The Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America (New York: Liveright), 2017.
- See Ken Sweet, “Regulators Fine BancorpSouth $10.6 Million for Redlining,” Associated Press, June 4, 2016, accessed online at https://apnews.com/c018fd2a637244e58a0a44a44f0847b4.
- Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic, A Field Guide to Becoming Whole: Principles for Poverty Alleviation Ministries, 2019 (Chicago: Moody Publishers), 128.