"Racial and ethnic hostility is the foremost social problem facing our world today." Billy Graham
Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson review the depths of that problem in The Heart of Social Justice. They describe current models for reconciliation, then offer their own model based on healing. That paradigm requires five steps: worship; embracing our true selves; receiving and extending forgiveness; denouncing evil principalities and powers; and having ongoing partnerships. John Perkins opens the book with an introduction. The authors include appendices on definitions, a Bible study on reconciliation from the book of Acts, and a study on principalities and powers. They also recommend books and videos.
Dr. McNeil is an ordained minister, former staffer for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, teacher, evangelist, speaker, and founder of Overflow Ministries, Inc. Rick Richardson is the associate director for evangelism for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an author, and is working on his doctorate.
The authors write in an informal style with frequent anecdotes. They provide a good analysis of individualism versus social justice. However, in some of their anecdotes they assume racism when other explanations work as well or better. They recognize that conversion is more than a personal act but is "a radical switch of allegiances between kingdoms" (p. 122). They call people to "begin to live out what they believe about racial and ethnic reconciliation in their daily life" (p. 136).
Recognizing God's goal for unity in His church, they equate racism and ethnocentrism with idolatry, a thought-provoking comparison. If we worship God, then putting our race or ethnic group in a position above the level playing field where all of us are sinners, is sinning against Him. It is also not obeying the second greatest commandment, to love our neighbors as ourselves. The authors understand "that racism and ethnic strife are ultimately spiritual problems that demand spiritual solutions" (p. 52).
When they discuss the importance of forgiveness, they stress the importance of a forgiveness based "on an adequate change of heart or behavior on the part of the offender," (p. 97) a teaching too often overlooked or denied. They warn that forgiveness given without repentance perpetuates sin and injustice. God Himself does not forgive without repentance, yet much of Christian teaching calls for people to do so. It was refreshing to read the authors' discussion on the subject.
Occasionally McNeil and Richardson offer some interpretations that I've never heard before. They seem to see Isaiah's encounter with God in Isaiah 6 as being contingent on Isaiah's spiritual state-of-mind when he went to worship. "Perhaps he was more open to God or had prepared himself differently to meet with God. It is not clear what predisposed him to be more open, intimate and vulnerable to God this time" (p. 63). They see reconciliation among people at the core of the Gospel .
In advancing their argument on denouncing principalities, they end up criticizing God without realizing it. "These three dimensions of idolatry can be seen in the life of the children of Israel in the Old Testament…The Torah…was intended to teach all people to love God and others, but it became a means of marginalizing or excluding women, Gentiles, the poor, the lame, lepers and the blind from God's covenant community" (p. 120). Didn't God set up the rules about who could serve as priests? Didn't God set out the laws about leprosy to protect the community from contagion? God also set up the laws that regulated Jewish involvement with the Gentiles around them.
McNeil's and Richardson's goal of the book is racial and ethnic reconciliation. However, they fail to hit their target because they start out with a false premise. They rely heavily on current popular teachings on the definition of racism, and ignore biblical teachings on sin. The Bible defines sin as "the transgression of the law," and places us all on the level playing field of being sinners. According to McNeil and Richardson, "racism-- the belief that my race is inherently superior and destined to dominate-- is a peculiarly European and European American construct. The evil of racism is an expression of the sin of self-worship whose roots go back to Europe." Apparently the authors are unfamiliar with other racial groups who have assumed that they were destined to lead, that they were the center of the earth, such as the Chinese.
Also, if sin is a transgression of the law, then it is an act or an attitude. The authors do not see racism in that light. Instead they see racism as indigenous in all white Americans. "[S]ome very subtle forms of the white supremacist false identity infect all European Americans. This attitude and mindset has been so endemic throughout our history that it is passed on to white children from their parents and grandparents like a virus. It means that when they see a person of color, they tend to make judgments without knowing anything about that person" (p. 86).
Any similar statement critical of all Native Americans, Latinos, or African Americans would be considered racist if made by a white person. Yet the authors take it upon themselves to assume that they know what every white person thinks when he sees a person of color. That is offensive, stereotypical, presumptuous, and racist.
At one point in the book McNeil shares a mistake that she made that hurt Koreans in her audience. After she apologized, "she now understood how it must feel to be white. She identified with how difficult it must be to try hard 'to get it right' but not be able to say or do the right thing" (p. 105). Maybe white people cannot say or do the right thing because that option has been removed from them by definition. Racism has been passed down to them "like a virus."
If sin is an act or attitude and racism is sin, then racism should be an act or attitude. Reconciliation is impossible when people are working under different definitions of the problem. One group of people sees racism and white skin as identical. The other hears that Martin Luther King, Jr., called for a color-blind society. They try to live up to that and are still called racists by virtue of their skin color. They see someone using the n- word vilified and agree with that vilification, but cannot understand why it is not just as racist for a prominent African-American leader to refer to New York as "hymietown." To their understanding, racial epithets are racist. Why then does one person get a pass for doing what someone else is vilified for? One senate leader is vilified for praising Strom Thurmond, but a liberal praising former Ku Klux Klansman Robert Byrd as the "dean of the Senate" is fine. If a white man beats on a Korean grocer, he is a racist. Why weren't the Latinos and African-Americans who beat on Korean grocers during the LA riots just as racist? Because McNeil and Richardson have rejected the biblical idea of transgression of the law and accepted current popular theories. Isn't this the spirit of hypocrisy?
McNeil and Richardson decry double standards in society even as they further other double standards. "Anger at racism and at the ignorance of European American people is profoundly healthy and right" (p. 79). Would the anger of the beaten Korean grocer in LA against those who hurt him be just as healthy and right? Isn't this a double standard?
Martin Luther King, Jr., called for a color-blind society, a society in which people were judged on the basis of their character. However, the authors call this a false identity. They reject this color blindness and call for celebrating "the good in our ethnic identity and heritage" (p. 92). Perhaps that is permissible or right, but the apostle Paul also called for unity among believers and the creation of not Jewish converts, but of a new creation, the Church. The authors do not build a strong biblical case for this step in their reconciliation model.
They do make strong arguments for three of the steps of their model of reconciliation, however, their section denouncing principalities and powers is confusing. McNeil and Richardson warn that racism and ethnocentrism are spiritual problems. They call for repentance, spiritual transformation, and forgiveness, but they also place the blame for these sins on demonic spirits. They mention that Jesus "engaged with principalities and powers over Israel" (p. 124). Scripture shows Him casting out demons, but not from the religious leaders whom He most attacked for the society's problems. Jesus held them accountable for their attitudes and actions, but did not make a correlation between personal accountability and demonic influence. Jesus did hold Zacchaeus accountable for his past behavior, but when He exorcised demons from the Gadarene, there is no record of his holding him liable for his former actions.
McNeil and Richardson summarize and agree with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, position equating militarism and racism. They see the Vietnam War as an adventure in militarism. The surviving Vietnamese boat people and the Montaignards who are currently tortured for their faith by Vietnamese Communist might disagree.
The good points, including the many legitimate criticisms that McNeil and Richardson make, would be much easier to accept if the book did not hold such a double standard. It is hard to think of those individuals who have bucked their society and have spent their lives or given their lives serving others, such as Jim Elliot, Betsy Ten Boom, David Livingstone, Hudson Taylor, Gladys Aylward, and those who have lived and died among leprosy patients of other races, as racists just because they had white skin. Perhaps the authors would say the Holy Spirit had transformed them. Were there way too few of them? Definitely.
The authors do not recognize that progress has been made in the United States. Horrible sins such as slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and hosings of peaceful demonstrators have been stopped. Many of us around the country do not know enough about remaining racial problems to begin to know how to confront them justly. The authors have some good ideas and positive steps that they offer toward dealing with those remaining problems, but many readers may not read long enough to reach those good ideas because of the hypocracy. – Debbie W. Wilson, Christian Book Previews.com
The racial divide is one of the most pervasive problems the church faces. It hinders our effectiveness as one body of believers. It damages our ability to witness to and serve seekers.
Why won't this problem just go away?
Because it is a spiritual battle.
The problem of racism must be solved through both internal change and community transformation. Only then are we able to work corporately for the kind of global change that is desperately needed.
In this book Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson make the crucial connection between the role of healing prayer and spiritual warfare in bringing about justice. Each of us must be challenged to identify the power of evil in the world and to give up our idols for the sake of Christ.
Are you ready to find out how soul change leads to social change?