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Why N.T. Wright Misfires on American Church Racism

Why N.T. Wright Misfires on American Church Racism

By Gerald McDermott
Guest Writer
July 17, 2020

[This letter was written in response to NT Wright's paper "Undermining Racism." Tom wrote it, he says, following British reaction to the unfolding racial crisis in America. I am publishing this letter with his permission, for which I am grateful.]

Dear Tom,

I wonder if I could reflect on your recent paper, and share with you why I think it misses the mark.

Now it says some very good things that must be said by any minister of the gospel and especially by theologians. First and most importantly, that we should bring a gospel perspective to bear on this turmoil and not repeat the secular nostrums of various groups. And that at the center of a gospel perspective is Paul's vision of a differentiated unity in the Body of Christ that transcends old creation boundaries. And that if we do that, we will find that the "biblical gospel of Jesus undermines racism."

We should avoid the Platonic tendency of earlier generations that allowed Christians to dismiss social concerns as liberal social gospel, which permitted them to wipe their hands of racism that infected their attitudes and actions.

Therefore, second, we should remember that our Christian identity ought to be first and foremost in the ways we think about ourselves and others in the church--that we are Messianic people.

So third, virtue signaling and shouting louder and being "woke" by secular standards are lazy substitutes for real theology that ought to be used by Christian leaders.

Then fourth, that some of the concrete gospel work that ought to result from genuinely Pauline ecclesiology are penitence, mutual forgiveness (in fact 70 X 7), and meeting with leaders from other ethnicities to learn what are their real grievances.

I agree with all of that, and heartily affirm it all.

So why am I writing?

Because of assumptions you make along the way that are not accompanied by arguments.

For example, you point several times to Paul's vision for a "polychrome" church. At one point you acknowledge that skin color didn't matter much in "the already polychrome Mediterranean world of Paul's day." But then you go back repeatedly to stress what you think American Christians have missed and still miss--that the Body of Christ is polychrome and ought to be polychrome.

I do not find anything in Paul's letters or in the rest of the New Testament about color. Much is said about the church being from all nations and peoples and tribes and tongues (such as Rev. 7:9), and including Greeks and Jews and men and women (such as Gal. 3:28).

But nothing about color.

Many of your readers might read what I am writing and think this is dumb because it is obvious that this New Testament vision implies colors, and that my denial of their mention means I am trying to avoid the obvious in a racist way.

No, this is exactly the problem that Martin Luther King pointed out--that racists are always seeing colors instead of real human beings made in the image of God with infinite complexity and differentiation. The differentiation is not in their pigmentation but in their souls and gifts--the ways they reflect the infinite variety in what makes up the image of God.

It is obvious--but bears repeating--that Clarence Thomas and Barack Obama share a similar pigment but have little or nothing else in common, except that both are made in the image of God and both claim Jesus to be their messiah.

And what they would say about this question of color also bears pointing out. Obama would say that their skin color is tremendously significant in this discussion and marks the great divide in society and the churches.

Thomas would say that focusing on color is the problem. In itself it is racist. That King was right to call for a color-blind society, that only a color-blind society can be just in its institutions--its systems, if you will. And Thomas, who is a fervent Christian, might also notice that the New Testament is color-blind and therefore its vision of justice and the church is also color-blind.

A second assertion you make without argument is that American society (and its churches) is/are systemically racist. Our "structures have colluded with [racism]." Our racial mistakes are "deep in our systems and cultures and must be rooted out." "The white male still appears privileged."

Tom, no one doubts the presence of racism today--and sometimes deep racism--in American society and some of the churches. But systemic in the way that one side of the debate means it? Institutional obstacles that prevent young blacks from prospering in American society? Where is the proof? There is plenty of counter-proof, as I have argued here and here.

Most if not all the black leaders and thinkers like Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Glenn Lowry, Carol Swain, Walter Williams, Jason Riley, Derryck Green, John McWhorter, Robert Woodson, Voddie Baucham, and Charles Love have suggested that there is indeed systemic racism, but not the kind which today's dominant narrative would concede. Robert Woodson, for example, points to failing inner-city schools that are protected by teacher unions that fight charter schools (thus preventing inner-city parents from having a choice in where they send their kids to get an education). Carol Swain reminds us that Planned Parenthood kills black babies disproportionately, and Jason Riley warns that woke calls to defund police will hurt most of all blacks in the inner cities where crime is far more prevalent than in white suburbs.

In other words, there are not two sides of the debate defined by the white side and the black side, as your paper suggests. No, this is a debate going on within black communities (not "community" as if to suggest there is only one black community, another racist assumption made by many [but not you]), and your paper picks from one side of the debate and ignores (no doubt unintentionally) the other.

Then you make the assertion repeatedly that there has been no change since the 1960s and 70s. "No amendment of life . . . no real change . . . Have we [white Christians] learned nothing? [apparently so] . . . The churches have, by and large, forgotten that [the diversity of Jesus' family] was their vocation, and that racism is a denial of that vocation . . . How did we slide into racism without even realizing? . . . the much deeper failure of western Protestantism . . . We easily tolerate problems at that level [racism as a secondary distraction] . . . We have failed to live out our calling in the gospel."

Most of the black leaders and thinkers I have mentioned, and many more, would be astonished to read these words from you--that nothing has changed, that America has not made significant progress (while admittedly being still very imperfect). They might say that this must have come from someone who either uncritically adopts assertions made on only one side of the debate today or else has not lived here through this last half-century.

You also suggest without real argument that the existence of all-white churches proves (theological and systemic) racism still at those churches. Do you really know that? Of course, in the past there was plenty of racism, especially in times of slavery and Jim Crow and in the 60s and 70s. But do you really know that the fact that a church is mostly white today proves that it is racist? Even at white churches that have tried to attract other colors, but unsuccessfully? There are many of those, all over the U.S.

And what about all-black churches? Is it to be assumed that there is no racism there? Even if some black thinkers such as Derryck Green charge (with argument not just assertion in the forthcoming McDermott, ed., Race and Covenant from Acton Books) that after the 1960s many black churches changed their focus from a gospel of grace to a gospel of race?

Perhaps there are cultural issues regarding worship and preaching styles that affect this "most segregated hour of the American week." I know that is true for some of my black brothers and sisters in Christ. They prefer a mostly-white church because of its theology or liturgy or worship style, while other blacks regard white worship as dull. And some white Christians I know prefer an otherwise-all-black church for similar cultural and stylistic reasons. In neither case is racism the reason.

Another issue I have with this paper, Tom, is that it barely gets beyond old creation solutions. You say the church ought to be of mixed races (since that is the gospel vision), its leaders ought to get to know blacks personally and swap pulpits, and they should listen to real grievances (presumably voiced by blacks). This is little different, again, from what the New York Times exhorts: society (and churches) ought to mix races, we should get to know one another, and listen to the grievances that blacks have against whites.

Now I am not totally fair: you add the need for penitence and mutual welcoming and forgiveness.

But why does the forgiveness seem to be required of whites alone? "The truly extraordinary thing here is that black Christians will still gladly have fellowship with white Christians, despite everything."

What if a church is not racist? Is that possible? Or is it only true of black churches? What if a mostly-white church has talked about racism for decades and condemned it? And its members have been careful to treat others fairly and lovingly no matter their pigment? Is this church and all its members to provide "tearful-eyed repentance both for that evil [of racism] and the resentment which it caused"? Is it to repent of Jim Crow segregation and slavery when no members participated in either or approved of either?

Now I will ask some questions that sound dumb and insulting to the most influential biblical scholar in the world--a man from whom I have learned so much and whom I esteem highly, as a man of God and fellow Anglican. So these are questions I would ask of this paper if I did not know its author. Does not the gospel say that all have sinned, no matter what color skin? Why do we get the impression from this paper that sin is committed by one skin color and righteousness is characterized by another skin color? Why does this seem to be a religious version of the new "whiteness" doctrine, that anyone who has a white skin is guilty of racism, and that those who deny it are even more guilty because they lack moral awareness?

Again, you know the answer to the following dumb questions. So consider them more rhetorical questions addressed to the paper as if I did not know its author. Should we not be going deeper as Christians when addressing racism, to talk about racism as a human problem stemming from original sin which pollutes all of us, and that only the blood of Christ wipes that clean? And that Christ calls us all to costly discipleship by the power of the Holy Spirit to look at every person as a unique child of God made in his image? And that like Paul, we should look at no man anymore after the flesh (2 Cor. 5:16)? But by the new creation--either as a person in the new creation or one whom I will pray enters that new creation?

Carol Swain and Derryck Green and Robert Woodson are among many black Christian thinkers who warn Christians against phony repentance for sins they never committed. Here is Green:

In these fruitless attempts, it is always the presumption of white guilt/black innocence and the demand that whites must absolve themselves from the original sin of racism. This presumption simply imitates the way that secular political programs such as Black Lives Matter approach racial issues. They combine virtue-signaling with a look-busy-while-doing-nothing self-righteousness that keeps the "conversation" going interminably. The conversation will never end because it is presupposed that the only guilt is white guilt and the only victims are blacks. Even if today's whites are not guilty of enslavement or segregation, they must forever atone for the sins of their fathers. This ongoing liturgy would be condemned if it were not stoked by fear and resentment. White Christians genuflect in front of blacks in a ritual act of confession, admitting their white, guilt-by-association sins (racial privilege and "supremacy") even if they have never personally committed these sins. The next step in the liturgy is for whites to express self-loathing through obligatory sacramental acts of contrition, followed by attempts to seek dispensation, which whites instinctively know they will never receive because they intuitively sense that blacks will never grant it (chap. 11 in Race and Covenant).

Green says these new efforts, like the old ones you describe by the WCC delegates at Nairobi in 1973, will fail:

Despite the fact that all this will be done in the name of Jesus, there will be no resolution. Churches will have imitated the world's way of reparation rather than using their own theologies of redemption and atonement. They will have sacralized the secular. The churches will continue to suffer self-inflicted wounds as a result of plagiarizing false profiteers and baptizing their secular programs with tainted water. Black Christians will still be victims, and white Christians will still be racial oppressors. (chap. 11, Race and Covenant).

Tom, I agree that we should listen to the grievances of our black brothers and sisters. But I think we need to be careful to pay attention not only to the Barack Obamas but also to the Clarence Thomases--not only to Willie Jennings but also to Voddie Baucham. In other words, we should remember that there is no one black community and no unified black church. And that the way to fight racism is far more complex than simply recognizing Paul's vision of the church--which many who are thought to be racist have long ago assimilated.

With great respect and continuing friendship,


Professor Gerald R. McDermott recently retired from the Chair of Anglican Divinity at Beeson Divinity School.

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