Why meme theology perpetually fails to engage complex issues honestly or effectively.
A response to Tony Evans
The meme says:
“Racism isnt a bad habit. It isn’t a mistake. It is sin. The answer is not sociology, it’s theology. — Tony Evans”
I agree with the sentiment of denouncing racism as accidental and I deeply acknowledge the wisdom of Tony Evans as a bible teacher and black intellectual.
My CV would confirm I'm neither a "sociologist" nor a "theologian", but as someone who is committed to seeing racism abolished from the earth within my lifetime, I am interested in engaging the "answer" to solving this problem in our societies.
I am a Christian, and a black man who has spent most of his life living in the UK and I consider myself an avid reader of scripture, an informal student student of history, theology and how through time humans have socialized themselves in groups. This socialization and the dynamics between different social groups have resulted in the privileging of some and the subordination of others. Racism or more specifically white supremacy, used many tools to mediate and justify its legitimacy establishing a legacy of harm all around the world. These included anthropology, anatomy, psychology, taxonomy, sociology, economics and theology all used in different ways and different degrees for the white European elites to justify white superiority and the exploitation and oppression of black and brown people for centuries.
The underlying intentions for racism are complicated too. Framing racism just as sin, which implies it is primarily mediated through personal moral failure to love those who don't look like you, fails to consider the ways that racism can be mediated through impersonal systems and structures. You can say sorry about using a racist slur against someone, and changing your heart might mean you never do that again, but the way that systems and structures conceal and construe racialized disparities aren't solved by giving your heart to Jesus. Ways that Western people were historically miseducated on races as biologically essential, distinct and leading to pseudo scientific assumptions about white people being more intelligent and black people more deviant, need policies that mandate re-education, redress inequity and legislate change.
Anti-racism will need a multi-pronged strategic solution to redress the many ways and means it has been mediated, legitimised and promulgated through history. While its correct to say that the answer to racism isn't exclusively nor empirically sociological, it isn't helpful for the church to deny the sociological underpinnings and ways it plays out in the societies we dwell in order to explore possible solutions. Saying the answer to racism is theological, which again is in part true but not exclusively so, can sound like the standard religious resistance to secular models and framing to problems in the world.
It echoes the similar resistance the evangelical church has to using frameworks like critical race theory or intersectionality to examine the problem of race in sociological lenses and proffer expertise in modelling potential solutions.
This secular resistance is also mediated through other ways the Christians have famously decided that all problems for the Christian are solved exclusively through theology proper.
Just consider this statement:
"Cancer isn't a bad hair day, it's a life threatening disease. It's answer isn't oncology, it's prayer."
I know some Christians won’t have any objections to this hypothetical statement. And while I affirm that prayer is essential, the framing of this statement unhelpfully creates a forced dichotomy where one choice is presented as obviously legitimate and the other futile. The tragic consequence in the case of cancer is that Christians who deem only a spiritual framing of the problem as legitimate are prejudiced against conventional cancer treatment by doctors and feel they demonstrate their piety in refusing medical answers for healing. A clear alternative to this false choice would be nuance and an acknowledgement of the complexity of most of our existential realities, and that solutions are often just as multifaceted.
The fact remains that if we want to change the world we have to be willing to face reality courageously and not regurgitate religious platitudes that have consistently proved one dimensional and simplistic.
I appreciate that if you asked a butcher, a baker and a philosopher, the question:
What's more important? 1) the chicken, 2) the egg 3) or which of them came first,
you would get three different answers.
Theologians will prioritize theological solutions to racism and Sociologists will prioritize sociological.
I do think it’s important that the church acknowledges the varied ways in which theology, scripture and church confessions were used to legitimise and sanctify racism and that a failure to address the ways this continues to happen will result in perpetuating racism in the church. It is the churches responsibility to correct misappropriations of theology to justify racism and that can most certainly be a focus but isn’t the only way to address the complex impact of racism.
So we should stop rehearsing myopic statements like:
"No amount of legislation and policy can end racism, it’s a sin issue not a skin issue."
Rather, we should acknowledge that legislation alone hasn’t stopped racism, while also acknowledging that many great spiritual revivals haven’t stemmed the problem either.
As a man of a faith, I believe a spiritual awakening needs to happen, a baptism of empathy, a ressurected conscience, coupled with effective anti-racist strategy and policy.
It's not either/or.
I champion both employed together.
I hope going forward that we spend less energy arguing about the legitimacy of different explanations of the problem of racism and spend more time bridging solutions to the problem across all of our societies