A just law and just government will uphold the inherent equality of every human’s dignity and worth.
In a society of angels, this is easy to affirm and implement. It’s much harder in a society of sinners.
Think of the wise man versus the foolish man in Proverbs. One will make decisions throughout life that, in all likelihood, put his children at an advantage over the children of the foolish man.
Then again, think of the natural-born citizen versus the immigrant, or the member of the majority versus the member of the minority. This time, through no merit or fault of the parents, their respective children will start at different points, at least by various social and economic measurements.
And yet the children of all of these individuals are equal in dignity and worth. What, then, does justice require toward the parents? What does it require of us in regard to the now differently situated children?
Equality of Process vs. Equality of Outcome
Some contemporary political ideologies claim justice requires an equality of fair process, so that the same rules apply to everyone. Others say it requires an equality of outcome or at least opportunity, such that no one’s too poor and no one’s too rich.
What does the Bible say?
Certainly Scripture calls for fair processes (Exod. 23:2, 6; Deut. 16:19–20). But justice in Scripture isn’t only concerned with fair process. According to passages like Psalm 140, it’s concerned with “the cause” of the weak and disadvantaged (Ps. 140:12; cf. Deut. 24:17–18; Pss. 10:19; 82:3; Isa. 1:17, 23; 10:1–2; Jer. 5:28; 22:13–16). Psalm 72’s perfect king, for instance, possesses this concern:
May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice! (v. 2)
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor! (v. 4)
For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life, and precious is their blood in his sight. (vv. 12–14)
I’m not suggesting these descriptions of the coming messianic king flatly translate into legislation on Medicaid, Section 8 housing, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Biblical justice isn’t just a putting down of the oppressor. It’s a lifting up of the oppressed and downtrodden.
Still, a messianic people should consider the concerns of their messiah. Psalm 72 says he “gives deliverance to the children of the need.” He’s a helper to the poor. The blood of the weak and needy is precious in his sight. Are they precious in ours?
This psalm suggests that justice isn’t just a putting down of the oppressor. It’s a lifting up of the oppressed and downtrodden.
Northeast High School in Philadelphia had a strong tradition of academic and athletic excellence. Then, in the mid-1950s, the neighborhood began to change. More and more African Americans moved into the neighborhood, while whites moved out. The school relocated into a new building in an all-white neighborhood, taking the name, the trophies, the traditions, and two-thirds of the teachers with it. The old dilapidated building, now renamed Edison High School, was left behind for the African-American students. They had substitute teachers and no traditions. They did set one national record: the most students who died in the Army in Vietnam from any one high school.
Again, I’m not prepared to say Psalm 140 or Psalm 72 requires a certain governmental remedy here. But I do want to say that justice in Psalm 140 is concerned with “the cause” of these students at Edison High School. And the king of Psalm 72 acts to help people like these students. Their blood is precious in his sight.
The problem with affirming justice merely as fair process is that it views people as isolated units. It depends on a shallow and almost autistic anthropology that’s low on empathy and fails to conceive of humans as relational beings with structurally-formed identities. Hence, it doesn’t account for how naturally and almost inevitably poverty and discriminatory patterns pass from one generation to another. Yes, you can always find “success stories” of the person who’s climbed out of it. Popular of late has been J. D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy for telling one such story. But Vance also describes how deeply entrenched the patterns of poverty, addiction, abuse, and crime are.
On the other hand, the problem of affirming justice as equality of outcome is that it can sacrifice justice for the individual. Consider the extreme version of this: communism. Communism massively redistributes wealth in order to achieve equality of outcome: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” It’s hard to see how this does not amount to an unbiblical partiality against the rich (Exod. 23:3). More than that, it undermines creation’s dominion mandate by dissolving an individual’s ability to possess a plot of dirt and harvest its fruits, sanctioning state-sponsored thievery instead.
Ultimately, we can’t resolve all the tensions raised by these questions of process and opportunity. Rather, Christians should recognize that treating God’s image-bearers equally requires case-by-case wisdom. Remember Solomon? God gave him wisdom for the sake of justice (1 Kings 3:28).
What Role Does Group Identity Play?
Let me push into an even more difficult question: What role does group identity play as we think about justice and equality? This brings us to the topic of identity politics.
I expect you’ve at least heard the phrase “identity politics.” But what does it mean?
Identity politics defines peoples’ identities according to the groups they occupy—whether those groups are based on gender, race, class, religion, sexual orientation, or something else—and it addresses all political arrangements through that lens.
At the level of public conversation, identity politics aims to give a voice to the oppressed and raise the public’s consciousness of their oppression. This is what we hear in campaign speeches, television talk shows, and workplace speech codes. And to a Christian way of thinking, this can be a good thing.
We All Belong to Our Tribes
At a deeper, more philosophical level, however, identity politics is where a post-religion, post-philosophy, post-truth, postmodern world goes to find its source of belief and morality. We know our beliefs and morality are all socially constructed. God is dead; capital “T” truth is too. Yet we still need something to believe, some moral standards to guide our lives.
But where do we get them? From our tribe. Our tribes give us meaning, purpose, value, a code. People live and identify with their tribes, even if those tribes coexist in a perpetual state of war, like a Mad Max movie. In the more radical view, our very sense of self is determined by the conversations we have within our tribe. There is no “I.” What we think of as “I” or “myself” is a composite of all the tribes we inhabit: the values and words we learned from this family, that ethnic identity, that nation, that high school, that professional group, and so forth.
Think of all the attention given to “sounding black” or “sounding white” in America today. On one occasion in an English class in college (circa 1993), I remember the lone African American in the classroom said the word “ask,” and then corrected himself: “Ask, I mean, aks.” At the time, I probably quietly condemned his self-correction. But what was he doing? In retrospect, I assume he was—understandably—asserting his independence and identity over and against the white majority.
People like to think voters pick a candidate who accords with their convictions. In fact, in their book Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Governments, Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels show that voters’ sense of allegiance to a particular tribe forms their beliefs and convictions. Their convictions don’t lead to their allegiances; their allegiances lead to their convictions. We’ve seen this with President Trump and trade. The GOP has long supported free trade, but he’s managed to change a number of people’s views, or at least convince a lot of the party to go along with him. People are tribalistic.
What Are ‘Structural’ Injustices?
But the claim of identity politics isn’t merely that individuals act in a fashion that’s racist or sexist. It claims the larger structures of society themselves are racist or sexist or unjust. So it’s not enough that I, an individual white male, examine how I treat minorities and women. Rather, I must recognize certain structural injustices as well. That is, I must recognize we live in a system of laws, institutions, and society-wide practices and values that give me an advantage or power over women and non-whites.
What Is White Privilege?
In the American context, the phrase “white privilege” refers to the structural injustices affixed to ethnicity and skin color.
More specifically, white privilege can mean at least three things, two of which I accept and one of which I don’t. First, it means that I possess, by virtue of my skin color, social and material advantages. This is simply a statistical reality. I, as a white man, am less likely to be aborted as a baby, less likely to be born into poverty, more likely to have two parents, more likely to attend good schools because I live in a good neighborhood, more likely to enjoy the social conditions that make law-breaking less likely, more likely to graduate high school and be accepted into college (absent deliberate admissions policies to the contrary), more likely to be hired (all things being equal), less likely to make shop owners feel nervous when I enter, less likely to be handled roughly and invasively by police officers when pulled over instead of being given a friendly warning (as happened the last few times I was pulled over)—the list goes on.
Yet the idea of white privilege involves more than just acknowledging advantages. A man with $100,000 possess an advantage over the man with $1,000. There is nothing inherently unjust about this isolated fact. Rather, white privilege means, second of all, that I possess those advantages by virtue of systemic and historic patterns of discrimination and injustice. I possess the $100,000 and you possess the $1,000 because my grandfather and his father and his father rigged the system in favor of people who look like me.
I accept this second plank of white privilege as well. In fact, try to name a society in which one group didn’t oppress another over the cycles of generations. In the ancient world, we could have referred to Egyptian privilege, or Greek privilege, or Roman privilege. In the modern world, Russian privilege or Shia privilege.
But there is a third, more profoundly ideological and typically unstated meaning of white privilege that I do not accept. And that is the automatic transfer of guilt to anyone who possesses such advantages. I’m guilty because I was born with $100,000 in a savings account with my name on it. As author Eula Biss put it, whiteness is not an identity but a moral problem. Whites are moral debtors simply by being white. If a black 4-year-old is demonstrably indicted as guilty by the structures of society, says Ta-Nehsi Coates following Malcolm X, then “it is impossible for white 4-year-olds to be innocent.”
So back to the 16-year-old white student at Northeastern High and the 16-year-old African American student at Edison High: Both might be great, hard-working kids who’ve never had an ill thought toward members of another ethnicity. Still, the white kid will enjoy a number of advantages the black kid won’t, and because those advantages root in his grandfather’s rigging of the system, the ideology of white privilege says that he is guilty. He is a moral debtor for being white. And from this supposedly objective reality of white guilt comes the subjective sensation our society labels as “white guilt.”
The white student’s advantages are unjust since they’re fruits of historical oppression, and in a sense, there’s nothing he can do to atone for his guilt because, no matter what he does, he will continue to enjoy those advantages. At best, he can atone partially by devoting himself to counterbalancing these inequities through political engagement, lining up with the party position, policing the speech of others, and more.
Balancing Complex Realities: Individual Justice
As I said, I don’t accept this third plank of “white privilege,” but it’s precisely here that evangelicals need to step carefully by recognizing the complexity of reality. On the one hand, Scripture is fairly clear that individual guilt does not transfer (e.g. Ezek. 18). The only exception I can think of is the guilt we all possess by virtue of our covenantal union with Adam. And even here our inherited, imputed guilt in Adam cannot be separated from our own sin. Within the Mosaic covenant, yes, the consequences of parental sin might have been passed down to one’s heirs, but there’s no reason to think guilt itself did (see Exod. 34:7). In fact, think of how King Amaziah is commended for not putting to death the sons of his father’s killer, precisely because “each one shall die for his own sin” (2 Kings 14:6).
Strictly speaking, then, you cannot be directly “guilty” for the actions of your parents or their parents, or for any advantages that have accrued to you because of their sin. Exceptions may exist in this or that circumstance according to some inscrutable divine calculus (e.g., 2 Sam. 21:1–14), but generally the concept of moral agency requires a connection between my guilt or innocence and my own actions, not the actions of another. And if this is true with regard to my parents’ sin, how much truer is it relative to the actions of those who share my skin color.
The bottom line here is: Identity politics, at its most careless, undermines moral agency. The white 16-year-old at Northeast High is not guilty simply for being white or for the advantages he possesses by virtue of his skin color. We cannot forsake the demands of justice at an individual level. We understand from Scripture that guilt and culpability are individual; punishment and responsibility are individual. To say otherwise is its own kind of Nietzschian power move—creating a concept of guilt for the sake of leveraging power.
Balancing Complex Realities: Group Justice
But there’s more yet to say. First, God will judge each of us as individuals, but it’s worth observing that God does indict entire nations throughout the Old Testament, as with his indictments against Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, and a number of others. There is a concept of corporate guilt in the Bible, which occurs when a people are collectively guilty.
Second, the white 16-year-old cannot be guilty for his parents’ sins, but he can be personally guilty for what he does or does not do with his advantages, and whether or not he has a heart for the “cause” of the poor and downtrodden, like the king in Psalm 72.
Insofar as discussions of white privilege implicitly or explicitly impute guilt, as described above, whites will hear them as an illegitimate shaming tactic and as a reverse power move. But we who are white cannot let a misdirected indictment cause us to ignore God’s requirements: to steward whatever privileges, advantages, gifts, or blessings he gives for the good of others—especially for the good of those lacking our advantages (Matt. 25:14–46).
So, how will you and I use all the “more likely to” and “less likely to” statistical advantages of whiteness or maleness or American-ness or two-parents-who-love-me-ness as listed above? Is it possible that we deny those advantages in order to avoid the responsibilities of love?
What would it look like for you and me to mimic the king’s justice-loving heart in Psalm 72 and his concern for “the cause” of ethnic minorities or immigrants?
In general, biblical Christians should be aware of the larger realities of group membership and group dynamics. To ignore these dynamics is to risk perpetuating and exacerbating the inequalities and division between groups of people, thus deepening our identity politics.
So identity politics and guilt-imputing concepts of “privilege” can undermine moral agency. Yes. But it’s also true that a people who refuse to acknowledge the depth of their nation’s sins too often end up sharing in those sins—if not directly, then at least indirectly through the absence of love and care for those affected by the sin.
Blaming the System
In their important book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith demonstrate that, beginning in the 1990s, white Christians have done a good job of increasingly acknowledging the history of racism.
Yet Divided by Faith also charts a radical divergence between how white conservative Protestants and black conservative Protestants perceive the reality of broader structural problems. It recounts a survey that asked whites and blacks to account for the statistical inequalities between white and black jobs, income, and housing. More than anyone else in the country, white conservative Protestants blame individuals, rather than the system. Black conservative Protestants, however, are more likely to blame “the system.” The rest of the country—whites and blacks, Christians and not—is in between.
In light of Christianity’s emphasis on individual responsibility, it’s easy to understand why white evangelicals feel this way. Yet might this be short-sighted? There’s no doubt some poor blacks are poor due to individual decisions. All of us are what we are, in part, because of our decisions. Again, any reasonable concept of moral agency demands it. But the question is, why are American blacks, as a group, poorer than American whites? Is it because black people are inferior? Or could it have something to do with historic patterns and discrimination? I trust I don’t need to actually answer that question. Whites sometimes point to harmful strains in black American culture (e.g. the objectification of women and glorification of violence in gangsta rap). Very well. Could it be that those strains root in the same historic patterns? Same for those who blame Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Ask yourself, Why did these programs affect black communities differently from white communities?
More than anyone else in the country, white conservative Protestants blame individuals, rather than the system. . . . Insofar as white Christians remain unable to acknowledge larger structural realities, those realities are likely to remain.
More than anyone else in the country, white conservative Protestants blame individuals, rather than the system. Insofar as white Christians remain unable to acknowledge larger structural realities, I fear those realities are likely to remain. We’ll continue to see reality through racialized lenses. We’ll continue to think, Blacks and whites are somehow different. They have their friend groups. We have ours. They enjoy their culture. We enjoy ours. It’s all equal, even if our lives are separate . . . even if our neighborhoods are nicer.
Blaming the Victim
That said, we cannot discard individual responsibility. When trials and antagonisms and persecutions and prejudices afflict us, our decisions can make our situation better or worse. There’s a quick instinct in our civil discourse to accuse people of “blaming the victim” whenever they point to something a victim of injustice did wrong. At the level of empathy, one understands the defensiveness. But let’s not rob those who’ve been oppressed or abused of their personal agency. We must affirm that people who have been hurt remain responsible moral agents, even as we exercise an extra measure of empathy.
The bottom line: Christians must balance complex realities by making room for both individual and corporate responsibility in our calculations of justice and equality, even if this conclusion doesn’t satisfy those who only deal in soundbites.
What’s the Solution to Inequality?
What, then, should governments do in response to inequality? Christians will disagree on how this discussion translates into specific government policies, and I would probably indict anyone who presumed to offer “the” Christian policy solution or political tactic as guilty of undermining Christian liberty. That said, I do mean to sensitize us to the reality of group dynamics and what they mean for justice—something many white evangelicals can often be insensitive to.
Evangelicals like to say that the solution to racism, as with so much else, is conversion and regeneration. Emerson and Smith call this “the miracle motif.” When people are converted, we say, problems are solved automatically. What’s the solution to violent crime? Convert people to Christianity, because Christians don’t commit violent crime. What’s the solution to divorce? Convert people to Christianity because Christians are less likely to divorce. What’s the solution to racism? Again, conversion, because Christians are less likely to be racist.
And all that’s true. But hold on. First, conversion does not lead to immediate moral perfection. Second, a history of racism affects entire systems, and the conversion of the Black student at Edison High doesn’t change how he’ll be treated by police officers or in job interviews. And as Christians, we should care how he’s treated in such settings. So just because you, me, and this student are not personally racist, the system arguably remains stacked against him, as the advantages listed above indicate. Which means you and I have more to discuss in terms of what justice requires of us. How might we use the privileges—or, if you prefer, advantages—we’ve been gifted to help this student?
How Should Churches Respond Biblically?
Here are seven quick thoughts on how Christians and churches should respond to various forms of inequality.
1. The Bible affirms the equality of all humanity, and the church must recognize the equality of all its members.
2. As we engage the broader public, we must recognize people have categorically different starting points, and we must care about “the cause” of the weak or downtrodden (Pss. 10:19, 82:3, 103:6, 140:12; Isa. 1:17).
You might be convinced that Republican economics better care for the poor than Democratic economics, or vice versa. I’m not stepping into that conversation. I’m commending a posture of heart that should inspire the search for public and private solutions, whether they lean left or right. Christian hearts should look like the Lord’s heart.
In whatever sphere we possess authority, we should desire to see people underneath us flourish. Proverbs 29:4: “Through justice the king builds up the land.” Do you use your advantages to build up? Or do you deny that you have any advantages in order to avoid the work of building others up?
3. As we engage the broader public, we should work for just laws and processes—just systems.
According to our callings and stewardships, whatever they are, we should work for just systems, laws, and processes. Of course, this calls for wisdom. The law of unintended consequences often means things that appear fair at first turn out to work for harm in the long run.
4. Our task inside the church is to work not only for equality, but oneness amid diversity, thereby modeling something far greater for the nations.
When equality is a society’s uppermost value, the society becomes fearful of any and all differences because difference threatens equality. Such a society might celebrate cosmetic plurality: this versus that style. But it becomes the enemy of substantive differences, whether ideological, religious, economic, or otherwise. Therefore, it forces conformity. Communism and consumeristic liberal democracies both have their way of doing this.
But biblical equality makes Christ, the head, uppermost. Different people can play different parts with no threat to their basic equality. Biblical equality relishes difference and color and all the parts of the body. The hand needs the foot. The ear needs the nose. Indeed, greater honor is often afforded to the lesser parts, and all rejoice and mourn together for each part (see 1 Cor. 12).
In the church is where we best demonstrate unity amid diversity.
5. Churches must work for conversions, because conversions do transform our lives.
In the gospel we discover our equality with one another, as well as the ability to affirm one another amid our God-assigned differences. But more than that, we discover our need for one another as different parts of the body; we discover our love for one another. In Acts 2 the early Christians were “selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (2:45). These people were converted, and therefore their community was transformed.
6. Build personal relationships across lines of difference.
In Divided by Faith, Emerson and Smith demonstrate that whites with little to no personal exposure to blacks were far more likely just to blame individuals (whom they didn’t know). But the more that white people had relationships with black people, the more they generally recognized the larger patterns of inequalities their friends struggled against.
Amid all the reports of police brutality over the last few years, Mark Dever began to ask all his black friends if they’d ever had unfortunate encounters with the law. To a person, each one had a story: one brother (a former elder of my church) was handcuffed on the hood of his car outside his workplace because he “looked like someone.” Another brother had the seats of his car slashed by a police officer looking for drugs, again, because he “looked like someone.”
As I said, I don’t know all the right policy solutions. But I do want to sensitize our hearts. And building genuine, heartfelt friendships across lines of difference is one of the best ways I know to do this.
7. Start and end with the gospel.
Let me conclude with this: As I’ve argued elsewhere, a classic Protestant understanding of justification by faith alone is history’s greatest source of political equality and unity.
Objectively, justification is a covenant verdict that unites us to God’s covenant people and makes us one.
Subjectively, it robs political actors of the incentives to warfare and domination by giving them what all people, nations, and armies primarily seek—justification, standing, and the recognition of existence. The person justified by faith must no longer prove or justify him or herself by any earthly measurement: race (“I’m white”), ethnicity (“I’m Serbian”), gender (“I’m male”), class (“I’m aristocracy”), nationality (“I’m Prussian”), wisdom (“I’m progressive”) and all those things that lead to war and political oppression.
These justified people in turn worship their justifier, the king of Psalm 72, who lifted them up when they were poor, downtrodden, and oppressed. And so, little by little, they learn to love like him.
Editors’ note: An earlier and longer version of this article appeared at 9Marks.