In my pre-Christian life, I was a political leftist who considered identity politics to be the pathway to a more enlightened future. I was deeply invested in what I like to call a “race-centric” view of the world, so much so that I would bristle and correct anyone who dared to use the word Oriental in my presence—with a toxic blend of self-righteousness, condescension, and pique that is sadly so common in much of today’s political discourse.
If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in “wokeness”, I far more. As a student, I marched and protested and helped occupy buildings for the cause of affirmative action in faculty hiring, and my course of study was all about ethnicity in America. I was steeped in concepts of critical race theory at one of the most liberal campuses in the nation, and considered myself to be a full-blown socialist (not the weak-tea Bernie Sanders types that we see these days).
Fast forward to today, and thanks to God’s free gift of salvation, followed by the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit working through the perfect Word, I can honestly say that verses such as Galatians 3:27-28, Colossians 3:11, 1 Peter 2:9, 2 Corinthians 5:16, and John 3:30, among others, have thoroughly demolished my race-centric worldview. And so it is that I marvel when I see significant portions of the conservative evangelical church appearing to move more and more toward a race-centric worldview, while the Gospel is seemingly emphasized less and less.
Now, I will readily admit that even the most race-centric evangelicals would likely dispute that characterization quite vigorously, but the reality is that when race seems to be all that a person talks about, other topics—including the Gospel—start to recede into the background. This is the very point that Phil made to Thabiti Anyabwile in his article, “Against Mission Drift.“
As it has been in the world, this discussion is fraught with challenges in the church. Some people object to using the term “race” while others might prefer or actually insist on it. There are explicit or implicit questions about who is allowed to speak on the topic, or at least speak with any degree of perceived credibility. Actual data and even Scripture are sometimes minimized or ignored in favor of emotions and experiences. Positions are staked out, often at increasing distances from one another, the temperature rises, cognitive biases hinder understanding, unfair generalizations abound, and soon you realize that you’re in the middle of a giant mess and you’ve lost sight of the exit.
And very often, you see people bemoaning others’ tone and diction. Offense is taken, accusations fly, people become defensive, and the odds of having a meaningful discussion plummet. This is a real shame, because in order to make any progress on an issue as intense and emotionally charged as race, the order of the day must be level-headed civil discourse—and in the church, always keeping central what the Word of God says.
Which brings me to the subject of my post. The often hair-trigger reactions to others’ tone and diction are unsurprising in a world where “microaggressions” are actually a thing.
Merriam-Webster defines a microaggression as “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).” I can understand why the world would buy into this concept, as it pushes all of the worldly buttons: the elevation of self, the smug moral righteousness that can come along with self-positioning as a victim, the clinging onto offense and unforgiveness, the rhetorical escalation of small slights into matters of first importance, and ultimately, the great sin of pride.
In the church, however, this really ought not be, as we have the perfect Word to guide us. In that sense, even the very nature of the secular word “microaggression” is telling, because micro admits that the behavior being complained about is tiny, while aggression is self-refuting, as it typically requires overt hostility or violence, and not acting merely “subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally”.
Instead, I would argue that a more biblical term for calling out small slights of this nature would actually be speck-plucking from Matthew 7:3, representing a microscopic focus on others’ shortcomings while ignoring one’s own. When we apply the concept of speck-plucking to race, seemingly the most common source of “microaggressions” today, the concern comes into stark focus, especially in light of the worst race-centric pundits’ own propensity to make sweeping race-based generalizations (see, e.g., “white evangelicalism”, “white fragility”, “white guilt”, “white privilege”, etc.). They really ought to remove the planks from their own eyes, before critiquing others’ subtle, unconscious, or unintentional comments or actions!
This dynamic of racial speck-plucking is all the more puzzling when one understands that gauging whether or not someone else “subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude” involves a significant likelihood of false positives, so much so that the first question should never be, “Are you offended?” but rather, “Did the other person intend to offend you?”
Among Christians, hopefully the answer in the vast majority of cases will be, “Of course not!” If the world will know us by our love for one another (John 13:35), then we should exercise love toward one another, which according to 1 Corinthians 13:7 “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” And ultimately, 1 Corinthians 4:5 tells us that we are not to pass judgment upon another person’s heart motives toward us; it is instead the Lord who will reveal and judge.
But the practice of fixating on speck-plucking carries with it another grave spiritual danger, and that is the sin of unforgiveness. In the Parable of the Unforgiving Slave in Matthew 18:21-35, after a slave’s plea for mercy, the Master forgives his debt of 10,000 talents, which is billions of dollars in today’s currency. This slave then proceeds to physically abuse another slave for not repaying a debt of 100 denarii, or 100 days of wages for a laborer. The debtor slave makes a nigh-identical plea for mercy, which is heartlessly rejected, and the debtor slave is thrown in prison. Upon hearing of this, the Master then hands the unforgiving slave over to the torturers.
The entire passage is a beautiful but sobering picture of a Christian’s response to salvation, as well as the reality that we who know that we have been saved from an unpayable debt and an eternity in Hell are to be kind and patient and forgiving even when wronged by others. I think many Christians understand this parable reasonably well as an abstract concept, but moving into the details, it’s noteworthy that the example chosen as a debt to forgive, 100 denarii, is actually several thousand dollars by today’s currency. This is not an insignificant sum!
In light of this, I would be deeply concerned for any Christian who would seize upon a perceived “microaggression” and elevate it to the level of a confrontation, an issue between brothers. The way that we handle personal offense, suffering wrong, and being sinned against can be a powerful reflection of our own spiritual maturity. And to the extent a person escalates speck-plucking to the level of offenses or censorious accusations, were I shepherding that person, I would gently attempt to demonstrate from the Scriptures I describe above that responding to a perceived offense is actually an area where the person could grow spiritually.
Bringing it back to the example of the speck, immediately prior to the famous speck-plank reference in Matt. 7:3-5, we see our Savior say in Matt. 7:2, “For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” So if we’re actively engaged in speck-plucking toward others, we will have that returned to us in full measure . . . something that any rational person would want to avoid.
James 2:13 is arguably an even more directly applicable verse along these lines. As a closing comment on a passage about the sin of showing favoritism to people based on their wealth and social class—and analogously, any class, such as race—James exhorts Christians to show mercy to each other, and warns that “judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy.”
This warning was an especially apt one for early Christians who were overtly favoring the rich over the poor, in keeping with the heavy social stratification of Rome and the Ancient Near East. But I believe it’s just as apt for today’s environment, where hypersensitivity over race has led to a social media uproar over a high school girl’s wearing of a Chinese dress, excoriations of a Jewish journalist for complimenting immigrants, and the mob-demanded firing of two former employees at a Portland bakery who appear to have done nothing objectionable. If there is mercy in any of these judgments, I am unable to see it.
Sadly, even some within the conservative evangelical church appear to be heading down a similar path to the world. The race-centric nature of much of the recent discussion has seen prominent leaders such as Anyabwile saying, “My white neighbors and Christian brethren can start by at least saying their parents and grandparents and this country are complicit in murdering a man who only preached love and justice” (which Phil has already commented on). And Matt Chandler calling 300 people who left his church over his view on the topic of race “fools,” in a manner that reminds me of the warnings in Matthew 5:22. . . because obviously, he spoke to all 300 people who departed, and none of them had any valid reasons to leave. And Eric Mason declaring that “pushback from a privileged position will get shut down,” which could perhaps be summarized as “disagreeing while white”. Although these types of statements are not (yet) to the level of the ones in the prior paragraph, the amount of mercy shown to their targets is still depressingly thin, especially in light of James 2:13.
I take no joy in highlighting these public, unambiguous comments, all of which remain to this day without retraction. These men are conference speakers, authors, and most of all pastors accountable to James 3:1 who have significant influence in the conservative evangelical church, and their comments do not represent “microaggressions” nor are they merely specks to be plucked. They have not personally offended me; rather, I am deeply grieved to see even some men who preach a faithful Gospel seemingly following a path cut more by the world than by Scripture.
The current controversy over race-centric worldviews in the church is one that will require civil but robust discussion in order to attempt to make progress. May we do so with charity, yes, but also with stamina and perseverance, and without sweeping generalizations or hypersensitive speck-plucking.