Beyond False Dichotomies

There has been a lot of discussion over the last few years on issues related to race and justice. Arguments have been made from multiple angles on how best to consider these issues.

One argument in particular seems to have become somewhat popular. As stated by one blogger, the real issue today is that “the black community is in a tragic state of self destruction.” The “real problems” are that black people are killing other people, that black kids are being born to unwed mothers, and that black children are growing up without fathers. Therefore, if “black fathers simply stayed home and raised their own children, a lot of these issues would go away.”

Do you see the basic shape of this argument? The focus is shifted away from considering whether there are any social or institutional injustices and what their potential impact might be on African Americans. Instead, we are admonished to focus our energy on dysfunction happening at the family or individual level.

Moral and cultural dysfunction is set against social or institutional injustice. Injustices happening at this larger level, if there are any, are dismissed out of hand; the only thing that will really make things better is if we deal solely with the excessive criminal behavior and lack of morality among African Americans.

As I considered these lines of thought, I wondered if others had made arguments like these before. It turns out, as the writer of Ecclesiastes has put it, “there is nothing new under the sun.” This type of argument has indeed been made before.  

Consider, for example, the Atlanta riots of 1906. A mob of white men and boys swept through Atlanta, killing and wounding blacks throughout the city and destroying property. The riots were justified in the eyes of many because some black men had allegedly sexually assaulted some local white women. The mayor of Atlanta, when asked by the New York Times how future race riots might be prevented, replied that race riots would not stop but would continue, “as long as the black brutes assault our white women, just so long will they be unceremoniously dealt with.” In other words, the social injustices perpetuated by the mobs were not worth addressing, because the real issue to deal with was the criminal, immoral behavior of black men.

Or consider John Eastland, a senator from Mississippi during the mid twentieth century. He opposed the Civil Rights Movement, at one point asking, “If the Negro is entitled to equal social status, why does he not earn equality? Why is he responsible for most of the crimes in this country?”

Once again we see the alleged moral ills and criminal behavior of African Americans being set against any supposed large-scale social injustices being suffered by African Americans.

As you can see, this argument is not a new one; the basic gist of it has recurred at various times in our history. To put the argument in directly biblical terms, sinful behavior of African Americans at the individual level is considered to be the greater problem than sinful behavior against African Americans at the societal level.

Yet it seems to me that biblically speaking, this is a false dichotomy. Sin operates at multiple levels, and the Bible gives us the capacity to talk about sin at any and every level at which it exists.

As Russell Moore correctly argues,

The Bible shows us, from the beginning, that the scope of the curse is holistic in its destruction—personal, cosmic, social, vocational (Gen. 3-11) and that the gospel is holistic in its restoration—personal, cosmic, social, vocational (Rev. 21-22).

Moreover, the biblical prophetic witness consistently speaks in such terms. Is Ahab’s acquisition of Naboth’s land (1 Kings 21:1-19) a matter of personal sin or social injustice? Well, it was both. Was the sin of Sodom a conglomeration of personal sins or societal unrighteousness? It was both (Gen. 18:26; Ezek. 16:49).

The prophets never divided up issues of righteousness as neatly as we do in the “personal” and the “social.” Isaiah speaks of God’s judgment both on personal pride and idolatry (Isa. 2:11) and the “grinding” of the faces of the poor (Isa. 3:14-15).

The new covenant church continues this witness. Even after the public ministry of Jesus, his apostolic church continues a message of both personal justification and interpersonal justice. James directs the churches of the dispersion both in terms of their personal speech (Jas. 3:1-12) and the unjust treatment of wage-earners (Jas. 5:1-6).

A healthy church, and a healthy Phoenix, depends on us doing two crucial things:

1. Having a better appreciation for our history. Things that happen in the present most often are reflections of things that have happened in the past. History is today’s world in different clothes. Christians are especially well suited for this kind of historical approach. A Christian is automatically a historian since the Christian faith is built on historical events. God’s people are called upon to consider their history and learn from it as motivation towards current behavior. We should do the same when it comes to the current debate.

2. Having conversations that begin with recognizing all the ways in which sin operates. Only the Christian worldview, considered and applied holistically, is able to do this. Heart change and social change can go together. And only the gospel is big enough and strong enough to foster heart change and social change wherever it needs to happen. 


Vermon's article originally appeared on the Flourish Phoenix Blog. Vermon is the lead Pastor at Roosevelt Community Church, is the president of Roosevelt Row, is married to Dennae and the father to 4 great kids.