Saturday, January 17, 2009
Justification and Race
Probably the main area where my own view of justification departs from mainstream Reformed perspectives is in giving a place to the horizontal aspects of justification. I think Calvin teases this out fairly well in his Galatians commentary, but the horizonal dimension has been largely overlooked and neglected in Reformed dogmatics. I have articulated this with the description of justification as the act whereby God creates a new people, with a new status, in a new covenant, as a foretaste of the new age (No doubt some will regard that as too broad, whereas my aim is to be comprehensive). I have no desire to deny or downplay the clear vertical element whereby we are counted righteous in Christ by faith. But I have come to the view that ignoring or denying the horizontal element is indicative of a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel and of justification. Two exampes suffice: (1) In Gal. 2.11-15, Paul moves from a debate about food and fellowship to some sharp polemical remarks about justification by faith and not by works of the law. Regarding Cephas' segregation from Gentile believers, Paul says that this is not walking according to the truth of the gospel. That means either separation or gospel, but it can't be both; (2) In Rom. 3.28-29, Paul says that we reckon that a man is justified by faith without works of law, and he asks in return, "or is God the God of the Jews only?" Notice "or"! In other words, justification by faith and ethnocentrism are mutual exclusives.
Now let me ask, can a person believe in racial segregation and believe in the gospel and justification at the same time? I will say "no". Now let me say that it is not that such a person has failed to grasp an "implication" of the gospel or of justification. The language is much stronger than that in the NT. Such a stance is a perversion of the gospel and a competing alternative to justification. A person can believe in the gospel partially and grasp justification fallibly. But a person who believes in racial segregation or cultural hegemony does not believe in the true gospel and does not grasp the true meaning of justification.
I will never forget Mark Seifrid telling me that 11.00 a.m. on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week in America. Now let me ask, is there a reason why some of the most rancorous and acidic critiques of the New Perspective derive some certain leaders in certain Southern denominations in the USA? Is it because they are happy to use justification as a stick to bash Catholics for works-righteousness, but object when that same stick is used to bash them for driving for 40 minutes across town to attend a white middle-class church when a perfectly good evangelical black church is 5 minutes around the corner? Does attributing a horizontal dimension to justification potentially challenge the cultural dynamics and social separateness of churches that are almost single race churches? Subsequent Note: After re-reading this post and receiving some comments, do not take me as saying that opposition to the NPP is rooted in racism or that southerners are inherently racist. What I am saying is that resistance to recognizing that justification has horizontal significance can be, at the conscious or sub-conscious level, because it potentially challenges the boundaries of certain ecclesial sub-cultures that have become defined by race. I'm trying to draw a line between those who resist attributing to justification a horizontal dimension and the fact that church life in the south is heavily segregated and I have known pastors who like it that way.
I'm obviously being provocative here so let me qualify that. (1) There are many fine men and women in the south who believe in the gospel, have big problems with Tom Wright and co., and rigorously oppose segregation and racism. (2) I'm aware that you don't have to be white in order to be racist. Prejudice knows no limits and no one has a monopoly on indifference. (3) I'm moderately aware of the social, cultural, and historical complexity of racial relations in the USA. (4) Anecdotally, a friend of mine offered to pastor a church in the suburbs of Atlanta if the church consented to move to a new area because, he said, too many blacks were moving into the area. Also, I once met an African-American Christian who simply didn't want to atttend a church with a majority of white folks because they had a different culture typified, in his mind, by their refusal to east pickled hogs feet. Such things should not happen among brothers and sisters in the faith. I'm not an expert on American race relations, but neither am I completely naive on this subject, and I think justification by faith has something to say to this.
I'm not trying to reduce justification to an anti-racist mantra, I'm not trying to replace soteriology with sociology, nor do I want to rob justification of its offence to humans in their self-righteousness and ingrained prejudices (me genoito). Yet justification in its rich, fully orbed, and biblical scheme is what the church needs to cling to in order to preserve sola gratia of the gospel whereby sinners (and not the righteous) are justified by faith in Christ and preserve the truth that Christ unites in himself a Greek and a Jew, an American and an Arab, an African and an Asian, and thus unites them together in full eucharistic fellowship! This is justification. If our tradition-confession-system has not adequately given place to the horizontal dimension of justification, if it has robbed us of our greatest tool to fight division and prejudice in the church, then rather than preach the infallibility of the tradition-confession-system and anathematize those who hint that it might be somehow deficient in any way, we should modify, change, re-write the tradition-confession-system. To be Reformed is to be biblical first and foremost and not to seek the favour of men and their traditions. So I say: Long live the Reformation, Praise be to the Father through the Son, and Make us One Lord God as You are One.