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Identity Politics and Dealing with Racism in the Church


My personal history dealing with racism.

The church has experienced its share of significant racism within her walls. In contrast to other great experiences in the South regarding racial reconciliation, I still remember preaching at a church in Mississippi and getting into a serious altercation with one of the elders. Before my sermon, I spoke to a lovely black lady who happened to be cleaning in the church basement (something that was common in many white churches). I had a delightful conversation with her, but I could tell she was suspicious and a little guarded. I was inured enough in the racism in Mississippi, especially the town I was visiting, to know that a white man doesn’t often spark conversations with black females sporadically unless there’s an unstated agenda. I eased her by telling her a joke about how nervous I was preaching and how my wife and I are looking forward to moving to Boston—we were “Yankees at heart.” She looked at me with restrained excitement and said, “Oh, that sounds great. Not sure if I’ll ever be leaving here.” I asked her if she’d like to come upstairs and hear my sermon, but she quickly said, “Oh, no sir. Thank you.” and left without an explanation. She then returned to her work, and I headed upstairs. When I went upstairs, I asked one of the elders if it’d be ok if she came up to hear my sermon.  He immediately looked uncomfortable and said, “No. She has work to do.” I was a little baffled but continued to preach—trying not to read into what had just occurred. After the sermon, this elder then told me why he felt uncomfortable with my question. He stated that “black people are the children of Cain and that they are not allowed in our church. It’s just best we worship at separate houses.” I was awestruck, not at his racism since it was so salient in many places in the south, but how blatant and unapologetic he was about it. I then told him how this view was antithetical to the gospel: how all people are saved by grace, through faith, and how Paul’s letter to the Galatians contradicted his polarized and judgmental views. I left angry, but also concerned about that young lady who was being told by this man that she was a “child of Cain,” and that by his application, she was not worthy to step into his congregation. I then went back to my seminary and decided to have lunch with a prominent teaching elder in this denomination to report this man’s behavior and poisonous views. This elder, who I trusted at the time, did the unexpected: he questioned why I thought it necessary to “argue with an elder.” This time I was baffled. I just stared at him and ate my food thinking, “I am ready to move to Boston, ” and by the end of the summer, I had moved.

Home sweet, home! Well, kind of.

When I moved to Boston, I was working full-time in the counseling field. I was happy to say that I rarely saw “black vs. white” incidents like the one described above and wow, did I feel like I was finally home. Many people of color were upper class, leaders in the community, well-educated, and didn’t carry the load of anxiety the young girl brought in Mississippi. Racism still occurred, but it was more cultural, like Italian vs. Portuguese or Irish Catholic vs. Anglo-Protestant. Many of my clients were people of color, minorities, and immigrants. My teachers informed me about multiculturalism (understanding the language of a variety of cultures), identity politics (how their identity defines them), the offense of microaggressions (things not to say), intersectionality (how we need to reverse the system of white hierarchy and hear the voice and concerns of oppressed groups). I was sold and became a believer of this system. It made sense and right after experiencing the racism and avoidance of Mississippi, I was ready for a change. Identity Politics seemed the best approach dealing with race. It assumed a sensitivity to people's backgrounds and how the basement scene, as described in Mississippi, needed to be reversed (intersectionality). However, this change soon lost its romantic appeal pretty quickly when put into practice within people's communities, especially after seeing what's occurring on college campuses. Allow me to divert for a moment. 

The Brief History of Identity Politics

As you've likely read or heard, identity politics and intersectionality is slowly becoming rampant in the culture of college campuses. A few weeks before writing this article, several protestors at Reed College argued that their Humanities program was racist because “it ignored many of the world’s great civilizations and because its authors are overwhelmingly male and white.” However, when one reads between the lines, this is not about tackling racism as much as bringing more divisions to these institutions. Assistant professor at Reed College, Lucia Martinez Valdivia, who describes herself as queer and mixed-race, reported that she had PTSD last semester because demonstrators said that she was guilty of a variety of offenses for being a “race traitor who upheld white supremacist principles by failing to oppose the Humanities syllabus.” She didn’t think the protestors at Reed had a right to object to her syllabus nor did she find their label, “we only read racist white men” convincing. She argued against them, and the result, a new class of social justice advocates labeled her, a queer-identified mixed-race Hispanic woman, as a “race traitor.” I wish I can say this example is an isolated event. It's not, but it's happening on various college campuses and public forums. What’s disturbing is that the once valiant and progressive liberals are now deemed as uncaring and impractical toads because their respect for diversity does not coincide with an agenda that’s rooted in a leftist identity politics and intersectionality (from now on, IPI). 

The tactics of IPI

IPI is difficult to spot because it's paternalistic. It starts with a premise: There are oppressed groups and oppressors. To stop this, we must thrive to uplift the personal narrative of the oppressed group and silence objectors or oppressors by any means necessary. There are a variety of spectrums on how this is applied—from the young college freshman who avoids her white parents because they are in denial of their privilege to Antifa groups causing physical violence to any perceived offenders. They adopt a particular pyramid for their system of beliefs. At the top of the pyramid is LGBTQ, next is People of Color, then Women, then minorities, and then at the bottom, are White Males.

This pyramid seeks two objectives. They are to give predominance to the narratives at the top and to downplay or subdue the story at the bottom. The people at the top have authority in the sense that no-one below them can object to their description. For example, if a transgender male believes he is a female, people below him cannot object to his, or soon to be her, narrative. Bigotry or closed-mindedness occurs when someone below him states, “How do you know you’re a female?” or worse, “You’re not something that biology states otherwise.” These statements are the most offensive for the trans-person for they commit the ultimate offense by questioning or offering skepticism to his personal story or belief about himself. Questioning one's personal story is the ultimate sin for IPI, and it doesn’t stop there. When dealing with race, white males are at the bottom of this pyramid, and they have one objective--to apologize for their previous sins and then "convert" to IPI's claims for their privilege. After their confession, there's a "repentance via action" by defending oppressed groups and speaking on behalf of their (those above) narratives. Black Lives Matter uses very religious terms by applying a concept of conversion in that one must be “woke from their previous oppression." Woke is when a white person realizes his privilege and makes amends by telling others of their privilege by defending the oppressed over his/her voice. You can see this narrative clearly in the new and popular Racism Scale. 

This concept is very similar to indulgences in the former Catholic Church: I punish myself for the sins previously committed, even if I didn't commit them. The white male cannot object to any personal narratives from any of the above groups. If so, they’re a “bigot, homophobe, racist” and even Nazi. The list goes on with the insults. There is no common law or natural law/logic the white male can appeal to or appeal from, for he MUST accept the narratives of the people above or he’s a proponent to his privilege and latent racism. 

Mark Lilla in his new book, “The Once and Future Liberal” writes,

"What replaces argument, then, is taboo. At times our more privileged campuses can seem stuck in the world of antiquated religion. Only those with an approved identity status are, like shamans, allowed to speak on certain matters. Particular groups -- today the transgendered -- are given temporary totemic significance. Scapegoats -- today conservative political speakers -- are duly designated and run off campus in a purging ritual. Propositions become pure or impure, not true or false. And not only propositions but simple words. Left identitarians who think of themselves as radical creatures, contesting this and transgressing that, have become like buttoned-up Protestant schoolmarms when it comes to the English language, parsing every conversation for immodest locutions and rapping the knuckles of those who inadvertently use them.” 

Three Problems

There are numerous problems with this tactic. Let me just state three for the sake of time and brevity.

1)    It’s purely subjective. Harry Frankfurt wrote, “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” Every logical fallacy can be seen as an exaltation of the subjective over any objective standard (fallacy of emotion, pity, ad hominem, or genetic). Debate or disagreement is impossible because there is no outside logic where people can offer healthy criticism. If you don’t believe me, try telling a trans-identified person that just because he/she thinks that they are something, doesn’t make it necessarily true (false-cause fallacy). Try telling a proponent of BLM that their whole premise (blacks are killed more by white officers) has been proven fundamentally invalid by a recent Harvard Study (from a black economic professor): Harvard Study. If you were to state either of these arguments, you would commit the greatest sin by pleading something outside their narrative by questioning their thinking. You cannot offer logic nor reason in the discussions.

2)    It’s abusive. What do I mean? Am I now reverting to extreme language to make a point? Actually, no. Abusive relationships prevent people who may have questions, doubts, or disagreements to remain silent and never speak. Cults are experts at this type of thinking. You cannot question a cult’s beliefs because it threatens its whole system of incoherency. Leah Remini left Scientology when she began to ask and search for reliable answers to some inconsistencies. When she relied on something outside herself and her cult, especially fallacies within the cult, she left the organization. IPI shows how insecure it is at this point because people below the pyramid are not allowed to question the personal stories of those above them. One of the reasons IPI has severe issues with free speech (as in Reed College) because it’s a direct threat to their system. But, without free speech, we live in a genuinely combative world. Jordan Peterson states,

I regard free speech as a prerequisite to a civilized society because freedom of speech means that you can have combat with words. That's what it means. It doesn't mean that people can happily and gently exchange opinions. It means that we can engage in combat with words. In the battleground of ideas. And the reason that that's acceptable, and why it's acceptable that people's feelings get hurt during that combat, is that the combat of ideas is far preferable to actual combat.

3)    It defeats any true progress in race reconciliation and only divides. When there is nothing that we have in common other than personal narratives, then we can never understand. In fact, the biggest objection to white males is, “You’re only white. You’d never understand what I’m going through. Therefore, you cannot offer a critique.” There’s a problem here because how can I offer unity to someone or something that assumes I’m lower than them or I that cannot understand them? Any policy becomes impossible because you must be converted (woke) to understand their position before any point of contact. There is no point of contact for the white male before his conversion; therefore there is no discussion, nor policy. 

Summary and some final concerns

In summary, IPI reverses the narrative that I experienced in Mississippi. In that story, the elder is on the top floor making judgments about the young black female in the basement. In IPI, he is in the basement, while the young girl is upstairs. He doesn't matter, while she matters more. In some ways, this subtle effect makes me want to cheer for her and look down upon him. However, IPI doesn't just want to have racist elders in the basement; they want those below their victim scale in the basement unless they are willing to confess to their privileges and are "woken up" to their privilege. Once "woken" those on the lower end of the pyramid must never question the narratives of anyone above them, for that is the highest sin. Where's the gospel? There's none. Just another culture built on a race narrative that further divides and isolates us from one another. We need something much higher than what IPI offers. We need reconciliation that doesn't prevent from outside correction, nor seek to silence the voice of those in the basement, literally and figuratively.

As a Christian, we don't have just a "logic" outside of ourselves. We have a risen Savior who went to a cross for all humanity. The great sin is that we placed our savior there, all of us. There is then neither Jew, nor Greek, Slave, nor Free, female nor male, and if I may add, black nor white; but we are all one in Jesus Christ our Lord (Gal 3:28). We must start with this premise. Otherwise, more division will come.

Currently, many Christians truly believe that IPI is a legitimate method when addressing the problems of racism; for some examples, please see the former Reformed African American Network (now The Witness: Witness) on how IPI is often applied within their own apologetic on current issues. One example is Black Lives Matter: Witness has offered many examples of how Black Lives Matter (BLM) is an "outcry of the oppressed," but have never critiqued the problems with BLM's foundational point of view within Queer theory. When you go to their website (, it makes no apology that their tactics that are rooted in this theory--which is the epitome of IPI's methodology of individual narratives over any dissenters. One cannot separate how BLM's application of this theory is intertwined within their understanding of racial awareness--they feed one another's justification. But thus far, I have not read how Witness has dealt with this significant problem.  

My two questions as someone who believes that our commonality must be the cross, Is IPI's approach going to work within the church? And if so, when has the world's methods or premises been helpful in defeating racism?

In conclusion, it hasn't. We must start with the gospel and not from the premise of IPI's assumptions. Only then can we have real unity within the body of Christ.


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