The North American church fragments along racial and political lines. But what if the division we experience is more about theology than politics? In their seminal book,Divided by Faith, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith conclude that white evangelicals tend toward individualistic rather than structuralist explanations of inequality. Emerson and Smith attribute this tendency to three core beliefs held by this group:
- Accountable freewill individualism: Individuals have freewill and are each personally accountable for their own actions.
- Anti-structuralism: White evangelicals often do not perceive, are unwilling to accept, or harbor negative reactions to larger, structural forces that shape society.
- Relationalism: Interpersonal relationships are centrally important and the locus of societal change.
According to Emerson and Smith, white evangelicals subscribe to anti-structuralism but are “selectively aware” of structural influences that impact them and undermine accountable freewill individualism. They elevate affirmative action as an example of structural influence and, since Divided by Faith’s publication, have shown that they also care deeply about Supreme Court appointments, prayer in schools, abortion, same sex marriage, and the so-called “bathroom bill.”
While white evangelicals are not the only Christians concerned about these matters, their structural concerns fail to transfer into advocacy or activism on other structural issues. For example, 73% of white evangelicals zealously endorse a prolife ethic regarding the unborn while steadfastly supporting the death penalty. This incongruence invites a discourse between Scripture and the three worldviews listed prior, what Emerson and Smith call “the white evangelical toolkit.”
Most agree that humans have individual free will and are accountable for their actions. Yet Scripture directs us, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). In Ephesians 6: 11-12, we read, “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” These passages and more name forces and powers beyond one's individual will that inform behavior, breed sin, and distort our witness.
Throughout Scripture, unjust structures emerge from leaders who do not fear God but are obsessed with earthly power. Pharaoh (Exodus 1), Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3), and Herod (Matthew 2) all succumb to sin and become tyrannical. Fear dictates how they govern, anxiety drives them to sin, and paranoia provokes them to craft sinful legislation that becomes law and custom. In Exodus, Pharaoh’s sin and fear lead Egyptian citizens to commit acts of ethnic violence and oppression against Hebrews, dehumanizing, exploiting, and enslaving them in order to stimulate the Egyptian economy. One leader’s individual sin can metastasize into structural and institutional sin, leading constituents astray legally and making an entire country complicit.
Biblically, corporate sin entails the enforcement of and adherence to sinful laws that explicitly oppose God’s will and harm our neighbors. Corporate sin includes both active involvement in oppression and apathy in the face of evil and oppression—sins of commission and omission—“the things we have done, and the things we have left undone.”
Scripture repeatedly addresses corporate sin, whether xenophobia, slavery, ethnic caste systems that privilege some and disenfranchise others, and idolatry. Evidence of structural sin shows up in the empires of Babylon (Daniel 3), Egypt (Exodus 1:6-22), Persia (Esther 3), and Rome (Matthew 2). God explicitly indicts Israel for its own participation in and complicity with corporate sin (Micah 6) that violates the covenant made with God (Ex. 19:3-6, 10-12; Deut. 4:6-8). White evangelicals frequently endorse a blind allegiance to law and order, citing Romans 13:1-7. But legal power does not mean ethical power. As subscribers to an Augustinian logic profess, “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Augustine profoundly shaped Dr. King’s thinking. King said that we must “never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.” Augustinian logic helped King determine that “one has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Moreover, according to King, “an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.” Interpreting Scripture as legitimizing nonviolent civil disobedience has been a major ecclesial dividing line, despite biblical precedent for this interpretation (Ex. 1: 18-22, 2: 2-3; Dan. 3).
Emerson and Smith also confront relationalism among white evangelicals. They write, “Absent from their account is the idea that poor relationships might be shaped by social structures, such as laws, the ways institutions operate, or forms of segregation.”
In Exodus 1, no Egyptian speaks up or does what is right, as Pharaoh intensifies the oppression of enslaved Hebrews and decrees an infanticide. In Acts 6, interpersonal relationships are strong, and “the disciples were increasing in number, [yet] the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.” Healthy interpersonal relationships do not eliminate sin or injustice.
Accountability for individual actions and healthy interpersonal relationships are important, but in isolation, they cannot end corporate sin, social inequality, or systemic injustice. As King wrote, “Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of humanity and is not concerned about the slums that damned them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually morbid religion awaiting burial.’”
Moreover, theologically speaking, King wrote,
Like the good Samaritan, we must always stand ready to descend to the depth of human need. The person who fails to look with compassion upon the thousands of individuals left wounded by life's many roadsides is not only unethical, but ungodly. Every Christian must play the good Samaritan. But there is another aspect of Christian social responsibility which is just as compelling. It seeks to tear down unjust conditions and build anew instead of patching things up. It seeks to clear the Jericho road of its robbers as well as caring for the victims of robbery.
As we strive to move forward together, mending the wounds that divide us, let’s return to Scripture and reexamine our worldviews. May a richer, more robust, reading of the biblical text across the divides—informed by the Spirit—empower and re-member our broken Body and resurrect a faithful witness within the American church.
Dominique Gilliard is director of Racial Righteousness and Reconciliation for the Evangelical Covenant Church.