Systemic Racism Is a Millstone Around Our Collective Necks

by John Ellis

Many white evangelicals in America approach systemic racism with the perspective of innocent until proven guilty. For them, 21st century America cannot be condemned a priori without evidence that systemic racism is codified in the here and now. For the record, I believe that that evidence exists; many others have written eloquent and persuasive books, articles, and blog posts making the case that 21st America is, indeed, guilty of systemic racism. However, and backing up in the argument, the “innocent until proven guilty” demand reveals a worldview sickened by secularism.

One of the hallmarks of the post-Enlightenment West is the rejection of the ancients’ cyclical perspective on time. Instead, we pride ourselves on our chronological view of history. To a certain extent, this was not an unneeded course correction. As Dr. Michael Horton points out, “The Bible gives rise to a sense of history, with its pattern of promise and fulfillment.”[1] Contrasted with the ancient belief in the eternal regeneration and renewal of matter, a chronological perspective of time is supported by God’s covenantal structure of history leading to an eschatological endgame. Unfortunately, though, balance doesn’t appear to be our forte. The secularization of the West has helped reduce white evangelicals’ view of time to almost solely Chronos – time as measurable, quantifiable, and devoid of efficacious spiritual holds on the future. Like much of the rest of our collective ontology, time has been reduced to a materialism that owes its birth to Democritus and his Epicurean disciples. Within Western Christendom, the Creator of all has been reduced to a really smart and really powerful Watchmaker. An obvious consequence of this has been the shedding of a view of time that includes Kairos – time has qualitative, permanent, and causative aspects. For the sake of clarity, there is a modernist definition of Kairos that applies to how content creators can best maximize their impact by accounting for the moment (in time) that they publish their content. That is not the definition to which I’m referring. For the purpose of my argument, I’m steering completely into the definition of Kairos that gives time a qualitative meaning with covenantal repercussions.

On one hand, orthodox Christians cannot help but confess a robust doctrine of time that includes Kairos. Paul tells us, “by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners (Romans 5:19).” The covenant headship of Adam means that his actions of rebellion against God – actions in a specific place and time – carry ontological weight and repercussions down throughout history for all of us. Thankfully, Paul didn’t stop writing. In 6:3-4, he explains, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

After explaining the inadequacies and errors of an interpretation that reduces Paul’s words to merely metaphorical (symbolic), theologian Douglas Moo contends that those who are in Christ participated ontically with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Threading the needle, Moo writes, “Since, then, the text does not allow us to focus on the cross or our own experience as the ‘time’ of our being buried with Christ, we are forced to the conclusion that we are dealing with a category that transcends time [emphasis kept].”[2] What a beautiful mystery that should serve to not only strengthen our faith but also our worshipful amazement of our Savior.

On the other hand, though, while running from mystery, many Christians attempt to cage Paul’s words within a Kantian phenomenology, trapping the existential robustness of participating in Christ through faith into a prison of mind-centered individualism. This has the unfortunate effect of muting the “eschatological character of the new life”[3] that is Paul’s imperative with the passage. Negating the ontological reality/connection to Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection allows us the ability to retain our liberty while preserving our modernist, human-centric epistemologies, category of time, and, hence, ethics. In this framework, religion and the cultic practices/rites of religion mean little more than how I interpret my experience. To be sure, theological guard rails are in place that ostensibly keep white evangelicalism connected to Biblical theology and our place within God’s covenantal framework, but the sad result is an anemic movement seeded through and through with post-Enlightenment individualism to the point where white evangelicalism may be described as having a Nietzschean character – we are all value-creating Übermensches treating definitions of piety and practice as our own personal fiefdom. Feeding and chasing all us Übermensches, whether employing fog machines and energetic praise bands or not during the worship service or, on the other side, even only using the KJV, most evangelical (and fundamentalist) churches in America fit comfortably within the rubric of seeker sensitive.  

Among other things, this reflects a rejection of time imbued with Kairos. Mysteries are mostly dismissed. Events in history (and our lives) amount to nothing more than chronological steps defined by our immediate experience. By extension, God can be proven via rational arguments and the Bible is viewed as little more than a series of rational propositions that only need to be assented to. Unity of the Body is reduced to cognitive compromises and forced ethics of pragmatism. And this, I contend, is the genesis for the rejection of systemic racism across much of the white evangelical landscape in this country as well as the demands of innocent until proven guilty. You see, Kairos damns all of us already and our belief that we are owed access to the Tree of Life prompts us to resist any responsibility.

Fighting back, we want to be Lord over time. The temptation to treat phenomena as mind dependent is allowed free rein under a rejection of transcendent time. We frame our protest signs with the beliefs that, “I am not my brother’s keeper. And I am not responsible for anything that is not mediated through my personal experience.” Except, while allowing us to believe that we are king over our time on this planet, imminence rules us and one day that king, our king, will suffer crushing defeat in the face of the covenantal conclusion of the King of King’s time, referred to in the Bible as the Day of the Lord.

The great and grievous sin of racism hangs like a millstone around our society’s neck, justifiably so. Hundreds of years of cruel kidnappings, rape, torture, deprivations, and the overall program of dehumanization suffered by America’s chattel slaves were not an incidental blip on our nation’s history. Likewise, the Jim Crow laws, redlining, explicit marginalization, and overall program of dehumanization of Blacks, both in our laws and via society’s baked-in prejudices, were not an incidental blip in our nation’s history. The cultural clock was not restarted on July 2, 1964. Sin has consequences. Rotten seeds bear forth rotten fruit. And denying that the sins of our forefathers aren’t being visited on the sons and daughters of their victims is a damnable lie. How can we be innocent when guilt is embedded into our history? How can we wash our hands of the rotten fruit still being harvested while we enjoy the gain and spoils accumulated via the efforts of a program of dehumanization that is generational in its span? Time has ontological weight and events in our nation’s time hang guiltily around our collective neck. Innocent until proven guilty only applies if moments exist as individual moments lacking in transcendent connections. Embracing an imminent view of time is one piece of evidence of how deeply secular white evangelicalism in America is. Doing so, embracing an imminent view of time, with the goal of avoiding societal responsibility for systemic racism reveals how dark, deceitful, and self-worshipping our hearts really are.

The crux of the matter, and to distill this article into actionable terms, is personal guilt versus corporate guilt. When confronted with systemic racism, the default answer of many white evangelicals is to decry their responsibility for the sins of their ancestors. “I’ve never owned any slaves,” is the retort. To that, the question of the difference between individual guilt and corporate guilt must be dealt with. Of course, I do not owe personal repentance for the sins of my ancestors. God will not hold me to account for the actions of slave owners in the 19th century. However, setting personal guilt aside, how am I participating in a culture that has systemic racism in its history? And, keep in mind, not as an accident of its history but an integral, molding affect on its history. Participating in a nation with a history racked by systemic slavery while refusing to help ameloriate the rotten fruit of that sin is evidence that I refuse to be part of a corporate repentance and restoration that is necessary and, frankly, demanded by Kingdom ethics that call me to love my neighbor above myself.

When we view ourselves as disconnected individuals operating in the ticks and tocks of a time dominated by Chronos at the expense of Kairos we reveal our true idols. This is no more evident than within current discussions among God’s people about systemic racism.

Soli Deo Gloria


[1] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 45.

[2] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 364-365.

[3] Thomas Schreiner, Romans, 2nd ed. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), 313.

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