On Opposing Racism and Philosophical Self-Consciousness

Racism ought to be opposed, refuted, destroyed, eviscerated wherever it is encountered. Decent people everywhere must agree. But are decent people everywhere able to agree? Do all decent people hold to a philosophy strong enough to undergird their opposition to racism? Well, some do and, frankly, some do not. An important question to ask yourself between online and in person battles, is “does my philosophy support my anti-racist beliefs and actions?” If I were philosophically self-conscious, would I be able to oppose racism wherever I encounter it? I can raise the questions for you, but you’ll need to do the serious work of honestly answering them for yourself.

How might one go about becoming philosophically ‘self-conscious’ or self-aware anyhow? To aid you in this endeavor, I will break ‘philosophy’ down into its three major branches, metaphysics, value theory, and epistemology, ask the relevant questions from each subdiscipline, and answer them from my Christian worldview in order to provide you with an example. In this post I will be expounding on how the Christian worldview informs opposition to racism. I will not be going into the historical hypocrisies and heroics of individual Christians concerning racism. My point is not that Christians have been perfect in their opposition to racism, but that given their worldview, they ought to have been (even as their Father in heaven is).

Metaphysical Self-consciousness

Metaphysics is the study of reality. As such, metaphysics deals with the foundations of the physical, including but not limited to essences, substances, properties, part and whole relations, natures, teleology, causes, space, and time. And a further subdiscipline of metaphysics is ‘ontology’, which is the study of being (not every agrees with this breakdown, but they can write their own blog posts). Some good metaphysical/ontological questions to ask yourself concerning your fight against racism include:

Does my view of humanity allow me to believe that all humans are created equal?

As a Christian, I affirm with the Preamble to the U.S. Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Christians affirm that all human beings are created by God as image bearers. All humans are equal and intrinsically valuable by virtue of the God whose image they have been created in. If you don’t believe in the Christian or the Jewish view of reality- and particularly of humanity- in what sense can you believe that humans are created equal? Created? Equal? Are these just useful fictions? And if so, what happens when the rest of us discover that they are fictions?

Does my view of the origins of life allow me to affirm that humans are anything more than matter in motion? If not, how might you condemn the evils of racism if we are ultimately the product of atoms bouncing off each other?

Piggybacking off my last answer, men and women are persons made in the image of their Creator, God. We are the image bearing animal. Christianity teaches that we are (or have) an immaterial soul which transcends material causation and survives the death of the body. Without a doubt, we are matter in motion, but we are certainly more than that! We have a rational soul which responds not only to the laws of physics but also to the laws of logic. We are, at least in part, free from the causal nexus of physical event that preceded us. This means that we can ponder on truth, on right and wrong, and on justice. We can form beliefs, convictions, and opinions that are ours. If we don’t have immaterial minds or souls which transcend the material world, how are we to avoid physicalistic determinism? How can our thoughts be anything more than the product of the laws of physics? And if my beliefs are the inevitable result of the laws of physics acting on my cerebral biochemistry, in what sense can I be held responsible for the beliefs that the laws of physics have formed in me?

Does my view of God and mankind allow me to affirm unalienable human rights?

If I don’t believe in God, and in turn, I don’t believe that humans are made in God’s image, then in what sense can I affirm that humans have unalienable rights? Where do rights come from in your view of reality if not from God? Are they granted to us by our government? If so, then that same government who grants rights would have the right to take them away, right? Are the intuited by pure reason? Well, whose reasoning counts? Our Founding Fathers claimed that these rights were self-evident truths, but they immediately went on to ground them in our Creator God. Within a theistic, specifically a Christian theistic framework, it makes sense to speak of human rights as self-evident, but how do you make sense of them?

Do my beliefs about justice allow for a transcendent standard that’s free from cultural biases?

There’s much talk of ‘justice’ now-a-days. But can your view of reality make sense of the type of justice you’re calling for? What is justice? How do we find it? According to my Christian worldview, Justice is ultimately grounded in God. God is the ultimate goal, standard, and motive of justice. God always does what’s right because it is His nature to be just. We as image bearers of God, act unjustly when we misrepresent God to His creation. When we show partiality to one ethnicity over another, we are telling the world that the God whom we image is unjust like us. Because God is just, He takes this misrepresentation seriously, so seriously in fact, that any of His image bearers who don’t repent of (change their minds about) their sins of partiality and who don’t trust in His Son, Jesus Christ, for forgiveness will face eternal punishment. God is the just and the justifier, such that every image bearer either gets justice or grace but no one gets injustice from God. For those who don’t believe in God, or who don’t believe in the Trinitarian God of the gospel, in what sense are you able to believe in justice? And if your god does provide you with a conception of justice but no gospel grace, in what sense can you ever be justified/forgiven for the sins of partiality which you yourself have committed throughout your life?

Axiological Self-consciousness

Axiology is roughly synonymous (at least for our purposes) with Value Theory. Value theory is a bit of a catch-all term for the branch of philosophy dealing with evaluative judgements including beauty, ethics, and ‘the good’. Some value theoretical questions to ask yourself concerning your stance against racism include:

Does my ethical theory allow me to unequivocally condemn racism?

Is judging someone based on the color of their skin rather than the content of their character always wrong? What makes it always wrong, and how are we to convince others that it’s always wrong? On the Christian view of reality, we are called to not show partiality to anyone based on external factors like wealthy or ethnicity. To regard someone based on their attributes or possessions, especially to judge them based on said attributes, is called the sin of partiality (James 2) and again, the payment for sin is death. Christians turn to the Bible as their ultimate source of right and wrong. If you have no external and authoritative source by which you condemn racism, then how are you to avoid the shifting sands of cultural moral drift? That is, if your standard for condemning racism as wrong if cultural opinion, then what’s to stop you from approving of racism when the rest of your culture promulgates it? The old cliché is applicable here: if you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything. On what foundation do you stand to univocally condemn racism?

Does my view of morality allow me to judge racist societies as immoral?

Can you condemn the slave-owning and slavery affirm USA of the past as racist? Can you judge Nazi Germany as racist and immoral? No doubt you do, but does your ethics back you up? If you believe that morality is culturally relative, or personally relative, then how dare you judge another society by the standards of your current cultural moment, or by your own personal morality. That’s awfully jingoistic of you. If morality is culturally relative, then whatever another culture thinks is right is actually right for them. For you to come through and judge them based on the standards that your society has come up with is moral imperialism. If you’re a cultural or individual moral relativist, then how could you in good conscience judge a racist society as immoral? But, if you’re unable to condemn slave owners and Nazis as immoral, then there’s actually something immoral about your view of morality.

Does my view of beauty allow me to condemn racism as grotesque?

Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder? If someone said, “yeah, you know I think racism turns out to be a beautiful thing. There shouldn’t be any mixing of races, just pure breeds. If more people were racist, we’d have a more beautiful world.” or some other terrible and depraved sentiment like that, would you be able to call that ideology ugly? I mean, it’s beautiful for him and beauty judgments are subjective so how could you say that he’s wrong? For a Christian, beauty is in the eye of one Beholder and our goal is to attune our sense of beauty to His. God made every man, women, and child in His divine image and we are called to love them as we love ourselves. Christians can find beauty in the many nations and ethnicities of the world because God put beauty there and He is weaving a beautiful tapestry out of all nations, tribes, and tongues in His plan of salvation. To oppose the mingling of ethnicities, especially in the church, is to oppose God. Opposition to God is the quintessence of ugliness.

Is my ethical theory rich enough to persuade others of their duty to oppose racism?

On your ethical theory, does anyone have a duty to oppose racism? Why? What is that duty grounded in? Are you grounding your sense of duty in the utility of human cooperation? Some have argued for slavery on those same utilitarian lines. Why are they wrong from your worldview? Are you grounding the duty to oppose racism in empathy or sympathy? Are you relying on questions like “Well, how would you like it if people treated you like that?” to ground your duty? Couldn’t someone always say something like, “yeah, I wouldn’t like that, but it’s not happening to me and I better continue to prop up the system that privileges me over them so that it never does happen to me!”? A Christian sense of duty to oppose racism comes, again, from our ontology. We are image bearers of God. When someone treats a certain ethnicity as less than that, it’s an affront to their Maker! God says “this person is my image” and the racist says, “wrong” or “sure, but not as much of an image as I am” or they use some other wicked qualification. Everyone has a duty to oppose racism by virtue of their status as image bearers. To stand by as racism is perpetrated or to go about propagating racism yourself, is to bear false witness about the God whom you image. You’re telling the world that God is a racist, that God considers some ethnicity less than human. You have a duty to image God rightly, and all who don’t will be eternally separated from Him in judgement unless they change their minds and turn to Jesus for forgiveness.

Does my view of good and evil allow me to rightly judge racism as evil?

Is racism evil? What do you mean by evil? Is evil a visceral feeling you have about something you don’t like? Is evil an opinion? Are societies the ultimate arbiters of good and evil? Are we dependent on our society to dictate good and evil or is there an external and objective standard of good, irrespective of what societies think, by which we can judge things which negate it to be evil? If you don’t hold to some form of an eternal, objective standard of goodness which is not culturally derived, how could you ever speak out against the evils of your own culture? What your culture says is good is good on a cultural relativistic account. Thus, to speak out against your culture’s goods, would then make you evil. Still worse, if your standard of goodness is derived solely from yourself, by what authority are you able to call anything evil? How does your condemnation rise above mere opinion and personal preference? On a Christian view of the world, evil is opposition to the Good which is God Himself. God’s very own nature is the external, eternal, self-existent, unchangeable standard of goodness by which we can call all things in opposition to Him evil. Thus, as racism militates against the goodness of God by seeking to undermine the Great Commission which would see every nation discipled and followers of Christ from every tribe and tongue, racism is rightly deemed evil. Furthermore, turning once again to the imago dei doctrine, we further indict racism as evil for seeking to exclude image bearers from their right station on account of their specific phenotype. Racism is evil.

Epistemological Self-consciousness

Epistemology is the sub-discipline of philosophy concerned with knowledge and theories of knowledge. Some epistemological questions to ask of your stance opposing racism include:

Does my view of truth provide a foundation for me to “speak truth to power” when those in power are racist?

In a similar fashion to our question about an objective standard of goodness, we can likewise ask ourselves about an objective standard of truth. If your theory of truth is culturally relative, then what your culture deems true, is by definition truth itself. If that’s the case, then how could you ever rise up to “speak truth to power”? If the power you’re speaking up to or out against has the power of determining truth and falsity, then to contradict them is to speak falsely. Of course, this position is untenable and is refuted every time you think a particular society has been factually wrong, especially your own. But then again, you can’t be the ultimate arbiter of truth either. For if truth were person-relative then you would have even less ground to stand on. If “your truth” contradicted “someone else’s truth” how could you adjudicate between your two positions? It would be completely arbitrary to pick “your own truth” over against “someone else’s truth” out of personal bias to your own. If truth were person-relative, then truth would be relegated to personal preference and no one could speak truth to power. In fact, any attempt to elevate “your truth” above someone else’s “truth” would itself be a power play, “my view of the world isn’t any more objectively true than yours, but you should still believe what I believe anyway!”

Of course, speaking truth to power is an important endeavor, and it’s a fruitful endeavor (when it’s fruitful), because truth is objective, above and beyond personal preference and cultural biases. As a Christian, I affirm that truth is that which corresponds to reality as interpreted by the Mind of God. There’s a matching between the content of true statements and the external reality around us. If someone makes a statement and the contents of that statement do not match the facts of reality, then that statement is false. Even if the whole world believed that the statement is true, if it doesn’t match reality, it is false. Now, because of our human finitude, we aren’t in a position to know all truth or view all of reality. And because of our sinful and corrupted natures, we often seek to bend the truth to suit our crooked desires instead of straightening our bent selves to fit reality. This is why Christians emphasize the need for an external, infallible interpretation of truth, which we call the Bible. As the source of all truth, God is the unique arbiter and interpreter of truth. What God says goes. So, as a Christian, I can affirm that unalienable human rights are self-evident truths endowed by our Creator God, but I can also point to God’s authoritative Word when individuals, societies, or the whole world refuses to find them self-evident. So, if we are to speak truth to power, we need a firm foundation to stand on. Neither the shifting sands of cultural relativism, nor the egotistical nonstarter of subjectivism are firm enough to oppose racism.

How do we know what’s right and what’s wrong, and how am I able to hold others accountable for their knowledge of right and wrong?

We punish people for doing wrong. We expect them to know what’s right and to do right instead of wrong. When people do wrong we punish them as if they knew the difference and decided to do the wrong they knew they shouldn’t have done. When people are unaware of the wrong they did, due to mental disabilities or incapacities or another extenuating circumstance, we adjust the punishments accordingly. But how is it that we expect people to know right and wrong at all? How is it that we can condemn war criminals, child rapists, and vicious racists of wrongdoing? What if their culture had propagated a view of morality that gave rise to their war crimes? What if they were just following orders? Or what if they themselves were sexually abused as a child and it warped their desires? What if they’ve had a large number of negative experiences with people of different ethnicities and have used those experiences to extrapolate out a racist ideology? No. We hold people accountable for knowing right and wrong in spite of their personal histories. But how can we do this?

From a Christian view of the world, we can hold humans accountable for their knowledge of right and wrong because it has been written on our hearts. By virtue of being made in the image of God, men and women intuitively know right from wrong. Even before humanity fell into sin and corruption, Adam and Eve, though not knowing evil from personal experience, knew that eating of the tree from which God forbid them to eat was wrong and that God’s command was right. This innate sense of right and wrong is fleshed out a bit more by the Apostle Paul in Romans 1 and 2 where he explains that knowledge of right and wrong is written on our hearts and our consciences bear witness to this fact. Though we seek to suppress this truth, along with the truth of God’s divine nature and eternal power, and though we can mar our consciences with a kind of moral scar tissue with continued abuse of our moral intuitions, it’s clear that we have enough knowledge of right and wrong to be held accountable for our actions, thoughts, and desires. So, a Christian view or reality affirms a moral objectivism grounded in our ontological position as image bearers of God, who is the very standard of Goodness. This standard of God’s goodness is further and more explicitly stated in God’s special revelation, the Bible. We can hold people accountable for knowing right and wrong because God has made them to know right and wrong and has spoken to us in His Word.

Conclusion

If you’ve subjected your philosophy to these questions in hopes of nurturing philosophical self-consciousness in your opposition to racism, but have found your philosophy wanting, the answer is not to abandon your fight against racism!! Instead, consider revising your philosophy. Reflect on your reasons, mull over your passion to see racism annihilated and seek a consistent position to fight from. My contention is that the good and admirable desire in you to fight against the evils of racism actually come your position as an image bearer of God. Therefore, give up your fight against God and continue your fight against racism.

An important endnote:

Many non-Christians reading this post will be quick to point out that Christians have performed some egregious sins throughout the history of Christianity, and the Jews before them, all in the name of the God of the Bible (or the Torah). We can affirm, with the objector, the egregious nature of the sins in question, including sins of prejudice and racism, but we may go even further in our condemnation. A Christian who has acted inconsistently with the dictates of their faith was actually not Christian enough. Their Christian worldview wasn’t the problem, it was that they weren’t living consistently in light of their faith. And insofar as they committed atrocities in the name of Jesus, they will have him to answer to. Racism is a sin. The wages of sin is death, eternal separation from the goodness of God, and the eternal punishment of facing God’s wrath. As Christians we are called to check ourselves, to test ourselves and see whether we are truly in the faith, that is, truly followers of Christ or merely followers in name only. If you call yourself a Christian and you’re harboring racism in your heart, you seriously need to check yourself and see whether you truly are a believer. You need to repent (change your mind) about that sin immediately, and you need to call on Christ for forgiveness. If you’re not a Christian and you’re reading this post, I want to extend the same warning to you. If you have unrepentant sins of partiality, racism, greed, lust, anger, covetousness, or any other unrepentant sins in your life, change your mind about them today. Change your mind about who you say God is. Change your mind about Christ. Call on Jesus to forgive your sins. Don’t stiffen up your neck in continued rebellion against your Maker. Turn to him for a consistent position by which to oppose and condemn racism. Turn to Him for life.

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