Along with Daniel Hill’s White Awake, LaTasha Morrison’s Be The Bridge, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s Reconstructing the Gospel, and Jemar Tisby’s Color of Compromise, Ken Wytsma’s The Myth of Equality is one of many books on race and racism written in recent years by evangelical Christians. Wystma offers helpful historical background and some reasonable commentary on present-day racial realities. However, his analysis often strikes me as naive, as if he is either unaware or unconcerned with the assumptions implicit in the concepts he’s employing and the theological views of the authors he’s citing.
Like most books within this genre, Wystma includes chapters on the origin of race in the United States and in the world at large. Citing historian Thomas Cahill, Wystma shows that race is a relatively recent invention; its “modern meaning of ‘one of the great divisions of mankind based on physical peculiarities’ is from 1774.” (p. 38). The division of humanity into various races was far from innocent; instead, it functioned to justify horrors ranging from chattel slavery to the exploitation and subjugation of Native American populations. Even after the abolition of slavery, race continued to be used to justify racist policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Jim Crow laws, and redlining.
The cumulative effect of centuries of state-sanctioned racism should not be minimized. As Wytsma correctly observes in his chapter “How Our Cities Got Their Shape” the concentration of black poverty within inner city ghettos or the racial wealth gap are not accidents. Even if we deplore the past, we are still burdened with its legacy.
The Influence of Critical Race Theory
Where Wytsma’s book falls short is not in his presentation of these facts, but in his uncritical acceptance of a particular framework for understanding them. While he never uses the term “Critical Race Theory,” anyone familiar with the discipline will recognize that its language and ideas can be found throughout the book. Briefly, Critical Race Theory assumes that racism is a more-or-less permanent, pervasive feature of society, and is expressed not only through overt acts of hatred, but through covert norms, values, and structures which produce a racial hierarchy with whites at the top. Just a handful of examples from the first chapter will suffice to show how these ideas shape Wytsma’s understanding of race and racial inequality:
“the fact that Asian Americans, compared with other cultural groups, are able to succeed in America still reflects racism when it is based on approximation to white majority culture rather than on a celebration and understanding of their own unique cultural values and contributions… the white standard lies hidden in the ways that American society evaluates the ‘goodness’ of various races” (p. 22)
“‘Colorblindness’ is a way we remain blind to the many subtle ways we’re still dealing with a white standard.” (p. 23)
“The creation of a white standard in the world during the age of exploration, and the white structural privilege prevalent for so long in America, led to what is often called ‘white privilege.’” (p. 24)
Wystma’s acceptance of this framework leads to analyses that are simplistic or -occasionally- completely wrong. For instance, he writes:
“If law and justice are being applied fairly, then imprisonment rates of whites and black should be the same, in line with population proportions. Instead, more African American adults are under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850, ten years before the Civil War began, and more are unable to vote than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was passed.” (p. 64)
There are two mistakes here. First, the idea that “justice” requires proportionate imprisonment is deeply mistaken because it ignores rates at which different groups commit crimes. No one believes that it is necessarily unjust that men are incarcerated at ten times the rate of women precisely because men commit crimes at far higher rate than women. Few people think that “systemic sexism” produced this disparity in imprisonment and, if they did, they would have to provide evidence for this claim.
Second, to argue against mass incarceration and Black disenfranchisement, Wytsma compares absolute populations, which is very misleading. The African American population has increased by over a factor of 10 since 1850. Consequently, the claims he makes would be true due to population growth even if there were no disparities at all between blacks and whites today.
The fact that statements like these made it past the editor is reason to suspect that Wytsma’s treatments may be one-sided.
What is Justice?
A second troubling feature of the book is how it articulates the concept of “justice.” Following Wolterstorrf, Wytsma argues that there are two basic elements to justice: “Primary justice is what the Hebrew word shalom denotes –peace and flourishing, as in a well-watered garden. The second facet of justice is restorative justice [which] refers to all of the actions and efforts undertaken to make right the broken, bent, or perverted relationships in the world today” (p. 109). Notably absent from this definition and, indeed, from Wytsma’s entire chapter on “justice” is any discussion of retributive justice, which is a crucial component of biblical justice in general and the atonement in particular.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that Wystma has jettisoned the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. He makes numerous orthodox statements like “it was Jesus’ human, sinless life that allowed the cross to accomplish its work — his righteousness for our unrighteousness” (p. 110). Yet he repeatedly refers to the cross as an act of justice rather than as an act of mercy: “the whole gospel [is] the story of God’s act of restorative justice – his redemptive work in the birth, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return of Jesus Christ” (p. 111).
What’s crucial here is the omission of any reference to punishment, either as an aspect of justice or as an element of the atonement. The reality is that we do not come to God merely as innocent victims who deserve compassion and healing. Instead, we come to God as wicked rebels who deserve wrath. The cross was not an act of justice towards us, but an act of mercy towards us. Ironically, if we confuse the concepts of “justice” and “mercy”, we actually weaken our motivation as Christians to serve our neighbors. If God loved us when we were undeserving, how much more ought we to love our neighbors, whether they are “deserving” or not?
Justice and Theological Solidarity
Finally, Wytsma’s commitment to justice shapes how he thinks about Christian unity and whom he identifies as a theological ally. For example, his book is endorsed by well-known progressive evangelicals including Lisa Sharon Harper, who is also quoted several times. Past speakers at Wytsma’s Justice Conference have included Christena Cleveland, Jim Wallis, and Austin Channing-Brown. Wytsma also positively cites people well outside the evangelical tradition, including Gustavo Gutiérrez (one of the founders of liberation theology), James Cone (who is known as the father of Black Liberation theology), and Franciscan friar Richard Rohr.
Anyone with a passing familiarity with any of these figures should recognize that they hold multiple theological positions which, to put it mildly, should make conservative evangelicals extremely nervous. To cite them repeatedly and to draw on their work ought to make us question Wytsma’s discernment. My serious concern not just for Wytsma but for the church at large is that what should be, at best, political unity is being mistaken for theological unity. Conservative evangelicals should not gloss over the serious theological differences we have with progressive Christians simply because they are “justice-minded.” When basic, essential doctrines become an obstacle to co-belligerency with progressives in the pursuit of “justice”, evangelicals are increasingly choosing to minimize, water-down, or discard their beliefs. That’s wrong and dangerous.
The Myth of Equality contains unobjectionable reflections on America’s sad history of racial injustice. But it also includes analyses rooted more in contemporary sociological trends than in a biblical worldview. Readers attracted to its admittedly compelling vision of restorative justice and racial unity would do well to exercise discernment regarding its unstated theological assumptions.