A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Mark T. Coppenger
This time around, for my seminar on social ethics, I assigned Ken Wytsma’s The Myth of Equality to provide a counter-voice to the perspective of another assigned text, The Thomas Sowell Reader. Both address matters of race, but from strikingly different angles, made ironic by the fact that the race-grievance spokesman is white and the race-grievance critic is black.
Wytsma provides us a tour de force in the genre I’ve called “slanderous epiphany,” which chronicles an awakening and then insults those not yet awakened—the sort of thing you might find in “I was as stalwart as anyone on the rule of immigration law until I discovered that the Mexican family singing hymns next to me in church were undocumented. It was then that I decided to take on the mind of Christ toward my brother from the south and stop opposing amnesty.” In this case, Wytsma repents of his misbegotten, “middle-class white evangelical” befuddlement, the sort convinced that race issues are behind us, that the aggrieved should accept more responsibility for their difficulties, or that those agitated by such matters are “mired in leftist political agendas that conservatives must stoutly oppose.” But he was jolted out of his complacency by some incidents (racial profiling in a Chicago hotel; a harsh arrest at a pool party), and so, through study, he prepared himself to become a prophet to his own white brethren.
When InterVarsity Press’s Helen Lee heard him speak on privilege at a 2015 conference, she was struck by the publisher’s good fortune:
The idea of such a book had been on IVP’s table for some time. They wanted to publish a book on race and privilege, written by a white evangelical, that could serve as a bridge between those at the forefront of race relations in America in America and the many Americans and evangelicals beginning to awaken to our racist history—a book that asks deeper questions about race, identity, and responsibility.
And so they recruited him.
The result, according to commendatory blurbs, was wonderful: “ . . . a book that someone had to write” (Nicholas Wolterstorff, Yale); “ . . . a journal of discoveries shared with humility, grace, and unrelenting commitment to truth” (Lisa Sharon Harper, Sojourners); “With great sensitivity, wisdom, and boldness . . . takes on the tough, often-taboo topics of privilege and race” (Jenny Yang, World Relief); “. . . truly amazing!” (Danielle Strickland, Salvation Army); “. . . embraces the courage needed to speak the truth in love” (Soon-Chan Rah, North Park Theological Seminary)—to quote a small selection.
How does he do it? In Part I (“The Story of Race”), Chapter 1(“America’s White Standard: A Nation of [European] Immigrants”), he urges us to see that we are a flawed nation with a flawed history, that the “melting pot” works especially for whites, that ideal of “color blindness” leads to moral blindness, that “soft white supremacy” and unfair privilege persist.
Chapter 2 (“When the World Became Racist: Color in the Western Tradition”) argues that “racism is a relatively new thing,” largely the product of the Enlightenment (in effect claiming that, before Hume and Kant, there was a great era of racial conciliation, forming the basis for current efforts at reconciliation.) He goes on to claim that racial distinctions have “no scientific validity,” that colonialism and the conquest of Native Americans was a terrible thing, and the Bible is concerned with only the human race.
Chapter 3 (“Stolen Labor”) recounts the evils of “convict leasing” and Jim Crow laws, Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” and Reagan’s “War on Drugs,” with its disproportionate impact on blacks.
Chapter 4 has its topics covered in the title, “How Our Cities Got Their Shape: The Great Migration, Redlining, and the Roots of Modern Segregation.”
Having given us a Part I account that would make Howard Zinn proud, he moves to Part II (“Equality and the Kingdom of God”), wherein he sketches “The Aristocratic Itch” in Chapter 5. He says that, in effect, we’re still living in Downton Abbey, with the American Dream (romanticized in the 1950s) fostering “empire,” which, in Walter Brueggemann’s words, amounts to “any concentration of wealth or power that means to impose itself as a dominant definer of reality.” This malady even infects the church. Jesus would have none of this, and his prophets rail against it.
Chapter 6 (“Does Justice Belong In Our Gospel Conversation?”) answers its own question with a resounding Yes. Evangelicals are fixated on saving souls, to the neglect of justice, which turns out to be synonymous with everything being just great (shalom), facilitated by the implementation of “restorative justice,” i.e., “all of the actions and efforts undertaken to make right the broken, bent, or perverted relationships in the world today.”
In Chapter 7 (“The Salvation Industrial Complex”) he bemoans the influence of Charles Finney, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, Bill Bright, and their ilk, who have weighed us down with a truncated, peddled gospel, whereby we “just tuck ‘baby Jesus’ into our heart and continue on with our own life and agendas.” We need to upgrade our “silver rule” to the Golden Rule, whereby we move past the negative reading (Don’t do to them what you don’t want done to you), which breeds passivity, to the positive (Do to them what you’d like done to you), which demands far-reaching action.
In Chapter 8 (“A Short Look at American Individualism”) gives short shrift to individualism and then offers an open-ended mea culpa over the author’s slow, but never complete, awakening on these matters, as he deals with “the complex web of subconscious racial bias” and the limitations imposed on him by the lack of “firsthand experiences of people of color.”
Then to Part III (“The Challenge of Privilege”). It begins with Chapter 9 (“When Racism Went Underground: Implicit Racial Bias and the Stories That Hide Within Us”), where, once again, we’re tutored on subconscious matters, “shortcuts in the brain,” instinctual reads that prompt our responses to advertisements, to NBA fouls, and yes, to Trayvon Martin. Along the way, Michelangelo gets special blame for painting God white.
Chapter 10 (“The Voice of Justice”) tips its hat to liberation theologians such as Guttierez, Bof, and Romero; espouses diversity as an antidote to “groupthink”; turns a jaundiced eye toward charity and compassion, in that they can assuage the giver’s guilt, feed our “savior complexes,” and give us the false impression that justice causes are really just charity projects.
Chapter 11 (“Finding Ourselves in the Other”) rehearses the trauma visited upon the memories of the oppressed and offers prescriptions for the privileged—1. Listen and learn; 2. Lament; 3. Confession [Confess?]; 4. Lay Down Privilege (which he exemplified by surrendering half of his speaking time “to a reputable Latina friend” at a Justice Conference in Los Angeles).
He concludes by espousing the virtues of doing less and being more and of emulating the “parents circle” of Palestinian and Israeli couples who lost children in the conflict and who now work together.
There are some undeniable truths (along with not a few half-truths) in play throughout the chapters, but we mustn’t leave it at that, for, in the parlance of the day, we must now “have a conversation,” variously described in one short span as “open,” “adult,” “very difficult,” and “grownup,” the stuff of “honest dialogue.” Though such invitations are infamous for their insincerity, in that they signal an interest only in lecturing the guilty meek, let me toss out some conversation starters:
- If ‘race’ is a fiction with “no scientific validity,” then how does the General Accounting Office monitor racial diversity in recipients of government grants? How does it police pretenders to racial compensation, such as the faux-Cherokee Elizabeth Warren? And if ‘race’ is merely a nefarious “social construct,” then is racial reconciliation as empty a notion as the reconciliation of leprechauns and centaurs, which are other products of the imagination?
In this connection, I heard a paper read at Vanderbilt by Penn Philosophy Professor, Quayshawn Spencer—B.A. in chemistry and philosophy at Cornell; M.A. in biology from Stanford; Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford— arguing that the GAO’s categories for scoring diversity among those receiving government funding had a genetic basis, that the operative categories—Asians, American Indians, Blacks, Pacific Islanders, and Blacks—were biologically valid.
- Is it realistic to talk about “eliminating the traces of racism that remain”? If racism is essentially a matter of the heart, a way of seeing which affects behavior in unfortunate ways, is this like eliminating the traces of greed, lust, and cowardice that remain? What sort of utopian project is this?
- How much of racism is based on culture rather than skin color? The sort of thing that led Jesse Jackson to observe, “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps . . . then turn around and see somebody white and feel relieved.” (And fresh from a trip to Southeast Asia, I’m inclined to think that the relative success of Chinese expats has made them the target of racial resentment by the indigenous people.)
When you speak of a “white normative standard,” which “Asians seem able to mimic,” you include the Protestant work ethic. Are you saying that blacks lack the Protestant Work Ethic and that’s just fine?
- Isn’t it a stretch to call your program The Justice Project inasmuch as you have a very truncated, nebulous, and tendentious take on justice? For instance, by rendering justice (mishpat) and righteousness (tsedeq) as synonyms in Isaiah 59:14 and beyond, don’t you collapse a distinction made manifest in hundreds of passages throughout the Old Testament? The effect is to insist upon a romanticized ideal, with little or no room for the retributive and procedural aspects of justice. On this model, “deserved privilege,” “deserved disadvantage,” and “charity for the disadvantaged” are oxymorons, since performance-based privilege is a non-starter and the disadvantaged warrant justice, not mercy. Of course, there are unjust advantages and disadvantages, but must you cast everything in terms of the oppressors and the oppressed, the conceit of critical race theory? And besides, is the leveling of earthly privilege a New Testament ideal?
- One of the hallmarks of a serious theory is that it is falsifiable. But what could possibly count against your claims? Any move one might make to the contrary is trumped by patronizing counsel to not be defensive, to admit that you are in no position to speak to these matters in the absence of minority experience, that it takes an awakening (finally “getting it”) before you can speak sensibly.
- You speak of the “Salvation Industrial Complex.” Can it hold a candle to the “Social Justice Industrial Complex” or the “Racial Justice Industrial Complex”? You seem to be thriving within those with your Justice Conference, Kilns College, book deals, speaking engagements (touted within the book), and a blog—not bad for someone with a bachelors in mechanical engineering from Clemson and a couple of masters from Biola. (see kenwytsma.com for a sampling)
The last sentence of the book reads, “We can’t throw stones while serving bread.” If this is the case, then Wytsma serves precious little bread, for this book is an extended exercise in stone throwing. While it is a frustrating read, producing far more heat than light, it is a handy guide to the “woke” (and profitable) mindset that has gripped much of the evangelical world.
Mark Coppenger is recently retired Professor of Christian Philosophy and Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Review Editor for Apologetics here at Books At a Glance.
Buy the books
THE MYTH OF EQUALITY: UNCOVERING THE ROOTS OF INJUSTICE AND PRIVILEGE, by Ken Wytsma