The Racial Justice Debate Needs Biblical Clarity, Not More Straw Men

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Christians and Bible study concept. Group of discipleship Studying the Word Of God in church and Christians holding each others hand praying together

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In the contentious, Christian conversation about racial justice, we’ve talked more about talking than about biblical justice, and that needs to change.

Think about it: How many books and blurbs and blogs have you read lamenting our language about race, qualifying statements about race, or demanding a certain kind of discussion about race in the church? Our screens have spilled over with mantras, quips, and hashtags about other mantras, quips, and hashtags, which at some point I assume were actually about racial issues. The familiar names – Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, among many others – have become the stuff of slogans rather than precious people made in God’s image. We’ve stopped talking about the right way for people to be treated and occupied ourselves with who deserves the label “woke.”

My point is that if you survey the Christian landscape from the last two years, we’ve done a whole lot of uncharitable talking about talking about racial justice (from every perspective) when what we need to hear is God’s Word on justice. Not that talking about talking is wrong, of course – the Bible does a fair bit of it (James 3:1-12). But if we never clarify what we mean according to Scripture, then we’re in danger of talking right past each other over and over again.

That’s Esau’s point, too. At least, until it’s not.

In his recent article for Christianity Today, Wheaton professor and Anglican canon theologian Esau McCaulley observes the need for charitable reading in the racial justice debate. His insight here is truly helpful and clarifying – charitable debate implies shared definitions. However, the good doctor then goes on to violate his own helpful principle. McCaulley’s article, entitled “The Racial Justice Debate Needs Civil Discourse, Not Straw Men,” ironically sets up more straw men, mischaracterizing those who disagree with him. What begins as a move toward biblical clarity ends with more uncharitable talking about talking, and the Bible gets lost in the shuffle.

McCaulley’s article is worth meditating on for a moment because it reveals what’s most needed in Christian conversations about race, or any topic: not a disguise of civil discourse but gracious biblical clarity. We need to biblically define justice if we would then do justice. Does the Bible support the ideas of “racial guilt,” “implicit bias,” or even the category of “whiteness?” Wherever you land on those questions, it would be disingenuous to assume agreement where there isn’t agreement or to call to action without a consensus on the call. What does “justice” mean according to God? Biblical clarity is not a non-sequitur in the racial justice debate, it is the essential need.

Given that need, I want to engage directly with McCaulley’s arguments from his article and then bring this discussion before the bar of Holy Scripture. This post will do more of the former. A second post will do more of the latter, particularly in response to McCaulley’s own exegetical conclusions in his book, Reading While Black.

But first, a caveat. I’m aware that in responding to McCaulley’s article, I’m talking about talking. I intentionally chose this way to approach the issue because this is where many of us find ourselves in our thinking about racial justice. We’re watching an on-going ping-pong match and have lost track of whose turn it is to serve. So, I start with a conversation about our conversations because I’m not deaf to the cacophony surrounding us, but I want to move as quickly as I can to the Bible. I hope you do, too.

So, with a spirit of love and meekness, I offer my critique of McCaulley’s article in the hope of helping us think more biblically and charitably about race and justice.

McCaulley’s Helpful Principle – Charity Implies Shared Definitions

“Fundamentalist!” “Woke!” “Racist!” “Marxist!” If these epithets didn’t sound so familiar you might think these accusations belonged to a high school lunchroom. Unfortunately, these labels belong to the adult world of our day, and even to Christian conversations about race. Online and offline, insult hurling has replaced rational dialogue and our increasingly polarized churches demonstrate it.

That’s why I found McCaulley’s advice to be remarkably lucid and helpful. McCaulley writes,

“We are simply not allowed to go and find a definition that we dislike and attribute it to a fellow believer. At bottom, that is slander and the epitome of a straw man. Instead, we must do the necessary and hard work of understanding writers, preachers, and communicators who speak to these issues.”

Amen and amen. How many pastors and writers have been pilloried as “Critical Race Theorists” who themselves disavow any connection with the legal theory? They may be as Marxist as the Manifesto, but if they won’t claim that label then what’s accomplished in applying it? I understand that these kinds of terms are shorthand for worldviews and making the connection may even be true to an extent, but their imprecision becomes their undoing. One man’s “woke” is another man’s “gospel-centered.” If we don’t agree on the definitions of the words that we use, then we’re talking past each other and accomplishing little.

Let me give an example from the world of evangelism. A few years ago, I spoke with an atheist student on a local college campus about evolution. He believed in it, I did not and do not. So, I told him my reasons for rejecting evolution as an explanation for human life, and he said I was way off base because I wasn’t accurately describing his viewpoint. I was functioning from a generally accepted definition for the theory of evolution (primordial slime to vertebrate to ape to human), but he had a whole different family tree in his mind. It didn’t matter to him that I was using a more publicly accepted definition of the term; because I wasn’t talking about what he believed, my comments were irrelevant.

Something similar happened a few years ago between Thabiti Anyabwile and Tom Ascol in a discussion about race. Thabiti wrote a post arguing that social justice was not infiltrating evangelicalism, as such. Tom responded that social justice ideologies, like Critical Race Theory, were infiltrating the church, and cited a number of examples. Thabiti responded that while Ekemini Uwan’s “comments have much in common with the fields of whiteness studies and CRT,” they really are “rooted much more firmly in the Black sojourn in the United States than errant academic disciplines.” Do you see the issue? Tom may have been spot on about the large overlap between CRT and Ekemini Uwan’s comments, but since there was no agreement between the two sides on some basic definitions, they swooped right past each other and didn’t deal with the substance of each other’s arguments. And then, more talking about talking about race.

McCaulley’s principle would breathe fresh air into a conversation like that. Charity necessitates shared definitions. Imagine how establishing points of agreement on the meanings of terms could transform our conversations about race and justice! That’s where McCaulley starts his article, and I’m thankful for it. And McCaulley goes on to clarify,

“… when we claim to be building upon these definitions and accounts [of justice, injustice, and liberation], Christian charity demands that our opponents meet us on the ground where we have chosen to fight, not somewhere else.”

Though I’m curious what he means by “building upon” in that sentence, I totally agree with McCaulley’s articulated principle: Christian charity in a debate means talking to someone, not past them.  Generosity compels us to engage in dialogue using the terms and definitions that the other person would affirm. It would be unkind and potentially slanderous to, instead, assume a mischaracterization of their position and attack that. Christians should start by taking others at their word, then reason biblically from there. That may mean challenging their definitions with Scripture, but it doesn’t mean ignoring their stated positions altogether.

So, if someone says that they don’t believe in Critical Race Theory, well then, great! You can choose to believe the best about their self-evaluation, then go on to have a conversation about the substance of what they have said they believe rather than trying to establish an ideological association. Again, it may be true that their ideas line up almost on-to-one with CRT, but if they won’t claim it as their own, don’t bother with the label. Work with the words you’ve got, not the best ones for your case. Our goal in biblical debates should never be to lump and label but to understand and engage.

As I understand the article, that’s basically McCaulley’s argument, at least in the first half: charity requires shared definitions. I warmly agree with that sentiment. The trouble comes, however, when McCaulley takes a second step.

McCaulley’s Straw Man – Christian Fear of Non-Christian Insights

Rather than immediately apply his helpful principle to the racial justice debate, as you might eagerly expect, McCaulley unfortunately goes in the opposite direction. Here’s the sentence where it happens:

“Sadly, this fair-minded form of debate is rarely practiced. Here’s the reason why, as I see it: There’s a newfound fear of common grace.”

“A newfound fear of common grace.” What does he mean by that? Well, let’s start with a definition for common grace. John Murray, the eminent Princeton Theologian, is widely regarded for his definition of common grace found in Westminster Theological Journal, Volume 5: common grace is “every favour of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God.” Essentially, all good things that aren’t saving grace are common grace. They’re available to all (hence the word “common”) and they’re undeserved because of our sin (hence the word “grace”). That includes rain on the just and unjust (Matt 5:44-45), the restraint of God’s wrath (1 Pet 3:20), the restraint of sin through families, governments, and conscience (Rom 2:14-15), and the ability for unbelievers to, in some sense, reason and relate rightly (Matt 5:46; Luke 6:33). Given McCaulley’s article, I think he would agree with this definition of common grace, and it seems like that’s how he uses the term.

So, then, what does he mean by “a newfound fear of common grace” that’s keeping Christians from being charitable in talking about race? In his own words, he means that there’s a fear that “One does not have to be a believer to discover truths about the human condition.” If I’m understanding his argument rightly, then he’s saying that a big problem in the racial justice debate is that some Christians fear the truths that non-believers have discovered about the human condition.

The rest of his article seems to confirm this understanding. According to McCaulley, Christians need to have “a certain confidence in Christianity and other Christians” while engaging in a “careful give and take of ideas.” He goes on to say that “there are truths and ideas not explicitly addressed in Scripture that cohere with a Christian way of viewing reality.” And he says it’s only “When Christians view their interlocuters in the context of common grace, [that] they’re more prone to interpret words charitably, and discussion moves forward rather than backward.”

Given his lack of direct example or clarification, I have to assume that McCaulley means this: A significant barrier in the racial justice debate is a Christian fear of secular insights.

And that, friends, is a straw man.

Are more conservative Christians “afraid” of CRT, or Marxism, or any of its attendant ideas because they originated in the minds of non-believers? As in, if it doesn’t come directly from the Bible, we fear it? Maybe I need to get out more, but I don’t know a single pastor or theologian who has said or would say as much.

So, what’s really going on here? It seems like Esau’s pulled a bit of a bait-and-switch. By making a veiled reference to some secular ideas as “common grace,” he’s assuming his conclusion in the premise, which is an informal fallacy known as “begging the question.” What I mean is this: By calling the non-Christian concepts that he presumably agrees with “common grace,” he’s essentially saying that they’re right. But the problem is, that’s the whole debate!

The racial justice debate is, at least, a discussion about whether or not certain secular ideas about race are right; whether they’re common grace or just plain old error. It’s about whether the secular frameworks that outline racial oppressor and oppressed, racial identity politics, and racial systemic injustice are legitimate frameworks to understand our interracial relationships. That’s the unsettled issue at hand, so it’s an awfully sly and unhelpful move for Esau to call his position “common grace” and call the other position “fear.” It’s like saying that God is behind his arguments, while irrational defensiveness is behind his opponents. Then, having established that he’s right, he says, “Let’s debate!” The way he has framed the discussion, there’s no debate to be had.

To illustrate, what McCaulley does in standing up the straw man of a “fear of common grace” is like a Pepsi person saying that Coca-Cola people are just opposed to the objectively superior flavor of Pepsi. That’s not the kind of approach that engenders fruitful conversation, it just asserts your rightness from the beginning. But the debate over racial justice isn’t about preference or taste – it’s about whether certain articulations of justice fall into the category of grace or error. To define one side’s sources as “grace” from the beginning is to fail to apply the principle of shared definitions, and so to engage without the charity that McCaulley himself calls for.

And in case this is what McCaulley means (though, again, he doesn’t give examples, so he may not), let me be clear: Critical Race Theory, as narrowly defined by its secular framers, is not common grace but a system of unbiblical assumptions about human relationships that fundamentally opposes a biblical understanding of man, sin, and salvation. Those ideas are not a good gift from God; they’re lies from man. And lies are not grace.

The fact of the matter is that Christians like me who despise the false gospel of liberation theology, who abhor the racist rhetoric of Ibram Kendi, who reject the concept of “racial guilt” and “white repentance,” and who long for true, biblical ethnic harmony in the body of Christ are not afraid of what non-believers have to say about racial justice. In fact, there are a good many non-believers who see the same dangers that Christians see in the divisive statements of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, for example. There are “common grace” insights on both sides of this conversation. Nobody is afraid of common grace; they’re simply concerned about its abuse. Or, to put it more simply, we all want to know what’s true and to live in light of that truth. Putting more emphasis on biblical truth isn’t a fear of secular insights, it’s just knowing which source is most reliable.

What we need isn’t more straw men, it’s more biblical clarity.

Our Conversations

So, what do you do with all this? Two applications for us to take away from McCaulley’s article:

  • Being charitable means using shared definitions. If you plan to talk to someone about race and justice, then make sure you talk to them. Per McCaulley’s wise counsel, don’t cram the worst offenses into someone else’s mouth, but listen to what they say and engage with that. Ask them to define their terms. If they don’t have a definition, offer one from Scripture. As much as it depends on you, be at peace with your brothers in Christ by being clear, honest, and transparent about what you mean by what you say (Rom 12:18). In fact, let’s work on applying all of Romans 12:9-21 to our conversations, especially about a contentious issue.
  • Being charitable also means being consistent. If you’d like for those you disagree with to represent you fairly, then show them the same kindness. Don’t create straw men of an opposing viewpoint if you wouldn’t want that done to you. Or, as Jesus himself said it, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12).

If I’ve unfairly represented Esau McCaulley in this post, I’m open to correction. My hope is to engage charitably and consistently with what he’s saying, as much as I may disagree with it. But that’s not where this discussion ends. In the next post, we’ll stop talking about talking, and we’ll get into the biblical text. May God’s truth rule our hearts and our tongues in every conversation, and may he do it by his amazing grace.

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