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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Moving the Goalposts

I was speaking with a Christian father a while back whose teenage son had criticized others for using racist language. But when his father asked him to explain exactly what he meant by ‘racist’, his certainty began to evaporate. The closest he could come to any sort of definition was that racism has to do with mentioning somebody’s race, and maybe being critical of them. Beyond that, it seemed like he was simply parroting what had been drilled into him at school.

But really, what is racism? Does anyone know anymore?

Random House’s Dictionary.com takes a couple of stabs. The obvious one:
“Hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.”
and the more nuanced version:
“A belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.”
While I find some aspects of their second definition debatable (is it ‘determine’ or ‘influence’?), I think it’s very safe indeed to say that the definition of racism our kids are absorbing on internet or in school is considerably more radical and expansive than either of these current dictionary definitions.

It is something else entirely.

Hatred, Intolerance and the New Testament

I think as Christians we can all agree that genuine hatred or intolerance of another race falls well short of the benchmark set in the New Testament. Its standard for our attitude to people of other races is a lofty one, and it is the apostle Paul who lays it out for us. But it is a standard that has to do with our attitude to and treatment of individuals, specifically those in Christ. It has nothing to do with approving of wicked behaviour, either of individuals or entire people groups, on the basis that its practitioners are somehow rendered immune from legitimate criticism by their ethnicity, cultural standards or religion.

First, in Romans, Paul teaches that with respect to salvation there is “no difference” between Jew or Greek (‘Greek’ was convenient shorthand for ‘everybody else’, in itself potentially a ‘racist’ usage by current North American standards). Under the new covenant, God does not choose to bless one national or racial group over another. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

If God is not in the business of making distinctions between men and women with respect to salvation, then hatred or intolerance of my neighbours on the mere basis of their genetic makeup is clearly not his will for me. That isn’t difficult to grasp.

Second, in Colossians, Paul goes further, speaking of how the new birth, offered equally to all men, should impact our Christian walk. He says, “There is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all”. Here he is teaching that we are to “set our minds on things above”, not down here. The things in this life to which we formerly gave our allegiance (our race and country of origin among them) are to be subordinated in importance to our identity as members of Christ.

Not only are we not to hate or to be intolerant, but we are not to allow genetic distinctions between believers to influence how we behave toward each other in the church. (Note that this change of status has nothing to do with our relationship to people in the world except in the sense that all men and women from every nation are equally entitled to hear the gospel. But it is only “in Christ” and within the church that such distinctions are entirely erased.)

Third, in Galatians, Paul teaches that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus”. The teaching here is similar to the Colossians passage, except in two very important respects:
  1. All Christians are equally free from the law and equally “children of promise”; and
  2. There is neither “Jew nor Greek” in the church in precisely the same sense in which there is “neither bond nor free” and no distinction between “male and female”.
The fact that there is neither “Jew nor Greek” in Christ changes nothing about our relationship to the unsaved except that we ought to take the gospel to all without distinction. It is a reality of the new birth to be observed and responded to in our relationships with fellow believers.

Yet these three frequently quoted passages inevitably pop up wherever Christians decry racism, often adopting the current narrative and definitions of North American society.

The Tribute to Robin Williams

Random House’s dictionary definition does not (yet) list “making fun of” another race as an indisputably racist act. But social justice warriors don’t hesitate to assign even gentle mockery to the category of “hatred and intolerance”.

Last year’s Emmys staged a tribute to the late Robin Williams including a clip of a stand-up routine in which Williams borrowed a scarf from his audience, wrapped it around his head to simulate a hijab and said, “I would like to welcome you to Iran … help me!”

Twitter went nuts, of course. Here are some of the comments:
  • “Like, now I just think Robin Williams was kind of racist? Thanks Emmys.”
  • “The person putting together the Robin Williams segment for the Emmys decided to use his racist material.”
  • “I’m still so shocked that the #Emmys would include such a racist bit in Robin Williams tribute. Out of all his great work, really?”
  • “they could’ve shown so many funny robin williams moments during that tribute did they have to use something so racist?”
The responders are uniformly young, earnest and in need of a dictionary, as they have clearly redefined something here. It may be the word ‘racism’, the word ‘hatred’ or even the word ‘intolerance’ that has assumed for them new shades of meaning not found in Webster’s, but the bottom line is that it is no longer considered acceptable in many quarters to even point out the readily observable fact that some cultures differ from ours, and that while some of those differences may be merely humorous, other are objectively immoral.

Was what Robin Williams said even about race? Only in the sense that he referred to Iran. But Iranians are not monoracial. His stand-up bit had more to do religion than nationality, and more to do with the State than with race.

Was he intolerant? Two issues with that: (1) if he was, he was intolerant of Islam, not of some specific Iranian racial group — after all, Islam is a religion, not a race; and (2) intolerance is refusing to put up with something, not merely declining to embrace an ideology or failing to kow-tow to it sufficiently. We have no idea how Williams’ one-line reference to Islamic oppression would have impacted his personal treatment of Iranians, if in fact it would have had any effect at all.

Was he suggesting that Islam in Iran is oppressive to women? Of course.

Was he right? Indisputably.

Did he demonstrate hatred? It is a long, long way from mocking to genuinely hating (especially mockery in a comedy sketch, which is kinda comedy’s stock in trade). If you think Williams was racist solely on the basis of that brief comedy bit, you’re assuming facts very much not in evidence.

But that doesn’t matter. The goalposts are moving, like it or not. Dictionary definitions no longer mean much.

The Shifting Standard

Two thoughts here: First, the critics have adopted standards of ‘racism’, ‘hatred’ and ‘intolerance’ so refined and lofty that they themselves cannot possibly live them out consistently. No one could. Second, the cry of ‘racist!’ is a reflex so drilled into our youth that they screech it without a second’s hesitation in situations in which it is far from proven.

But the flimsy illusion that modern multicultural platitudes reflect universal truth only lasts so long as you’re not impacted in a personal way. If you were to cram Williams’ tweeting critics into burqas against their will, they would be howling about Islamic oppression in a heartbeat.

Such caviling suggests a false assumption of moral superiority — by those who refuse to make distinctions over those who do — not all that dissimilar to the sense of superiority mentioned in the second Random House definition of racism, if you think about it.

But this is where we’re going as a society. In the minds of the Twitter generation, discussion of the murderous rampages of ISIS is ruled off limits on the basis that its soldiers are culturally and ethnically different from us and therefore not under any obligation to behave by Western standards of civilized behaviour, let alone biblical standards of right and wrong.

In some quarters today, criticizing ISIS is labelled hate speech. Anyone who entertains such a definition flirts with his own moral paralysis.

Why Does It Matter?

So what if we have let the political left own and control the narrative about race? How does that impact the Christian? Why should we care one way or another?

Some folks would argue that, for the believer, tutoring people on their cultural proclivities has no worthwhile payoff. Let the left redefine racism, they say. After all, they are holding people to a more exacting standard, not a lesser one. Why shouldn’t the Christian be on board with that?

Let me suggest one good reason: An accusation of racism enables the left to win without even bothering to make an intelligible argument. The more all-encompassing society’s definition of racism is allowed to become, the greater number of opponents the left’s social engineers are able to damage with these false accusations. One example:

CREDO is the only significant organization seeking to influence people to vote Democrat in Colorado, North Carolina, Michigan, Kentucky and Georgia. Matthew Arnold, CREDO’s national campaign manager, says the following:
“When we said that Steve King … is pro-life and believes in cutting Social Security and voted for the Ryan budget, no one cared. When we said Steve King’s a racist, Steve King believes that immigrants ought to be put in electric fences, people moved.”
That was then and this is now. The window of acceptable public discourse on that subject is moving.

But the strategy, Arnold admits, is to lie about your opponent and label him a racist. That strategy works, so it is employed. Crying ‘racist’ (or ‘sexist’, or ‘homophobe’ for that matter) is a whole lot easier than arguing the points. And because this strategy is modeled in the old media, near-mandatory for electoral success, pervasive via peer pressure on social media and reinforced by tolerance indoctrination in the educational system, our kids have absorbed it uncritically. This explains why college and university students are so often engaged nowadays in shouting down visiting speakers and driving them off campus without even hearing what they have to say, let alone debating or conclusively refuting it.

The strategy is just as useful for religious opponents as for political ones. Maybe more so. But be advised that when you allow your moral opponents to define the terms of a debate, you will generally lose it. At bare minimum, you will find yourself having conceded terms and definitions so far removed from those of scripture that getting back to the truth becomes near-impossible. At worst, no discussion will ever occur; you will find yourself effectively disqualified by progressives for having dared to raise the subject at all.

And even if we can’t stop the goalposts moving, we’ll be a lot more useful if we know where they are.

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