The impossible happened on Monday morning! Bernie Sanders, the most liberal Democratic candidate running for President of the United States was welcomed to give an address at Liberty University, a Christian school that boasts the political bona fides of its founder Jerry Falwell. Yes, this bastion of Moral Majority conservatism welcomed a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, democratic socialist onto its campus to speak to its student body. It was an event so notable that one pundit called it a “political earthquake”.
That may be the case and the speech was remarkable for a number of reasons. But I was especially surprised that Sanders didn’t wave himself off the stage when he was done speaking. Instead, the campus pastor, David Nasser, engaged Sanders in a public Q&A that pressed Bernie on his views of abortion and religious liberty. The questions were respectfully submitted and Sanders answered honestly, much to the chagrin of most in the audience. Overall, it was an exchange that left me hopeful. If Bernie Sanders and Liberty University can speak civilly and respectfully to one another, so can we. I have a slightly renewed hope in the future of political discourse.
But something else happened during the Q&A that bothered me. Nasser began the session by asking Sanders about his plans to alleviate racial tensions and foster a spirit of reconciliation. Sanders described the need to address the bevy of race-related problems in the United States, from mandatory minimums, to militarized police forces, to the tragedy in Charleston. He even took a shot at Republican candidate Donald Trump (albeit anonymously) for using inflammatory and racist rhetoric on the campaign trail. All of this got applause from the conservative audience.
I thought that at this point, Nasser would simply move on to the next question. No. Instead, he took a moment to lecture Sanders that behavior modification would never work and that legislation doesn’t take care of the problem. And in order to really make his point stick, Nasser trotted out the popular trope, “What we have isn’t so much a skin issue as it is a sin issue.” You’ve probably heard that before. It’s a favorite line of Republican candidate Mike Huckabee and other conservative thinkers. And I have to be honest – the line drives me crazy.
Here’s the thing. In one respect, Nasser’s right. Racism is a sin against God that must be repented of. As Sanders acknowledged, hearts need to be changed in order for racism to truly be eradicated. But one of the darkest evidences of the sinfulness of humanity is the existence of racism both personal and systemic! Yes, we have a sin problem, but that sin problem has led to a skin problem that must be addressed. Minorities are still unfairly discriminated against in this country because of the color of their skin and their national origin. To subsume this reality under the catch-all “sin problem” ignores the very real plight of many people in this country.
More importantly, the Nasser/Huckabee line ignores how Paul dealt with this very issue in the first century church! Ethnic injustice was a very real problem back then too. And when it began to infect those who called themselves Christians, Paul fought back. He opposed Peter to his face for participating in racism and ethnic superiority (Gal. 2:11-14). He castigated the Galatian church for denying the Gospel by falling back into discrimination (Gal 3:1, 28). He reminds the Ephesian church that the reconciling of previously separate peoples into one people is a direct effect of the Gospel (Eph 2:8-22) and calls the Corinthian church to then take on the ministry of reconciliation, calling all nations to be reconciled to God and therefore to each other.
In the end, “it’s not so much a skin issue as it is a sin issue” is just a throwaway line that means the speaker doesn’t want to address the true ills plaguing society. They would rather theologize than seek justice, rather pray than act. Instead, we must theologically seek justice and prayerfully act. They go together! Nasser has missed that in order to address the “sin issue” one must also confront the “skin issue”! We must never focus on one aspect to the exclusion of its counterpart. We must put to death the sin of racism in our hearts, our churches, and our communities. We must recognize systemic racism and seek policies that remove it. We must point out the privileges that belong to people in majority culture and encourage the majority to use that privilege to empower the minority. It is all interconnected. Praise God that through the life, work, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we will one day see all vestiges of racism eradicated. But until then, we have a lot of work to do.