Bernie Sanders, Liberty, and A S(k)in Issue

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.

Marcos Ortega

Marcos Ortega (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is an Assistant Pastor at Goodwill Church (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) and lives in the Hudson River Valley in New York with his wife and two daughters.

3 thoughts on “Bernie Sanders, Liberty, and A S(k)in Issue

  • September 16, 2015 at 6:16 am

    I agree wholeheartedly Marcos. It’s particularly interesting because the same thing could be said about abortion, gay marriage, drug use, etc.; “It’s a sin issue,” and yet many conservatives want to pass legislation to ban gay marriage and abortion, and make drug laws even harsher. Ironic.

    As you said, it is a sin issue, but what I think the conservative base neglects to realize is that our laws set this all in motion to begin with. Sure, racism can’t be defeated by outlawing racism, but we certainly can dismantle some of the policies and laws that overtly target specific subsets of society. There’s absolutely no reason a white person should be able to get a lower sentence for the same crime a black man commits, and yet this is the status quo.

    Has the American church become so compassionless that we feel nothing for those who are taken advantage of, abused, and regarded of little worth? I sometimes think that many people within the Church have allowed the Gospel to become a political bludgoen. We have so wonderfully recieved God’s favor and grace, then turn and cast scorn upon our brothers and sisters. Instead of charity, we project judgement.

    Which brings to mind:

    Matthew 25:41-46 ESV
    “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

    • September 16, 2015 at 8:06 am

      Thanks for your thoughts Dennis! I appreciate you interacting with us. Looking forward to continued conversation!

  • September 17, 2015 at 7:13 am

    Cool stuff, gonna follow this blog. I’m a friend of Rob Calabretta’s haha


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