18 June 2018

Microaggressions... or Speck-Plucking?

by Hohn Cho



In my pre-Christian life, I was a political leftist who considered identity politics to be the pathway to a more enlightened future. I was deeply invested in what I like to call a "race-centric" view of the world, so much so that I would bristle and correct anyone who dared to use the word Oriental in my presence—with a toxic blend of self-righteousness, condescension, and pique that is sadly so common in much of today's political discourse.

If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in "wokeness", I far more. As a student, I marched and protested and helped occupy buildings for the cause of affirmative action in faculty hiring, and my course of study was all about ethnicity in America. I was steeped in concepts of critical race theory at one of the most liberal campuses in the nation, and considered myself to be a full-blown socialist (not the weak-tea Bernie Sanders types that we see these days).

Fast forward to today, and thanks to God's free gift of salvation, followed by the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit working through the perfect Word, I can honestly say that verses such as Galatians 3:27-28, Colossians 3:11, 1 Peter 2:9, 2 Corinthians 5:16, and John 3:30, among others, have thoroughly demolished my race-centric worldview. And so it is that I marvel when I see significant portions of the conservative evangelical church appearing to move more and more toward a race-centric worldview, while the Gospel is seemingly emphasized less and less.

Now, I will readily admit that even the most race-centric evangelicals would likely dispute that characterization quite vigorously, but the reality is that when race seems to be all that a person talks about, other topics—including the Gospel—start to recede into the background. This is the very point that Phil made to Thabiti Anyabwile in his article, "Against Mission Drift."

As it has been in the world, this discussion is fraught with challenges in the church. Some people object to using the term "race" while others might prefer or actually insist on it. There are explicit or implicit questions about who is allowed to speak on the topic, or at least speak with any degree of perceived credibility. Actual data and even Scripture are sometimes minimized or ignored in favor of emotions and experiences. Positions are staked out, often at increasing distances from one another, the temperature rises, cognitive biases hinder understanding, unfair generalizations abound, and soon you realize that you're in the middle of a giant mess and you've lost sight of the exit.

And very often, you see people bemoaning others' tone and diction. Offense is taken, accusations fly, people become defensive, and the odds of having a meaningful discussion plummet. This is a real shame, because in order to make any progress on an issue as intense and emotionally charged as race, the order of the day must be level-headed civil discourse—and in the church, always keeping central what the Word of God says.

As with any passionate endeavor, however, if one decides to engage, there must also be a willingness to have a thick skin and "overlook a transgression" as we know from Proverbs 19:11 and 1 Peter 4:8

Which brings me to the subject of my post. The often hair-trigger reactions to others' tone and diction are unsurprising in a world where "microaggressions" are actually a thing.

Merriam-Webster defines a microaggression as "a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority)." I can understand why the world would buy into this concept, as it pushes all of the worldly buttons: the elevation of self, the smug moral righteousness that can come along with self-positioning as a victim, the clinging onto offense and unforgiveness, the rhetorical escalation of small slights into matters of first importance, and ultimately, the great sin of pride.

In the church, however, this really ought not be, as we have the perfect Word to guide us. In that sense, even the very nature of the secular word "microaggression" is telling, because micro admits that the behavior being complained about is tiny, while aggression is self-refuting, as it typically requires overt hostility or violence, and not acting merely "subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally".

Instead, I would argue that a more biblical term for calling out small slights of this nature would actually be speck-plucking from Matthew 7:3, representing a microscopic focus on others' shortcomings while ignoring one's own. When we apply the concept of speck-plucking to race, seemingly the most common source of "microaggressions" today, the concern comes into stark focus, especially in light of the worst race-centric pundits' own propensity to make sweeping race-based generalizations (see, e.g., "white evangelicalism", "white fragility", "white guilt", "white privilege", etc.). They really ought to remove the planks from their own eyes, before critiquing others' subtle, unconscious, or unintentional comments or actions!

This dynamic of racial speck-plucking is all the more puzzling when one understands that gauging whether or not someone else "subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude" involves a significant likelihood of false positives, so much so that the first question should never be, "Are you offended?" but rather, "Did the other person intend to offend you?"

Among Christians, hopefully the answer in the vast majority of cases will be, "Of course not!" If the world will know us by our love for one another (John 13:35), then we should exercise love toward one another, which according to 1 Corinthians 13:7 "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." And ultimately, 1 Corinthians 4:5 tells us that we are not to pass judgment upon another person's heart motives toward us; it is instead the Lord who will reveal and judge.

But the practice of fixating on speck-plucking carries with it another grave spiritual danger, and that is the sin of unforgiveness. In the Parable of the Unforgiving Slave in Matthew 18:21-35, after a slave's plea for mercy, the Master forgives his debt of 10,000 talents, which is billions of dollars in today's currency. This slave then proceeds to physically abuse another slave for not repaying a debt of 100 denarii, or 100 days of wages for a laborer. The debtor slave makes a nigh-identical plea for mercy, which is heartlessly rejected, and the debtor slave is thrown in prison. Upon hearing of this, the Master then hands the unforgiving slave over to the torturers.

The entire passage is a beautiful but sobering picture of a Christian's response to salvation, as well as the reality that we who know that we have been saved from an unpayable debt and an eternity in Hell are to be kind and patient and forgiving even when wronged by others. I think many Christians understand this parable reasonably well as an abstract concept, but moving into the details, it's noteworthy that the example chosen as a debt to forgive, 100 denarii, is actually several thousand dollars by today's currency. This is not an insignificant sum!

In light of this, I would be deeply concerned for any Christian who would seize upon a perceived "microaggression" and elevate it to the level of a confrontation, an issue between brothers. The way that we handle personal offense, suffering wrong, and being sinned against can be a powerful reflection of our own spiritual maturity. And to the extent a person escalates speck-plucking to the level of offenses or censorious accusations, were I shepherding that person, I would gently attempt to demonstrate from the Scriptures I describe above that responding to a perceived offense is actually an area where the person could grow spiritually.

Bringing it back to the example of the speck, immediately prior to the famous speck-plank reference in Matt. 7:3-5, we see our Savior say in Matt. 7:2, "For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you." So if we're actively engaged in speck-plucking toward others, we will have that returned to us in full measure . . . something that any rational person would want to avoid.

James 2:13 is arguably an even more directly applicable verse along these lines. As a closing comment on a passage about the sin of showing favoritism to people based on their wealth and social class—and analogously, any class, such as race—James exhorts Christians to show mercy to each other, and warns that "judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy."

This warning was an especially apt one for early Christians who were overtly favoring the rich over the poor, in keeping with the heavy social stratification of Rome and the Ancient Near East. But I believe it's just as apt for today's environment, where hypersensitivity over race has led to a social media uproar over a high school girl's wearing of a Chinese dress, excoriations of a Jewish journalist for complimenting immigrants, and the mob-demanded firing of two former employees at a Portland bakery who appear to have done nothing objectionable. If there is mercy in any of these judgments, I am unable to see it.



Sadly, even some within the conservative evangelical church appear to be heading down a similar path to the world. The race-centric nature of much of the recent discussion has seen prominent leaders such as Anyabwile saying, "My white neighbors and Christian brethren can start by at least saying their parents and grandparents and this country are complicit in murdering a man who only preached love and justice" (which Phil has already commented on). And Matt Chandler calling 300 people who left his church over his view on the topic of race "fools," in a manner that reminds me of the warnings in Matthew 5:22. . . because obviously, he spoke to all 300 people who departed, and none of them had any valid reasons to leave. And Eric Mason declaring that "pushback from a privileged position will get shut down," which could perhaps be summarized as "disagreeing while white". Although these types of statements are not (yet) to the level of the ones in the prior paragraph, the amount of mercy shown to their targets is still depressingly thin, especially in light of James 2:13.

I take no joy in highlighting these public, unambiguous comments, all of which remain to this day without retraction. These men are conference speakers, authors, and most of all pastors accountable to James 3:1 who have significant influence in the conservative evangelical church, and their comments do not represent "microaggressions" nor are they merely specks to be plucked. They have not personally offended me; rather, I am deeply grieved to see even some men who preach a faithful Gospel seemingly following a path cut more by the world than by Scripture.

The current controversy over race-centric worldviews in the church is one that will require civil but robust discussion in order to attempt to make progress. May we do so with charity, yes, but also with stamina and perseverance, and without sweeping generalizations or hypersensitive speck-plucking.

Hohn Cho

25 comments:

Todd Barnett said...

"And very often, you see people bemoaning others' tone and diction. Offense is taken, accusations fly, people become defensive, and the odds of having a meaningful discussion plummet."

Ya had to go and mention me in your first blog?!

While your well-accomplished intent was to address (and graciously rebuke) the mountain of current widespread "race speck-plucking," you've slathered much needed icing on a cake I've been eating for a while now.

Well done, good brother! Thank you.

Dave said...

Yup. Well done. We used to call it making a mountain out of a molehill. But right on. I think that if we were all honest we've all been tempted to be too sensitive and be easily offended. And it makes me wonder how much social media has as an influence upon our hearts and character? But love covers a multitude of sin... And we're not even really talking about sins. Oh how we have to keep a close watch on our own hearts! We must grow in discernment. May we get some tough rhino skin, but maintain soft and caring hearts for others that is not easily offended.

DJP said...

Excellent debut, Hohn. Welcome!

Eric said...

Not to mention the fact that many things tagged as microaggressions are so benign that one actually has to be *seeking out* ways to be offended in order to find offense in them. What a way to go through life.

Jim Pemberton said...

A. As a punster, I love your name!

B. "the sin of unforgiveness" is a key takeaway here. Too many people wear the ills they suffer at the hands of others as a badge of honor, and even trump up the ills to give themselves some special victim status. Worse than holding a grudge is withholding forgiveness for the sake of one's own personal social gain.

Gilbert said...

Hohn,

First, welcome. Brother, you nailed this one! I have reduced commenting on political views on the Internet as all it did for the most part was raise more hate, even when I was correct and putting things in a loving way. I have found that the only way to talk reasonably about spiritual and other things is face-to-face. And even then, unless you talk about superficial things, a lot people of get put off so easily and won’t get back with you again.

The thing is: the Gospel heals all wounds, and heals sinful acts through love. Why aren’t many Christian pastors talking about this issue in a Gospel-centered way as to promote healing, instead of insults, and worse? I see reducing or ending racism as an incredible opportunity to glorify God. And it’s being squandered in the guise of secular humanism.

Hohn C said...

Thanks to all for your kind words. And many thanks to Phil for his incredible kindness in asking me to join him, which I would do any time, anywhere.

Dave, I think you're right about social media, I recall reading a study where the "distance" through a computer screen (and even more so, when attached to an anonymous identity) significantly decreases even basic civility.

Dan, thank you, I honestly don't believe I'm qualified even to carry the keyboards of men like you and Frank and Phil, but I will do my best.

Eric (and Jim), that's what bothers me as well, it seems as though people are looking for any excuse to be offended. One reason is the rise of victimhood culture, an interesting secular article I read on this the other day is here:
https://quillette.com/2018/05/17/understanding-victimhood-culture-interview-bradley-campbell-jason-manning/

Jim, I honestly didn't love the name growing up, because I was the butt of quite a few jokes... but it has grown on me immensely, over the years. :)

And Gilbert, like you, I have also noticed the apparent dearth of discussion of key points like healing and forgiveness, in favor of the more "aggressive" ones. But I agree, society and the church have both come a long way in fighting the sin of partiality vis-a-vis race, and that is indeed a cause for rejoicing.

Thanks again, everyone!

Hohn C said...

PS: And Todd, I promise, if I ever wanted to call you out, I would be candid enough to do it directly. :) Thanks for your great and humble response, it is a relatively rare and blessed man who finds conviction on something other than the direct subject matter.

Virginia said...

Very good!! So much of what you wrote resonates deeply because Jesus has been speaking along much the same lines to my soul.

Isaak Allen said...

Do you think it is possible at all to talk about race and the Gospel; as if the Gospel impacts how we think about race in any sort of nuanced way? In other words, it seems like you’re flattening this out so much that people shouldn’t even talking about these things from the context of the Gospel.

Todd Barnett said...

Hohn,

I was kidding. But your blog was helpful to me personally in addition to addressing an important matter. I look forward your next entry!

Hohn C said...

Virginia, thank you, and praise the Lord!

Isaak, I’m happy to talk about this any time, with or without nuance. Personally, I’m leery whenever anyone claims race or anything aside from the Gospel itself is a “Gospel issue” (and I note that you don’t appear to be doing that), but I would certainly agree that our salvation would certainly impact how we see all kinds of issues, race included. And some of the verses I cited in my piece would seem to have clear application to race. But anyway, what would you like to discuss?

C. P. Kolstad said...

The three major Trojan Horses that are sneaking into the Bible-believing Church today are: 1) Thin Complementarianism (Christian feminism), 2) A modified view of sexuality (note Same Sex Attraction teaching), 3) A left leaning understanding of racial harmony and racial reconciliation (i.e. a Christianized version of critical race theory). Not surprising these were issues at the SBC national meeting and at the PCA national gathering. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/june-web-only/case-for-electing-beth-moore-southern-baptist-sbc-president.html

Isaak Allen said...

Hohn, okay that makes sense thank you. I have no particular issue I'd like to discuss currently, in regard to race. I would only say that my concern is that we understand that the Gospel itself seems to be very concerned with race in the sense that its socio-cultural location challenged all kinds of suppositions in regard to 'race'. The primary thing of note, or that comes to mind is what we find in I Cor 1 w/ reference to Jesus being a stumbling block to the 'Greeks' or 'Gentiles.' The fact that Jesus was a man from Nazareth was partially a source for the Gentile rejection of the Gospel, because it came from a Jewish man. There seems to be something inimically pertinent, therein, in regard to the Gospel's reception and race itself. This is not to say that the Gospel from a spiritual perspective does not need to first penetrate someone's heart prior to their ability to see and hear as they should, but only to note that after that, after someone has eyes to see that the historical and particular context of the Gospel reality itself has some things to say to us about how race or race[ism] is an endemic reality. That is, that we can look back at the location of the Jesus and posit certain ideas about race or develop race theories with that in the purview.

Hohn C said...

Todd, got it, thanks! :)

Caleb, one qualification I would make is that the physical and sexual abuse issues are real problems, and they deserve immediate and sustained attention. Some of the counsel and attitudes I’ve seen on this are simply awful, and typically stem from bad theology.

Isaak, for whatever it’s worth, I think you’re reading some things into Scripture that just aren’t there. Jesus was a Jew because that’s where our triune God determined and said the Messiah would arise. Preaching Christ crucified was foolishness to many Gentiles, but that still didn’t stop God from saving multitudes of them. Indeed, Peter explicitly said regarding this very topic in Acts 10:34-35, “Opening his mouth, Peter said: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.””

So the Gospel is not dependent or centered on race in any way. Now, there may be certain culture-specific hangups and stumbling blocks (as a generalized matter), but all through the NT we see ethnicity being made less important and our unity in Christ being made more important. He must increase and we must decrease, and our identity in Christ is what matters, increasingly so, while other worldly and temporal aspects of our identity decrease in importance.

Isaak Allen said...

Hohn, my basic point was simply to highlight that *race* in fact is an inextricable fact vis a vis salvation history which climaxes in the man from Nazareth. Surely this is not reading things into scripture that aren't there.

Isaak Allen said...

Addendum As such *race* is not an adjunct of the Gospel but is precisely related to it. That is not to say that race is not reoriented by the Gospel, but that the historical location of the givenness of the Gospel can provide analogue for thinking about race today. In other words, there is room to talk about race in relation to the Gospel in ways that seem to be more extensive than you want them to be. I agree that this starts with an issue of the heart, but we still live life after we receive new hearts; indeed we are pressed up again complex realities that require we draw off of the values we have been given by this new heart. But I don't think we need to shut down any sort of discussion about race simply because of the Gospel; in fact I think we can talk more fulsomely about race precisely because of the Gospel.

Hohn C said...

Sure, Jesus was a Jew, and that is a fact of history. But it is a gigantic and I believe Scripturally unsupported leap to try to move from that fact, to “There seems to be something inimically pertinent, therein, in regard to the Gospel's reception and race itself.”

Other than that, sure, talk about how our salvation impacts our view of race, and class, and gender, etc. I’m not trying to shut anything down, I simply disagree with your argument, as I don’t see it in Scripture.

Todd Barnett said...

Isaak,

I appreciate the tone with which you're approaching this.

I wonder, if rather than pressing for the idea that a race discussion is pertinent to and necessarily derived from a devotion to the gospel, it might be better to simply consider others, regardless of race, as more important than self, then, to be willing to discuss, with a devotion to the gospel, what others wish to discuss, within Spirit-filled reason.

There is a push among some well-known and significantly influential Christian leaders to require Christians to move (if not by personal conviction, then by coercion) from being "willing to discuss" race, to mandatorily "initiating race discussions" because doing so is somehow intrinsic to gospel-faithfulness.

With this push, based on one's "race" and the tightly-wound criteria of those making the push, some are simply not qualified to contribute to the discussion, but because of their "race" must simply comply with the demands of those who are qualified, e.g. seeking forgiveness for their ancestors' sins (regardless of whether or not there is evidence of their ancestors' guilt) and making a life-long commitment to seeking forgiveness with no expectation of ever actually being forgiven.

Hog-tied, for life.

So there's no real avenue to actually discuss the gospel for those who can never sufficiently make "reparations" for sins neither they nor their ancestors committed.

Now, where they are guilty of sin, by all means, they should repent with humility and repetition. But only for sins that can be categorized as racism? Or somehow, more so for those sins? And why for their ancestors' sins?

Oddly, those whose ancestors actually are guilty of the vilest of sins, so long as the ancestors were of a certain race, and those against whom they sinned were of the same race, those sins need not be discussed, much less forgiven.

So why not call sin exactly what it is? Why call it racism? If one's sin against another is committed because of one or the other's race, is racism the actual sin? I think not. It may be hatred, abusive speech, disregard, neglect, physical harm, slander, manipulation, lying, sexual sin, theft, etc. But is the sin itself racism? Calling the sin racism and requiring a race-based conversation may actually circumvent a discussion about the specific sin. That, of course, may (and likely would) divert the discussion from forgiveness and reconciliation.

Is it possible that initiating discussions about race (which I think Hohn has sufficiently displayed as not being germane to the gospel), may actually be an unintentional diversion from a potentially productive discussion about the gospel?

Could we, while allowing for and being welcoming of, those who wish to discuss race, abstain from initiating those discussions, and even be willing to gently lead the discussion to the real issue(s)?

Shaun Marksbury said...

Great work, brother. I look forward to reading more and pray that it will bear fruit.

Isaak Allen said...

Todd, thank you.

I had a long comment written up this morning and went to post it and it was lost. I'll try again later, but just wanted to let you know that I saw your response.

Frank Turk said...

I'm starting an over/under pool on how long it will take someone to say to brother Cho that Asians are priviledged and are not down with the struggle.

Hohn C said...

Frank, thanks so much for reading! And if it doesn’t happen with this article, I’m reasonably confident that it will after my next...

Titus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Titus said...

Longtime reader here. While I’m not a Calvinist, I’ve always appreciated Team Pyro’s commentary on evangelicalism and living out the faith. Glad to see you’re blogging again and just in time for what appears to be a critical mis-step by evangelical “thought-leaders”.

The issue of Jewish and Gentile believers' distinctiveness yet unity is primarily a theological issue in the New Testament. Yes, ethnocentrism would usually be playing a part also, but the controversy was that gentile believers could be considered a part of Israel in some way and a son of Abraham without converting to Judaism but by faith alone. Even when Peter was rebuked by Paul, he didn’t bring up the sin of partiality, even though that was most certainly in play too.

The other thing to note is that the Greek word ethnos is what we translate as “nation” in the New Testament. Ethnicity is the not the same thing as race. Ethnicity is much more synonymous with a culture or a nation or a people than it is with ancestry or race. Both progressive and white-identity racialists make the same error of tying race with ethnicity/culture much too tightly. This explains well why both progressives get upset about cultural appropriation if the offender isn’t the “right” race and white identity ideologues say only Europeans can assimilate because they share the same erroneous root in their thinking.

American cultures accept people of all races into their cultural identities. It shouldn’t be surprising that this developed in what used to be pretty thorough-going Christian country considering the Torah allows for conversion/assimilation into Israel by choice instead of birth exclusively. Now that these cultures are de-Christianizing, it’s not shocking that many now think there is only the false choice of two conceptions of American identity: that it’s merely the assent to the American "idea" or it must be based on race/ancestry. Culture/ethnos/nation is the middle way and biblical way.

Many popular conservative evangelical leaders have now become fixated on viewing identity issues and others through a racialist lens, just like the world, when instead they should be focusing on being in Christ and a biblical definition of nations for unifying Americans of different races. Instead, like the world, they lead people to tie race with culture and are bringing the confusion of false ideological constructs into the Church instead of leading the Church to be a shelter from it all.