Rick Patrick, Pastor
FBC Sylacauga, Alabama
Executive Director, Connect 316
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. —Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28, 1963
This line is perhaps the most famous sentence ever spoken by any American. It is remarkably easy to parse and virtually impossible to misconstrue—a simple contrast between an undesirable option and a preferred one. King’s dream was that his children would not be judged by their skin color but by their character content. Presumably, he would also extend this same dream to all the other children of the world, regardless of their skin colors. The principle is clear. People are not to be judged by the color of their skin.
Unfortunately, King’s preferred approach is not merely being ignored today. It is actively being reversed, even in venues where his own legacy is celebrated. Consider this statement by Thabiti Anyabwile (Thah-BEE-tee Ahn-YAH-bwee-lay) in The Gospel Coalition article he wrote dated April 4, 2018:
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.
No, we cannot start there at all, for neither me nor my parents nor my grandparents had anything to do with the murder of MLK. However, the fact that Anyabwile placed the word “white” between “My” and “neighbors” means that he is judging me and my parents and my grandparents for the color of our skin rather than the content of our non-murderous character—precisely the opposite approach from the one envisioned by MLK.
Skin Color Judgment and Societal Guilt
Thabiti Anyabwile’s first error was actually introduced earlier in his article when he wrote:
I’m saying the entire society killed Dr. King. This society had been slowly killing him all along.
By allegorizing murder, Anyabwile pushes it from its literal and individual sense into a metaphorical and societal sense. The problem with this approach is that when sin is dealt with individually, there is both a legal punishment leading to temporary rehabilitation on earth, and a spiritual confession leading to eternal forgiveness in heaven. Sin can be dealt with when it is specific and personal. Cleansing and restoration follow. Bitterness does not fester.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the vague sins of society. These can be held over the heads of a group of people collectively with no recourse forever. As long as society remains unforgiven, we are left with the impression that we must repeat our confession year after year in an endless and unhealthy pattern of guilt and condemnation, for which, seemingly, not even the blood of Jesus is sufficient to atone and expunge. (I am, of course, speaking hypothetically and hyperbolically. I believe the blood of Jesus has indeed atoned for all the sins of all the people in all the world, and if anyone applies His atonement to their sins by faith, they will be completely expunged.)
If it were not possible for Jesus to forgive society, then we would have no hope at all. But because He can forgive us, we do have hope. All we must do is walk in the forgiveness that Jesus offers once we have sincerely confessed our racist sin, at which point he removes our sin as far as the east is from the west. He remembers it no more. We receive His forgiveness and walk free as His children with a clear conscience moving forward to walk in the light.
Both Philosophies Seek Racial Reconciliation
Perhaps the most insidious assumption by those advocating the Skin Color Approach is that those of us favoring the Character Content Approach are somehow in favor of racism. Just because a person has a problem with the idea of white privilege and white guilt does not mean that they favor racism. They simply have a different method for dealing with racism than those embracing the Skin Color Approach.
One of the reasons racism is such a complex issue is that there are so many different skin colors involved. According to the United States Census Bureau, the basic ethnic breakdown of America is pictured below. Clearly, racial reconciliation is far more complicated than the struggle of African Americans alone. For that matter, even among those classified as White Americans, there are profoundly significant differences in terms of social class, family structure, wealth, and educational opportunities, creating an entire spectrum of privilege categories and making it impossible to stereotype individuals by skin color.
To illustrate the fact that the Skin Color crowd launches accusations against the Character Content crowd, consider this remark by Dwight McKissic in an SBC Voices article addressing what he refers to as a “looming civil war.”
Yet, there is an underbelly, subterranean, disagreeable, element in SBC life that view the MLK50 as “race-baiting,” “cultural Marxism” advocacy; and a “social justice warriors” convocation.
Granted, we have a different philosophy than McKissic when it comes to dealing with racial reconciliation. We certainly disagree, but this does not mean we are necessarily disagreeable—and all that nonsense about underbellies and subterranean elements merely amounts to name calling.
Character Content Judgment Favors Color Blindness
Those of us favoring the Character Content Judgment over against Skin Color Judgment are offended by the assigning of “guilt” and “privilege” on the basis of skin color alone. In other words, there can be no such thing as white, brown, black, yellow or red guilt or privilege, at least not in the world envisioned by MLK where we do not judge people on the color of their skin but on the content of their character.
If skin color does not lead to societal privilege, then what does? A strong two-parent family. Decent health care. Good work habits. Educational goals. Learning the soft job skills of showing up on time, properly dressed, with a good and helpful attitude. One does not get all of these things by being white, for many white people do not have them at all. Consider the following infographic from the National Review, which demonstrates that family structure is a better predictor of privilege than skin color.
Another illustration clearly reveals that Character Content is better than Skin Color in judging that which produces privilege. Consider for a moment the four children of Denzel Washington or the one daughter of Serena Williams. These children are more privileged than my own two sons, at least based on nearly every measure of societal advantage—economic class, access to the finest health care money can buy, educational opportunities, professional contacts to help launch their careers, or just about any other factor, with the possible exception of moral and spiritual formation. Incidentally, I am okay with the children of these accomplished celebrities having more privileges than my own children. Their parents have earned the right to afford them these privileges through their hard work, determination, and character. To put it bluntly, Denzel can act and Serena can play tennis far better than I can preach! If their children learn more in private schools than mine did in public schools, so be it.
My point is that privilege does not join itself to skin color. It is a meritocracy that joins itself to character.
Those of us who favor the Character Content Approach believe that color blindness actually helps us avoid picking at the scab of racism. During times when our nation constantly focuses on skin color (the sixties, the Obama Administration) we observe that things actually grow worse. But during times when our nation tends to move beyond this subject (the eighties, the George W. Bush Administration) we observe that things actually get better. No one explains this concept of refusing to focus on skin color better than Morgan Freeman:
Conclusion—Guilt Removal a Gospel Issue
In this brief essay, we have focused upon the great vision set forth by Martin Luther King, Jr., a vision challenging us not to judge one another on the basis of our skin color. So let us not have White This or Brown That or Black Something Else. Let us simply be Americans. May our character do the talking.
Dak Prescott is now my favorite NFL Quarterback. It used to be Tony Romo. Neither selection had anything to do with the color of their skin. In the 1996 movie version of Evita, I thought Antonio Banderas had an even stronger performance than Madonna. Again, I’m not basing that on skin color. This summer, I am going on a North American mission trip to work with a predominantly Chinese Southern Baptist Church in the Northwest. But I am certainly open to ministry among Native Americans. Skin color is like eye color, hair color, and body type. Those of us in the human race have all kinds of shapes and sizes and colors. But we just don’t judge people on the externals.
In the final analysis, my chief problem with White Guilt is not really the “White” part but the “Guilt” part. Biblically and theologically, once we confess our sin, Jesus is faithful and just to forgive us our sin, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9) It is simply unhealthy for a Christian to go back and confess the very same sin over and over and over again. He or she needs to accept the forgiveness of Jesus and move on with their life—freed from the load of their guilt and completely forgiven for their sin.
And while we are on the subject of God’s total and complete forgiveness of the racism in our past, there is frankly no need for us to confess the very same sin every year on the second week in June—or any other time. It is beginning to feel like we’re saying Jesus wasn’t sufficient to forgive us all those other times. Has Jesus really forgiven us of our racist past? Has He truly set us free? Is there now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus? Is the sin of racism within the power of Jesus to remove our guilt and shame? Is the red blood of a brown man 2000 years ago sufficient to cover the sins of this white man? If so, then let’s follow the advice of Morgan Freeman and “stop talking about it.” Stop talking about skin color. Start talking about character content.
The best way to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., is to embrace the vision of America he so eloquently challenged us to establish.