Depravity and Talking Well

By Andy O'Connell

Beyond Racial Division book cover

In recent years, I’ve found myself personally caught up in the conversation about race, ethnicity and justice. I’ve appreciated rich conversations with people of other heritages in OCC (including in the Ethne team, and its predecessor group - you know who you are - thank you!), external learning opportunities and, of course, reading books. I do love a good book, and I now have a shelf in my office devoted to books on intercultural church, biographies of British people of colour, and history books considering race and ethnicity. Call me a geek if you will, but it’s part of how I learn. 

My latest read is Beyond Racial Division, by American Christian and Professor of Sociology Dr. George Yancey (book review here). It was recommended by another UK church leader who had found it really helpful as they’ve pursued “building a diverse church serving the communities of London.” Although Yancey is a US author speaking primarily to the US context, I’ve found it super-helpful in presenting, with supporting sociological data, a big picture of the issues at play. 

But the thing I’ve been most challenged by is his section about the church’s distinctive contribution to this discussion. He writes, “Racism, and the inter-group conflict that arises from it, is one of the great moral issues of our day. Does not our faith have something unique and special to offer? Or are we relegated to simply parroting what we hear from wider society and repackaging it in a Christian voice?” In other words, what should Christians bring to the debates? 

Yancey notes that Christians don’t have a monopoly on seeing humans as highly valued. While we Christians say that we find our identity as children of the living God, even humanists see value because of our higher evolutionary state and rationality.

Is it about a vision for a reconciled humanity? Yes, and I’ve blogged before about a Christian vision for intercultural church. But Yancey goes to a deeper heart issue, and this is what challenged me as I read him. 

One reviewer sums up Yancey’s argument like this: “In seeking solutions to racial problems, we can and should draw upon the strengths of each of the four secular models that Yancey outlines. But he insists that the church cannot adopt a purely secular model to deal with what is, at its root, a spiritual issue. Instead, he proposes a model for reconciliation that recognizes the depravity in every heart, our tendency to advance our own selfish ends at the expense of those around us.” 

Wow. “Depravity.” That’s a word we don’t talk about much. But the Bible does. 

The Bible shows us that while we are valuable humans made in the image of God, our fallen sinful behaviour makes us offensive to God. The Bible presents both “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139), and “sinful from birth” (Psalm 51). Pastor and theologian, Malcolm Duncan sums up: “The gospel doesn’t just sanctify our original goodness but also confronts our original badness.”

An understanding of my depravity leads to me show humility: considering the likelihood that my approach may not serve everyone. That I don’t have a monopoly on truth, on right thinking, or on effective solutions. In the words of Philippians 2:3-4, “[to] in humility, value others above [myself], not looking to [my] own interests, but to the interests of others.”

How then do we move forward, in overcoming racism, or any other human problems? Humility from an understanding of my fallenness and depravity sets me up to invite input from other people (who are also fallen). I welcome input from those who belong not just to my ’in group crowd’ but to those I wouldn’t normally converse with. Conversations with others helps me see the excesses of my approach. Leaning into conversation, rather than moving away from it.

Forgiveness is also vital. Yancey notes “forgiveness ... does not come naturally in a culture where we expect perfectibility.” Rather than cancelling those who offend, the Bible teaches me to forgive, and forgive, and forgive. 

And desire for God’s justice must be accompanied by God’s mercy. Yancey again, “We have a black and white mentality to our enemies’ mistakes while seeking nuance to explain the shortcomings of our allies.” 

As we move into Black History Month 2023, in which we celebrate and honour the contributions of the Black community in the UK, let’s be a community self-aware of our depravity, leading us to listen, forgive and offer mercy as well as justice. 

In short, let’s talk well!