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Depravity, Racism, and Sexism

May 5, 2014
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Some time ago I wrote about taking depravity seriously. In this article I commented that I don’t think depravity is generally taken seriously. Instead, it is taken as a serious statement of religion which is then not broadly applied to the world as a whole.

Last week I wrote about racism on my way to another topic. This week I wish to combine these thoughts and throw in sexism for good measure.

I’d like to start with some observations. One of my black colleagues (who holds a Ph.D. in biology) recently told me a story about how she was once going to meet a new collaborator and brought along an undergraduate student who happened to be white. The collaborator met the two of them and automatically greeted the white undergraduate as if she was my colleague. (In fact, while I tend not to care much when my students strip me of six and a half years of graduate school by calling me “mister” instead of “doctor” several of my colleagues are a good deal less tolerant of that apparently because they all have stories like the one I have just repeated.) One of my students had a similar story: he went to the courthouse to get a permit he needed and on the way out he was handed a flyer for bail bonds. I have never been handed a flyer for bail bonds when I have done business at the court house. Finally, there’s a radio story my wife and I listened to recently about illegal immigration. Apparently a number of female immigrants attempting to cross into the US with the aid of human smugglers carry condoms. This is because the smugglers (“coyotes”) frequently rape the women they are transporting.

None of this surprises me. You see, I take depravity seriously.

Racism, sexism, and the violence that can result from them are not topics that most theologically-conservative American Christians like to talk about. However it turns out that they are both exactly the sorts of things one would predict from a theology that takes depravity seriously. To demonstrate why let’s consider the other option. What if people weren’t depraved at all?

There’s an answer to this coming from a particular brand of what might unhelpfully be called liberal theology (unhelpfully because this means too many things not all of which play nicely with one another). If people are basically good, or at least have an innate distaste for serious evil, then the only reason that we have the oppression of entire people groups is because people are taught to believe perverse things. In fact, instead of a Christian idea of depravity that says that depravity is written into what humans are (or what they have become these days) we have a system that agrees that there is depravity and argues only that its source is external teaching.

The problem with this is that it is remarkably hard to stamp out things like racism or the exploitation of women. With the latter it certainly seems that there is a strong tendency for a reversion to an ugly mean where without some sort of social mechanism to prevent it men (on average, specific individuals will uphold better morals) will treat women as sex objects. Indeed, I have come to regard it as almost inevitable that in any system where some group of women are placed under the near-total control of men there will eventually be sexual abuse. I have yet to run across a case that suggests otherwise.

Racism doesn’t seem to be quite so likely to reappear where it had been absent but it does seem remarkably hard to eradicate. (Although given how hard it is to eradicate it is possible that it springs back into existence quite readily and we just have very few examples of its successful eradication followed by re-emergence.) If people needed only to change a few explicit attitudes it would be hard to imagine that racism would be this hard to eradicate.

Now, it’s possible that all of this really is the result of the sort of deep-rooted structural evil that I’ve discussed before. Certainly American society today continues to discuss race in categories that come directly from slavery. However, I think it makes more sense to insist that depravity has a large part in this rather than that this is merely some odd teaching that we have absorbed.

Consider for a minute one of the counter-proposals to a narrative about white men oppressing everyone else: the proposal that actually white men are oppressed. Now, this narrative is abundantly stupid (pull out a list of the world’s richest people for a minute and then glance at a picture of Congress if you don’t believe me) but there are certainly examples of sexism towards men. There was at least at one point a number of clueless, near-alcoholic fathers on TV (arguably a stereotype of men that remains active in our culture). Our elementary education system probably favors children who don’t act like young boys (i.e., people who sit still and talk quietly). If you live or work in an environment where you are the only white person it is possible to find yourself just as much on the outside as many minorities find themselves in other areas. However, the explanation given for this is frequently nonsensical: that we’ve actually reversed racism entirely. Obviously not. If you look carefully you can find racism towards every race and sexism towards both men and women (although substantive damage from racism and sexism tends to be felt most by those who are coming into power and not those who have traditionally held it). What would explain a world in which racism and sexism (including very dangerous forms of sexism like the systematic abuse of women) seem to crop up everywhere?

Depravity. If you take depravity seriously you should expect all of these things. If you believe that people look out for themselves first and often at the expense of others the abuse of women who lack power at the hands of men who have power is completely predictable. So is slavery and the bizarrely evil pseudo-science that supported the racist contentions of a race-based slavery. (In fact, it is also totally predictable that people could do science that would demonstrate to them that all they had been taught about white supremacy was wrong and yet still close their eyes to that.) It’s entirely predictable that those who once lacked power would use it with all the same failings when they got it. A world in which people draw pointless distinctions between one another and use those to justify being awful to one another is a depraved world – a world that Christians who take depravity seriously should expect.

Oddly (or maybe not since we’re taking depravity very seriously) theologically-conservative Christians have tended to lag behind the curve of fighting racism and sexism in the last half-century. (This is a historically-recent development and in many ways an American development. At one point pious Christians were at the forefront of these efforts.) Part of what I want to point out here is the inconsistency of this position. If we believe that people are deeply flawed then we should believe that it will take a lot of work to end racism and that a short story about how Civil Rights changed everyone’s minds will seem too easy[1]. If we believe that the strong will always oppress the weak when given an opportunity we should be suspicious of systems that place one group at the mercy of another.

Ultimately, Christianity has a vision of what it means to be human that can sweep aside these differences. To insist that a person’s worth comes from God and does not depend on anything aside from one’s humanity is a powerful statement against both racism and sexism. We should both embrace the power of this statement and recognize the depths of depravity arrayed against it.


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[1]This is something I am putting in a footnote because it is an idea I am not entirely sure of and it is bound to really get on some people’s nerves. However, the more I deal with black students from impoverished backgrounds the more I suspect that Civil Rights didn’t eliminate racism in very many people at all. Ideally white racists should have said, “Oh, I realize that drawing these lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’ was fundamentally wrong. All people are people and must be dealt with as individuals.” Instead, I believe that most people merely redrew those lines so that all of the bad stereotypes about black people were shifted over to poor black people.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. dylanwolf permalink
    May 5, 2014 8:25 am

    I would definitely agree with that footnote. People get used to the benefits of being more powerful than another group (socially, economically, etc.), so when the rules (social or legal) change, people tend to follow the letter, not the spirit. The lesson isn’t “you should treat everyone as equals,” it’s “you should treat [particular group(s)] as equals.” And then we tend to move on to the next socially acceptable target.

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