Racism is wrong but...

Updated: Jul 21

On August 20th, 2020, Dr. Richard Land, the current president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, wrote an opinion for the leading Tennessee newspaper, The Tennessean. His piece is entitled, “A Southern Baptist Leader’s Response to the Black Lives Matter Movement” and is followed by the subheading “racism is wrong, but here is why evangelicals should reject the Black Lives Matter movement” [emphasis added]. As a widely accredited biblical theologian and Oxford graduate[1], Dr. Land’s work has influenced numerous Christian organizations[2]. Since his guidance is regarded as a scholarly Evangelical perspective, Land has expansive authority on the biblical interpretation of contemporary issues in Evangelical communities. To preface his opinion, Land makes strong critiques against “those who hijack the Gospel message” and is explicit that his aim is to bring “greater understanding to the discussion [of racism].” One of his core arguments is centered around Matthew 5:13-16, which he interprets as a Christian commitment to fight “the corruption and darkness of racism with the salt of the law and the light of the Gospel” (Land). His overall conclusion is that Christians ought to disavow from the Black Lives Matter Movement, reject “the fetid swamp” of critical race theory, and uptake a position that “all human lives are sacred” as one in this fight against the consequences of human pride such as racism. In this essay, I will first argue that his interpretation of the "salt of law" and the "light of the Gospel" from Matthew 5 is misleading because it goes against the literary context of the passage. I will do this through a close reading of Matthew 5 beginning with verse 1 and ending with verse 20 in an effort to bring a more holistic reading of the excerpt. Then, because he uses Matt. 5 as evidence to why the Christian commitment against racism is fundamentally different than the Black Lives Matter Movement, I will overall make the claim that Land actually fails in his mission to bring greater understanding to racism and, as a result, perpetuates Gospel hijacking that supports racism.

Matthew Chapter 5 is famously known as Jesus’s “Sermon on the Mount”. According to Jonathan Pennington, a professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the message of the sermon is that “[God] cares about the heart, not just external righteous deeds and religion” [3]. The chapter begins with “The Beatitudes”, where Jesus identifies a series o movement is antibiblical due to their opposition to the nuclear family, promotion of same-sex marriage, and their transgender and Marxist ideologies a. Yet when one actually reads the language of the BLM mission it states that “d person in his prophecy. Following verse 10, Jesus shifts from referring to the blessed through an impersonal “those” to the second person mode of “you” and “your”. This transition occurs when Jesus goes from saying “blessed are those who are persecuted” in verse 10 to “blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account” in verse 11 (Matt 5:10-11). He follows this use of “you” throughout the remainder of the chapter. I make this distinction because there is no literary indication that Jesus is referring to something other than “those” people who he references in verses 1-10. Therefore, when he goes on to express in verses 13 through 16 that “you are the salt of the earth” and “you are the light of the world” a reader can infer that Jesus is still referring to The Beatitudes. In other words, in these verses Jesus is directly addressing those who are persecuted, who mourn, who are poor in spirit, etc., as the salt of the earl and light of the world. Therefore when Dr. Land evokes Matthew 13-16 to describe fighting racism with “the salt of the law” and the “light of the Gospel” this is misleading and conflates the “law” and the Gospel with the people who are Blessed by God. In fact, Jesus does mention a set of laws, most likely in reference to the Torah, immediately following Land’s cited passage in verse 17. Here Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets” (Matt 5:17). Therefore, in a literary sense, Jesus’s clarification implies that his preaching up until then can be viewed as going against the law but shouldn’t— all in all, confirming that there is no way in which Jesus is referring to the law, nor even the Gospels, as the salt[4]. A consequence of reading the passage from Land’s perspective is that it may lead a Christian to view this ambiguous “law” (which can easily be taken to mean the American Constitution, statutes, law enforcement, etc.) as a function of fighting against the corruption and darkness of racism. Or further that this understanding is the Christian way of fighting against racism. This problematic as racism itself is embedded in law. This view creates an erasure of this fact, and thus fails to bring a greater understanding of how racism functions in the US.

When taking Land’s claim in accordance with Matthew 5, I find his arguments against Black Lives Matter as somewhat ironic. Land goes on to say that “Evangelicals should not mouth the mantra ‘Black Lives Matter’ lest [the evangelical community] be misunderstood as supporting their godless agenda” (Land). Land takes the position that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is antibiblical due to their opposition to the nuclear family, promotion of same sex marriage and their transgender and Marxist ideologies[5]. Yet when one actually reads language of the BLM mission it states that “Black Lives Matter is a central target of disinformation” and that “[BLM is] working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically targeted for demise[6]. The irony is that this seems more in alignment with “blessed are you when people revile you...and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely” and “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” than Land’s implied interpretation of “blessed is the law”.

Works Cited

“About.” Black Lives Matter, 16 Oct. 2020, blacklivesmatter.com/about/.

“Bible Gateway Passage: Matthew 5 - New International Version.” Bible Gateway, www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+5.

Land, Richard. “A Southern Baptist Leader's Response to the Black Lives Matter Movement: Opinion.” The Tennessean, Nashville Tennessean, 20 Aug. 2020, www.tennessean.com/story/opinion/2020/08/20/southern-baptist-leader-richard-land-response-black-lives-matter-movement/5616017002/.

Pennington, Jonathan, et al. “3 Things You Didn't Know About the Sermon on the Mount.” The Gospel Coalition, TGC, 16 Nov. 2017, www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/3-things-didnt-know-sermon-mount/.

“Richard Land.” Southern Evangelical Seminary, ses.edu/academics/faculty/Richard-land-d-phil/.

[1] https://ses.edu/academics/faculty/richard-land-d-phil/ [2] Especially as the and former president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission even the US government as Dr. Land served on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom for 11 years [3] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/3-things-didnt-know-sermon-mount/ [4] Especially if one views this term as a historical metaphor for preserving the earth [5] Yet, it is important to note that none of this explicit language actually appears on the BLM website as Dr. Land writes [6] https://blacklivesmatter.com/about/

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