Good morning. This is working theology.
If you walked by a child drowning in a pond, would you save her? Of course you would. It would be inhuman not to.
But what if that child were drowning in the town next to yours? What if she were in another country? Do you still feel the same obligation to save her?
Time and distance doesn’t change the underlying moral obligations we have, but somehow when the injustice or tragedy is far away from us, we tend to think little of it.
This is the argument made by Peter Singer, an Australian moral philosopher famous for his utilitarian ethics, in a short essay called “The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle.”
The events of the last few days bring this essay to mind because many are asking, “What can we do?” I think it’s less about what we can do about the death of George Floyd, as important as that question is,† and more about what we can do to bring good into the world for the long term.
Racism has always been with us. It’s not simply an American sin.
In the Old Testament we see racism between warring tribes and nations, like the Egyptians and the Jews, the latter of which were enslaved for hundreds of years. Then hundreds of years later, they were enslaved again by the Assyrians and Babylonians.
In the New Testament we see racism between empires and religions, like the Israelites and the Romans, Jews and Gentiles. Even the great apostle Peter was guilty of acting out racism, for which he was confronted by the apostle Paul, as Paul recorded in his letter to the Galatians (2:11–21).
In modern times, we see racism across the globe. Twenty-five years ago, 800,000 Tutsis were killed by the Hutus in Rwanda over a one hundred–day period. Three years ago, reports surfaced that showed thousands of Rohingya people in Myanmar killed in “genocidal actions” from the police. Last year, leaked memos showed a million Uighur Muslims in China forced into detention camps.
I could go on—the Armenians in Turkey around WWI, the Japanese and Chinese in World War II, Gypsies (or Romani people) in Europe and Asia over the centuries, the Irish and the Italians in New York at the turn of the century, the Tibetans and Indians and Chinese now, and so on.
Every culture, every religion, every race throughout history has been both the enslaver and the enslaved at one time or another. The unrestrained human heart knows nothing but evil from birth.
Internet access merely shows us these tragedies ad infinitum and instantaneously. We are constantly under siege from some distant sorrow.
We can see racism not just through videos on our phones or personal experiences on the street, but also in empirical data over the decades and centuries.
Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist, has that exact data. He and his team at Opportunity Insights have collected data from tax and census records to observe Americans’ economic mobility over time, segmented by race, age, income, and other parameters.
In the tenth lecture of his big data course, he describes racial disparities in economic opportunity, which you can see in the chart below and on YouTube. This graph shows how a black child fares relative to his or her parents’ income, the red line, and how a white child fares, the blue line. You can see that there’s a twenty-percentile gap between black children’s economic mobility and that of a white child’s.
We have an embarrassing amount of evidence that racial and religious groups live in disharmony. We see it in paintings and p-values, art and arithmetic.
So, back to Singer’s point, how should we respond to these particular injustices and to injustice more generally?
As it was in the beginning, so it is now: We were created to steward the earth that God created. We are to care for his creation as he cares for us—white people should care for black people, blacks for whites, old for young, and young for old, male, female, Muslim, Hindu, poor, rich. We should care for buildings and bugs and beauty itself.
God hates evil, and death is evil. He wants life and beauty, love and peace. Jesus Christ died for us so that we may live, so that our work might bring life into the world. We all fail to do that from time to time, but God gives us grace upon grace to pick up our shovels and dig.
Bringing life to the world might be as sophisticated as building a micro credit program for the poor and underbanked in impoverished communities. Or it might be as simple as joining a peaceful protest or publishing a newsletter.
That means we don’t have to politicize what we see on the news. It’s as simple as this: God cares about people—all people—so we should too.
Wherever God has called you to work and whatever skills he has given you, do it with all your heart to bring goodness into the world.
Here’s something to think about as you continue your work: Is the momentary concern you feel now going to lead to long-term, sacrificial effort to end oppression wherever it may be, or will it remain merely a momentary concern?
Answering that question will likely need a thorough theology of work.
Thanks for reading.
Update (1:43 p.m.): One reader commented that this statement isn’t true. This week’s events and the questions of “What can we do?” are very much about George Floyd’s death in particular. His death “exposes open wounds in our country.” Further, targeting black men and throwing them in prison contributes to the data seen in the chart above.
Raj Chetty does point this out in his lecture, showing two more charts that graph economic mobility between white men and black men as well as their incarceration rates based on parent income.
This is again where racism shows up in hard data.
Please do reach out if you have any further clarification to add in this important conversation.