On January 4, 2019, Voddie Baucham spoke at a Founders Ministries regional conference entitled “Do Justice, Love Kindness, Walk Humbly.” Here Baucham gave a basic definition for his self-coined term, “Ethnic Gnosticism” and drew out its implications.
Recently, this term has widely circulated the web for better or worse. It has stimulated positive conversations on how to mediate difficult and awkward conversations with a spirit of charity, humility, and discernment. Baucham’s key intention was to inform Christians on how the Gospel informs the manner in which we discuss injustice and ease racial tension.
What is Ethnic Gnosticism?
Baucham defines Ethnic Gnosticism as a dilemma where “somehow because of someone’s ethnicity, one is able (or unable) to know when something is racist.”
In other words, some people have the special ability to interpret another person’s words and actions because they are of a different ethnicity. This ability comes from a special knowledge tied to one’s own ethnicity and the experiences they have because of their ethnicity. In fact, if one does not possess this special knowledge, they cannot truly understand how their own words and actions affect someone that has a different ethnicity. Therefore, they must be educated by someone who does have this special knowledge.
In a scenario created by Baucham to illustrate ethnic gnosticism, a black customer accuses a white clerk of an action rooted in racist intent, namely the infamous “look.” In theory, the customer evaluated the clerk’s look from a special knowledge rooted in their black ethnicity. Consequently, the clerk cannot grasp, let alone access, the rationale behind the accusation against him. Therefore, the clerk cannot evaluate nor disprove the accusation against them. It wouldn’t even be acceptable for them to say that they didn’t know their look was ‘racist.’ Consequently, the white clerk’s only option is to sit in silence as their customer critiques them. By merit of his black ethnicity, the customer has taken on the role of both judge and educator of the white clerk.
Clearly concerned with the impact of ‘cancel culture’ on how we facilitate conflict resolution, Baucham continues unfolding the scenario.
The customer uses their perception of the clerk as revelation for understanding their true character. And that revelation invalidates every good word and deed performed by the clerk toward ethnic minorities in the past. In Ethnic Gnosticism, this situation somehow proves that those words and deeds merely served as a false front to hide their true racist nature.
A Better (and Biblical) Alternative
After presenting this scenario, Baucham provides the Biblical alternative of genuine friendship. The Gospel sets the table for conversation where the truth can be spoken in love. The offended party can be honest about how some particular action or speech hurt them, while at the same time, seeing the best intentions in their neighbor who did not realize they offended the other party. This also gives the offended party an opportunity to question whether the basis of their accusation is biblical and reasonable. Within this context, the relationship between the offender and offended can be cultivated, and reconciliation between the two can occur.
For us to make such a sacrifice, we must look to Christ who made the ultimate sacrifice at the Cross to break down the wall of hostility between ourselves and God. We must look to the Father who waited to satisfy justice in Jesus at the Cross. God ultimately embodies genuine friendship as He demonstrated mercy and patience towards mankind in anticipation of the day when He would be called “just and justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). Through our redemption in Jesus, He equips us to patiently bear with each other and admonish one another with charity and humility. In other words, God enables us to have genuine friendships. As Paul exhorts the early church, we should step into the ministry of reconciliation God has called us to live out:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. – 2 Corinthians 2:18-21
This demonstrates that today’s confusion and hostility has roots that go beyond man’s ability to resolve. Moreover, racial tension has roots that began thousands of years ago. It began as soon as mankind turned its back on God in the Garden.
Mankind’s Rejection of God: Why Confusion and Hostility Exist
If we desire to resolve conflict, we must invite God into the process of conflict resolution. As soon as we became isolated from God, we isolated ourselves from each other. As our first parents did, we ignore personal responsibility for our rebellion against God, which we demonstrate through our interactions with others. Meanwhile, we fix our focus on the misdeeds of others and their violations against our standards of righteousness.
As soon as God confronted Adam and Eve for their rebellion, Adam blamed God for placing Eve, who gave him the fruit, at his side. As Adam stood in fear before His Creator, his response illustrates resentment towards God and Eve, as well as his failure to comprehend the severity, let alone the existence, of his own rebellion.
If Adam had not allowed the serpent to crawl into the Garden, Eve would not have been tempted with lies about God. If Adam had not allowed the serpent to continue speaking lies, Eve may have not considered eating from the forbidden tree. Even though Eve handed him the apple, Adam did not have to eat the fruit and partake in her rebellion. Yet he chose to join his wife in committing treason against their Creator. Adam chose to ignore this reality.
Without the Light of the World, we cannot evaluate the situation from a position of clarity and compassion. Our broken minds cultivate confusion and our darkened hearts cultivate hostility.
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. – Romans 1:21-22
Confusion and hostility oftentimes impairs our ability to evaluate situations and interact with the involved parties. Instead of repairing broken relationships, mankind often increases the divide, further preventing people from coming together. Consequently, unhealed scars from the past worsen.
As mankind considers reality and morality apart from God, we confuse truth with falsehood and goodness with evil. Ultimately, our failure to properly relate with our neighbor overflows from our rejection of God and what He has to say. God declared that He created mankind after His own image. He embedded His eternal glory within us, so that we can mirror His goodness to each other. Yet, we no longer relate to others based upon how we share God’s image and the dignity of that shared image.
Through these man-made moral and value systems, we determine our dignity and the dignity of others. If others do not meet our standards, then we perceive them as having less dignity than God gave them. If others fit within this category, then we rush to exalt them above that original, God-given position.
Conversations Defined by Clarity and Compassion
Christ brings us together through the clarity of the one language of love. Through the healing of our hearts and minds, Christ equips us with His Spirit to investigate reality and invites us into a community where we live out our restoration with God (John 16:13).
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. – John 14:16-20
As Christians, we must peacefully engage our neighbor. We must expose ourselves to brothers and sisters in Christ affected by racial prejudice. We must also engage in conversations with brothers and sisters who have truly wrestled with this difficult topic from a Biblical worldview. As we appeal to God’s Word and the wisdom of fellow Christians, we must be prepared to gently and respectfully defend the hope to those who ask us how we are able to participate in such peaceful engagement (1 Peter 3:15).
As Baucham neared the end of this talk, he used an illustration to demonstrate the centrality of the Gospel in this conversation. He refers to ditches in the road, or two extremes on the spectrum in relating to the concept of ethnicity. On one extreme, some consider ethnicity as everything, essentially the cornerstone to their personal identity and the identity of their neighbor. On the second extreme, others consider ethnicity as nothing, essentially a concept with no foundation for their personal identity and the identity of their neighbor.
People holding either of these extreme positions will clash with each other. One side bases their consideration of identity solely upon a category that the other side ignores in their consideration of what composes our identity as human beings. Meanwhile, a Christian worldview critiques both extreme views. Ultimately, a human’s identity is based upon their relationship with God as an image-bearer designed to fellowship with their Creator. Yet this foundation does not erase the importance of physical and cultural distinctions which make humans unique from each other.
As we strive to resolve conflict rooted in racial tension, we travel down a road. If we desire to arrive at the destination of reconciliation, we must keep our eyes on Christ.