If you have been listening to discourse about race and racism in the United States, you probably are familiar with the phrase “systemic racism.”
Many of us white people understand racism primarily as individual prejudice and discrimination. While this is not wrong, systemic racism refers to a reality beyond individual attitudes and actions.
Systemic racism refers to “systems” in the United States—institutions, societal structures and so forth—that disadvantage and harm non-white people.
For example, black people on average are approximately 2.5 times more likely than white people to be killed by police officers, despite black people only making up approximately 13 percent of the United States population, as opposed to white people making up approximately 60 percent.
Are black people just intrinsically more criminal and violent than white people? Of course not. The problem is endemic to the institutional structure of policing.
The battle against systemic racism is one of public policy and structural change, not simply one of personal belief and behavior. But as Christians, we ought to understand systemic racism goes even beyond policy.
Near the conclusion of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (NASB).
What is significant about this passage is Paul is emphasizing the reality of sinful forces that go beyond individual human sins. While Paul speaks at length elsewhere of our sin nature and various transgressions, here he focuses on something else. There are powers in this world hostile to Christ and that transcend human agency.
The devil himself is the most infamous and powerful of these entities, but he certainly is not the only one. He commands a great host in his war against the King of kings, and these satanic soldiers are a threat to us. They operate in and throughout the world, working against the goodness and glory of God.
Paul exhorts believers to “put on the full armor of God” (6:11) so we may do battle against the devil and his minions. Victory belongs to Christ, and Christ’s followers call on his power to oppose the principalities and powers.
Principalities, powers and racism
What does this have to do with racism in the United States? For one thing, passages like Ephesians 6:12 provide us with a theological category for evils like systemic racism. Sin is not reducible to the cumulation of individual transgressions, and systemic racism is not reducible to the cumulation of individual prejudices and acts of discrimination.
Rather, there are evil supernatural powers that animate and drive the sinful realities we perceive. This includes racism.
Systemic racism is a matter of policy, but it is more than that. Systemic racism is a spiritual problem. The principalities and powers have played a key role in building and sustaining racial injustice in the United States. This does not necessarily let any individuals “off the hook” for racism, of course.
Passages like Ephesians 6:12 also help us reframe how the battle against systemic racism must be conducted. As I mentioned above, a key way to combat systemic racism is through policy change. We must change laws, restructure institutions, etc. But these actions, necessary as they are, will not be enough.
As Christians, we must recognize and bear witness to the truth that racial injustice is a spiritual problem requiring a spiritual solution. We also certainly must support policy changes, but Satan and his minions can twist and distort even the best policy changes in order to perpetuate injustice.
A key role Christians must play in the battle against systemic racism is to bear witness to the supernatural reality of this fight. We must unmask the spiritual forces at work and point to the crucified and risen Christ as these forces’ ultimate conqueror (Colossians 2:15).
Just as we must highlight the severity of the threat, we also must direct others to the ultimate solution.
Arming ourselves for battle
What does it look like for us as Christians to “put on the full armor of God” in this particular situation?
Black and other non-white Christians in the United States have been resisting the spiritual powers of racism from the beginning of our country, and they have much to teach white Christians if we are willing to listen and let them lead us, if we are willing to learn from their beliefs, practices and histories.
There are numerous thinkers whose writings and teachings can serve as a great starting point for those of us who wish to learn more. Jemar Tisby, Malcolm Foley, Justo González and Texas Baptists’ own Kathryn Freeman are just the tip of the iceberg. These individuals interact with numerous other thinkers both contemporary and historic, allowing readers to pursue further studies.
I encourage my fellow white American Christians to do research on our own and listen to our brothers and sisters of color. But please exercise tact and restraint in soliciting their personal input. Spiritual warfare against racism is a deeply exhausting and painful experience for them. Sharing and explaining that experience also can be exhausting and painful.
Joshua Sharp is a graduate of Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary and lives in Waco, Texas. The views expressed are those solely of the author.